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Kevin DeYoung wrote an article in 2006 titled, “Divine Impassibility and the Person of Christ in the Book of Hebrews.” I recommend the article. I’ve included a summary below, followed by my response.
DeYoung, Kevin. “Divine Impassibility and the Passion of Christ in the Book of Hebrews.” Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 41-50.
The doctrine of divine impassibility has lost favor within Christianity today. Most believe that God suffers. There are four main theological reasons why God’s impassibility is being rejected: 1) A suffering God is the only possible theodicy. 2) God is love, and if God is love He must enter into the pain of His creatures—anything less would be diabolical. 3) The biblical description of God in His passions must be taken at full face value and not diminished as anthropopathic language. 4) When Jesus Christ—the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form—suffered, He showed the true suffering nature of God Himself. The concern of this paper is with this fourth reason. According to those who argue for God’s passibility, the suffering of Christ must entail the suffering of God. I disagree. By looking at Hebrews, especially 2:5-18, I hope to demonstrate that God remains impassible even though the Impassible suffered in Christ.
This passage directs us towards two points crucial in our understanding of how Jesus Christ can suffer while God does not: 1) The incarnation involved some sort of change. Christ the exact representation of God was made a little lower than the angels. Not every thing Jesus did or felt revealed the character of God since He is fully human. Jesus ate, slept, drank, etc. Christ suffered not to reveal suffering in God, but rather, God had to be made a little lower than the angels so He could suffer. The reason Christ’s suffering is so highly exalted is because He was doing what God as God had not and could not do, namely, suffer. 2) Jesus truly suffered and died. Some may ask how if in the hypostatic union both Christ’s divine and human natures were united in the Person of God’s son, then how could the divine nature not experience suffering? The answer lies in Cyril’s communication of idoms, namely that what is predicated to the Son cannot be automatically predicated to the human or divine nature, and what is predicated to one nature cannot be automatically predicated to the other. God as a man knew human pain and anguish first hand and in the same human manner that we experience it, but God does not suffer as humans do.
Furthermore, the incarnation was necessary to make Christ perfect; not morally perfect or any other form of perfect. The incarnation was necessary so Christ could fully identify with His brothers so that He might be their high priest. For the writer of Hebrews, Christ’s suffering had nothing to do with the suffering of the eternal heart of God and everything to do with perfecting Christ as part of the completion of the process of redemption. In other words, Christ’s sufferings were not revelational but eschatological. The perfecting of Christ achieved, in time and space, what was necessary for God’s historical redemptive plan, that is, that the Son would become a full sharer in the sufferings and all the limitations of humanity and so be qualified to lead many sons to glory (Heb. 2:10). The suffering of Christ was unique. Therefore, the Son of God knew no suffering prior to the incarnation, because prior to being made a little lower than the angels he was not completely adequate to serve as high priest. And because the purpose of His sufferings has now been realized (Heb. 5:7-9), we know that the Son of God does not continue to suffer. Yet, the logic that says if Christ was passible, God must be passible seems to demand 1) that if God has been suffering throughout history, Christ was suffering throughout history, and 2) that if God continues to be passible, Christ continues to be passible. Neither statement can be true, for Hebrews evidences that Christ has not been suffering repeatedly since the Foundation of the world (Heb. 9:26) and his experience of suffering on earth was a one-time, once-for-all occurrence (Heb. 9:23-28; 10:12-14). Christ’s suffering goes beyond solidarity with a suffering world, to an understanding and conquering love. Christ is our sympathetic high priest who truly understands human suffering. And as we see in Heb. 2:14-15, the end of the suffering is that Christ might not merely know human pain, but that in victorious love he might destroy the devil and deliver those who had been held in fearful bondage. Ultimately, Christ was made like his brothers so that He might propitiate God’s wrath. Through Christ’s suffering, He achieved for others what they could not achieve for themselves.
Moreover, Christ is our sympathetic high priest (Heb. 2:18). The precise setting of Hebrews is unclear, but we understand that the Christian community to whom Hebrews was written was filled with confusion, struggle, and pain. Hebrews and the rest of Scripture look, not at some sort of present divine possibility for comfort, but to the past, to Christ’s sufferings, that according to His ongoing sympathy we might have hope for the future (Heb. 4:15). Christ, because He suffered as a man, can now help us as the exalted One. Additionally, believers are perfect by the perfecting of Christ not the other way around. That is, we need to look at our sufferings through Christ instead of looking at God through our sufferings. So, as we share in the sufferings of Christ (Phil. 3:10), we look to him not as the revelation of divine passibility, but as the sympathetic one who shared in our humanity and as the example of steadfastness we ought to exhibit in the midst of our own suffering (Heb. 5:9; 12:2ff).
I appreciated DeYoung’s Scriptural and philosophical response to those who affirm that God suffers continually. I fear that an overemphasis on the passibility of God molds God into our own image. The main point I gathered from DeYoung is that if God has suffered throughout history, then Christ suffered throughout history, which diminishes the incarnation. This continual suffering of God also diminishes Christ’s victorious work over suffering. Thus, the resurrection is diminished as well. The suffering of Christ was unique, and we cannot keep the uniqueness of the Christ and His work, and hold that suffering is common to God. Finally, I appreciated DeYoung’s point that Christ’s suffering is great for us, not mainly because of His empathy for us (although some comfort is found in this empathy), but because of His victory over suffering. Through Christ, we too have the victory!