Staniloae on Impassibility – God has no potential (thankfully!)

Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993) is easily my favorite modern Orthodox theologian. His two-volume dogmatics, recently translated into English, and regrettably poorly edited, is a deep well. I hope to discuss parts of that work here in the future. For now, I wanted to share some of his remarks on impassibility.

“God can be said to be the tripersonal superessence, or the superessential tripersonality. What this superessence is, we do not know. But it exists of itself; like any essence, however, it is not real except by the fact that it subsists hypostatically, in persons.
As superessential hypostatic existence, however, God is not encompassed by any category of existence as this is known or imagined by us, but transcends it. For all the things that we know as existing have their existence from something else, and, in their existence, they depend on a system of references. This points to a relativity or a weakness of existences. He who exists of himself, however, has an existence free of all relativity. He is not integrated within a system of references and he has no weakness at all. He is existence not only in the highest sense, but he is also a superexistent existence.

As such he does not sustain existence passively, nor is he subject to any passion or suffering. This is the meaning of the Greek word [apathes] applied to God; it does not have the meaning “indifferent.” The entire life of God is act or power. All his attributes he has of himself, hence not through participation in some other source. That is why he possesses them all in a mode incomparably superior to that of creatures, for all these possess their attributes through participation in the attributes of God, through his operations.”

-Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God Vol. 1 (Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998), 129-130.

The doctrine of impassibility is often questioned in modern times by theologians who consider it to be an ancient philosophical construct imposed upon Christian theology, which makes inviable the idea of a God who cares for humans. Unfortunately, this is often the result of a misunderstanding of the classical Christian tradition, as if the ancients taught faith, hope and love from the revelation of a deist God.

Fr. Dumitru, thoroughly acquainted with the Western tradition, expresses here what Aquinas would have called analogical speech. It is not just that God is a greater Being, the source from which all beings derive. He is also beyond being, because he is the very source of being: he is superexistent existence, he is tripersonal superessence, or superessential tripersonality. When we speak of the Being of God or his essence, we are using analogical speech, because we only know being and essence from our experience as creatures. His being, his essence, is analogous, but not the same as ours or any other –  because it is neither derived from another Being nor derived from “being” as if it were a form or essence that existed independently and above God.

Therefore he is not subject to the vicissitudes which beings that derive existence from him might have – suffering being one of them. However, as Fr Dumitru points out, this does not mean that he is “indifferent.” Rather “the entire life of God is act or power” because his essence is his existence, and so there is no potentiality in him; he is pure actualization. (I used to joke with my friends saying that God is the only one in the universe who has no potential). He is the very operation from which all beings derive their essences and their existences.

Staniloae’s theological approach emphasizes God’s relational attributes very heavily; one could even say he has a phenomenological approach to personhood. I think he is a great example of classical theology addressing modern issues. The impassible God transcends being but is not indifferent; so he enters time and space and assumes derivative being and suffering. His divine, eternal essence, hypostatically united with humanity – in its suffering and ultimate victory – is the perfect combination of power and love. This is why Jesus is Χριστὸν θεοῦ δύναμιν καὶ θεοῦ σοφίαν, the Power and the Wisdom of God.


5 comments on “Staniloae on Impassibility – God has no potential (thankfully!)

  1. Michael says:

    I Like it Marcelo. I picked up Staniloae’s two volumes a while back and find it very engaging. I also noticed that Douglas F. Kelly makes great use of him in his first volume of his systematic theology. It’s interesting to see reformed guys interact with Staniloae, I have benefited greatly from it. Though I am not overwhelmed with Kelly’s Systematic Theology thus far:)

  2. That’s great. I haven’t seen Kelly’s systematic theology yet. I should check it out.

  3. David says:

    Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer? is a recent scholarly defense of divine impassibility that is also worth a look. There is also an article which was published in First Things by the same name which can be viewed online here: Weinandy affirms: “From the dawn of the Patristic period Christian theology has held as axiomatic that God is impassible—that is, He does not undergo emotional changes of state, and so cannot suffer. Toward the end of the nineteenth century a sea of change began to occur within Christian theology such that at present many, if not most, Christian theologians hold as axiomatic that God is passible, that He does undergo emotional changes of states, and so can suffer. Historically this change was inaugurated by such Anglican theologians as Andrew M. Fairbairn and Bertrand R. Brasnett. Within contemporary Protestant theology some of the better known theologians who espouse the passibility of God are Karl Barth, Richard Bauckham, John Cone, Paul Fiddes, Robert Jenson, Eberhard Jüngel, Kazoh Kitamori, Jung Young Lee, John Macquarrie, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Richard Swinburne, Alan Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance, Keith Ward, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.”

  4. Jeremiah 13:15-17 “…the LORD hath spoken… if ye will not hear it, my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride; and mine eye shall weep sore, and run down with tears, because the LORD’S flock is carried away captive”.
    This passage and many others in the Scripture prove that God is not impassible. I understand, it is impossible for us to reconcile this thought with many other apparently contradictory passages of the Scripture. However, the good news is that God doesn’t require us to reconcile them but to believe them. Personally I love very much to see in the Bible our God sympathizing with us.

    • Ernest, you might want to read the article again. As you mentioned, there are *many* other passages that used anthropomorphic language about God, even about human emotions attributed to God. Yet, classical Christianity has always understood that God is not indifferent (as Fr. Staniloae points out) while his essence is not subject to the passions of finite creatures.

      It is not a matter of trying to “reconcile” passages as if the “Bible” fell off the sky ready made and now people are struggling to find out how to interpret it. That’s the practical reality for many Protestants, I understand.

      The Church, however, wrote, canonized, preserved and continues to proclaim the apostolic tradition, of which Scripture is a part. And Christians for 1,900 years have understood that God’s essence, which is infinite and immutable, indeed beyond description and beyond being, is not subject to passions, even while God is compassionate and not indifferent to us – particularly as she Second Person of the Godhead takes on flesh to suffer, die, and be raided for us, becoming man so we can become god.

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