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.