“One of the Trinity Suffered”: Classical Theist and Neo-Chalcedonian Questions for Mullins’s God and Emotion

Ryan Mullins’s God and Emotion offers a high-level survey of the ongoing debates over divine impassibility and emotion. An installment in the Cambridge Elements: Philosophy of Religion series, the book – “pamphlet” might better convey its slimness – runs to a mere 69 pages, but Mullins nonetheless manages to cover an impressive range of material, intelligently linking the problem of whether God can undergo change to the further question of the range of emotions which can be literally attributed to him.

Most broadly, these debates oppose “classical theists” (CT), who insist that divine perfection entails divine changelessness, to divine passibilists, who insist that divine perfection entails that God does change, growing in knowledge and empathetically suffering along with his creatures as time passes. Notwithstanding his own membership in the latter camp (specifically as a “neo-classical theist”), Mullins is even-handed in his treatment of both parties to the debate, making a real effort to put the classical theists in the best possible light. That he does not quite succeed in this regard – at least in the judgment of this classical theist – is small surprise, however, since classical theists themselves have had a bad habit of wrongly conceding premises, particularly regarding time, which on their face favor divine passibility.

In what follows, I survey Mullins’s God and Emotion in three parts, first summarizing the book, and then offering rejoinders to it from two perspectives. The first of these perspectives is that of classical theism itself, particularly its metaphysics of potency and act, which is oddly neglected in Mullins’s treatment, and its metaphysics of time, on which a great deal of the debate turns. But I also suggest that, for a full resolution of the impassibilist/passibilist debate, we must look beyond the philosophy of religion, to the intellectual resources of conciliar Christology and its revisionary conception of personhood, which insisted on affirming that the impassible Son had truly suffered in the flesh.

Part One: God and Emotion Summarized

As Mullins rightly emphasizes, the “divine passibility” debate really concerns two distinct questions: Can God suffer? And, Does God have emotions? (2)[1] Mullins nonetheless sees them as “fundamentally related” (2): “the issue is not if God has emotions. The real debate between impassibility and passibility is over which emotions God can have” (3). So, impassibilists will maintain that, while God does truly possess love and (perhaps) wrath, his perfect actuality and simplicity means that he cannot change or suffer; “impassibilists,” Mullins notes, “will assert that the passible God is a creature or an idol” (2). Passibilists, by contrast, will insist that their “understanding of God’s omnisubjectivity, or maximal empathy, explains why the passible God can suffer” (3).

Mullins prefaces his account of each view of divine emotion with a brief discussion of emotion as such, here following Martha Nussbaum’s classic retrieval of ancient Stoicism in her Upheavals of Thought: “An emotion is a mental state that involves an evaluation that has a positive or negative affect” (4). An emotion’s “affect” is “how it feels,” while its “evaluation” is the belief or “representational content about the world” that it involves (4). Following Nussbaum, Mullins distinguishes cognitively-laden emotions from non-cognitive moods, which have no objects.

It’s not obvious to me at least that the emotion/mood distinction carves any joints in nature – I can be angry or sad about x, but also in the grip of a general sadness or anger which is in search of an object. It might equally illuminating to say, as does David Gelernter in his The Tides of Mind, that emotions have no intrinsic “intentionality” or “aboutness,” although they can be taken up into more complex cognitive states which do have them. “Being depressed is about nothing,” Gelernter writes; “it is just a way to be.”[2]

But Mullins is surely right that many emotions are in fact evaluative, expressions of our investment in and responsiveness to the goodness or badness of the world (13). This is why emotions vary not only in their intensity, but also in their reasonableness (9-10); John can be disproportionately angry at his son’s spilled milk, while Jill can be unnervingly indifferent to the death of her estranged father.

Mullins next turns to the specific case of divine emotion, beginning with the view from classical theism. This section consists of two sub-sections. On the one hand, he opens with an overview of the classical theist’s core metaphysical commitments, such as those to “divine timelessness, immutability, simplicity, and impassibility,” which “are held to be systematically connected” (16). He then outlines three criteria – “moral inconsistency,” “rational inconsistency,” and “blessedness” – employed by the classical theist for identifying authentic divine emotions, the third of which depends in part on the metaphysics of divine simplicity and immutability.

Mullins gives a fair summary of the main lines of the classical theist metaphysical tradition. He notes that it has generally developed its account of divine timelessness by way of a contrast with “a presentist ontology of time,” according to which there is a (constantly changing) fact of the matter about which moment is now, an extensionless barrier which the future crosses in becoming past. On this view, at some time t, a will be past, b present, and c future; but at time t+1, b will be past, c present, and d future.

A timebound being “undergoes change and succession,” acquiring new properties and shedding old ones as it hacks a path through the crowding vines of time’s potencies, to blaze this rather than that trail into the future. God, by contrast, being eternal, does not exist at any point on this real timeline, but rather stands above it, possessing his boundless life “entirely and all at once (tota et simul),” in Boethius’s famous formulation (16). Now, if God is timeless, he by definition cannot change, since all that changes does so in time. He must then be “purely actual,” possessing no “potencies” that can be realized in the future (17). And such a God must further be “simple,” having no parts, so that all of his properties will be identical with his nature (17).

In this sub-section, Mullins raises some pointed questions for CT’s metaphysics, which he amplifies in the following section, on the passible God. For instance, if there is a fact of the matter about which states of affairs are present, then we might reasonably wonder whether God knows such facts. They must be knowable, since we know them. But if God’s knowledge is immutable and eternal, it would seem that he cannot know that, e.g., “Brendan is sitting now,” although he might timelessly know that “Brendan sits at t” (17). Mullins also challenges the common notion that God’s independence of creatures (his “aseity”) requires classical attributes such as simplicity and immutability – even if some of God’s (temporary) attributes, such as his emotions, depend on creatures, might it not be that other divine properties, such as his necessary existence, are independent of them in the requisite way? (18)

While Mullins notes that “whatever emotions the classical God has, he has timelessly and changelessly” (19), he only employs that metaphysical complex obliquely in his criteria for discriminating what emotions the impassible God might have. As I already noted, he identifies three criteria related to divine goodness or perfection. So, God can have no “emotion that is inconsistent with [his] moral perfection” (Moral Inconsistency) (21), nor “any emotion that entails irrationality” (Rational Inconsistency) (22), nor any emotion that would involve his being moved externally (Blessedness Criterion) (23-24).

This third criterion does make some appeal to the metaphysics of divine immutability: being immutable, perfectly actual, and simple, God cannot change in response to the world. And moreover, this is a very good thing for God, since his eternal life is one of perfect delight in his own maximal excellence; if he could change, it would only be in the direction of diminished beatitude.

Mullins turns next to an exposition of the passible God, and in particular, the God defined and defended in “neoclassical theism [NCT],” which “rejects one or more of the classical attributes,” though affirming divine foreknowledge of the future & creation ex nihilo (25-26). NCT affirms divine self-sufficiency, perfection, everlastingness, but not God’s eternity (a-temporality), immutability, and simplicity (27). This allows the neo-classical theist to affirm the Rational and Moral Inconsistency Criteria for divine emotion, but reject the Blessedness Criterion (28). For NCT, God is capable of suffering precisely because of his moral and rational perfection, and is in consequence rightly made unhappy by the world’s suffering (28).

Mullins argues that NCT squares better both with our intuitive presentism about time and with the theist’s commitment to divine omniscience. “As God sustains the universe in existence from moment to moment,” he notes, “the truth values of tensed propositions will constantly be changing. God’s knowledge of what was true, what is true, and what will be true, is constantly changing” (29). Whereas the impassible God knows only tenseless truths, the passible God knows tenseless and tensed truths.

NCT proposes, moreover, that God not only has “tensed” knowledge, but also “experiential knowledge” (30). Following, Linda Zagzebski, Mullins ascribes to God “omnisubjectivity,” “the property of consciously grasping with perfect accuracy and completeness the first-person perspective of every conscious being” (31). This includes empathy, in the sense of conscious awareness of what it’s like for another person to have an emotion, and why he has it (32). But, Mullins insists, perfect empathy rules out impassibility, because many of the creaturely emotions God will know are painful (34).

Mullins continues with two sections on particular divine emotions, namely love and wrath, both of which he takes to be more explicable on NCT than CT. He raises two objections to the classical theist’s account of divine love. First, because the impassible God cannot be “influenced” by creatures, God’s love for creation can never be grounded in its own goodness. Mullins equates this uninfluenced love of God with arbitrary love: “God has no reason to love whom he chooses other than his own pleasure” (38). Tellingly, Mullins’s classical theist interlocutors throughout this section all seem to be Reformed theologians (James Dolezal, Arthur Pink, Herman Bavinck) who, at least as Mullins relates them, seem to share the stereotypical Calvinist’s enthusiasm for the unconditioned sovereignty of the divine will.

Mullin’s identifies a second problem for CT in its account of God’s desire for union with creatures. Following the Thomist Elenore Stump, Mullins notes “that God’s love involves two different desires: the desire to promote the well-being of the beloved and the desire for union with the beloved,” but goes on to “argue that the impassible God cannot satisfy the desire for union with the beloved” (35). For God to be genuinely united in love with Sally, Mullins notes, he must understand her; but “the impassible God cannot comprehend what it is like to suffer, and thus cannot comprehend what it is like to be Sally in her suffering” (46).

Moreover, “an impassible God cannot possibly comprehend what it is like for Sally to place the emotional weight or subjective value that she does on her son Ben because it is metaphysically impossible for God to have His emotional states depend on something external to the divine nature” (47-48). Together these constitute “the Unity Problem”: the impassible God cannot have genuine “unitive love” for his creatures, because he is metaphysically blocked from understanding some of the most important aspects of their lives.

Mullins next considers the emotion of divine “wrath,” which, he notes, many classical theists ascribe literally to God. He suggests that Scripture itself exerts significance pressure in favor of such an ascription, with its more than 400 references to God’s wrath or anger (54). But wrath is a particularly problematic emotion for the impassible God, since it seems to be definitionally a response to creatures: if God’s anger isn’t based on his reasonable evaluation of creaturely evil, then isn’t unreasonable? But if it is responsive to creaturely evil, then isn’t God passible? (55-56) NCT offers a straightforward resolution of this dilemma, by seizing its second horn: the passible God is rightly angered by his creatures’ sins.

Mullins concludes the “Element” by considering a series of objections to NCT, and his responses to them draw his passible God surprisingly close to CT’s impassible God. Of particular interest is the problem of divine empathy with evil emotions: does the empathetic God rejoice with the sadist as he tortures his victims? Or, less gruesomely, does the empathetic God “feel horny” along with pubescent teens? Mullins responds to these worries by suggesting that God’s “grasp of the affects of various creaturely emotions comes in varying degrees” (67), according to their moral goodness: “In the case of immoral emotions, the intensity of the affect for God will be quite low, and perhaps nonexistent. In the case of emotions such as hopelessness, the intensity of affect for god is higher, but not so high that God comes to experience hopelessness himself” (68).

A Classical Theist’s Reply

Mullins makes a strong case for the passibilist alternative to classical theism, although he still consistently gives the latter shorter shrift than it deserves. For instance, he maintains that there is not a single biblical passage which supports divine impassibility (53): St. James would like a word about this (“God the Father, in whom there is no shadow of turning,” James 1:17), as would the author of Hebrews (“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” Heb. 13:8). Small surprise, then, that David Bentley Hart’s seminal essay on divine impassibility, “No Shadow of Turning” does not appear in Mullins’s bibliography.

Not that I think a purely biblicist defense of divine impassibility is needful or even possible. Rather, I take it that Mullins does not adequately reckon with the importance of divine impassibility for a coherent metaphysics of creation. Moreover, Mullins’s case for NCT is premised on the assumption of a “presentist ontology of time.” This is understandable, as most classical theists are themselves presentists about time. Nonetheless, they shouldn’t be; if God is timeless, then some version of four-dimensionalism (or, following McTaggart, a “B-theory”) must be the true theory of time.[3]

Let’s start with CT’s metaphysics of creation. Mullins’s exposition of it proceeds from God’s timelessness to his immutability, thence to his pure actuality, and finally to his simplicity. It seems to me that this order of proceeding does not put CT in the best possible light: as Thomas Aquinas rightly emphasized, the clearest way to approach the divine nature is through reflection on God as the cause of creatures: “Regarding God, we know his relation to creatures, namely that he is the cause of all things; and the difference of creatures from him, namely that he is not among the things which are caused by him; and that these are not removed by him because of any deficiency in him, but because he superexceeds them.”[4]

Aquinas’s own account of the divine attributes in the Summa Theologiae closely follows this threefold pattern. We move along the “way of causality” from creaturely potency, contingency, and imperfection to the necessary, perfect, and purely actual act of being that sustains them (ST 1.2.3.c.). But then, if God is pure actuality devoid of potency, Aquinas reasons, we must deny in him all composition (ST 1.3.7), mutability (ST 1.9.1), or temporality (ST 1.10.2).[5] Further still, as the source of all creaturely perfections (specifically the transcendental perfections of truth, goodness, oneness, and being itself, cf. ST 1.4, 6, 12), we must attribute all such perfections to God supereminently, predicating them of him by analogy with our predications of creatures (ST 1.13.5-6).[6]

What anchors this extended line of reasoning in the Summa is Aquinas’s “first and more manifest” of the five ways to God in ST 1.2.3, which moves from the existence of creaturely motion to an “unmoved mover” which is “pure actuality,” with no admixture of potency. Strikingly, Mullins does not engage this critical argument, which is worth reviewing in some detail here. This proof unfolds as follows:

  1. Some things are moved (aliqua moveri).
  2. Everything moved is moved by another.
  3. X’s being moved is a case of one or more of x’s potencies being actualized.
  4. No potency can be actualized except by what is already actual in the relevant respects (e.g., something cold can be made hot only by something which is already hot).
  5. Nothing can be both potentially and actually p in the same respect at the same time.
  6. So, nothing moved can be its own mover (in the same respect and time).
  7. If the mover in premise 2 above is itself moved, it must be moved by another, and its mover must in turn be moved, and so on…
  8. But an infinite regress of movers is impossible in this case, since an infinite series cannot be traversed.
  9. So, there must be a first mover, which moves all others but is moved by no other.
  10. But such an unmoved mover must have no potencies to be actualized, i.e., must be pure actuality.

The most doubtful of the above premises is probably the second, which might seem to be a relic of a now-defunct (Aristotelian) physical theory. Aquinas’s physical examples notwithstanding, his point is far broader, however; the core idea, framed in a more modern idiom, is that no A which passes from one state to anotherdoes so without the intervention of some sufficient cause (if only some part of A acting one some other part), and which accounts for its change. But if that sufficient cause itself presupposes some prior set of sufficient causes (B and C), and they presuppose still further sets of sufficient causes (D and E), then all of those webs of causation we must eventually terminate in some sufficient cause which grounds and explains all other causes, without needing grounding or explanation itself.

Mullins objects that all that is required here is divine self-sufficiency, or aseity, which he denies has any logical connection with simplicity (18). But Aquinas gives us good reasons for doubting this. Indeed, he reasons from God as creation’s cause to the need to eliminate from him all creaturely imperfections, including composition, mutability, and temporal distension. In particular, God must be simple, he reasons, because “every composite is posterior to its component parts, and is dependent on them; but God is the first being, as shown above” (ST 1.3.7).

In fact, Aquinas even argues specifically against the inconsistency of God’s consisting of parts – even “metaphysical” parts such as the distinction between the concrete individual God is and the properties he successively bears – and his being a self-sufficient or necessary being of the sort Mullins recognizes to be entailed by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo: “God is his own being [cf. ST 1.3.4], and, as Boethius says (Hebd.), ‘Although something which exists can have something else conjoined to it, nevertheless being itself can have nothing else adjoined,’ just as something hot can have something extraneous to heat, such as whiteness, but heat itself has nothing besides heat.”[7] This is an application of Boethius’s celebrated maxim, “A form cannot be a subject,” i.e., a predicate such as “heat” or “triangularity” cannot itself be the subject of further predicates; if God is being, full stop, and other “transcendental” properties which are convertible with being (unity, truth, beauty), then God can no more being the subject of accidental properties than could “heat” or “triangularity.”

So too, further on, Aquinas reasons from divine actuality to divine immutability: “It was shown above [i.e., ST 1.2.3] that there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality, for the reason that, absolutely, potentiality is posterior to act. Now everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable” (ST 1.9.1). And finally, “the idea of eternity follows immutability, as the idea of time follows movement” (ST 1.10.2). If God is purely actual and so simple, he must equally be immutable and eternal, since mutability and temporality require the possession of potencies to be successively actualized.

The progression of Aquinas’s thought here is from God’s role as the ultimate, grounding cause of all finite or secondary causes, to God’s character as pure actuality, and thence to his simplicity, immutability, and eternity. Controversial though it is among contemporary philosophers of religion, Aquinas’s account of the divine attributes looks to me to be sound; at the very least, Mullins does not refute it in this work, certainly not in the form and sequence given it by Aquinas. And moreover, this account is – again, to my eye – attractive as well, offering a vision of finite reality’s ground in a life of infinite and invincible joy, of love and truth delighting in itself and sharing itself with others in that delight. David Hart puts the point well: “Love, when it is seen in its truly divine depths, is called apatheia.”[8]

Mullins does, however, have considerable leverage over traditional formulations of CT with regard to the nature of time. I noted above that classical theists have typically assumed an ontology of time centered on a real, if ever changing, present. But, as Mullins rightly insists, this raises serious difficulties for the classical theist: how does the impassible God immediately sustain this ever-changing universe in existence without his knowledge what exists also changing from moment to moment?

I have elsewhere called this tension between God’s eternal vantage on creation and a presentist ontology of time “Augustine’s Dilemma”;[9] it comes into particularly clear view in Aquinas’s commentary on the celebrated “sea battle” passage of Aristotle’s On Interpretation, where the Stagirite argues for the indeterminacy of future contingents.[10] In his gloss, Aquinas maintains both that man “does not know future things in themselves, because they do not yet exist, but can know them in their causes,” and that God “in every way eternally sees all of those things which are in any time, as the human eye sees Socrates sitting in himself, not in his cause.”[11] Depending on the perspective one adopts, then, Aquinas maintains that future events both do and do not exist, which is, to say the least, a delicate balance to strike.

It’s worth noting that this dilemma did not arise for Aristotle, who rejected Plato’s notion of divine creation; his God is self-enclosed “thinking thinking of thinking,” and moves the world “by being loved,” taking no regard for the deficient beings which arise from matter’s eternal if futile longing to imitate the divine perfection.[12] Aristotle’s God knows only his own essence; his knowledge is not affected by the flux of time. But that option is not open to Christians, for whom God exercises a real and immediate providence over his creatures. If God is eternal, and God knows creatures, it would seem that creatures must in some sense be eternal as well. But then what becomes of time?

Aquinas, like most classical theists, had no coherent theory to resolve this tension between divine eternity and God’s immediate creation of time, and the confusion has left the theory vulnerable to passibilist critique. A better approach is to take all times’ exposure to God’s eternal gaze to imply their equal reality. This strategy, though only rising to prominence in the twentieth century, was already adopted by John Wyclif in his early De Ente Predicamentali,[13] where he insisted, “It is clear, that many things exist outside the present instant.”[14] Wyclif develops three arguments for eternalism, the most interesting of which for our purposes is his insistence that this theory of time is entailed by God’s knowledge of creatures.

Wyclif begins with a premise that Aquinas would have shared: “For […] God, by his most infinite brightness, comprehends all things at once, and so all the parts of time, as they are most truly through him, since the divine essence represents all things uniformly and invariably.”[15] He departs from the theistic presentist, however, in insisting that these divine cognitive attitudes toward actual creatures require that the creatures actually exist. Since, he maintains, loving a thing entails not only willing it as good for oneself, but also willing it as available (fundabile bonum), “it follows that if God loves anything, then it has being.”[16]

Not that everything beloved by God need be in every time; rather, everything beloved by God need be in its own time, “one before, and another after.” And this is why, Wyclif notes, “with God all things are present, as Augustine […] says […]. It is clear, then, that if the parts of time are with God, then they truly are (si partes temporis sunt apud Deum, tunc vere sunt).”[17] For Wyclif, then, time’s contrast with eternity is defined solely by its compositeness, and not by its passage, since all times equally perdure before the divine gaze.

That is, when Boethius defined eternity as “the all-at-once and perfect possession of a boundless life (Aeternitas igitur est interminabilis uitae tota simul et perfecta possessio)” (De consolatione philosophiae,5.6.4), he went on to explicate this definition by contrasting it both with time’s passage (“for whatever is in time proceeds, as present, from the past to the future”) and with time’s compositeness (“nothing constituted in time can embrace the whole space of its life all at once”).

As Anselm would later elaborate this notion, while temporal beings are spread out piecemeal across many times, “the supreme Nature exists in place and time in some such way, that it is not prevented from so existing simultaneously, as a whole, in different places or times, that there are not more wholes than one” (Monologion 22). Robert Pasnau dubs this property, “holochronicity,”[18] and argues that Wyclif sees it as marking the principal distinction of time from eternity.

On this view, then, there is no problem of how God’s knowledge changes with the changing present, because there is no fact of the matter about which moment is “now.” Or rather, “now” is an indexical term, such that there are as many facts about what is “now” as there are perspectives within the temporal order, just as there are as many facts about “what is to the left” as there are creatures with a definable front and back. Creation thus perdures eternally as a kind of four-dimensional icon, like Duchamp’s second “nude descending a staircase.”

What is the classical theist to make of Mullins’s arguments from divine love and wrath? Recall that Mullins raised two objections to CT accounts of divine love: first, that they render God’s love arbitrary (because uncaused by creatures), and second, that they render it less than truly unitive, since the impassible God cannot empathize with his suffering creatures. The first objection might have some purchase on a Calvinist conception of God’s inscrutable will (I’ll leave that issue to others better equipped and more interested than I), but it addresses a much weaker position than the one taken by, e.g., Aquinas.

Where Mullins seems to imagine CT as maintaining that God’s love, because “uninfluenced,” must be “arbitrary,” Aquinas rather insists, “God’s loving one thing more than another is nothing else than His willing for that thing a greater good: because God’s will is the cause of goodness in things; and the reason why some things are better than others, is that God wills for them a greater good” (ST 1.20.3). On this view, God’s love is uninfluenced by creatures because it is a condition for their very existence as bearers of value, but it is not at all arbitrary, because it consists precisely in the conferral of differential value (not least in the fact of existence) to beings which otherwise would not exist at all.

Mullins’s “unity argument” is more interesting, and goes right to the heart of the passibilist’s objection to CT: isn’t a God who experiences no grief at the bereavement of his creatures less loving than a God who can? And relatedly, isn’t a God who experiences no wrath at his creatures’ rebellion less just than a God who did? Mullins is certainly right that Scripture is profligate in ascriptions of regret, grief, and anger to God, all of them species of what Paul Griffiths, in his recent Regret: A Theology, calls “the otherwise-attitudes,” variously expressing the wish, “I would it were otherwise.”

For instance, God regrets having made humanity (Gen. 6:6), having elected Israel (Exod. 32:9-10), and having raised up Saul as king (1 Sam. 15:11), although just a few verses further on in that pericope, Samuel insists to Saul that God “is not a man, that he should repent” (1 Sam. 15:29).[19] Deeply involved as he is in his creation, God inevitably regrets its wounds; but standing outside time, he has no regrets. Griffiths takes this prima facie contradiction regarding God’s regrets to point to a deeper conceptual distinction, between modes of theological discourse. Just as rapturous praise of one’s beloved is appropriate to the bedroom, while a sober description of the same would be appropriate to a police report, so too, denials of divine regret are at home in “theoretical discourse” about God, while “otherwise attitudes” belong to “narratival-devotional” discourse about him.[20]

We must, that is, both insist that all of the LORD’s attitudes toward creation obtain a-temporally, and that, with regard to any particular time between creation’s fall and ultimate redemption, the LORD really does have (time-indexed) regrets, which “flow from creature-induced damage, and introduce new felicities in its wake.”[21] God brings the cosmos into being with an eternal act of loving intellection; but from the vantage of particular points within creation, that divine love can only rightly be understood as grief over damage suffered or wrath over damage inflicted. These ascriptions of grief or wrath to God are no less genuine for the fact that they can be made only analogously, by way of the removal from them of the emotional disturbances which accompany all our experiences of grief or wrath; even the fires of Hell are at bottom nothing other than the love of God. Nonetheless, our griefs and God’s are linked by a conceptual core in the otherwise-attitude itself, the desire that something were otherwise.[22]

Transcending the Passibility/Impassibility Debate: A Theopaschite Perspective

So far, I have restricted my reply to a fairly austere register, referring to God only in terms of his eternal and changeless divine nature. This is fitting for a discussion in the “philosophy of religion,” which is the genre defined by the Elements series itself. Nonetheless, Mullins frequently strays across the boundary from the naturally knowable to the revealed (as in his appeals to the frequency with which wrath is ascribed to God in Scripture), and so I feel no compunction about offering a second reply to the passibilist from the vantage, not merely of the divine nature as such, but rather of Jesus Christ, the God-man.

It seems to me that the classical theist’s best response to the demand for a suffering God is to be found only by venturing outside classical theism itself, not into neoclassical theism, but rather to the higher plane of conciliar Christology, which coordinates talk of “natures” with talk of the “persons” or “hypostaseis” which “enhypostatize” or concretize them. In Christ, there is one person who perfectly concretizes two natures, divine and human. Insofar as Jesus is divine, he is impassible; so far, so classically theist.

And yet, the second person of the Trinity is not reducible to his deity, which is why the Fifth Ecumenical Council maintained, “If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in flesh is true God and Lord of glory and one of the holy Trinity, let him be anathema.”[23] Jesus simply is the second Person of the Trinity, in whom passible humanity and impassible deity are concretely “identical,” without confusion or division.[24] And this has the deep consequence that, as Bruce Marshall puts it, glossing Aquinas’s reception of conciliar Christology, “Everything done and suffered by the incarnate Son of God in the humanity he assumed, everything that belongs to his humanity, is said vere et proprie — univocally — of God and any human creature of whom it is also true.”[25]

Christians then emphatically do worship a God who grieved, suffered, and died in exactly the same sense as any of us. Of course, God the Son grieves and suffers “in his flesh,” a prepositional phrase which might seem to give away the store: doesn’t it merely affirm the truism that a man suffered? But that objection is short-sighted: yes, it was a man who suffered. But that man, Jesus of Nazareth, is none other than God the Son, one of the Trinity. Whatever might be true of one of his natures considered abstractly, in the individual Jesus, both passibility and impassibility perfectly and equally coincide. As Maximus Confessor insisted, “When the two natures of Christ are contemplated in light of their unconfused existence…as a single hypostasis, the coupling of [his human and divine] attributes in their mutual interchange is indivisible.”[26]

In the final analysis, then, because God became man, God is passible and impassible alike. This unconfused union of the two natures in Christ’s person, according to Maximus, is precisely why he was able “to elevate [human] nature to himself, making nature itself another mystery,”[27] showing, in and through his marvelous deeds, “that the natural activity of His own flesh is inseparable from the power of His divinity,” altering, not the “natural principle (logos)” of his humanity, but its “mode (tropos)” of operation.[28] “One could say, then,” Maximus urges, “that He experienced suffering in a divine way…Therefore his sufferings are wondrous, for they have been renewed by the natural divine power of the one who suffered.”[29] “Or rather,” he insists a bit further on, “he worked wonders…and experienced suffering…in a theandric way, since He is God and man at the same time. By means of the wonders He restored us to ourselves…by means of the sufferings, He makes us His own, for we have become that which He revealed.”[30] This insistence on the unconfused “interpenetration” of deity by humanity and then of humanity by deity is no piece of abstruse logic-chopping for Maximus, but rather a way of clarifying the essential logic of the process by which suffering humanity is transfigured through impassible love, and in which “man as a whole will be divinized, being made God by the grace of God who became man.”[31]


After reading and reflecting on Mullins’s God and Emotion, I remain convinced that classical theism and conciliar Christology offer better resources than their recent rivals for understanding divine emotion and divine suffering. Nonetheless, I found Mullins’s argument to be a lively provocation, one which has clarified and sharpened my own thinking on these important matters. This short text deserves a wide – if critical! – readership.

Editor’s Note: The London Lyceum publishes a range of original pieces and book reviews from various faith traditions and viewpoints. It is not the mission of the London Lyceum to always publish work that agrees with our confession of faith. Therefore, the thoughts within the articles and reviews may or may not reflect our confessional commitments and are the opinions of the author alone. Rather, we seek to generate thinking and foster an intellectual culture of charity, curiosity, critical thinking, and cheerful confessionalism.

[1] In-line citations throughout are from God and Emotion.

[2] The Tides of Mind, 29.

[3] The labels “A-theory” and “B-theory” come from James McTaggart’s seminal essay, “The Unreality of Time,” Mind 17, no. 68 (Oct., 1908), 457-474. Various kinds of B-theory have become something of a cause célèbre among Anglophone philosophers following McTaggart’s arguments against the reality of temporal passage. Though McTaggart makes no reference to Einstein’s “The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (1905), eternalism’s rise has been particularly aided by the apparent “geometrization” of time in both special and general relativity. On this, see also: Hilary Putnam, “Time and Physical Geometry,” Journal of Philosophy 64, no. 8 (Apr., 1967), 240-247; Palle Yourgrau, The Disappearance of Time: Kurt Gödel and the Idealistic Tradition in Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 7-8; Idem., A World without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 6.

[4] “Cognoscimus de ipso habitudinem ipsius ad creaturas, quod scilicet omnium est causa [via causalitatis]; et differentiam creaturarum ab ipso, quod scilicet ipse non est aliquid eorum quae ab eo causantur [via negativa]; et quod haec non removentur ab eo propter eius defectum, sed quia superexcedit [via eminentiae]” (ST I.12.12.c.).

[5] “The remotio points to the fact that God must be separated from all things insofar as he is the cause of all things” (te Velde, Aquinas on God, 75, italics original).

[6] “The perfection of God is discussed in both the ScG and the ST immediately after a series of reductions used to eliminate compositions and dependencies that are not present in the uncaused and simple being of God. It thus follows as a final result therefrom” (Thomas Joseph White, Wisdom in the Face of Modernity, 86-7).

[7] “Deus est suum esse, et, ut Boetius dicit in Lib. de Hebdomad., licet id quod est, aliquid aliud possit habere adiunctum, tamen ipsum esse nihil aliud adiunctum habere potest, sicut quod est calidum, potest habere aliquid extraneum quam calidum, ut albedinem; sed ipse calor nihil habet praeter calorem” (ST 1.3.6).

[8] “No Shadow of Turning,” 195.

[9] See my “Augustine’s Dilemma: Divine Eternity and the Reality of Temporal Passage” in Augustine and Time (eds. Sean Hannan, John Doody, and Kim Paffenroth; Rowan and Littlefield, 2021).

[10] Aristotle, De Interpretatione (LCL 321; trans. Harold Cook; Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1938)1.9, 18a29-30, begins this seminal passage with the anodyne observation, “With regard to things which are or are coming to be, an affirmation or denial is necessarily either true or false.” In statements about the past or present, the Law of the Excluded Middle applies: the claim that a sea-battle occurred yesterday or is occurring now is either true or false. But he then denies that this Law can hold for statements about future contingents: if my saying today, “There will be a sea-battle tomorrow” is true, then the sea-battle is in the can, its existence fixed for all times, and so occurs by necessity, not by choice. See ibid. 1.9, 18a34-b30.

[11] Expositio libri Perihermeneias (Textum Leoninum Taurini, 1955; https://www.corpusthomisticum.org/cpe.html)I, lect. 14, cap. 19-20.

[12] Cf. Metaphysics Lambda, 1072b-1074b. Cf. David Sedley’s discussion of this issue in Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity, 170. 

[13] Rudolf Beer, who edited and published the only surviving manuscript of this work, argued that Wyclif intended it to be “the fifth division of the first book” of his great unfinished Summa de Ente. See Beer’s “Introduction” to De Ente Predicamentali (London: Trubner & Co., 1891), viii. In it, Wyclif discusses each of the ten Aristotelian categories, including time. Beer assigns the treatise to a date of ca. 1360, prior to Wyclif’s more controversial ventures into political and sacramental theology. Wyclif’s treatment of time was first brought to my attention by the excellent discussion in Robert Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes, 389-91.

[14] Wyclif, De Ente Predicamentali, cap. 22, 218):“Patet […] multa esse extra instans presens.” Wyclif makes frequent reference in this paragraph to Thomas Bradwardine, whose presentism he is reducing to absurdity; for simplicity’s sake, I have eliminated those references from my exposition.

[15] Ibid., 218-19.

[16] Ibid., 219.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cf. Pasnau, “On Existing All at Once,” in God, Eternity, and Time, ed. Christian Tapp and Edmund Runggaldier (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), 11. Pasnau discusses Anselm at ibid., 20-21.

[19] Regret, 2-3.

[20] Ibid., 11.

[21] Ibid., 14-15.

[22] For further discussion, cf. my review of Regret: “How To Change the Past” (https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/how-to-change-the-past/).

[23] Canon 10.

[24] Maximus Confessor often referred to the “hypostatic identity (ὑποστατικὴν ταυτότητα)” of the natures in Christ (e.g., Ep. 13, PG 91, 546b-c, quoted in Jordan Daniel Wood, That Creation Is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor, 74n144).

[25] “Christ the End of Analogy,” in The Analogia Entis: Invention of the Antichrist or Wisdom of God? (eds. White & McCormack), 304.

[26] Ambigua to John 27.4 (ed. and trans. Constas), v. 2, p. 29.

[27] Ambigua to Thomas 5.5 (ed. and trans. Constas), v. 1, p. 37.

[28] Amb. 5.7, 9, p. 39-41.

[29] Amb. 5.18, p. 49.

[30] Amb. 5.26, p. 57.

[31] Amb. 7.26, v. 1, p. 113.


  • Brendan W. Case

    Brendan W. Case, (Th.D. Duke Divinity School), serves as the Associate Director for Research of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Dr. Case is the author of The Accountable Animal: Justice, Justification, and Judgment (T&T Clark, 2021), and co-author (with William Glass) of Least of the Apostles: Paul and His Legacies in Earliest Christianity (forthcoming from Pickwick Press). His work has also appeared in journals such as Modern Theology, Studies in Christian Ethics, Franciscan Studies, and Pro Ecclesia, and he is also a regular contributor to The Church Life Journal, among other popular outlets.

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