Can God experience pain or pleasure from the actions of another? Mark Lindsay

Mark Lindsay

In his brilliant Reading Auschwitz with Barth, The Holocaust as Problem and Promise for Barthian Theology, 2014 (Wipf & Stock), Mark Lindsay, Joan F W Munro Professor of Historical Theology, and Deputy Dean at Trinity College Theological School, Melbourne University, outlines the issues in the current debate concerning Barth’s understanding of  whether God can experience pain or pleasure from the actions of another being viz: God’s (im)passibility (146-149, op cit):

the whole problem of Barth’s understanding of God’s (im)passibility lies now within the frame of a heated, and at times deeply personal debate between, on the one hand, Bruce McCormack and, on the other, Paul Molnar and George Hunsinger. The issue at the heart of the controversy is the intersection in Barth’s theology of the doctrines of election and the Trinity. For McCormack, advocating the so-called ‘revisionist’ position, Barth’s identification of Jesus Christ, the God-man, as the subject of election means that election is not simply the sum of the Gospel but part of the very doctrine of God itself. Jenson concurs: “[T]he doctrine of election, of God’s choice ‘before all time,’ is for Barth the center of the doctrine of God’s being.”[1] That is, God’s election—His decision to be for us—is not just a decision of the triune God, but the decision by which God constitutes His own being as triune. In the incarnation of the Son, therefore, what happens economically has ontological bearing on what is true for God immanently.[2] By this, the false distinction between the Logos asarkos (the Logos apart from the flesh) and the Logos incarnandus (the Logos to be incarnate) is dissolved, as is (arguably) the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity.[3]

Molnar, for his part, takes issue with McCormack’s view that, for Barth, the immanent Trinity is a product of God’s will to be pro nobis in the economic Trinity.[4] Rather, Molnar contends that the immanent Trinity is vital to any theological endeavor to retain God’s being in freedom. Indeed, if McCormack is correct that (in Barth’s theology) God’s work ad extra determines His being ad intra, then His being as triune is dependent upon the world which needs saving. Moreover, if God’s being a se is predicated upon God’s decision and action pro nobis, then God is thus constituted anthropomorphically and not in terms of His own free perfection.[5]

Similarly, George Hunsinger has rebutted McCormack’s interpretation of Barth, by questioning the dissolution of the Logos incarnatus and the Logos incarnandus. To say that Jesus Christ is the subject of election does not mean, argues Hunsinger, that the eternal Son had no existence apart from election. On the contrary, a perichoretic Christology would enable one to maintain a distinction between the eternal Son and the Son incarnatus, “who mutually coinhere with one another without losing their real distinctiveness.”[6] The decision for election emerges from God’s perfect triunity, but does not constitute it.

The details of the debate, while fascinating in themselves, are not of direct relevance here. How it relates to our own topic (coming to grips with the Holocaust today in the light of Barth’s corpus- comment by Simon Hattrell) is simply in this way: that in McCormack’s understanding, Barth repudiates entirely any suggestion of divine impassibility (a position which McCormack himself also holds). The tradition, he argues, conceives of God as eternally existent as pure being, and who then, in freedom, steps out of the mode of pure being and into the realm of covenantal relationship with humanity. The epistemological sacrifice inherent in this conception of God, argues McCormack, is that God must then be regarded in Himself as “impassible and removed from suffering.”[7] That is, in order to step into covenantal relationship, God must remove Himself from His truest essence as ‘pure being’. This, he says, is a position which Barth is never prepared to adopt, because it assumes the existence of an abstracted God behind the God who reveals Himself to His creation. This, as we have seen, is inconceivable to Barth, for whom God is always wholly revealed. More than that, it is a position which is utterly unscriptural and, according to Robert Jenson, “deeply alien.”[8] On the contrary, that God has determined in eternal act to be God for us, and indeed has determined to be only this God and no other, means that He has also determined in favor of “self-limitation and suffering for the sake of human beings.”[9]

In other words, God’s eternal determination to be in Himself for us—to choose, therefore, to be a God not sufficient unto Himself—is a Self-determination in favor of divine pathos; to be, that is, in the very best sense of the term, a pathetic God. This point is insisted upon by Abraham Heschel, for whom the God of Scripture is and must be “a God of pathos, a God intimately involved in active relationships with His creatures, a God who is moved by the acts and experiences of His people.”[10] That this determination is ingredient to God’s free constitution as the electing God means that He is, in free decision from all eternity, the God who has elected Himself to suffer with and for humanity. Jesus Christ, says Barth, as Messiah and Son of God “speaks of His suffering, not as a necessity laid upon Himself from without, but as something which He Himself wills” (CD II/2, 179). Suffering is, by this account from McCormack, ontologically proper to who God eternally is…..’

[1] Jenson, Systematic Theology I, 140.

[2] Jones, “Obedience, Trinity and Election,” 149-150.

[3] See, for example, McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 92-110; “Seek God Where He May Be Found,” 62-79. Note, however, that McCormack vehemently insists that he does not thereby collapse the economic Trinity into the immanent Trinity, as Paul Molnar suggests. “Talk of a ‘collapse’ makes it sound as though there is only an economy of God, that there is no immanent Trinity ‘before the foundations of the world’. On the contrary, to say that God constitutes Himself as the triune God in an eternal act is to say that God is already triune before He creates a world.” McCormack, “Let’s Speak Plainly,” A Response to Paul Molnar’, 63-64.

[4] Dempsey, Trinity and Election, 7.

[5] See Molnar, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity. Much debate centers around how one defines, respectively, God’s Self-determination and His Self-constitution.

[6] Dempsey, Trinity and Election, 10. See also Hunsinger, “Election and the Trinity,” 179-98.  

[7] Molnar, “Can the Electing God Be God Without Us?,” 86.

[8] McCormack, “Election and Trinity,” 179-98. Cited in Dempsey, Trinity and Election, 136. In Jenson’s words, “Christian theology has had…difficulty resisting the lure of the doctrine of divine impassibility…” Jenson, Systematic Theology I, 144.

[9] McCormack, “Election and Trinity,” 135.

[10] See Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, (Philadelphia, 1962). Cited in Novak, “A Jewish Response,” 115.