Sunday, December 15, 2019

Anselm the Straightforward

The church's long acceptance of impassibility (in all its forms) is rooted in the early fathers' schooling and embrace of Greek philosophy. In particular, the concepts of apathy (apatheia) and sufficiency (Autarkeia). [1]

Divine apathy implies that God can feel no pain or emotion. Divine sufficiency is the notion that no external force can affect God.

In the knowledge of Christ's suffering on the cross, an antinomy is evident. The apathy of God presents an intellectual stumbling block: How can God suffer and yet not suffer?

Another conflict arises with the sheer number of passages in scripture that attribute emotions to God. The bulk of these are swept under the rug with a blunt instrument: the declaration that they are naught but anthropomorphisms. This is fine and dandy when we are talking about God being angry or remorseful. Those are easy to dismiss. It is a little more problematic when we get to God loving us and God having mercy and compassion  on us.

The modern so-called scholars sense that it is impolitic to say that God does not love or display compassion. (I say God does both.) They tend to deal with this non-trivial problem in a variety of unsatisfying ways. Some tend toward a Nestorian solution, for example by asserting that only the humanity of Christ suffered, not the deity. In doing so they get quite close to a denial of the hypostatic union. Others solve it with gobbledy-gook word salad, usually in support of their ultimate slam-dunk solution that sounds like it is saying something deep but is not really saying anything at all. What is this magic, explain-it-all solution? How does an impassible God love us without having an actual unseemly affection, a feeling not fit for any stoic god of Aristotle and Plato? Easy-peasy! God doesn't love, God IS love! God doesn't dispense mercy, God IS mercy!, etc.  (The capitalized "IS" appears to be required for this argument.) Exactly what this means--that God doesn't have attributes, God IS attributes--how that is explained as anything beyond a distinction without a difference--well  do not expect clarity, just prepare yourself for another hefty helping of word salad.

But not from Anselm, one of the early champions of impassibility--he did not mince words. He did not try, as the moderns do, the approach of saying something without really saying it. He surely had the courage of his convictions and should be admired in that regard. For example, how could an impassible God be compassionate? Anselm did not give the modern cop-out: God IS compassion!, as if that answered anything. Nope, Anselm tells that as a natural consequence of impassibility, God, in fact, has no compassion:
BUT how art thou compassionate, and, at the same time, passionless? For, if thou art passionless, thou dost not feel sympathy; and if thou dost not feel sympathy, thy heart is not wretched from sympathy for the wretched ; but this it is to be compassionate. But if thou art not compassionate, whence cometh so great consolation to the wretched? How, then, art thou compassionate and not compassionate, O Lord, unless because thou art compassionate in terms of our experience, and not compassionate in terms of thy being. 
Truly, thou art so in terms of our experience, but thou art not so in terms of thine own. For, when thou beholdest us in our wretchedness, we experience the effect of compassion, but thou dost not experience the feeling. Therefore, thou art both compassionate, because thou dost save the wretched, and spare those who sin against thee; and not compassionate because thou art affected by no sympathy for wretchedness. [2]
Anselm tells us straightforwardly that God is not compassionate. It is only that we experience the salvation of the cross as if God was compassionate toward us--when in actuality he was not. You have to respect him for  not running away from the doctrine's clear implication.

[1] Dennis Ngien, "The Suffering of God According to Martin Luther's Theologia Crucis", p. 8.

[2] Anselm, Proslogion, ch. 8.

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