Few topics introduce more spirited discussion, in systematic theology circles at least, than the question of whether God can suffer without compromising his deity. While not going as far as Moltmann, I have a definite fondness for kenotic christologies and a wariness about impassibility. This puts me out of favor in the current theological climate, where there has been a definite shift back toward classical orthodoxy in all of its Western-Augustinian monotheistic glory! (See Stephen Holme’s latest book for a fine example.) With this debate in mind, I was intrigued upon finding the following in Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology:
Though it was God the Son, and not God the Father, who became incarnate, and suffered, and died, it by no means follows that the first person of the Trinity made no self-sacrifice in this humiliation and crucifixion of the incarnate second person. He gave up to agony and death, his “dear,” and “beloved” son. …No person of the Godhead, even when he works officially, works exclusively of the others. …
And this does not conflict with the doctrine that the Divine essence is incapable of suffering. The Divine impassibility means that the Divine nature cannot be caused to suffer from an external cause. Nothing in the created universe can make God feel pain or mystery. But it does not follow that God cannot himself do an act which he feels to be a sacrifice of feeling and affection, and in so far an inward suffering. When God gave up to humiliation and death his only begotten Son, he was not utterly indifferent, and unaffected by the act. It was as truly a sacrifice for the Father, to surrender the beloved Son, as it was for the Son to surrender himself. [Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2, pp. 386-387; underlining mine]
So, the distinction is between (1) suffering by an external cause or (2) suffering by an internal cause. Shedd rejects the former as incompatible with “impassibility,” a term he wants to uphold, while the latter is deemed compatible with impassibility. Now, I am far from an expert on this topic, but I am sure that many advocates of impassibility would say, “Nope, nice try.” Impassibility means that God cannot suffer — the idea of suffering being utterly incompatible with the idea of God — regardless of whether this suffering is externally caused or self-imposed. Then comes the idea that the Son suffered in his humanity only, not in his deity, and other bizarre distinctions that I don’t understand.
I like Shedd’s parsing of the term. It reminds me of something Barth would do (e.g., God is unconditional in his essence, but he chooses to be conditioned by his creature — as in prayer).
Image: William G. T. Shedd (image source: wikipedia)