The self-imposed suffering of God

W. G. T. Shedd

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)



  1. The Orthodox fathers had little trouble with the statement that “the Impassible suffered.” I tend to hold to a very similar move to the one Shedd makes here. The key is to remember that impassibility and apatheia are negative theology, not positive. But the problem tends to be to root objection that we don’t want a God who suffers with us. We want a god immune to our failures, superior to our suffering. That’s very often our idea of a god capable of saving us: one who is utterly above subjection and can therefore raise us up to where He is. This causes immense dissatisfaction with the reality of Christ!

    • Yes, I want to explore the Orthodox fathers on this point. P. T. Forsyth, in his excellent book on christology (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ), was my introduction to kenosis. I need to revisit Forsyth’s book.

      I also need to revisit Moltmann and see if it is as careless as everyone makes it out to be. When I first read The Crucified God (in 2005 if memory serves), I was very new to theology and surely didn’t understand the half of it. Do you have any thoughts on Moltmann?

      • I can’t give much help on Moltmann; I’m in a similar situation. I was never very interested in him, and so he lost out to the competing interests of loving Barth and fighting to grasp Tillich.

        Kenosis tends to bother me. As a kind of Philippians-Christ-hymn avoidance of hubris, and a being-human on the part of God, it works. God chooses, in the fullness of deity, to be fully human—and to actually be human, rather than pretend at it. A choice to truly, fully, and appropriately inhabit our existence. But when the idea contributes to things like the extra Calvinisticum, and the notion that the fullness of God could not be in Christ, the notion of “self-emptying” becomes problematic.

        The idea that God surrenders attributes in becoming incarnate is inevitably tied to the fact that the incarnation ruins the claims to all of the negative-theology absolutes. I haven’t seen an “attribute” listed as “surrendered” in Christ that has any positive substance. For me, it is better to speak of God’s character being revealed in Christ, than to speak of the divine omniscience, omnnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, eternity, infinity, immutability, impassibility, etc., being surrendered—as though God became less in Christ. The problem is that then we do not truly know God in Christ; there is more of God than will “fit” in Christ. For all of those things, I prefer the deus absconditus, and the corresponding notion that God’s potency, presence, benvolence, etc. are revealed counter-intuitively, but truly, in Christ.

        When it comes right down to it, we must say that God has acted as God has acted. That God’s character is revealed by God’s actions. And if that screws with the absolutes we attribute to God, it is the absolutes that need to be fixed. But we need to do that well, of course! 🙂

      • Yes, I would want a kenosis that reveals God fully and truthfully, in such a way that potency can take the form of both humiliation and exaltation. That does indeed push the definitions provided by negative theology, which is fine by me — and is exactly what Shedd is doing in regard to impassibility and what Barth does in regard to immutability and unconditionality. As long as God’s existence is conceptually filled by God’s action, then God alone properly defines his power, rule, and character.

  2. “Impassibility” can be such an abstract idea, an abstract way of talking about God. Jesus says he has shown us the Father. Constancy, consistency, authority, yes, but also passion. I currently reading Colin Gunton’s book “Act and Being” on the attributes / perfections of God. Still working through it / digesting it, but it has some good things to say about these issues. He also speaks about the problems of negative theology.

    • I’d be interested in what Gunton has to say about impassibility. I have ‘Becoming and Being’ (a study of Barth) somewhere that I still need to read.

      • I’m in the middle of this book. Gunton so far has talked about western theology being too much influenced by Greek philosophy, which tended to focus more on an abstract approach to God. The Old Testament is not given its proper priority in many theological works. However, he is not saying it is just a simplistic choice: Greek abstract-being vs Old Testament concrete-action. But yes, I think he would say impassibility can too easily become an abstract way of referencing to God. He quotes Barth on immutability “God is constantly one and the same. But … his consistency is not as it were mathematical” A good and valuable book, I think.

      • Yep, that sounds like Gunton. It was exciting when I first read Brunner’s Dogmatics, where he makes those contrasts between Greek and Hebrew thought (using Martin Buber, of course). It was particularly compelling for me because I had just finished a Religious Studies / Philosophy degree, having hardly read any theology yet, and I needed a strong challenge to the inherited Western philosophical tradition.

        Now, not surprisingly, the new generation of scholars have been challenging the Greek vs. Hebrew narrative that dominated from Ritschl/Harnack to Brunner/Buber to Gunton, but I still find it compelling on the whole, even if the line cannot be drawn too neat…as you say, it’s not a simplistic choice.

  3. “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 don’t find this distinction helpful or coherent either, but I always feel like I’m doing something wrong when taking issue with it.

    Two Eastern fathers that come to mind who push the idea in the proper direction are Sts. Cyril and Maximus.

    Jenson writes in his Sys. Theo. vol. 1 (p. 137): “We may still apprehend paradox in [Maximus’] position, but the paradox is now not that the presumed impassible Logos suffers, but that the suffering Son is the Logos of the presumed impassible Father.”

    Drawing out his conclusions from Maximus’ christology, Jenson writes that “the second identity of God is directly the human person of the Gospels, in that he is the one who stands to the Father in the relation of being eternally begotten by him.”

    So, for Jenson, no evasive qualifications like, “Christ suffered ‘in the flesh’” (as to be exterior to his identity as God) are warranted. Christ Jesus is, without qualification, unabashedly and with full conceptual rigor and intent, “theos pathetos” (Maximus, Ambigua, 91:1037B).

    Therefore, so Jenson: ” . . . we must understand the Crucifixion, precisely as Jesus’ human doing and suffering, as itself an event in God’s triune life” (189).


    I also like what Shedd is wanting to protect—on both sides. And you’re right about that definite shift toward classical theology (proper). It surprised me at this year’s theological conferences.

    • Thanks for the Jenson material on Maximus. That seems to raise the question of whether the second person (Son) is passible while the first person (Father) is impassible, which would be problematic. Thus, what I also like about Shedd’s position is that he is actually speaking of the Father and his suffering in sending the Son, such that the Father isn’t isolated (and “protected”) in this singular event of suffering in the divine life (the Godhead).

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