The doctrine of divine simplicity and immutability sometimes leads us to think that God cannot truly respond to what happens in the world. However, to say that God does respond to human action may suggest that God has become passive and undergoes change when he is acted upon by an external agent. John Frame notes although God’s eternal decree does not change, it does ordain change. God also responds to the unfolding events in human history that flows from the eternal decree. But God’s response does not imply passivity in God because he is bringing to fruition an interaction that he has himself ordained. He is actively bringing to fulfilment what he has eternally ordained, even in bringing about a world that can bring him grief. (Acts 2:23-24)
Does God’s expression of grief means that God suffers? Indeed, recent theologians like Jurgen Moltmann argue for divine passibility, that is, God is capable of suffering. Moltmann offers three reasons to support his contention. First, God evidently suffers on the cross. Theologians who deny divine passibility fail to “understand the being of God from the event of the cross.” Second, “divine love entails “reciprocity” between God and creation. It must be possible for him to be “affected by the objects of his love.” So God must be vulnerable to suffering. Third, there is no adequate answer to the problem of suffering except to say that God suffers with suffering human beings, especially that God suffers with Jesus on the cross. Moltmann asserts that “all suffering becomes God’s so that he may overcome it.”
However, Moltmann’s assertion is only partially correct. We should be mindful that according to the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), Jesus has two natures united in one person – he is fully human and fully divine. Frame explains, “We may say that Jesus suffered and died on the cross “according to his human nature,” but what suffered was not a “nature,” but the person of Jesus. And the person of Jesus is nothing less than the second person of the Trinity, who has taken to himself a human nature. His experiences as a man are truly his experiences, the experiences of God.” To the extent that Christ suffered on the cross and that Christ is the second person of the Trinity, we may say that Christ’s suffering are the sufferings of God since there is mutual indwelling between the Father and the Son (the technical term for this is circumcessio).
But circumcession does not entail identity of experience between the Father and the Son as they each plays a different role in the history of redemption. The Son was crucified and not the Father; the Father forsook the Son as the Christ bore the sins of the world. The Father did not die, but gave up his own Son (Rom. 8:32). The Father understands (Hebrew – “knows intimately”) the suffering of the Son, including the agony of separation from the Son, (Mark 15:34). However, it inappropriate to say God suffers if it is taken to imply that he is vulnerable, deficient and thwarted since he is perfect and sovereign over human history. Furthermore, it must be maintained without full understanding with our finite and fallible minds that at the moment when Christ uttered the cry of dereliction, there was no division within the Trinity, since there is always one undivided action of the Trinity in the work of redemption).
Finally, Frames rebuts Moltmann’s three arguments for divine passibility:
First, Moltmann’s theology of the cross fails to recognize that there is both continuity and discontinuity between the experience of the Father and the Son in his incarnate existence. Moltmann has fallaciously insisted “very dogmatically on one dubious interpretation of this mystery (namely, that the Father suffers metaphysical loss in the death of Jesus) and to use that as a paradigm for interpreting everything else in the Bible, even to the point of denying some other biblical teachings.”
Second, we agree that love (including God’s love) involves reciprocity since God himself eternally decreed that he will create a world which he can interact with. However, Frame insists that “love does not require “vulnerability” in the sense of susceptibility to injury and loss.* Is it really impossible to love someone who cannot be ultimately harmed? Millions of Christian believers over the centuries would affirm that it is possible. The psalmists typically express their love for God as their strength and deliverance (Psalm 18:1; 31:23; 116:1); it doesn’t occur to them to say they love God because he is vulnerable. Paul praises the omnipotence of God’s love: it is such a powerful love that nothing can separate us from it (Rom. 8:35–39).”
Third, Moltmann’s contention that God shares our sufferings in order to overcome them, is correct – in Jesus [emphasis added]. (Isaiah 53:3-4) “But this principle should not be magnified into a metaphysical assertion about God’s vulnerability, for, as we have seen, God’s eternal nature is invulnerable, and that invulnerability is also precious to the believer. God’s suffering love in Christ, therefore, does not cast doubt upon his aseity and unchangeability. It is, however, ground for rejoicing.”
It has been suggested that the immutable God can never be moved or touched by human suffering or human sorrows as he dwells in a state of holy calm and unchangeable blessedness. Creatures certainly do not have the power to inflict suffering or pain on God, but neither can they love a God who remains inaccessible in his splendid transcendence. However, Scripture tells us that God does feel and love.** It is God’s love that led him to entered into this world to engage with the sorrows of his creatures and to bear the suffering of the cross in order to procure salvation for his creatures. More importantly, since it is God who took the initiative to bring about events that culminated in sinful men crucifying his Son, God is never a hapless victim of his creatures. Indeed, it is God’s sovereignty and immutability which guarantee that God will certainly bring to fulfilment the salvation that he has eternally ordained. (Acts 2:23-24)
* Note that “calm” itself is a form of emotion.
** Thomas Aquinas contrasts the subjective conception of human love with the objective conception of God’s love: “God loves all existing things. For all existing things, in so far as they exist, are good, since the existence of a thing is itself a good; and likewise, whatever perfection it possesses… God’s will is the cause of all things. It must needs be, therefore, that a thing has existence, or any kind of good, only inasmuch as it is willed by God. To every existing thing, then, God wills some good. Hence, since to love anything is nothing else than to will good to that thing, it is manifest that God loves everything that exists. Yet not as we love. Because since our will is not the cause of the goodness of things, but is moved by it as by its object, our love…and to this end we direct our actions: whereas the love of God infuses and creates goodness.” [Summa Theologica 1.20.2]. In short, since God wills the goodness of his creatures, classical theism affirms the love of God, even as it affirms that the immutable God does not suffer.