Archive Early Church Fathers Nota Bene W. Bradford Littlejohn

Augustine, Compassion, and Impassibility

Augustine has some wise words of warning for the modern ideal of compassion-in-solidarity, which has bled over into theology proper in the form of the fashionable rejection of divine impassibility for a God who instead is so compassionate that he suffers right alongside us:

“And therefore, in respect to such states of mind, you must take on somewhat of the affliction from which you want the other person to be freed through your efforts, and you must take it on in this way for the purpose of being able to give help, not achieve the same degree of misery.  Analogously, a man bends over and extends his hand to someone lying down, for he does not cast himself down so that they are both lying, but only bends down to raise up the one lying down.” —De Diversis Quaestionibus Octoginta Tribus 83.71.2, quoted in Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, p. 292.

By W. Bradford Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh, 2013), is President of the Davenant Trust and an independent scholar, writer, and editor. He is researching the political theology of the Reformation, especially Richard Hooker (the subject of his dissertation), and other areas in Christian ethics, especially pertaining to economic questions.

4 replies on “Augustine, Compassion, and Impassibility”

I don’t know: *Christ* surely saved us by being compassionate suffering along side us. So all I’m left with in the first paragraph is that God didn’t suffer, Christ did. Surely that isn’t what you mean, is it?

My point is that what we have in the Incarnation is exactly the kind of compassion that Augustine here describes: a God who condescends, who “bends down” to join us in our suffering *to the extent necessary to lift us out of it*, i.e., by appropriating the suffering humanity of Christ. But this is not enough for many modern theologians, who would like a God who feels all of our pain, who suffers in himself just as we do, who “achieves the same degree of misery” and ends up lying down beside us.

So you are saying it’s Christ not God who feels all our pain, “achieves the same degree of misery” and ends up lying down beside us? God only “appropriates” that suffering?

It was only a 150-word post, not an attempt to go into the niceties of the person and work of Christ. In fact, my main point in the post was not about the incarnation/crucifixion as such, but about the broader fashionable antipathy to impassibility across the board, in favor of a God who suffers all our hopes and fears and hurts right there alongside us throughout our lives—as in open theism, for instance.

Of course, Augustine’s description does correspond to the incarnation in a couple key respects: for one, yes, God takes to himself the humanity of Christ, but without any change thereby to his impassible nature, so that he may remain fully God, the one who can raise us up from our misery. For another, because of this, Christ does not remain in a state of humiliation, he does not continue to suffer through history with the human race, as much modern theology would have it, but is raised and glorified in order that he might raise us up to where he is.

But yes, there is much more nuance to be explored here than we could get into on the basis of this quote.

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