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Formulary Friday: God without body, parts or passions

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Posted by Christopher Stead, 19 Jun 2015

Christopher Stead explores a key affirmation about God found in Article I.

When a ‘celebrity atheist’ recently denounced God on the basis of suffering, many highlighted the inconsistency between moral outrage over suffering and a worldview that excludes the transcendent.

But what of a positive response? What can we say of God to the struggling Christian?

Despite what many modern theologians would have us believe, the classical, Reformed theism of Article I is not a dry, dusty, and irrelevant series of logical deductions, but rather a statement concerning the thrilling ‘otherness’ of God. This ‘otherness’ allows him to be the intimate and infinite source of comfort that we need and desire, and which Scripture reveals him to be.

In three ‘withouts’, we are reminded that as the uncreated Creator, God is fundamentally not like his most precious creatures.

First, he has no body. As infinite Spirit, God is not bound in any way, by any physical limitations.

Next, he is without ‘parts’. More than specifying details of what it means to be incorporeal (lacking arms or legs), the article affirms that there is nothing in God which is not God. Anglicans confess that, in metaphysical simplicity, God is identical with his essence, with his existence, and with each of his attributes. Nothing explains, or accounts for God, except God; per Augustine, he is what he has.

That the infinite God is simple means that he is incomprehensible to finite, composite creatures. His wisdom and purposes are beyond our fathoming. Unlike us, who learn one thing after another to piece together knowledge, God’s knowledge is simple, as he knows everything in a single act, and his wisdom is perfect, unlike ours.

This in itself is enormous comfort. Furthermore, simplicity means God’s wisdom and power are identical with his love and goodness. Indeed, goodness or love aren’t things God has, they are what he is. Whatever he does in his sovereign freedom, it is a necessarily good and loving freedom that he exercises, not merely arbitrary whim and caprice. 

Finally, most counter-intuitively, God’s passionless-ness supplies us with hope in trials.

Divine impassibility means that God, in himself, cannot suffer, or be acted upon. Not because he is a lifeless rock, but because the infinity of life and love which is identical with the pure act of the triune God brooks no interruption or diminution.

Why is this comforting? Surely, in struggles and hardships, don’t we want to know that God suffers too, hurting alongside us?

Well, not exactly, no. Precisely because God cannot suffer as God, we know that he is one who can end suffering for good. If God suffered, then there would be no guarantee of final victory over suffering; indeed, as Christian hope looks towards being caught up into God’s eternal love and life in the new creation, we rather hope that such a life and love is one in which there is no suffering!

Further, God’s impassibility undergirds the Son’s incarnation and suffering at Golgotha. God, who cannot suffer as God, took upon himself human nature in order to take human suffering and death upon himself so as to defeat it; he wasn’t identifying with us to show he hurts too, but to do something about our hurting. Now, we are blessed by the knowledge that our high priest can sympathise with us in our weakness, but without the incarnation the qualification to be a sympathetic high priest would be lacking; being made like us was necessary for Christ to know suffering and death and, so the writer to Hebrews argues, for Christ to become the death-and-suffering-defeating high priest we needed.

Let’s sharpen the focus. Isaiah 53:4 says of our penal substitute that “surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”. The authenticity of Christ’s human sufferings is undermined if the Son could suffer as God, and hence the satisfaction of the penalty due is jeopardised. Yes, the person of the Son suffered and died, but as a man, in his human nature, and had to do so for his suffering to be truly redemptive.

Because God doesn’t suffer with us, but suffered and died as one of us, for us, so we rest assured that our future is one in which “death shall be no more, nor shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev.21:4).

The Articles confess a glorious gospel that rests on their confession of the mighty God of the gospel. God ‘without body, parts, or passions’ are sweet words of comfort to the suffering believer.

Christopher Stead is training for Anglican ministry at Oak Hill.

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