Hartian Illuminations: How Can Love be Impassible?

In this series of “illuminations,” I quote passages from David Bentley Hart’s collection of essays The Hidden and the Manifest that I have found particularly instructive. I hope they will generate good discussion.

How can God be described as “impassible” when in his inner-Trinitarian being he is absolute and infinite Love? Does not love suffer when the beloved suffers? Does not God grieve when the beloved dies? One way to address this question is to think more deeply about love itself, particularly that love to which we are summoned and in which we shall be perfected in Jesus Christ:

Love is not primordially a reaction, but the possibility of every action, the transcendent act that makes all else actual; it is purely positive, sufficient in itself, without the need of any galvanism of the negative to be fully active, vital, and creative. This is so because the ultimate truth of love is God himself, who creates all things solely for his pleasure, and whose act of being is infinite. And this is why love, when it is seen in its truly divine depth, is called apatheia. If this seems an odd claim to us now, it is largely because we are so accustomed to thinking of love as one of the emotions, one of the passions, one of those spontaneous or reactive forces that rise up in us and spend themselves on various objects of impermanent fascination; and of course, for us “love” often is just this. But, theologically speaking, at least according to the dominant tradition, love is not, in its essence, an emotion–a pathos–at all: it is life, being, truth, our only true well-being, and the very ground of our nature and existence. Thus John of Damascus draws a very strict distinction between a pathos and an “energy” (or act): the former is a movement of the soul provoked by something alien and external to is; the latter is a “drastic” movement, a positive power that is moved of itself in its own nature. And love, certainly, is a movement of the latter kind. Or–to step briefly out of the patristic context–as Thomas Aquinas puts it, love, enjoyment, and delight are qualitatively different from anger and sadness, as the latter are privative states, passive and reactive, whereas the former are originally one act of freedom and intellect and subsist wholly in God as a purely “intellectual appetite.” Thus Gregory of Nyssa portrays his sister Macrina as teaching that the soul joined to God, who is beauty itself, will have no need of the energy of that appetent desire (epithymia) that arises from need or anxiety to unite it to divine goodness and loveliness, but rather will “attach itself thereto and mingle with it through the movement and energy of love (agape)”–which she defines not as a reactive agitation of the will, but as a habitual inward state oriented toward the heart’s desire.

Logically prior to any pathos we encounter, even the pathos of sin that confines our nature from the first, love is active in us as the very power of our existence, the truth of a nature that is in its essence sheer yearning, summoned out of nothingness toward union with God, who is the source and consummation of every love. It is a patristic commonplace, which one could illustrate copiously from Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Maximus, and many others, that the true freedom of the rational creature is a freedom from all the encumbrances of sin that prevent us from enjoying the full fruition of our nature, which is the image and likeness of God, when sin is removed, when we are restored to the condition in which God called us from nothingness, our entire being is nothing but an insatiable longing for and delight in God, a natural and irresistible eros for the divine beauty. We spring up into God. That is that ultimate liberty that Augustine places above the voluntative liberty of being able not to sin: it is the condition of being so entirely free from sin and death, so entirely transformed in the love of God and of, in God, one’s fellow creatures, as to be incapable of sin altogether. Or, to use the language of Maximus, it is natural freedom, restored in us by Christ, who frees us from the false passions of our “gnomic” freedom (the power of the finite will to consent to love to bind itself to destructive desires). It is that state, as the Pseudo-Dionysius phrases it, in which our ecstasy meets the ecstasy of God. Once this bond of love is forged, no transitory impulse of resentment, fear, or selfish appetite can sever it. And precisely because it is prior to and–in God–ultimately impervious to any contrary power (hatred, pride, anger, pain, death), such love as this is the only true impassibility. For, as Christ showed on the cross, God’s love is an infinite act, and no passion can conquer it: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (“No Shadow of Turning,” pp. 57-59)

Can we imagine a love that is so full, so substantial, so robust, exuberant, and inexhaustible that it exists beyond all privation, passion, and sorrow? To begin to imagine such a love is to begin to understand the impassibility of the living God.

(Go to “The Apathy that is the Trinity”)

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11 Responses to Hartian Illuminations: How Can Love be Impassible?

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    So here we have our answer to the question as to the ability of the non-suffering God to relate to the creature. God as infinite act of being moves but is not moved upon. Suffering, pathos, emotions, mutation – such are passive, reactive and contrary to the plenitude of God’s being. Infinite life and love anchor relation to God’s eternal felicitous freedom. God knows, but requires not knowledge; God feels, but requires not emotion; God responds, but requires not change; He loves, but requires not passion. We are back, in so many ways, and lest anyone would lob the accusation of equivocation (one can hear the new atheist grumble) to the fundamental requirement of analogous predication when engaging in all God talk.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeremy Suess says:

      Robert, can you elaborate at all upon “God feels, but requires not emotion”?


      • Robert Fortuin says:


        What I mean is that human feeling is a derivative response caused by or eliciting an emotion. We can not univocally ascribe the same to God. The ‘requires not’ functions as a way to denote the dissimilarity that exists within the analogous likeness between God and creation. For us to feel means (among other things) to have an emotional response to something or someone; however, such an experience of feeling and emotion can only be predicated to God by way of analogy, not univocally, lest we end up with a god as man writ large.


  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Doesn’t God still have to “react” (at least in some analogous sense) to sin and its consequential suffering? God is not the direct cause of sin (my terminology may be off here), rather we are, so any act of God to save us from that sin (above all the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus) must be at least logically and causally dependent on our own actions, rather than being solely God’s uncaused pure action from the beginning and unrelated to any contingent event or action of ourselves.

    If God’s actions therefore can (at least in some sense) be a response to our own sin and suffering without violating the essential principle of “impassivity” in a way that causes the problems D B Hart highlights, why is it necessary to deny that God can similarly experience compassion as a response and expression of his love (at least in a similarly analogous way that he can similarly respond with action) in the way that the Bible, and Jesus who is the visible expression of his Father (again, dodgy terminology) would on the face of it appear to suggest?

    Indeed, if you are going to describe an outpouring of pure creative action towards us by God for our sakes as in any way resembling the emotion of “love”, then it seems to me that similarly an outpouring of corrective, healing grace towards us for the sake of curing our sin and suffering can be equally described as “compassion”: the former being a “yearning” (which I think I understand D B Hart as using of God) for the creation of our ultimate good, the latter a similar “yearning” for an end to our suffering, which is pretty much what the Bible describes.

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    • Thomas says:

      God’s action is not limited to his constitutive act of love; God also acts in the world. However, this doesn’t entail any change in God. It only entails a change in things.

      The truthmaker for “x caused y”, whether x is divine or not, is in y. If y results in some fashion from x, then x is a cause. No change in x is necessary. So, for instance, prior to the existence of the world, the proposition “God created the world” was not true. Once the world exists, the proposition is true: not because God changed, but because the world exists and depends on God.

      Or, for an example that speaks more directly to your concern: the proposition “God became incarnate” is false at one time and true at another because it has its truthmaker in a particular human being. Likewise, to say that God gives a particular grace to a person is not to say that God changes, but that the beneficiary of God’s grace is changed by God.

      There are many things we say of God that are contingent on facts about us. For instance, to the proposition that God knows Adam chose to sin is true on account of Adam’s sin, not on account of God’s making him sin. However, “knows Adam chose to sin” is predicated by extrinsic denomination. There is no problem with speaking of God as reactive, as long as the appropriate concessions are made either to the metaphorical use of language or the recognition that that attribution is had by extrinsic denomination. But there are other things that said of God neither metaphorically nor by extrinsic denomination: that God is love is one of those things.


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        I am still struggling to see how talking of God feeling compassion / empathetic suffering creates the problems that it is said to do.
        We are happy to state (at least by analogy) that God can have an attitude or feeling towards us and creation (e.g. God loves us) or wants or desires something to happen or not happen (e.g. God desires we repent of our sins).
        We are happy to describe God as reacting or responding to things that happen (again remembering this is by analogy).
        To say that God experiences compassion, or empathetic suffering for our suffering is only to say that (at least by analogy) God can have such an attitude, feeling, want or desire in reaction / response to the suffering happening. I can’t see how if both feeling / desire and reacting / responding can have their analogy in God, compassion / empathetic suffering can’t also equally have its own analogy in the same way.
        I do get though that one has to caveat this by saying:
        – This is still only analogous;
        – God’s love is intrinsic and prior and isn’t caused by or contingent on his compassion / empathetic suffering; but rather
        – Any compassion / empathetic suffering is at bottom simply another manifestation of his unchanging love, rather than a separate thing to it, or addition / modification to it;
        But subject to this, I don’t see any greater issue in talking about God’s compassion / empathetic suffering as talking about his love or what he desires, or God acting n reaction or response to events that occur.
        (To add in my own analogy, if my kid is ill I suffer for him, but that doesn’t mean either that my love for him is contingent on his suffering, or that my love towards him is changed or altered because either he is suffering or I respond with compassion. Quite the opposite: I respond with compassion precisely because of my love for him remains unchanged.)


        • Robert Fortuin says:


          Change, fragmentation, extension is only a problem when God is understood to be without beginning or end, without limit, who is simple, pure actuality, whose nature is the act of being. Aside from the question as to the validity of analogy (most Christians don’t do theology by analogy), thinking through what analogy means to the theological project has to be fully appreciated. Analogy means abandoning univocity, it is the unqualified realization of the ontological difference between the Uncreate and the created. It is the acknowledgement of the absolute limits and incommensurability of our conceptions of God, and that without such acknowledgement the god we conceive is one that changes, is fragmented, incomplete, limited, becomes. Such is not the God of the Bible.


        • Thomas says:

          I’m not sure I can improve on Robert’s reply (it feels like a passage straight out of St. Gregory of Nyssa), but here goes.

          My approach to it is: a) if any of the traditional arguments for the existence of God show a source of being that is infinite, absolute, and does not change, then no understanding of God that attributes change or finitude to God can be true; b) some of those arguments are successful (I’d endorse specifically the cosmological arguments put forth by Joseph Owens and Robert Spitzer, each being elaborations on St. Thomas’ second way), therefore c) no notion of God that attributes change or finitude to God can be true.

          Now a view that attributes a specific attitude to God directed toward us means that God is not infinite, at least if one regards creation as contingent. That is to say, God’s loving of us presupposes that there are some of us to love, we need not have existed, and thus God could have been different in our absence. The question is: is God different on account of loving us? Does attributing a response to God mean that God is different than if he had not responded? If the answer to any of these sorts of questions is affirmative, then one is in the territory of contemporary personal theism (or as Hart calls it, “monopolytheism”).

          That’s not to rule out any and every way of attributing compassion to God, but it does rule out an intrinsic intentional stance with us as the object, a real change based on worldly events, or even a real relation (i.e., an intrinsic feature) of God that has us as its term.

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  3. This is somewhat tangential to the post here, but I hope it does relate. As I have been reading more of Hart it raises questions in my own mind related to Divine impassibility and simplicity. My own exposure to these doctrines has been through the Reformed (Baptist) scholar James Dolezal who has done a great deal to revitalize these doctrines in Reformed circles, though from a Western/Thomistic frame of reference. These things said, how does Hart’s formulae square with the Thomistic notion of actus purus regarding these doctrines? I notice different emphases between Hart and Aquinas but no significant disagreement, am I missing something here or is there general cohesion between the two? I don’t see Hart as identical with Medieval Scholasticism or its modern adherents, but I don’t read antipathy between the most basic Western understanding of impassibility and simplicity and the Eastern views of the same that Hart is articulating (though decidedly in his own contemporary voice).


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