Hartian Illuminations: The Apathy that is the Trinity

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.

The doctrine of divine impassibility does not stand alone. We will not learn what it means by reading Aristotle’s presentation of the unmoved mover. We must enter into the ecstatic life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

Of course, an understanding of divine apatheia as the absolutely inextinguishable vehemence of infinite love, what the Pseudo-Dionysius calls divine ecstasy or divine eros, which therefore–precisely as impassibility–is ceaselessly active and engaged in creatures, was unimaginable for pagan philosophy. This image of God’s immutability as semper agens rather than semper quietus would obviously have made no sense within a tradition that understood divine purity as a cold, remote, perfectly immobile simplicity, not mindful of us at all, even if–in some sense–it is a wellspring of being, bliss, and beauty for us. But not only did Christian theologians have it on scriptural authority that God is love, as doctrine developed they had an ever richer and more concrete way of understanding this truth: the doctrine of the Trinity. That is to say, for Christians even the simplicity of the divine nature is the simplicity of utter fullness, including the fullness of relation and differentiation: the interior life of God, so to speak, is also an infinite openness, for in his eternal being he is God always as an infinite gesture of self-outpouring love, the Father’s entire gift of his being in the generation of the Son and the breathing forth of the Spirit. This is, so to speak, the eternal event that is God’s being, and so he is never a purity of essence withdrawn from every other, but is entirely the utter generosity and joy of self-giving. This is why, also, God creates. According to the Pseudo-Dionysius, the flowing forth of God’s goodness in finite beings is not simply the irrepressible ebullition of sheer divine power (as it is for, say, Plotinian neoplatonism), but is the act of one who lovingly shares himself with all, who in his transcendence over all beings leads all things into being, and who is full within his self-emptying act of individuation.

More than that, God’s is a life of real pleasure in the other, always already full of delight, fellowship, feasting, responsiveness, and love. … God is the fullness of an infinitely completed, and yet infinitely dynamic, life of love, in which there is regard, knowledge, and felicity. (“No Shadow of Turning,” pp. 59-60)

Hence it would be a grievous error to think of divine impassibility as indifference or immobility. Rather it bespeaks the plenitude and love, the fecundity, joy, and ecstasy that is the eternal being of the Holy Trinity. It cannot be diminished by creaturely suffering nor rendered impotent by death. Just as God does not need a world to be Love, so he is not threatened by the privations and agonies of a world that has fallen into wickedness and alienation. The apatheia of the Father, Son, and Spirit is nothing less than our hope and salvation:

This, again, is why God’s love is called apatheia. For us, of course, as finite beings, our every expression of ourselves and sense of what we are–in word and will, knowledge and love, form and recognition–is fragmentary, the frail emanation of a confined subjectivity, present to itself only as a play of presence and absence, light and darkness; but as God is not a finite being, but infinite being, his expression of himself and knowledge of and delight in that expression are, in each moment, completely and infinitely God: God’s Word is the perfect expression of God and so is God; the living Spirit of God is God’s life and joy, and so is God. An infinite and infinitely full distance is here, an infinite capacity, that is also infinite unity; in God, in these hypostatic distinctions, there opens up that infinite “place” that is the possibility of every place–of creation and in creation (as Hilary of Poitiers says, there is no place but is in God).

No created inverval could possibly add to or subtract from that distance, which is the distance of an eternally accomplished act. And in that distance there is always more than mere difference: there is the infinite longing of desire and the infinite peace of satiation, for the Spirit–the desire, love, power of the Father–comes to rest in the Son, there finding all the delight he seeks. As the light and joy of the Trinity’s knowledge and love, the Spirit re-inflects the distance between Father and Son not just as bare cognizance, but as perfected love, the whole rapture of the divine essence. To call this infinite act of love apatheia, then, is to affirm its plenitude and its transcendence of every evil, every interval of sin, every finite rupture, disappointment of longing, shadow of sadness, or failure of love—in short, every pathos. … God has—indeed is—only one act: the single ardent movement of this infinite love, delight, and peace. (pp. 61-62)

Yet this seems insufficient to us. We need God to grieve when we grieve, to suffer when we suffer. Our misery loves company, and we would bring the Creator into the thick of it. How else may we save him?

(Go to “Incarnation and Divine Immutability”)

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17 Responses to Hartian Illuminations: The Apathy that is the Trinity

  1. brian says:

    Ironically, of course, only the God of divine apatheia can save us, can truly answer to the longing of the heart. The miserable god is sick with our own sickness and cannot heal.

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  2. Jeremy Suess says:


    That subjective suffering, borne by each Person of the Holy Trinity, is not limited to the historical moment of the Cross. Like divine Love, divine suffering is a reality that characterizes God’s personal existence as He relates to the world He has made. Consequently, there is no human or cosmic suffering that is not part of God’s own personal experience. This is not “patripassionism.” It is the simple Gospel truth that the triune God indeed shares in—He knows and drinks to the bitter dregs—the cup of our suffering, whatever its cause, however devastating to us it might be.

    Can God suffer? Does God truly suffer in the suffering of mankind and of each individual bearer of His divine image? Preserving a thoroughly Trinitarian perspective on God’s existence, we can answer that question with a resounding “Yes!” “We see Jesus,” the author of Hebrews declares (2:9), “who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God [the Father] He might taste death for every one.”

    That tasting of death was not limited to the Cross. It involves His ongoing suffering in the life of every sparrow that falls to the ground, every victim of a natural disaster, and every tormented soul who contemplates suicide. Christ’s suffering—and with it, the suffering of God the Father—embraces the whole world and every particular life within it, including yours and mine. There is no true love without suffering. And God is and always will be the God of Love.

    I’m not familiar with Fr. John Breck, but I found this article by him on the Orthodox Church in American website: https://oca.org/reflections/fr.-john-breck/can-god-suffer

    Also: how does one format comments in WordPress?

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    • Jeremy Suess says:

      Regarding comment formatting, I see I was able to italicize above.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      The problem seems to me to arise if compassion and empathetic suffering are viewed as damage, as sickness, weakness or hurt in God, rather than a necessary part of his fundamental essence as love, and an essential part of his glory, and therefore viewed as antithetical, rather essential, to his eternal nature.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      God, of course, is profoundly involved in every form of human suffering precisely because he is the Creator. He knows our suffering, and loves us in our suffering, more intimately than we do.

      Fr John Breck is a dear friend of mine, but when he writes that “There is no true love without suffering” I’m afraid I have to dissent. If taken literally, this means that suffering is necessary for love, and if God is love, then suffering (which has always been viewed as a form of evil) belongs intrinsically to God’s being and therefore wills suffering, not only for himself but for his creatures. By the Incarnation God personally assumes suffering in order to redeem it and deliver us from it, but he doesn’t need suffering in order to love. We need, I think, to distinguish God’s eternal mode of being from his incarnate, historical mode. Otherwise we will find ourselves saying that suffering continues in the Kingdom.

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        I think perhaps, to be fair, what he may mean is there is no true love without empathy: it is not necessary to suffer in order to love, but if one loves and the beloved suffers, it is an essential feature of love that one will feel empathic suffering also as a consequence. If the beloved does not or no longer suffers, one no longer suffers either, but one does not therefore love any less.
        (At least I assume that’s what he means: if he means you can’t love someone until they get hurt, it’s obvious nonsense.)

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        • Jeremy Suess says:

          Iain, this is how I read Father Breck as well.

          Al, that’s really cool that you know Father Breck.

          I would disagree with a statement that read “There is no true love without there first being suffering.” Then God’s love would be a reaction to our suffering. And from what I’m understanding, God is pure act. I would agree with the statement that “Suffering (compassion [co-suffering]) is a result (or characteristic) of True Love”. Suffering would be then God’s knowledge of, perhaps even the experience of, our suffering, (knowing that suffering as much as it is known by his creatures – but of course in a different way, in that he is not diminished in any way, nor changed by our suffering).

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      • brian says:

        Heartily agree, Father. Otherwise, one risks collapsing the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity. One imports an irreducible element of tragedy into the life of God and as one points out, poisons the eschaton.

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Ian, take a look at Herbert McCabe’s thoughts on divine compassion and let us know what you think. You’ll need to scroll down about 2/3 of the way.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      It’s very odd. The suffering of God which McCabe appears to be arguing against is something in no way analogous to compassion but an entirely different thing. What he (quite reasonably) seems to be objecting to is the idea that God should or must directly suffer the actual pains of his creation in order to love it. If I suffer in compassion because my child is ill or hurt it’s not as if I myself go down with a fever or cuts or bruises appear on my own leg, or even that it is necessary that I feel or imagine I do. Empathetic suffering is a separate form of suffering and a thing in itself and an aspect and manifestation of love: it is a desperate inconsolable yearning that the suffering of one’s beloved should not be happening, should not be so; it is not a sort of painful incapacitating reaction in mimicry of the suffering of the person concerned.
      If this incapacitating mimicked experience is what is being argued against as a “suffering God” then, yes, I can readily see the objections, and share them. However, I still maintain that, if God genuinely loves us and the Bible is to be believed, God must necessarily suffer something at least analagous to compassion (as described above) if we, his children, are suffering.

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        I realise the word I am looking for in describing God’s suffering is “grief”.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Ian, what do words like “compassion” and “grief” add that is not already contained in the word “love”?

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          Not a great deal, if anything, to be sure, which is the point. It may be a bit of a misreading on my part but to me what talk of “divine impassivity” seems to do is to take away the grief and compassion from God’s love and therefore make it incomplete.
          If what is intended is rather a denial of what McCabe was arguing against, a quarrel not with the idea of a genuinely grieving and compassionate God, but with a specific notion of God actually directly experiencing (as opposed to fully comprehending and grieving over) human suffering, then I can see there are good reasons for such an idea to be rejected.
          I suppose my problem may be that I was unaware of the theory being argued against, and so couldn’t properly understand what was bring said.

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          • Iain Lovejoy says:

            As usual, I worked out what I meant to say after I said it.
            If divine impassivity simply means that God’s love is unchanging and steadfast and requires no prompting by experiencing human suffering to exist, I’m all on board.
            However, some of the Hart extracts suggest that he is saying that that same steadfast and unchanging love is and can only be manifest and expressed in delight and joy in creation, and not also manifest and expressed in deep compassion and grief at creation’s sufferings, and speaking of divine “impassivity” to me reinforces that impression. If he’s not saying that, then I am all in agreement; if he is, then I can’t see how that can be right and you can still talk about God’s “love”.

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    • Jeremy Suess says:

      The money quote from McCabe:


      Our only way of being present to another’s suffering is by being affected by it, because we are outside the other person. We speak of ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’, just because we want to say that it is almost as though we were not outside the other, but living her or his life, experiencing her or his suffering. A component of pity is frustration as having, in the end, to remain outside.

      Now, the creator cannot in this way ever be outside his creature; a person’s act of being as well as every action done has to be an act of the creator. If the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its centre holding it in being. In our compassion we, in our feeble way, are seeking to be what God is all the time: united with and within the life of our friend. We can say in the psalm ‘The Lord is compassion’ but a sign that this is metaphorical language is that we can also say that the Lord has no need of compassion; he has something more wonderful, he has his creative act in which he is ‘closer to the suffering than she is to herself’. (pp. 44-45)

      Brilliant stuff! I wholeheartedly concur with this.

      And your comment that follows is excellent too:


      The conviction that if God truly loves mankind he needs to suffer its sufferings and experience its experiences betrays the anthropomorphism that drives much of popular Christianity. To speak of God as “experiencing” the world immediately posits the world as external to God. Deity becomes a being who stands alongside the created order as an other. But the infinite and transcendent God knows the sufferings of every creature, not as a being external to creatures, but precisely as the eternal act that sustains every creature in existence.

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  4. Jack says:

    There was a Christian contemplative nun, Bernadette Roberts, who just passed a couple of months ago, whom I thought had very interesting things to say on this matter. She had stated that what the Logos endured in the Incarnation was so God awful, that Christ’s death on the cross was a blessed release in comparison. For the Logos to forfeit its divine glory and take on human nature was the true salvific act, as even what we would consider good and beautiful in this world would be monstrous and unbearable to look at for the incarnate Logos. Not because it is bad or sinful in itself, but out of sheer contrast to the divine life. Bernadette was quite heterodox in many ways, but I always thought this was one of her more interesting thoughts. But what suffered this condescension? Logically speaking, it could only be the human, and not the divine nature of christ. But there seems to me something profound in this idea that God “suffered” this, just to be here with us.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Jack. I’m afraid I have to strongly disagree with Sr Bernadette, for a couple of reasons. She appears to think that the Incarnation involves a change in God, but it is nothing of the sort. The divine Son does not literally “change” into a human being–that would be mythology. In the Incarnation God does not divest himself of his divine nature; rather he assumes himself the human nature he has created and lives under its condition of finitude. Moreover, God had originally created human nature to be the proper receptacle for his enfleshment in the world, so it’s not as if in the Incarnation God is doing something alien to his nature or contrary to his original plans. As St Maximus the Confessor states: “For the Word of God, who is God, wills always and in everything to bring about the mystery of his embodiment” (Ambiguum 7).

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