It seems to come as a shock to some that I am not a partisan of the school of thought you have dubbed “NC” (for Neo-Chalcedonianism). And yet, as it happens, I most definitely am not. It would be a fairly exhausting exercise—and one for which I do not have the time just now—to explain what differentiates their views from mine. Some of the remarks I left in the comments boxes for Ty Monroe’s review of You Are Gods explain some of the principal issues. I will also be making the full text of an address that I delivered at a Bulgakov conference a year ago on my Substack page, which should make various matters a little clearer. Then, too, Jordan Wood has sent me a message saying that he thinks our positions are not as far apart as I believe, and that he intends to write something to demonstrate as much. And—alternatively or complementarily—we may record a conversation sometime after his book on St Maximus the Confessor, The Whole Mystery of Christ, comes out. So, in time, everything will no doubt creep out into the sunlight.
The reason I am writing you now is to shed light on one matter. I did not follow the Twitter exchanges that ensued after my recent interview with Henry Wallis; but a few friends—helpfully or mischievously—sent me screenshots of some of them. What I saw in these was, as is the natural course of things on social media, a great exchange of assertions and counter-assertions, liberally interlarded with speculations about what I must or must not mean by the things I have said, and why. I might make a number of observations on the debates, but I think it better to confine myself to one conspicuous misunderstanding that became evident in a number of the tweets and twitterings I saw: to wit, the traditional doctrine of divine impassibility.
Before I get to that, though, I would urge you to alter your nomenclature. Calling my position “Vedantic Christian Theology (or “VCT”) is a rather massive red herring, because all I am advocating in these exchanges is traditional Neoplatonic Christianity. Moreover, the Young Turks of the Boston College School (to use my name for them) should not be called “Neo-Chalcedonians,” but rather “Neo-Neo-Chalcedonians,” because what they advocate is a particular interpretation of the Neo-Chalcedonian synthesis that could not have come into being until after the 18th century. I propose another set of designations altogether, however. Rather than “VCT” for my position, I recommend “LCCT”: “Logically Coherent Christian Theology.” For the Young Turks I recommend “ThM”: “Theogonic Mythology.” I cannot see how anyone could object to that.
I jest, of course (sort of).
Anyway, back to the issue of divine impassibility. And, before anything else, I think it good to elucidate what we mean by both agency and patiency—energeia and pathos, act and passion—in causal terms.
There is, to begin with, an old Aristotelian principle that seems to me quite obviously true: that in any finite causal relation, change occurs in the effect, not in the cause itself. But, of course, in the realm of the finite, agent and patient functions are impossible to confine each to a single pole of any causal relationship. When two finite substances are involved in a causal relation, each undergoes some change, because each is limited and lacking in some property the other can supply, and so each functions as both a cause and an effect in that relation. Ice melts upon a burning coal but also cools the coal; and neither can affect the other without also being affected in turn. Here, then, we see that the strict distinction between action and passion is chiefly a convention of thought, isolating a distinction conceptually that is impossible to identify in fact. Reciprocal causality is of the nature of finite relations; which means that every finite passion is also already an action and vice-versa. This is the condition of becoming in its true ambiguity. A passion is as much an act of the patient as of the agent, and a causal action is as much a passion of the agent. But this also means that, for finite beings, whatever knowledge is acquired by an affect is limited to the mode of the affect; we can know nothing more about, say, suffering than our patient capacity allows, even though that knowledge is acquired as the concomitant of a prior agency. God, however, is infinite act; he can know in a way not limited by any mode of reception. As pure act, he knows in pure, creative, limitless agency.
In theological matters, I am not at all reluctant to rely on explicitly metaphysical considerations in forming my judgments, for any number of reasons: I believe that God as Logos reveals himself to the rational intellect and will in all of creation, that the gift of revelation must be received in modes appropriate to the creature (including the capacity for metaphysical speculation), that in the creature’s reception of revelation the ordo cognoscendi is the inverse of the ordo essendi and therefore must start from the most natural movements of human reason, and so on. So, confessedly, it is as much a philosophical as a theological claim to say (as I want to do) that the terms “impassibility” and “divine” are in fact logically convertible with one another. There can be no other referent of the predicate “impassible” than the infinite God; there can be no God who is not that one who is, as the fullness of all being, impassible. There is not out there, among the ensemble of beings, a single discrete being who is God, who may or may not possess the attribute of impassibility. Rather, like any number of other predicates—infinity, eternity, simplicity, immutability—the term “impassibility” is merely one of the necessary entailments of the very concept of God as the transcendent source of all reality. To me, therefore, the notion of divine passibility occupies the same logical space as the idea of a square circle or of a married bachelor or of an intelligent and morally sane supporter of Donald Trump. And far, indeed, from constituting some kind of paradox, the statement that the God who became human in Christ is eternally impassible is a necessary affirmation of logic.
Of course, to make sense of that affirmation one must be absolutely clear what the traditional language of impassibility means. It certainly does not mean—as presumably we all know—that there is some capacity or aptitude that God lacks, some kind of experience that is beyond his ken; it is not a negative predicate, nor is it a statement about God’s ability to have knowledge of pain or pleasure or joy or sorrow. Of course God knows all such things; he knows not only the suffering or joy of Christ, but my suffering and joy as well. He is omniscient. He knows our passions infinitely better than we know them ourselves. Nor is the truth that God is impassible a claim regarding experience in any sense we might normally imagine. It is simply a modal statement regarding how God knows. In classical terms, the term pathos or passio is not necessarily allied to experience at all; it merely indicates the modification of one thing by another, and describes the relation between agent and patient forces or substances within any instance of finite change. It certainly has little or nothing to do with anything like the consciousness of phenomenal qualia—such as the twinge of discomfort I may feel in an my wrist when I hold it at an odd angle—inasmuch as consciousness as such was not even a topic of philosophical reflection in antiquity or the Middle Ages. A rock can be the subject of a pathos, because it is a finite and mutable reality, and therefore possesses potentialities that can be actualized by adventitious agencies. It can be heated by the sun, for instance. And the heat of the sun in its turn, in being cooled by its absorption into that rock, undergoes a pathos of its own. The question is not what God knows (he knows everything), but the manner of that knowledge—whether, that is, he becomes acquainted with realities that are somehow beyond him, and that therefore must communicate themselves to him by way of an extrinsic qualification of his “substance” that would actualize a hitherto unrealized potency. This would entail, after all, that God is a finite being among beings, in whom possibility exceeds actuality. It would also mean that he is not omniscient, for whatever he knows in the form of a passion he can know in only a limited way, because any knowledge gained from the subjective perspective of a patient substance can be known only under the aspect of the pathos it induces, as a subjective impression rather than a direct cognizance of the objective reality of the thing in itself. Impassibility is not a privation of the capacity for passions; rather, acquaintance through passion is a privation of the act of knowledge. But God has, as the schoolmen would say, no real relations; he does not relate to things in the manner of one thing that can be qualified by other things, but is the fullness of reality in whose perfection all finite things have their being. His is a scientia matutina, never a scientia vespertina. For him, the fullness of reality from whom everything receives both essence and existence, knowledge is entirely active. Even in becoming human, he did so through the creative act of assuming to himself—and thereby reducing himself to—a finite nature, and thus expressing the infinite treasures of his knowledge in the poverty of the experiences of flesh and blood. Nothing is thus added to the divine nature. The infinite does not admit of addition.
All of which is only to say that God, if the concept of God has any content at all, is not a limited substance, standing outside other such substances, and that his particular spiritual intentions (acts of will and knowledge, that is) towards finite things involve no physical processes and no modifications of his substance from without. And if those intentions tell us who God is, it is precisely because they have to do not with any act of God determining himself, but only with an eternal act of self-expression. More important, they would certainly add nothing new in the order of real being to God, since the “subtracted” reality of finite things is always already embraced within the infinitely fuller reality of divine being.
Anyway, my best to you and to the Theogonic Mythology faction. Kiss them on the heads for me.