As you may know, I am writing a book on the Creed, so I feel it is particularly a duty of mine to sniff out any whiff of heresy.
Yesterday, President Trump gave a speech which alerted me to just such a threat in the American body politic and I feel I must, of course, speak out:
Did you catch the shocking heresy?
I’m sure all Good Christians are as upset as I am about President Trump’s dire warning that Joe Biden is trying to “hurt God”. No good Christian can sit still while this kind of rank heresy is being committed by a man who not only supports Planned Parenthood but even claims to be a Christian!
I speak, of course, of Patripassianism, the heresy President Trump flagrantly committed when he claimed that God can be hurt.
Recall that heresies pertaining to the relationship of the Father and the Son took various forms.
- For instance, Gnostics–particularly the followers of Marcion in the second century–saw the Father as the evil God of the Jews and the Son as the good God who came to rescue us from him. Irenaeus was the great champion who argued against them in his Adversus Haereses. He re-asserted the basic Christian truth that the Father and the Son are good and that they love, not hate, each other.
- Sabellians taught that God was one Person wearing three different hats: God the Father before the Incarnation, God the Son during the Incarnation, and God the Holy Spirit after the Ascension. They ignored the fact that the Biblical text makes distinctions between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and shows them in relationship with one another. So, for instance, at the Baptism in the river Jordan, God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Likewise, the Son prays to the Father, not to himself (Luke 10:21-22) and speaks of the Holy Spirit as a person distinct from himself and the Father (cf. John 16:12-15).
- Patripassians similarly destroyed the distinction between the Father and the Son and insisted that the Father suffered on the Cross as Jesus.
The paradox of the Church’s condemnation of Patripassianism is that it reveals a God who is capable of sharing in our trials (in the Son Christ Jesus) and yet who remains, in his divine nature, perfectly happy. God the Father can no more be hurt than a squirt gun in my hands can put out the sun.
I find that deeply consoling. The good news of the Christian revelation is that we have a savior who can both share in the depths of our suffering and to whom we can relate, but also a God who remains perfectly happy in his deity. As I wrote in The Work of Mercy some years back:
It is even more comforting to know that God the Son endured the worst suffering and won through to Resurrection, promising that same grace and power to us, if we will remain in him. But here’s the paradox: the other part of the gospel’s comfort is the strange doctrine that God the Father is “impassible”. That is, he is not subject to suffering or affliction and cannot be moved by the emotions that move us.
That seems problematic. Doesn’t it contradict what I just said about the bureaucrat without experience sitting in a far-off room? Strangely no. Because comfort comes not merely from knowing that others have suffered as you have, but that they have come through their suffering to the place where “the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). In our affliction, what we want is not only to have somebody suffering beside us, but to know that there is someplace where all this pain and horror loses its power. Sam Gamgee is a comfort to Frodo in his affliction because, like Christ, he stands beside him and even carries him in the struggle across the Plains of Gorgoroth and up the purgatorial slopes of Mount Doom. But Sam’s comfort comes when, like Christ, he casts his gaze on the place where the troubles of this world cannot reach:
Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.
The good news of the “impassibility” of God is like that. There is a perfect happiness in God that the devil cannot ever harm or even touch. To be sure, God Incarnate “was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Yet the miracle of the thing is that it was for the joy that was set before him—the joy of the impassible Father who is pure happiness—that Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God (cf. Hebrews 12:2). Something in our nature conforms to this. We are comforted in our affliction by shared suffering. But we require, as well, the anchor of hope that there is, somewhere, a place far above the cloud-wrack where we shall find the joy that is not—and cannot be—touched by the suffering we face here. It is exactly that paradox that moves St. Paul to remind us, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).