From the mailbag: Was God ‘ok’ with polygamy in levirate marriage?

What follows is a slightly edited exchange that sprang from a church member’s personal Bible reading. Always encouraging to know others are reading and thinking.

I have a question regarding levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25. My ESV study Bible says that in the case that the brother-in-law (the “kinsman redeemer” ?) already had a wife, polygamy would be permissible. The commentary we have doesn’t exactly address polygamy here, and I haven’t been able to find another resource to comment on it (polygamy) for clarity. I understand that the purpose of levirate marriage is to preserve the line, etc., but I (admittedly) am a little bit unsettled by my study Bible’s comment that polygamy is “ok” here. I also know this was written to a different audience at a different time for a specific purpose…But my question is: in this case, is God’s Law approving polygamy? Any pointers on where/how to better understand this? Thanks in advance!

Deuteronomy_WrightIf you’re interested in a good commentary on Deuteronomy, I’d recommend this one by Christopher Wright. It’s concise, easy to follow, and sheds light on the intent behind Israel’s laws.

Here’s what I would say concerning the possibility that a levirate marriage would lead to bigamy. This isn’t everything that could be said but I think it’s a good start.

First, the Law needs to be read in it’s historical & social context as you recognize. It wasn’t delivered in a historical vacuum and in certain respects the Law deals with Israel as she is rather than as she ought to be.

Second, much of the Law would re-ordered Israel’s life toward the divine ideal, but some commands were concessions to circumstances that were less than ideal. In other words, the law was a less-than-perfect way to constrain sin and its effects. This is precisely the point that Jesus makes when he was questioned about the Law’s provision for divorce:

Mark 10:2-9  Some Pharisees came up to Jesus, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife.  3 And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?”  4 They said, “Moses permitted a man TO WRITE A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY.”  5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment6But from the beginning of creation, God MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE.  7 “FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER,  8 AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH; so they are no longer two, but one flesh.  9What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

God created marriage to be a permanent union and He hates divorce (Mal 2:16). Nevertheless, divorce was permitted under certain circumstances in order to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Were it not for hard hearts, no such concession would have been necessary.

Similarly, levirate marriage was provided to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. The perpetuation of the family line & a permanent share in the land were two of the biggest material blessings that God gave to His people. Beyond the material experience was a profound message: that God would create & preserve a people who would enjoy his enduring promises. But a man who died with no children lost his place among the nation since his name would die out and his share of the promise (land) would go to someone else. Levirate marriage, then, guaranteed that a bad situation (i.e. losing a man) didn’t lead to worse harm (i.e. losing a family line). Were it not for death, a levirate law would never be necessary.

Third, levirate marriage was very different from typical bigamy/polygamy in its intent. In polygamy, a man sought to acquire wives for his own benefit. In levirate marriage, a man was ‘assigned’ his brother’s widow for the sake of the deceased. Levirate marriage was apparently a less than desirable scenario in many cases since the Law attaches a shameful stigma to the man who would refuse his legal obligation (Deut 25:7-10).

Finally, I’ve come to learn is that it’s ok for us to be uncomfortable with some of the things we read in the OT Law. Since God gave the Law to lead us to Christ & a better covenant, it’s good for me to be dissatisfied with an imperfect solution to the mess created by sin & death. My heart and mind should say “Is this the best that we have? Isn’t there a better way?” And that draws me back to the promised perfection that we find in Christ. In Christ, we never have to worry about our names being erased or our inheritance being lost. Nothing that has been given or promised to us depends on what we can create or sustain. Better mediator. Better promises. Better covenant.

Hope this is helpful.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams

JAdams_letterI am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forevermore.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, “Had a Declaration…” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Steps of pride

In 1124, the French monk Bernard of Clairvaux published his first work, On the Steps of Humility and Pride. Bernard had been asked to put into writing a series of talks he had given on the topic of humility,  but the finished product ended up discussing pride as much as humility. He explained:

You are perhaps saying, brother Geoffrey, that I have done something different from what you asked and I promised, and instead of writing about the steps of humility I have written about the steps of pride. I reply, “I can teach only what I have learned. I did not think I could fittingly describe the steps up when I know more about going down than going up.”

Unsurprisingly, Bernard’s insight is as relevant today as it was nearly 1,000 years ago. Here are his twelve steps of pride with portions of the exposition.¹

  1. Curiosity. You see a monk of whom you had thought well up to now. Wherever he stands, walks, sits, his eyes begin to wander. His head is lifted. His ears are alert. . . . He has grown careless about his own behavior. He wastes his curiosity on other people. . . . And truly, O man, if you concentrate hard on the state you are in it will be surprising if you have time for anything else.
  2. Light-mindedness. For the monk who instead of concentrating on himself looks curiously at others, trying to judge who is his superior and who is his inferior, will see things to envy in others and things to mock. Thus it is that the light-minded follow their roving eyes and, no longer pinned down by proper responsibility, are now swept up to the heights by pride, now cast down into the depths by envy. . . . He displays these changes of mood in his speech: Now his words are few and grudging; now numerous and trivial; now he is laughing; now he is depressed; but there is never any reason for his mood.
  3. Foolish merriment. The proud always want to be happy and to avoid sadness . . . . Anything that shows him his own vileness and the excellence of others checks his curiosity; but on the contrary, he is always ready to notice anything which makes him seem to excel. He uses his curiosity to perceive how he excels others, and he always deceives himself so that he avoids sadness and he can go on being happy.
  4. Boasting. When vanity has begun to swell the bladder and enlarge it, it makes a bigger hole for the wind to escape. . . . His opinions fly about. His words tumble over one another. He butts in before he is asked. He does not answer other people’s questions. He asks the questions himself and he answers them, and he cuts off anyone who tries to speak. . . . He may say something edifying, but that is not his intention. He does not care for you to teach, or to learn from you what he himself does not know, but that others should know how much he knows.
  5. Trying to be different.  When a man has been boasting that he is superior to others it is galling to him not to outdo them in performance, so as to make it obvious that he is more advanced than they are. . . . He acts not so as to live better but so as to seem to triumph, so that he can say, “I am not as other men” (Lk 18:11). . . . He is very anxious to perform his own special exercises and lazy about. . . . But [the simple-minded] do not see his motive and by canonizing the wretch they confirm him in his error (Lk 18;11).
  6. Arrogance. He believes the praise he hears. He is complacent about what he does. He does not give a thought to his intentions. He puts that from his mind when he accepts what others think of him. He believes that he knows more than everybody about everything else, but when they praise him he believes them rather than his own conscience.
  7. Presumption. He who thinks himself superior to others, how can he not presume more for himself than others? At meetings he must sit in the most important place. In discussions he speaks first. . . . What he himself has not done or ordained he considers not to have been done right, or to be arranged displeasingly. . . . But since he is so eager to offer his services and rushes at things rather than taking thought before he acts, he is bound to make mistakes sometimes. . . . So when he is accused of a fault he adds to his sins rather than giving them up. If you see someone answering back when he is reprimanded you will know that he has fallen to the eighth step of pride, which is self-justification.
  8. Self-justification. There are many ways of making excuses for sin. One person will say, “I did not do it.” Another will say, “I did it, but it was the right thing to do.” Another will admit that it was wrong but say, “It was not very wrong.” Another will concede that it was very wrong, but he will say, “I meant well.” If he is forced to admit that he did not mean well, he will say as happened in the case of Adam and Eve that someone else persuaded him to do it.
  9. Insincere confession. An earthen vessel is tested by fire, and tribulation makes it clear who is really penitent. A real penitent does not shrink from the labor of doing penance, but whatever hateful task is imposed on him for his sin he patiently embraces without complaint. If obedience forces him to what is hard and goes against his wishes, and even if he suffers reproach he has not deserved, he bears it without flagging, so that he shows that he stands on the fourth step of humility. But he whose confession is all pretense, when he is tested by one little punishment cannot simulate humility or hide the fact that he has been pretending up to now. He complains and murmurs and grows angry and proves . . . that he has sunk to ninth step of pride which, as we said, can rightly be called insincere confession.
  10. Rebellion. The divine mercy may look on such a man and inspire him to do what is very difficult for him, to submit without a word to the judgment of the community. But if his response is to frown and be insolent, by his rebellion he falls lower and to a more desperate state . . . and he who before secretly despised his brothers in his arrogance now openly shows by his disobedience that he despises his superiors.

    For you must know that all the steps I have divided into twelve can be put into three groups. In the first six there is contempt for one’s brothers. In the next four there is contempt for one’s superiors. In the remaining two pride comes to a head in contempt for God.

  11. Freedom to sin. Then he begins to travel roads which seem good to men (Prov 14:12; 16:25) and, unless God blocks his way (Hos 2:6), he will come at their end to the depths of hell, that is, contempt for God. . . . When he stands there, the monk who recognizes and fears no superior and who has no brothers whom he may respect enjoys doing what he wants the more safely as he does it the more freely; and he does things which in the monastery fear or shame would have held him back from doing. . . . Like someone entering a river, he does not plunge, but goes step by step into the torrent of vices.
  12. Habitual sin. And after he finds that his first sins go unpunished by the terrible judgment of God (Heb 10:27), he freely seeks to enjoy again the pleasures he has experienced. Habit binds him as desire revives, and conscience slumbers. The wretched man is dragged into the depths of evil (Prov 18:3) and handed over captive to the tyranny of the vices as though to be swallowed up in the whirlpool of fleshly desires; and he forgets the fear of God and his own reason. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God” (Psa 13:1).

¹Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Writings (trans. by G. R. Evans), The Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press (1987), 99-143.

The virtue of silence

paper quote bubbleThe Five Day Bible Reading plan has me in Proverbs for a couple weeks and I’m always struck by just how much God’s instruction in this book goes against my nature and popular opinion. These days especially I’m convicted by how quiet, slow, and deliberate the path of wisdom is in contrast to our noisy, hurried, and reactionary age. The contrast is especially stark when it comes to habits of speech.

Americans value free speech and rightly so. We have laws protecting and a history defending all kinds of speech whether by word, art, demonstration, or money. Some modes of speech have a longer history than others, but the Information Age has introduced a dizzying array of platforms for our speech: TV, radio, podcasts, blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al. 

Talking has never been easier and thanks to 24-hour news cycles and the internet we never lack things to talk about. COVID19, lockdowns, Presidential politics, social justice, nationwide protests, and Supreme Court rulings—all of these matters beg for comments and will be discussed ad nauseam.

So what should Christians say about these things? Maybe less than we think:

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable; But he who restrains his lips is wise. Prov 10:19

A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind. Prov 18:2

The first to plead his case seems right, Until another comes and examines him. Prov 18:17

Today we have the means, motive, and opportunity to speak our minds every day and, thanks to technology, we don’t even need to leave the house to find an audience. But is it wise to talk as much as we do? If given a minute of Spirit-driven reflection, how much of what we say, share, and type is motivated by pride and anger?

Maybe Christ will be seen more clearly through those who speak less and, even then, reluctantly. Remember, it’s the peacemakers, not the opinion makers, who show themselves to be wise sons of God (Mat 5:9; James 3:13-18).  

Dear Sir: That’s not what the verse means

Dear Sir,

I’m not a reguar listener to your radio program, but I drop in from time to time just out of curiosity. Today I heard you quote Prove 29:18a as a way to explain the trouble we’re having in America:

Where there is no vision, the people perish {Prov 29:18, KJV}

Your point was that our country is in trouble because our leaders have no vision for the future and/or have abandoned the vision laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Politics aside, you have misinterpreted and misapplied this verse. Allow me to elaborate.

First, the OT meaning of vision means something completely different from what we modern Westerners mean when we talk about vision. We speak of vision as a product of creativity or imagination, especially as it expresses our goals and aspirations (e.g. CEO’s vision for where he wants to take the company; my vision for the future). The OT speaks of vision as divine revelation. In the case of Prov 29:18, the OT sense of the word is readily apparent when we read the entire proverb and find that vision is used in parallel with the law:

Where there is no vision, the people perish;
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he
.

Second, you quoted the KJV version which is arguably the pithier translation but also the poorer in this instance. Due to the surprising popularity of the KJV rendering, most people don’t even know that all of the other major English versions (i.e. ESV, NAS, NIV, NKJ, RSV) translate the line differently:

Where there is no vision, the people perish (KJV)
Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained (NAS)

We can be more sympathetic with this misunderstanding due to an unfortunate translation, but a correction is still in order. You seem to take the proverb to mean something like “without a vision, the people will not prosper/thrive” when the author means something like “without divine revelation, the people have no inhibitions.”

In short, the proverb isn’t warning us about the dangers of doing business without a five-year plan; it’s telling us that blessing is found when we live in light of God’s revealed will.

I trust I haven’t come across as overly critical. Your misappropriation of the verse is far less irritating than when the error is made by someone who should know better—say, a Christian author or pastor. In fact, you’re probably just passing on what you heard from one of us in the first place. I suspect that if we handled our Scriptures more carefully, we both could’ve been saved the trouble of this letter.

Sincerely,

JM

What did Paul mean (and what do we infer)?

“In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” {Acts 14:16-17, NAS}

(1) Prior to Christ, God allowed nations to go their own way. What does that mean?

(2) [Implication] After Christ, God does not allow nations to go their own way. What does that mean?

(3)  Is God more righteous in #1 or #2? Is God more loving in #1 or #2?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Pascal: The gospel humbles & exalts

Pensees[The gospel] teaches the righteous that it raises them even to a participation in divinity itself; that in this lofty state they still carry the source of all corruption, which renders them during all their life subject to error, misery, death, and sin; and it proclaims to the most ungodly that they are capable of the grace of their Redeemer. So making those tremble whom it justifies, and consoling those whom it condemns, religion so justly tempers fear with hope through that double capacity of grace and sin, common to all, that it humbles infinitely more than reason alone can do, but without despair; and it exalts infinitely more than natural pride, but without inflating; thus making it evident that alone being exempt from error and vice, it alone fulfills the duty of instructing and correcting men.

Who then can refuse to believe and adore this heavenly light? For is it not clearer than day that we perceive within ourselves ineffaceable marks of excellence? And is it not equally true that we experience every hour the results of our deplorable condition? What does this chaos and monstrous confusion proclaim to us but the truth of these two states, with a voice so powerful that it is impossible to resist it?

–Pascal, Pensées, 123.

Quotes for COVID

A wise man once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” One of the great benefits of reading is finding counsel and encouragement to travel unfamiliar yet well-worn paths.

Martin Luther in 1527, on his decision to stay & minister through an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Wittenberg:

“Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God. [“Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”]

Charles Spurgeon in 1866, on the potential blessing of the London cholera epidemic:

But it is much to be feared that a constant run of prosperity, perpetual peace and freedom from disease, may breed in our minds just what it has done in all human minds before, namely, security and pride, heathenism and forgetfulness of God. It is a most solemn fact that human nature can scarcely bear a long continuance of peace and health. It is almost necessary that we should be every now and then salted with affliction, lest we putrefy with sin. God grant we may have neither famine, nor sword; but as we have pestilence in a very slight degree, it becomes us to ask the Lord to bless it to the people that a tenderness of conscience may be apparent throughout the multitude, and they may recognize the hand of God. Already I have been told by Christian brethren labouring in the east of London, that there is a greater willingness to listen to gospel truth, and that if there be a religious service it is more acceptable to the people now than it was; for which I thank God as an indication that affliction is answering its purpose. [“The Voice of the Cholera”]

Francis J. Grimké in 1918, on responding to quarantine orders from the civil authorities during the Spanish flu pandemic:

Another thing that has impressed me, in connection with this epidemic, is the fact that conditions may arise in a community which justify the extraordinary exercise of powers that would not be tolerated under ordinary circumstances. This extraordinary exercise of power was resorted to by the Commissioners in closing up the theaters, schools, churches, in forbidding all gatherings of any considerable number of people indoors and outdoors, and in restricting the numbers who should be present even at funerals. The ground of the exercise of this extraordinary power was found in the imperative duty of the officials to safeguard, as far as possible, the health of the community by preventing the spread of the disease from which we were suffering. There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in regard to the closing of the churches. It seems to me, however, in a matter like this it is always wise to submit to such restrictions for the time being. If, as a matter of fact, it was dangerous to meet in the theaters and in the schools, it certainly was no less dangerous to meet in churches. The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us. And so, anxious as I have been to resume work, I have waited patiently until the order was lifted. I started to worry at first, as it seemed to upset all of our plans for the fall work; but I soon recovered my composure. I said to myself, Why worry? God knows what He is doing. His work is not going to suffer. It will rather be a help to it in the end. Out of it, I believe, great good is coming. All the churches, as well as the community at large, are going to be the stronger and better for this season of distress through which we have been passing. [“Some Reflections: Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza that Afflicted Our City”]

ht: @MarkDever and Kevin Martin

What some of us mean (and don’t mean) when we say that God is impassible

You, Lord God, lover of souls, show a compassion far purer and freer of mixed motives than ours; for no suffering injures you. – St. Augustine

I have not been a lifelong advocate for the doctrine of divine impassibility. I came across this divine attribute almost by accident and did some further investigating probably to satisfy my curiosity more than anything else. As is the case for many (or is it just some?), I found the essential claim of impassibility—that God neither experiences emotional change nor does he suffer—counterintuitive and easy to dismiss. But the inumerable & insurmountable objections I expected to find were far fewer and smaller on closer inspection. And now, several years later, I find myself disagreeing with the likes of N. T. Wright when he claims that God laments with us. I also discovered that some (or is it many?) of you now disagree with me.

As I move further up and further in, I don’t discover an impassible God to be distant and “above it all.” Far from it. What impassibility offers is a God more loving and compassionate than I can imagine because God can never become more (or less) than what he already and always is. My experience of God’s nature varies by time, place, and degree not because he changes but because I do. In the best of my fleeting moments these thoughts stoke wonder and worship.

Because I find impassibility so compelling, I offer here a sampling of quotes from Thomas Weinandy’s book Does God Suffer?.¹ Maybe these statements will shed some light on a strange doctrine and you’ll come to understand why some of us believe as we do. Maybe some of you will find a strange doctrine strangely compelling, too.

“God is impassible in the sense that he cannot experience emotional changes of state due to his relationship to and interaction with human beings and the created order.” (38)

“The traditional defense for God’s impassibility is simply to argue that the Bible in such passages [i.e. Judges 2:18; Psa 78:40; Hos 11:4, 8-9, etc] is using anthropomorphic language, and so cannot be taken literally. Therefore, it is argued, God does not actually ‘groan’ or ‘suffer,’ nor does his heart ‘grow warm.’ Undoubtedly, the Bible is using anthropomorphic language, but it, nonetheless, is attempting to say something that is actually true about God. Many contemporary theologians emphasize the latter, and so argue that God must be passible if his groaning, suffering, and love are to be actual and genuine. What both sides of the debate miss in the interpretation of these passages is that the one who is so filled with passion is the Wholly Other. It is Yahweh, ‘the Holy One in your midst.’ The very superlative, extravagant, and even excessive, expression of the love, the compassion, the forgiveness and, indeed, the anger, accentuates that the one who displays all of this intense passion is someone who transcends what is beyond the merely customary and human. . . Therefore, there is a legitimate literalness to what is being said, but it is a literalness that must be interpreted from within the complete otherness of God, for this is the manner in which this passion is expressed.” (59)

“Thus there is no passion in God, not in the sense that he does not love, but because, being pure act, there is no need for an arousal of his will to love the good and so to come to desire the good and rejoice in it. God’s arousal to the good as loved, and so rejoicing and delighting in it, is eternally and perfectly in act. . . . God is impassible precisely because he is supremely passionate and cannot become any more passionate. God simply loves himself and all things in himself in the one act which he himself is.” (126-27)

“Actually, since God does not suffer, his love becomes absolutely free in its expression and supremely pure in its purpose. If God did suffer, it would mean that God would need not only to alleviate the suffering of others, but also his own suffering, and thus there would be an inbuilt self-interest in God’s love and consolation. However, since God does not suffer, his care for those who do suffer is freely given and not evoked by some need on his part. His love is freely expressed entirely for the sake of those he loves.” (160-61)

“While compassion is defined as ‘suffering with,’ the heart of compassion is the love expressed within the suffering and not the suffering itself. Thus, God is perfectly compassionate not because he ‘suffers with’ those who suffer, but because his love fully and freely embraces those who suffer. What human beings cry out for in their suffering is not a God who suffers, but a God who loves wholly and completely, something a suffering God could not do.” (164)

“God truly grieves over sin and actually is sorrowful over injustice not because he has lost some good (which would imply a self-centered grief and sorrow) and so suffers, but rather because, in his love, he knows that the one he loves is suffering due to the absence of some good. Sadness and grief do not spring from or manifest suffering within God, but rather they spring from, manifest, and express the fulness of his completely alltruistc, all-consumming and perfect love for his creatures.” (164-65)

“Sorrow and grief are attributed to God not by way of predicating a passible emotional change within him, but rather by way of denoting that he is all-loving and good. Because he is perfectly loving and good, he finds sin and evil repugnant, and so he can be said to sorrow and grieve in the light of their presence. God does not grieve or sorrow because he himself experiences some injury or the loss of some good, nor that he has been affected, within his inner being, by some evil outside cause, but rather he grieves or sorrows only in the sense that he knows that human persons experience some injury or the loss of some good, and so embraces them in love.” (169)

“Even if one did allow the Son of God to suffer in his divine nature, this would negate the very thng one wanted to preserve and cultivate. For if the Son of God experienced suffering in his divine nature, he would no longer be experiencing human suffering in an authentic and genuine human manner, but instead he would be experiencing ‘human suffering’ in a divine manner which would then be neither genuinely nor authentically human. If the Son of God experienced suffering in his divine nature, then it would be God suffering as God in a man.” (204)

“Strange as it may seem, but not paradoxically, one must maintain the unchangeable impassibility of the Son of God as God in order to guarantee that it is actually the divine Son of God, one in being with the Father, who truly suffers as a man. As man the divine Son of God was deprived, as we are, of human goods which did cause him, like us, to suffer.” (205)

“This is the marvelous truth of the Incarnation. God from all eternity may have known, within his divine knowledge, what it is like for human beings to suffer and die, and he may have known this perfectly and comprehensively. But until the Son of God actually became man and existed as a man, God, who is impassible in himself, never experienced and knew suffering and death as man in a human manner. In an unqualified manner one can say that, as man, the Son of God had experiences he never had before because he never existed as man before – not the least of which are suffering and death. This is what humankind is crying out to hear, not that God experiences, in a divine manner, our anguish and suffering in the midst of a sinful and depraved world, but tht he actually experienced and knew first hand, as one of us—as a man—human anguish and suffering within a sinful and depraved world.” (206)


¹Weinandy’s book is a great survey of the doctrine (see his article by the same name listed below). Although I don’t provide the quotes in this post, he covers all if the essentials: God’s revelation in Scripture, church fathers & Greek philosophy, redemption, our suffering in the light of Christ, etc.

For further reading:

Books
Does God Suffer? (Thomas Weinandy)
None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God
 (Matthew Barrett)

Online Articles
Does God Suffer? (Thomas Weinandy)
Credo Magazine (vol 9, issue 1): The Impassibility of God (various authors)
On Divine Impassibility: Carl Trueman Talks with Father Thomas Weinandy (Trueman & Weinandy)
The God Who Hears Our Laments (Derek Rishmawy)
Undying Love: In Our Suffering, We Find Comfort in God’s Impassibility (J. Todd Billings)
Tis Mystery All, the Immortal Dies: Why the Gospel of Christ’s Suffering is More Glorious Because God Does Not Suffer (Kevin DeYoung)
Is Jesus Weeping for Us in Heaven? (Kevin DeYoung)

A hot take on that N. T. Wright article

N. T. Wright’s recently published article on the Christian response to the Coronavirus is generally good counsel built on bad theology.

After diagnosing our present situation as “a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow,” Wright advises we learn to lament rather than search for an explanation for our sorrow:

No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t?

So far, so good. I would be a little more charitable to the “usual suspects,” allowing them to fall along a spectrum from silly to sage; and I wouldn’t label every attempted explanation as a “knee-jerk would-be” Christian reaction. But I take his point. In a time like this, the better part of wisdom is to admit that we don’t know why this is happening.

Wright goes on to cite the psalms of lament as models of an appropriate Christian response:

At this point the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up. “Be gracious to me, Lord,” prays the sixth Psalm, “for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” And so it goes on: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13). And, all the more terrifying because Jesus himself quoted it in his agony on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).

No argument here. We might also consider some of the laments we find in our own hymnbooks.¹

The trouble comes when Wright explains the part God plays in our lament:

The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.

Now that’s problematic on two fronts. First, Wright essentially denies that God is omniscient, sovereign, and immune to suffering. Better we have a frustrated Lamenter-in-Chief than an incomprehensible, transcendent God who is nevertheless near to the brokenhearted. Second, Wright claims only “some” Christians view God as omniscient, sovereign, and impassible when, in fact, this is how most Christians have understood God for almost 2,000 years.²

Following N. T. Wright, some Christians will like to think of God as one of us, but the effects of that doctrinal distancing may be felt long after COVID-19.


¹ see A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Abide with Me, Be Still My Soul, Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, He Will Hold Me Fast, I Will Wait for You (Psalm 130), It Is Well with My Soul, etc. etc.

² For a helpful introduction to some of the neglected and/or misunderstood divine attributes in “classical theism,” see Matthew Barrett’s recent book None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God