This post is a part of my ongoing (slow and steady) blog series on The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann (CG). You can view the other posts in this series here. In case you missed it: The Crucified God is currently available as a free ebook via Logos (October 2014 only!)
According to Moltmann, “a central difficulty for early christology was the undisguised recognition of the forsakenness of Jesus.” (227) There was a tension between the theistic notion of God, who cannot change, suffer and die; and Jesus (whom Christians claimed to be the incarnation of God), who suffered and died on the cross.
The church worked through this problem in its development of the doctrine of two natures: Jesus had a divine nature, and a human nature. Unfortunately, “traditional christology came very near to docetism, according to which Jesus only appeared to suffer and only appeared to die abandoned by God: this did not happen in reality.” (227) If God is above suffering and immortal, salvation means humans getting to experience God’s immortality: “The theistic concept of God according to which God cannot die, and the hope for salvation, according to which man is to be immortal, made it impossible to regard Jesus as really being God and at the same time as being forsaken by God.” (228) And so, Athanasius famously said, “God became man that we men might participate in God.”
Humans change to correct their shortcomings; God has no shortcomings. So it is right to say that God does not change; but this does not mean that it is true in every sense, as Moltmann reminds us: “Nicaea rightly said against Arius: God is not changeable. But that statement is not absolute; it is only a simile. God is not changeable as creatures are changeable.” (229) Moltmann continues:
Were God incapable of suffering in any respect, and therefore in an absolute sense, then he would also be incapable of love. If love is the acceptance of the other without regard to one’s own well-being, then it contains within itself the possibility of sharing in suffering and freedom to suffer as a result of the otherness of the other. Incapability of suffering in this sense would contradict the fundamental Christian assertion that God is love, which in principle broke the spell of the Aristotelian doctrine of God. The one who is capable of love is also capable of suffering, for he also opens himself to the suffering which is involved in love, and yet remains superior to it by virtue of his love. The justifiable denial that God is capable of suffering because of a deficiency in his being may not lead to a denial that he is incapable of suffering out of the fullness of his being, i.e. his love.
God does not suffer out of some deficiency of his being; but he does suffer out of the fullness of his being, because God is love. This leads to Luther’s revision of Athanasius’ formula:
If salvation is described only as being wholly other it cannot even be salvation, for final corruption is also wholly other. So if we are to speak seriously of salvation in fellowship with God, we must go beyond the general distinctions between God and the world, or God and man, and penetrate the special relationships between God and the world and God and man in the history of Christ. In that case, however, Athanasius’ formula changes its shape and becomes like that of Luther: God became man that dehumanized men might become true men. We become true men in the community of the incarnate, the suffering and loving, the human God. This salvation, too, is outwardly permanent and immortal in the humanity of God, but in itself it is a new life full of inner movement, with suffering and joy, love and pain, taking and giving; it is changeableness in the sense of life to its highest possible degree.