Theodicy and the mutable immutable God


My daughter and I had an interesting conversation over a hurried dinner in my office before the beginning of the Maundy Thursday liturgy yesterday. She is reading a book for a class that presents the classic question of Theodicy (How can a good, all powerful and knowing God allow evil to happen?) She asked me if there was an answer. I sketched out the three classic responses, but for some reason they didn’t satisfy and led her to ask the question “Is there anything God can not do?”

I countered with the classic first year theology conundrum “Can God make a rock so big that God can not lift it?” She wanted to know the answer, but I told her she’d have much more fun if she searched it out for herself rather than if I just told her. (Besides, there are multiple answers…)

The question of the limits of God’s power is something that occupies our minds during the Triduum. We hear the story of Jesus’ death and descent into Hell. And we all have to ask how it can be that the Being and Life itself can have termination?

The Church’s answer to this is to remind us of God’s Kenosis, the self-emptying action of the Incarnation itself. There’s an entire school of Theology that finds solutions to theodicy in this idea. They’re sometimes called Kenoticists. There are strong echos of that line of thinking in Barth’s writing and thinking – to say nothing of scores of Russian theologians, and through them therefore Rowan Williams.

I was meditating on all this today, as I prepare to return to the Cathedral to pray the hours and liturgies of Good Friday. In my musings I was reminded of a passage describing the thinking of Urs Von Balthasar – who finds such much meaning in the death of God:

[T]he realities of divine abasement and a divine immutability are not easily reconcilable. The dogmatic formulations of divine immutability do not really do justice to the text in Philippians [chapter 2] in its stammering efforts to express the mystery, and the German, English and Russian Kenoticists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries perceived this. But already one of the Fathers, Hilary, had made an almost superhuman effort to resolve the issue, and it is in light of his thought that Balthasar develops his own approach. Hilary’s starting-point is the sovereign liberty of a God who has the majestic power to empty himself of the divine form and to assume contingently the form of a slave. Hilary maintains that in so doing God remains himself – because the event is produced precisely by his own power – while at the same time really relinquishing the divine glory. But unlike Athanasius, Cyril and Leo, who somehow view the two forms of divine glory and abasement an unproblematically compatible, Hilary is clear that a real change of state or condition is entailed by the transition from one to the other, and accordingly that something does take place in God, a real emptying. As long as the Son is in the form of slave there is what Hilary calls the vacuitatis dispensatio, which does not change the Son himself but which does involve for him in his inmost being a self-concealment which is expressed in his loss of the free divine power.

[…]In this context the concepts of poverty and richness are simply opposites as applied to God, but they are dialectical. Balthasar claims this does not mean that God’s essence is in itself kenotic in the univocal sense that one concept (kenosis) can embrace both the divine foundation of the possibility of this kenosis and the kenosis itself. In other words, unlike the Kenoticists, he is saying not that kenosis is the central concept in God which subsumes all others in such a way that incarnation and cross are seen as natural and necessary to God, but rather that God’s sovereign power is revealed as love and self-giving in such a way that divine kenosis is real, is an expression of this divine power and love, and can and does freely reveal itself in human form in such forms as the incarnation and the cross. […] In fact, Balthasar continues, the incarnation and cross, precisely in their affirmation of divine self-giving or ‘weakness’, now becomes the high points of the revelation of God’s love for us and of God’s love in itself – a perception which was not easily attainable as long as the strict anti-heretical position of the immutability of God held sway. All of this, as always in Balthasar, implies a certain analogy between the divine and human natures of Christ which is due to the identity of the person, the pre-existent Logos, and which allows one to see in Christ the revelation of God himself.

-Gerard F. O’Hanion “The Immuntability of God in the Theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar” p. 13-14

I don’t think I’ll be posting very much for the rest of the Triduum. I wish you a deeply moving journey through the events of Christ’s fundamental cosmic action.

May the vision of the crucified and risen Christ inspire us anew this year.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. Kirk says

    Pretty heady stuff for Holy Week, Mr. Dean! I think that suffering, especially divine suffering is always going to remain mysterious for us.

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