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Patripassianism in an Unexpected Place

There has been a trend I’ve noticed lately going on in the Reformed world. Someone will post a quote that appears to be heterodox or heretical, and then everyone will gasp when it is revealed that the source is actually a well respected and orthodox figure. Usually, a conversation will ensue which clarifies what the author meant, or broader context will reveal that the quote, when placed in that context, is actually orthodox. This can sometimes be helpful as a way to remove the favorable bias we have for authors within our tradition (or disfavorable bias for authors outside our tradition). This can include seemingly obvious errors like Patripassianism.

A similar quote came to me that I wanted to address. I’ll leave the big reveal of who the author is until the end of the post.

Clearly, the unity of the divine Trinity remains unbroken throughout the passion. Even while the Father is angry with the Mediator, the Son is still the beloved and still fully involved in all the external acts (the opera ad extra) of the Trinity. Just as it was true in his infancy he was still the eternal Logos, performing all his cosmic functions as the one in whom all things consist (Col. 1:17), so in the darkness and desolation of Golgotha he was still carrying the universe on his shoulders (Heb. 1:3). But this very fact of the trinitarian unity has profound implications for the traditional Christian doctrine of divine impassibility. If it is true at the human level that where on member of the church suffers all other members suffer with her, must the same not be true of the Trinity? The Son, we remember, is one and the same in substance (homoousias) with the Father. ‘They’ are not only generically identical, but numerically one. It is the one only and eternal God who is enfleshed in Jesus, the son of Mary of Nazareth; and though the Father is not the divine person who suffers on the cross, he is one with the sufferer, and must therefore suffer with him, though in his own way.

Honestly, I’m not sure where to start with this. The author is going along just fine with his discussion regarding the fact that what the Son does qua humanity (infancy, suffering on the cross) in no way causes him to cease operating qua divinity (performing all his cosmic functions). This is excellent Christology that properly distinguishes without confusion the fact that the Son operates in different ways according to each nature. (See WCF 8.7)

However, after his citation of Hebrews 1:3 he goes completely off the rails. It may be the case that the trinitarian unity has implications for the traditional Christian doctrine of divine impassibility, but the first error he makes is that the examples he gave above (with the exception of the Father being angry with the Mediator, but loving the Son… which itself is a strange and unclear way of phrasing things) are not examples of this trinitarian unity. They are examples of the hypostatic unity that the Son possesses in his person. So what follows after that statement does not clearly relate to what precedes it.

The author here argues that because of the singularity of substance which the Father and Son share, that the Father must share somehow in the suffering of the Son. The Father is “one with the sufferer, and must therefore suffer with him…” The problem, and this is a fundamental misstep that is frankly shocking coming from a published Reformed author, is that the sufferer suffers according to humanity and not according to divinity. The Father is united with the Son by way of a singular shared indivisible divine nature. So unless the Son is suffering according to divinity then the author’s argument does not follow. In this way, unfortunately, the author’s excellent Christological statements at the beginning of the passage are negated. While he seemingly maintained the unity of the Son’s natures without dividing them in the beginning, he reveals at the end of this passage that he has implicitly collapsed them together. This results here, in a kind of reverse Eutychianism where the divine attribute of impassibility is swallowed up in the passibility of the human nature. However, if we maintain the proper distinction between what the Son does qua humanity (suffers) and what he does qua divinity (remains impassible) then suffering takes place in the human nature, not in the divine. That is not to say that the human nature is the subject of the suffering, the singular person of the Son is. But the suffering is localized and restricted to the human nature, it does not extend to the divine nature.

Our author continues to describe perichoresis in a further section and continues to root his argument in the unity of the persons. However, the author seems to think that perichoresis is somehow different than the fact of the shared divine nature, which is odd to me.

There is more that can be said, but I think the point has been made.

This quote, unfortunately, comes from Donald Macleod. He is an eminent Scottish theologian who has written extensively on the atonement and is the author of Person of Christ in the IVP Contours of Christian Theology series. I suspect this is the origin of the quote. I have not, at this point, been unable to verify that, but I will update this post with a full citation once I have it.

Update: Thank you to Chris Lilley for providing me with a citation. The quote is found in Christ Crucified (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 50. Having read the entire section which is titled Does the Father, too, suffer loss? there does not appear to be any charitable way to read this which does not result in the error of Patripassianism.


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Please also see the Reformed Brotherhood – Episode 19