Does the human nature of Christ alone in the hypostatic union suffer?

It seems not in the first place, because suffering pertains to persons, not natures. Now Christ is one person in two natures, consequently if the person of Christ suffers, then the union of the two natures suffers. Ergo, the divine nature as well as the human one suffered.

In the second place, whatever is not assumed is not redeemed. If God does not suffer, he does not redeem suffering. But we must assert most strongly that God redeems the suffering of the world through Christ, therefore God must have assumed the suffering of the world.

On the contrary, is the opinion of the council of Rome:

If someone were to say that in the passion of the cross God felt pain and not the flesh with the soul, which he had put on–the form of a slave, which he himself had taken, as the Scriptures say: he does not think correctly.

I respond, that it is important to distinguish the sense in which a human is a person and the way in which God is a Trinity of persons. In the human case you have one substance (This particular concrete instantiation of the form ‘humanity’) and therefore you have one person (Socrates). In the case of the Trinity you have one substance (deity) and three persons (the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost). In the case of Christ you have two substances (one human nature and one divine nature) which are united hypostatically in one person (the Son).

Socrates is passible because he is a mutable contingent being. The Father is clearly impassible because he is necessary, eternal and therefore unchanging. But does the Son suffer? It would seem not, because what one member of the Trinity does, they all do, since they all share one substance. Since the Father does not suffer, therefore the Son cannot suffer.

On the other hand, it would seem the the Son must suffer because the Son is truly human and contingency, mutability and therefore passibility pertain to the human nature of the Son just as they pertain to the human nature of Socrates.

But clearly the Son cannot both suffer and not suffer in the same respect, therefore, I answer that the Son suffers in his human nature and does not suffer in his divine nature. It is true to say “Christ suffers” because Christ’s human nature suffers. It is also true to say, “In Christ God suffers” because Christ is God and Christ suffers in his human nature. But it is not true to say “The Father suffers” because the Son suffers only in his human nature and not in his divine nature, therefore his suffering is not an action held in common with the other persons of the Trinity. Therefore the opinion of the council of Rome is entirely correct.

In response to the first objection that only persons suffer, therefore both natures suffer, I note that the person of Christ is fundamentally different than our ordinary experience of human persons insofar as he is truly divine as well as truly human. In the case of Socrates it is clear that his human nature suffers when Socrates suffers, but one cannot extrapolate from this that when Jesus suffers therefore his divine nature as well as his human nature suffers.

In response to the second objection, that God must assume suffering to redeem it, it suffices simply to note that evil is nothing positive. God assumes human nature, but suffering, as an evil, is a defect or privation in human nature, not a positive feature of it. God assumes all creaturely reality in order to redeem it, but he does not assume evil, precisely because evil is not part of creaturely reality except as a privation.


6 Responses to Does the human nature of Christ alone in the hypostatic union suffer?

  1. Halden says:

    Well thought out, Shane. I still disagree, because of how I think we need to go about Christological formulations, but well thought out indeed.

  2. wtm1 says:


    I want to begin by saying that you put forth here an admirable account of the tradition’s dominant teaching upon these matters, and I would much rather have you adhering closely to the tradition than making provocative statements outside the dominant strand of tradition without sufficient leg-work, as far too many these days are wont to do. That said, I just want to sketch here very briefly a few considerations that mitigate your position and that push me toward my position. Unfortunately, I do not intend to positively develop my position here, but you have heard it from me enough times in other contexts.

    (1) Doctrine of the Trinity

    Your account of the Trinity here takes the Father as the fountainhead of divinity. This is a well attested position within the tradition, but I’m not entirely satisfied with it. While I don’t subscribe to the notion that the East and West (at least in the early centuries) can be interpreted as embodying two different ways of doing this, the East relying on the Father as fountainhead and the West pursuing a more egalitarian (for lack of a better word) position, I do find myself favoring the latter. This makes it harder for me to separate out a think like the incarnation from the Father and Spirit such that what we find in Christ bears only upon the second person or mode of being.

    (2) Christology

    You are, admirably, working with a Chalcedonian Christology. Unfortunately, it is merely Chalcedonian. I would want to flesh this out with an an/en-hypostatic Christology, which I think is in keeping with Chalcedon. I think that doing this would enable you to speak more coherently about the unity of natures without losing the important distinction. It would also help you keep focus on the eternal Son as the acting agent of the incarnate life.

    (3) Incarnation

    Lurking beneath this discussion is the axiom, “What is not assumed is not redeemed.” This is one of the most foundational theological affirmations within the Christian tradition, and it must be taken with utter seriousness, as you attempt to do. However, I know that you do not think that the in the incarnation the eternal Son assumed fallen human nature, and this is a big point of contention. I would argue that it is fallen human nature that must be assumed. You would argue that fallen-ness is accidentally and not substantially related to human nature, such that the eternal Son could be truly incarnate without assuming fallen-ness. The problem with this, I would argue, is that you have a definition of human nature up and running before you consider the incarnation. To the contrary, we only know human nature truly on the basis of the incarnation. What we learn in the incarnation is that it is necessarily true of all human persons that they are sinful in their very nature and are in need of redemption.

    (4) Doctrine of Creation

    Which leads us to the all important question of the doctrine of creation, with its attendant understanding of the Fall. You would, undoubtedly, keep to the dominant traditional understanding of prelapsarian, fall, post-lapsarian conditions of creation understood to be within humanity as well. Thus, there was a perfect initial form of human nature that fell and is now corrupted. Thus you can think of sin as only accidentally related to human nature – it is something that is added (or taken away, etc).

    However, if you are working with a modified supralapsarianism, as am I, this sequential conception isn’t operative. Rather, creation must be understood on the basis of Christ and the incarnation, and therefore on the basis of covenant. Because of this, I would argue that sin is not accidentally related to human nature, but substantially – which is to say, only in and on the basis of Christ do we find human nature without sin.

  3. wtm1 says:

    I always forget to put my link it… 😛

  4. Perhaps I’m a little cloudy as to what exactly you are arguing here, but are you saying that God, as God, does not suffer? Does man’s rejection of him not cause him anguish? Does he not ache for the evil done to his creation, so much that he talks of wishing he had not created? Does he not yearn for Israel’s love as a lover to a wife, and burn with jealousy towards her adultery? Is he not a consuming fire?

    What does it mean to say that God is impassible? And if it means a lack of suffering, than how on earth is this consistent with the images we find in scripture?

  5. scholasticus says:


    What it means to say that God is impassible is that God is not overcome by pain and suffering as we are. It does NOT mean that God has not attitudes towards things. God “loves” and he “sorrows” and so on, but we must remember that God’s love is not our love. We usually love out of lack, which makes our love a response to some other stimulus. God loves not out of lack, but out of sheer gratuity. Love is a passion for us, but an activity for God–an eternal, unchanging activity.

    When I sin on Friday (T1) God sorrows and when I repent on Sunday (T2) he rejoices, but this does not mean that God is changing between the time when I sin and the time when I repent. In his eternity God experiences all time at a single instant, so my sinning and my repenting are, as it were, simultaneous to him. It would seem from my temporal vantage point that God is changing–but that’s only because I tend to think of God as a temporal creature like me. In reality, of course, this is not the case. What changes between T1 and T2 is not God, it’s me.

  6. Hmmm. What you’re saying is reasonable, of course, but here I hesitate. When you are talking about God “in his eternity” you are really using metaphors – for you can’t really comprehend a world “above time”. You think of someone looking at a time line at a map that is stationary, both “times” being as present to you as words on a page.

    What concerns me is that these are not the images that scripture uses to speak of God, and as much as we may admire such philosophy, I suggest the scriptural imagery take priority. And what we see there is the one who wrestles with Jacob all night long, who roars to destroy the rebellious Israelites ’til Moses stays his hand, who is sorry about his own actions, who grows to see that man’s heart is evil even in his youth and thus he cannot hold him fully accountable until this evil is dealt with, who changes his mind over the fate of Nineveh, and who is most fully known not through the philosophical pondering of the “eternal” but through the man Jesus of Nazareth.

    Granted the scriptural imagery isn’t always making a philosophical statement, and certainly God is speaking in human terms we can understand. But we are human, after all – and the contemplation of eternal timelessness uses human metaphors as well. The difference is, they are metaphors not given in divine revelation.

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