Strong Passibility, Trinity, and Theocosmocentrism
An increasing number of Christians believe God is relational. To be “relational” is, in the classical language, to be “passible.” It means that God is affected by others.
I’ve written an essay for a new book on im/passibility, and I defend what the editors call “strong passibility.” In my language, I call this God’s essential relations with others.
In this essay, I lay out two ways we might think relationality is essential to God. And I mention a third way, which is really a combination of the first two. I’ll also point to concerns with these ways, although I think at least some of these concerns can be overcome.
Strong Passibility/Essential Divine Relations
The strong divine passibility view I defend says being affected by others is a necessary attribute of God’s nature. God doesn’t voluntarily choose to be affected; God is necessarily affected. I have been using the phrase “essentially relational” to describe strong divine passibility.
I take the biblical phrase, “God is love,” to mean that love is an essential divine attribute. If God is essentially loving and love always involves relational giving and receiving relationships, God must be essentially relational. Strong divine passibility says God is necessarily and everlastingly passible.
God Essentially Relates in Trinity
There are two ways (and a third that combines them) to affirm strong divine passibility. The first says God essentially relates in Godself. This view is typically associated with a vision of God as a social Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or other names we might use) have everlastingly related with one another. Some call this relating a perichoretic dance. This Trinitarian view affirms that God everlastingly and necessarily relates in Godself.
There are several downsides placing all one’s emphasis upon the Trinity to affirm strong passibility. One downside is that saying divine persons relate to one another sounds to many people like tritheism rather than monotheism. Real relations require real differences; real relations among persons require more than one person. Few Christians want to say three Gods exist.
Those who affirm the social Trinity also typically affirm the idea that God once existed alone and then created the universe out of nothing. They say God necessarily loves and relates in Trinity but contingently loves and relates with creation. The downside of this view, however, is that God’s love for creation is arbitrary, in the sense that there is no essential divine attribute for love of creaturely others. God by nature does not love nondivine others.
The view that God only loves necessarily within Trinity can sound like God is inherently selfish. After all, God necessarily loves Godself and contingently loves creatures. By contrast, many believe love promotes the well-being of those beyond the lover. And imitating God involves loving others not just ourselves.
Those who affirm God as essentially related in Trinity respond to these criticisms. The most common response says it’s a mystery how God can be both one and essentially self-related as three. Some regard this as the highest of holy mysteries. And we should simply believe God will always love creatures, despite there being no love-for-creation attribute essential to God’s nature.
God Essentially Relates with Creation
The second way to affirm that God essentially relates with others says God essentially relates with creatures. This way denies that God once existed alone and at some time decided to create the universe out of nothing. Instead, God always and necessarily relates with creatures, because God always creates others with whom God relates.
I call this view “theocosmocentrism,” but some forms of panentheism also affirm it. Theocosmocentrism says we make the best sense of reality if we refer both to God and creation. The strong passibility version of theocosmocentrism says God necessarily loves and relates to creation, but the particular ways God loves and relates with creation are contingent.
One disadvantage to the theocosmocentric way of affirming strong divine passibility is that many people cannot fathom how God everlastingly relates to creation. Most Christians accept that God had no beginning, although they cannot fathom that view. They also accept a big bang cosmology that says our universe had a beginning. So they cannot fathom how God everlastingly creates and relates to creation. Affirming both requires believing God was creating before the big bang. That’s difficult for many to conceive.
God Essentially Relates in Trinity and with Creation
Another downside to the idea that God always relates to creatures (at least in the minds of some) is that the idea isn’t explicitly Trinitarian. Some theologians want to keep the Trinity front and center. Saying God essentially relates to creatures doesn’t require belief in Trinity, at least not obviously so.
But this downside can be overcome. One can affirm that God essentially relates in Trinity and God essentially relates with creatures. Both types of necessary relations can be true simultaneously. We might even consider Jesus’ revelation of a relational God as evidence of this doubly essential divine relatedness.
A God of Strong Passibility Exists Necessarily
One can affirm any of these versions of strong divine passibility and think God exists necessarily. Strong passibility and divine aseity are compatible. God can necessarily exist and essentially relate to divine others or creaturely others or both. There is no logical contradiction.
With the Psalmist, we can affirm that the steadfast love of the Lord can literally endure forever. And that enduring can be within Trinity, with creation, or both (Ps. 118).
This argument is part of my much longer essay defending God’s relationality in general and essential relations in particular. Look for it in a 4 views book next fall.
In my next blog essay, I’ll offer reasons it’s better to affirm strong divine passibility/essential relations than weak passibility. My goal in this essay, however, is to lay out two ways to say God is essentially relational.