Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi and Divine Impassibility

Lex orandi, lex credendi” is a Latin theological expression which basically means “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.”  In more colloquial terms, we might say, “You show me how you worship and I’ll tell you what you believe.”  The rule of prayer has shaped the development of the Christian theological tradition through its existence.  A particularly prominent example is found in the fourth century in Athanasius’s appeal to the worship practices of the Christian community as part of his refutation of the Arian heresy.  Essentially, the Arians were maintaining that the Son was a highly exalted creature, but certainly not God.  One strand of Athanasius’s argument against the Arians consisted of drawing attention to the fact that the Christian community had worshipped Jesus from its earliest days.  If Jesus was only a creature then for the first three centuries of its existence the church was nothing more than a collection of idolaters!  Lex orandi, lex credendi.

Jump forward some 1700 years. A few days before leading my theology students in an investigation of issues surrounding the doctrine of God, I had the opportunity to attend a memorial service for a beloved member of the company of saints.  The day before the service I had been reviewing the readings in the textbook for the course which drew attention to how it has become fashionable in contemporary theology to speak of the suffering of God.  While this movement, greatly influenced by Jürgen Moltmann’s work The Crucified God, was rightly reacting to problems within the doctrine of God in modern Protestant thought and seeking a return to biblical roots, there is the distinct possibility that the strong medicine on offer may, in fact, kill the patient.  The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart is one who unequivocally thinks that this is the case.1

With the issue of divine impassibility simmering on the back burners of my mind, I joined the congregation in entering into worship with the singing of the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”  The opening verse reads:

“Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father, / there is no shadow of turning with Thee;

Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not; / as Thou has been Thou forever wilt be.”

The hymn was followed by a reading from the book of Lamentations which included the verse:  “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

While Moltmann and others have been concerned with combating the notion of an aloof or distant god, the liturgy of this particular service suggested that far from making God distant or aloof, God’s immutability or impassibility is not a lack or deficiency within God, but rather the very basis of his faithfulness towards us and the assurety that his compassion never fails.  Of course, this may in no way be understood as a denial of the reality of the incarnation and crucifixion.  But perhaps it suggests that we could do a lot worse than affirming with Cyril of Alexandria the saving mystery that Christ “was in the crucified body appropriating the sufferings of the flesh to himself impassibly.”2

  1. David Bentley Hart, “No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility,” Pro Ecclesia 11, no. 2 (2002): 184-206.
  2. Cyril, “Third Epistle to Nestorius (Ep. XVII),” 6, quoted in Hart, 200.

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