Chapter 9: Challenges to an Unchanging God

God of Empowering Love: A History and Reconception of the Theodicy Conundrum
by David P. Polk

Chapter 9: Challenges to an Unchanging God


The earliest direct attack on the Augustinian synthesis of Christian theism is to be found in those bold individuals who dared to question the doctrine of divine immutability. That underlies pretty much everything else that followed. In the early 1920s, leaders in the Church of England asked one of their own, John Kenneth Mozley, to prepare a report on how theologians were dealing with the doctrine, particularly as the British were coming to grips with the implications of massive human waste in the World War just concluded. His discoveries, published in his The Impassibility of God (1926), were surprising. The questioning had already been underway for quite some time. Mozley’s summary was that a fresh emphasis on God as Love was the motivation for calling into question the traditional doctrine of God’s impassibility. And the cross pointed inward into the very heart of God.1

Mozley found his earliest kindred spirit in the American Horace Bushnell, whose The Vicarious Sacrifice was first published in London in 1866. Bushnell recognized the importance of love as a key aspect of God’s reality and affirmed that “love is a principle essentially vicarious [125] in nature.”2 And this love that is God’s is distinctly seen in the event of Jesus’ crucifixion: “There is a Gethsemane hid in all love.”3

For Bushnell, this holds far-reaching implications for how we make sense of God’s reality.

It is as if there were a cross unseen, standing on its undiscovered hill, far back in the ages, out of which were sounding always, just the same deep voice of suffering love and patience, that was heard by mortal ears from the sacred hill of Calvary.4

In his vicarious sacrifice, Jesus “was God, fulfilling the obligations of God . . . There is an eternal cross in his [God’s] virtue itself, and the cross that he endures in Christ only reveals what is in those common standards of good, which are also eternally his.”5

The whole point of Bushnell’s bold presentation is that “vicarious sacrifice” is eternally at the very heart of God, not just by happenstance or uniquely in Jesus’ earthly fate: “there is a cross in God before the wood is seen upon Calvary.”6 For Bushnell essentially to adopt the historic heresy known as patripassionism—namely, that the Father in the Trinity also suffered when Christ was crucified—opened the way to a fresh understanding of what a new orthodoxy might be able to embrace. And it knocked the props out from under the inviolability of God’s transcendent immutability.

Simultaneously in Denmark, Hans Martensen, the Lutheran bishop of Seeland, was moving on a parallel track. In his Christian Dogmatics, also first published in 1866, in German, he continued to swear allegiance to God’s omnipotence7 but offered hints of a challenge to it. In discussing God’s love Martensen recognized that God’s “blessedness must be conceived of as conditional upon the perfecting of His kingdom; because divine love can satisfy itself only as it is bliss-giving.” This is seen as a “contradiction,” which he resolved by presenting the notion that “God has a twofold life—a life in himself of unclouded peace and self-satisfaction, and a life in and with His creation, in which He not only submits to the conditions of finitude, but even allows His power to be limited by the sinful will of man.”8

Among several writers in the pre-war era whom Mozley identified, the Scottish scholar A. M. Fairbairn stands out. In lifting up the [126] centrality of the statement that “God is love,”9 he explicitly proclaimed: “Theology has no falser idea than that of the impassibility of God.”10 In 1906, Charles Allen Dinsmore introduced Bushnell’s vision to the British isles, mirroring him in the claim: “There was a cross in the heart of God before there was one planted on the green hill outside of Jerusalem.”11 He went on to say that “the Christian doctrine of God would be inferior to that of the Greeks, did it not supplement this teaching of the infinite passibility of God with the assertion that the Almighty abides in perfect felicity,”12 whereupon “the revelation of the cross is the persuasive power which brings all men to God.”13

The most powerful voice wrestling with the question of, if God be God, how in the name of all that is holy can “the War” be comprehended, I find to be that of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy. A scholarly man and a chaplain in the trenches, he agonized over just that issue, insisting that God had to “bind Himself with chains and pierce Himself with nails, and take upon Himself the travail pangs of creation.”14 “The true God is naked, bloody, wounded, and crowned with thorns, tortured, but triumphant in His love.”15 The denial of immutability leads immediately to the denial of impassibility, the direct consequence, though sometimes that runs in exactly the opposite direction to the same result. These indicators are but a foretaste of a lengthier encounter with Studdert-Kennedy when we turn later to the subject of God and suffering.


The German “theologian of hope” Jürgen Moltmann, many decades later, gave grudging recognition of his dependence on these early pioneers, developing his pivotal The Crucified God (orig., 1972) without explicit indication of the derivative quality of many of his key insights, and only acknowledging his quoting of Horace Bushnell, in his later The Trinity and the Kingdom (orig, 1980), in footnotes. His other major sources for challenging God’s immutability and apatheia were G. A. Studdert-Kennedy and the Jewish biblical scholar Abraham Heschel.16 Even so, he significantly advanced the discussion.


God (himself ) suffered in Jesus, God himself died in Jesus for us. God is on the cross of Jesus “for us,” and through that becomes God and Father of the godless and the godforsaken . . . God became the crucified God so that we might become free sons of God . . . The cross of Jesus, understood as the cross of the Son of God, therefore reveals a change in God, a stasis within the Godhead: “God is other.” And this event in God is the event on the cross. It takes on Christian form in the simple formula which contradicts all possible metaphysical and historical ideas of God: “God is love.”17

Accordingly, Moltmann fully rejected classical theism because of its insistence on divine dispassionate immutability.18 He understood atheism to be, in fact, a rejection of and protest against theism’s doctrine of a God aloof from, and yet somehow responsible for, suffering.19

This, then, spilled over into Moltmann’s rejection of the traditional doctrine of God’s omnipotence: “a God who is only omnipotent is in himself an incomplete being, for he cannot experience helplessness and powerlessness.”20 So, in regard to another challenge to the conventional that we will visit later, he could write: “Without liberation of the crucified God from the idols of power, there is no liberating theology!”21

Without fully developing the correlation between God’s real power and God’s identity as love, Moltmann nevertheless did champion 1 John 4:8, 16. “God is unconditional love.” Love’s “might is powerful in weakness and gains power over its enemies in grief, because it gives life even to its enemies and opens up the future to change.”22

Both divine love and divine power assure, for Moltmann, the eventual, eschatological consummation of God’s intentions for God’s creation. “God is present in the way in which his future takes control over the present in real anticipations and prefigurations. But God is not as yet present in the form of his eternal presence. The dialectic between his being and his being-not-yet is the pain and power of history.23” The future that is God’s is “a power which already qualifies the present— through promise and hope, through liberation and the creation of new possibilities. As this power of the future, God reaches into the present.”24

There is a very real sense here that Moltmann, like his contemporary Wolfhart Pannenberg, varied essentially from Augustine’s stance [128] on God as Eternal Present, beyond temporality, in shifting the locus of God’s eternity—from our perspective, as it were—from Eternal Present to Eternal, or Ultimate, Future. The future of the novum ultimum is the point at which the creation encounters God in God’s powerful fullness. In this eschatological assurance, it is clear that Moltmann has not truly qualified the ultimate nature of God’s omnipotence. As was clear in the previous paragraph, God always retains the capacity to “take control” over creation’s destiny, when and as God chooses. In this respect, he retains the same dilemma that we saw in Pannenberg, although Moltmann did succeed in pushing the envelope on God’s mutability and pathos, and the identifying of God with essential love.


  1. John Kenneth Mozley, The Impassibility of God: A Survey of Christian Thought (London: Cambridge University Press, 1926), 175–77.
  2. Horace Bushnell, The Vicarious Sacrifice, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), 42. See, also, 46, 51-53, 59, 68.
  3. Ibid., 47.
  4. Ibid., 69.
  5. Ibid., 58.
  6. Ibid., 73. See the whole discussion, 69-73. Some of Bushnell’s phrases anticipate what will later be encountered in the work of the German “theologian of hope” Jürgen Moltmann, to be investigated below, but Moltmann was vividly aware of that, even quoting Bushnell explicitly as we will see.
  7. Hans Martensen, Christian Dogmatics, tr. William Urwick (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1878), 95f.
  8. Ibid., 101, both quotes. Emphasis mine.
  9. Andrew Martin Fairbairn, The Place of Christ in Modern Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 394. We will visit Fairbairn more extensively in the chapter on “Breakthroughs to a Loving God.”
  10. Ibid., 483.
  11. Charles Allen Dinsmore, Atonement in Literature and Life (London: [129] Archibald Constable & Co., 1906), 232.
  12. Ibid., 233, emphasis mine.
  13. Ibid., 234, emphasis mine.
  14. Studdert-Kennedy, Geoffrey Anketell, The Hardest Part (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1918; 2nd ed., 1925), 24.
  15. Ibid., 67.
  16. See Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, tr. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 25–36.
  17. Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, tr. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 192f., first emphasis mine, second emphasis original.
  18. Ibid., 214f.
  19. Ibid., 220–22.
  20. Ibid., 223.
  21. Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, tr. M. Douglas Meeks (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 83, from ch. 6, “The Crucified God and the Apathetic Man,” first appearing in Theology Today, April, 1974. On the last phrase, see the chapter on “Hunger for a Liberating God.”
  22. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 248f.
  23. Moltmann, Religion, Revolution, and the Future, tr. M. Douglas Meeks (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), 209; essays from 1967-68 in the USA. First and third emphases original; second emphasis, “takes control over the present,” mine.
  24. Ibid., emphasis mine.