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Only God will Save Us: The nature of God and the Christian life, by Simon Cuff

by
06 November 2020

John Inge returns to the doctrine of impassibility, tested by two world wars

THIS book is a well-argued, accessible, and engaging defence of the God of classical theism — which teaches that God is “omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, immutable, impassible, and simple”. Classical theism is unfashionable primarily because, as students beginning to study theology discover, the question “How it is that a God who is all powerful, all-knowing, and all good allows suffering?” is a tricky one, to put it mildly.

The idea that God can suffer pain and change, until the mid-20th century understood to be a heresy, has gained so much ground since. I think this, in large part, is a result of the hugely influential work of Jürgen Moltmann, who argues passionately in The Crucified God and elsewhere that God suffers with Christ.

Moltmann had been scarred by the Holocaust, just as Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the famous First World War chaplain “Woodbine Willie” (to whom Moltmann gives an honourable mention in The Crucified God), had been by the suffering that he witnessed in the trenches. It was Woodbine Willie who wrote in his poem “The Suffering God” (in The Unutterable Beauty): “Are there no tears on the heart of the Eternal? Is there no pain to pierce the soul of God? Then must he be a fiend of Hell infernal Beating the Earth to pieces with his rod.”

Though speaking of God’s suffering may seem helpful, Cuff explains the problem to be that “maintaining a passible God who can suffer raises considerable questions about how God redeems suffering and brings about the salvation at the heart of our faith.” If God is changed by suffering, how can we be sure that God can save us and will not be defeated by it? Hence the title of the book — which might have been Only an Orthodox God will Save Us. Those who argue for the vulnerability of God would probably, like Studdert Kennedy, say that it is through persistence.

I concentrate on suffering, because it is that which seems to trouble people most. Cuff also examines though, the love, the wrath, the mercy, and the jealousy of God. He explains clearly and persuasively how they are understood in classical theism, beginning with the simplicity of God. He starts here, since all else flows from it. As he puts it: “whereas everything we encounter is ‘composite’ or made up of parts, God is not, God is simply God. There are no bits or aspects to himself that are prior to him.”

Equally essentially, attributes that appear in isolation in us cohere in God, so that his love and his wrath, his mercy and his jealousy, are one, so that divine simplicity “enables us to hold together what initially appear to be contradictory attributes of God which we struggle to conceive together at the same time”.

Thus, contrary to a popular misconception, orthodoxy is generally broader than heresy. In this short book, Cuff lucidly demonstrates why and how it has so much to commend it. The author rightly acknowledges, though, that much remains a mystery. As St Augustine puts it, “What then, brothers and sisters, are we to say of God? For if you have understood what you want to say, it is not God. If you have been able to understand, you have understood something other than God.” (Sermon 52, Section 6.16)

 

The Rt Revd Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

 

Only God Will Save Us: The nature of God and the Christian life
Simon Cuff
SCM Press £19.99
(978-0-334-05926-4)
Church Times Bookshop special price £15.99

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