Patristic Perspectives on Theodicy: A Review of “Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought”

patristic-sufferingThe wounds of the world feel especially exposed this year. I’m sure this can be truly said about many times, but the sense of exhaustion with violence and turmoil, and of deep longing for genuine peace, seems especially palpable these days. Nonna Verna Harrison confesses in the introduction of Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought that, “questions about God, suffering, and evil arise from a heart full of anguish. They tear at our faith in an age when faith seems weak anyway” (p.x). In the face of things like the mystery of pain and evil, one reasonable response is to turn to the past in order to see what wisdom can be gleaned from the early Christian tradition about how to think about these questions (p.x).

Therefore, the essays in Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought occupy themselves with explorations of how various figures from the Patristic period grappled with the problem of God, suffering, and evil. Theologians from both the early Christian West and East are included in the book’s pages. Hence, Irenaeus, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria all receive extended engagement from the volume’s contributors, which include the likes of John Behr, Gary A. Anderson, and Kallistos Ware.

In “An Overview of Patristic Theodicies,” Paul L. Gavrilyuk explains to readers that Patristic thinkers never quite reached the level of “dogmatic precision” on theodicy that they did on other parts of Christian doctrine like Trinitarian belief (p.3). Nevertheless, they did share a large amount of common ground, especially in response to rival accounts of God and evil offered by other groups like the Manicheans and various gnostic teachers. Gavrilyuk argues that, broadly speaking, Christians of the Patristic era agreed that God wasn’t the author of evil, and they also rejected strong ontological dualism (pp.3-6). The narrative framework of salvation history in the Bible also helped believers cultivate hope and make sense of “the origin, spread, and ultimate destruction of evil” (p.6).

God and Grief

While there are a number of directions that the rest of this review could go in, I want to point out a few themes brought up in this volume’s essays that I think make genuine contributions to the ongoing conversation. Douglas Finn’s essay on John Chrysostom’s treatment of Job and his suffering, for example, sheds light on the tension that some Church Fathers felt about the place of grief in the Christian life. He does this by contrasting Chrysostom’s approach to Job with Gregory of Nyssa’s presentation of his sister Macrina in Life of Saint Macrina.

Finn writes that for Gregory of Nyssa (and many others), the ideal philosophical Christian life is one in which virtue is pursued, and reason rules over the lower passions coming from the more non-rational parts of the soul (p.104). Therefore, when recounting the death of his brother, Naucratius, Gregory highlights the differing reactions of Macrina and Emmelia (his mother). Emmelia gave into passion and “nature won out even over her,” causing her to lose her composure and faint (p.104). Macrina, on the other hand, kept her composure throughout her days of mourning. Though Macrina was emotionally moved by her brother’s death, her victory (in Gregory’s eyes) was that she kept her emotions in check and made no display of tears (pp.104-105). Summarizing Gregory’s approach to grief, Finn writes, “Philosophy for Gregory of Nyssa, as manifest in his Life of Saint Macrina, makes no room for grief, a disordered passion. Hence we see an explicit condemnation of such visible displays of grief as rending one’s garment” (p.106).

In contrast to Gregory, John Chrysostom evidences a more moderate perspective on displays of grief. Commenting on the passage where Job, having suffered under the weight of much pain and sorrow, curses the day of his birth (3:1-3), Chrystostom asks, “Do you not see, beloved, that those who are cut cry aloud? Do we the rebuke them? Not at all. Rather, we pardon them.” Finn highlights the difference between these two perspectives when he writes:

[Gregory of Nyssa] would have considered an outburst on Macrina’s part as a failure of the tests she faced, whereas Chrysostom views Job’s forlorn cries as part of the educational process leading to victory… it is imperative that Job should cry out, for if he did not, he would not appear human. If that were the case, his victory over Satan in this trial would not be so glorious, nor would he be an example that Chrysostom’s listeners could follow. (p.108)

It seems that regards to this passage at least, Chrysostom’s voice rings more truly than Gregory’s, especially when one looks at the raw and emotionally rich language found in passages like the psalms of lament. Nothing is held back from God in them, and they certainly seem to give space for the public articulation of grief and pain.

Suffering and Passibility

The book closes with a thoughtful (and possibly controversial) essay by Kallistos Ware on the question of how to think about God, suffering, and impassibility—which for many Patristic writers was a deeply mysterious topic. For many of us, there is a deep desire to know that Jesus understands and shares in our pain and sorrow. It is when walking through “the darkest valley” that we especially want to know that “you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (Psalm 23, NRSV). The basic question Ware asks is this:

How far, according to the Bible and the tradition of the church, is God not only a transcendent but also an involved God, who suffers with and in his creatures, taking responsibility totally and unreservedly for all the consequences of his act of creation? (p.215)

In one of the book’s earlier chapters, J. Warren Smith explains that suffering was commonly understood as “degenerative change” in late antiquity (p.198). According to Ware, it was to a large extent a word that described something that was endured passively due to being outside of one’s control. When pathos is understood in this singularly passive sense, it becomes clear why theologians of the Patristic period insisted on the impassibility of God; they cared about protecting His transcendence. When understood to be a strictly passive term, Ware agrees that “God cannot be passible, for he cannot be controlled by something outside of himself” (p.216).

This understanding of the matter helps make Cyril of Alexandria’s famous phrase, “He suffered impassibly,” make a bit more sense. It means, in J. Warren Smith’s words, that “the Word took upon himself the suffering proper to weak humanity but without being corrupted by it” (p.212). Having explained, and agreed, with what Patristic writers were seeking to avoid by maintaining God’s impassibility, Ware cautiously raises a more speculative question. He asks:

[M]ust pathos be understood exclusively in this passive sense? If pathos indicates emotion or strong feeling, then should not love be regarded as a pathos? In that case pathos, so far from invariably denoting weakness or subjection, may sometimes be active, potent, and creative… As a God of love, the Christian God is passible, yet not passive; vulnerable, yet not inert. (p.216)

For Ware, this means that we can indeed believe in a suffering God without having to forget some of the important truths that the Patristic writers were seeking to maintain:

 [B]ecause God’s suffering is the immediate consequence of his love, this suffering is active and creative, an expression not of weakness but of power, not of subjection but of victory. The suffering God is at the same time the undefeated God. And this undefeated God offers us, not just companionship in suffering, but a way through suffering… He offers us not only sympathy but also new life, not only solidarity but also redemption and restoration. (p.232)


The essays in Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought demonstrate that there is much to be gained by spending time with writers of the Patristic era and probing into the mystery of pain and suffering in the world alongside them. They rightfully highlight the centrality of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection for finding hope. For me, this Christocentric focus was one of the more significant themes to emerge from this volume, constituting a reminder that one of the foundational confessions of Christianity in the face of evil is that Jesus—as truly God and truly Man—suffered in the flesh and rose again, thereby rendering death an ultimately defeated foe. While a few of the essays took some real effort to work through, and there are to be sure aspects of Patristic thought on suffering that cannot be accepted uncritically, this a book that helps make these early Christian voices more accessible to contemporary readers, and it will hopefully lead some to also dig more deeply into the Patristic texts themselves.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.


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