Jason Dulle on Patripassianism

As a continuation of my previous post on Jason Dulle’s Oneness Pentecostal Christology, I want to consider how Dulle puts his model to use to avoid Patripassianism. Ultimately I will argue that Dulle’s model fails to make sense of the New Testament, even on a Oneness Pentecostal theology.

Varieties of Patripassianism

Patripassianism is often described as the view that “the Father suffered.” That description of the view, though, is unsatisfactory. There are many different things that “the Father suffered” can mean. In order to locate Dulle’s (and others’) view on Patripassianism, I need to make a few distinctions. These distinctions will make it clear who, how, and when the state of affairs “the Father suffers” obtains.

There are some (like Dulle, as I pointed out in the previous post) who don’t think the Father is a divine Person. Rather, the only divine Person just is (“is numerically identical to,” or “=”) God himself, and “Father” refers to one way that God exists. On the other hand, there are others (like David Bernard, I think) who say that God just is the Father subsequent to the Incarnation (or possibly from the moment of Creation), and therefore that the Father is a divine Person. This gives us two varieties of Patripassianism already:

Predicative. The divine Person who is (predicatively) the Father suffers. This is Patripassianism in a loose sense.

Identity. The divine Person who just is the Father suffers. This is Patripassianism in a strict sense.

Notice that if one signs on to God’s modes being successive (like the way classic Sabellianism is typically explained), neither Predicative nor Identity Patripassianism obtains. If God ceases being Father at the time of the Incarnation and from that time begins to be the Son, then the Father cannot suffer in either of these senses. Neither Dulle, nor Bernard, accept Sabellianism.

Now, I think that Identity Patripassianism is probably what the earliest controversies about Patripassianism dealt with, and that’s why I say it’s the “proper” sense. Yet, Predicative Patripassianism (the “loose” sense) would have been just as objectionable in these early controversies, it seems to me. For suppose that, prior to the Incarnation, the divine Person who became incarnate was not the eternal Son, but rather the eternal Word (or Logos). One could still argue that Patripassianism in the loose sense is incorrect because it is the Word, as a Person distinct from God himself, who is (predicatively) the Son subsequent to the Incarnation. So, it is not God, but the Word, as a Person, who is (predicatively) the Son. In any case, what I think Dulle is trying to avoid is Identity Patripassianism.

On either the loose or strict sense of Patripassianism, one needs to explain how it is that God suffers. Subsequent to the Incarnation, God now has two natures: one human, and one divine. So there are two ways God can suffer:

Patripassianism(D). “The Father suffers” obtains by virtue of God suffering in his divine nature.

Patripassianism(H). “The Father suffers” obtains by virtue of God suffering in his human nature.

If we’re working with Predicative Patripassianism, “Father” in “the Father suffers” in both Patripassianism(D) and Patripassianism(H) can be substituted with “the divine Person who is (predicatively) the Father.”

Now, both Patripassianism(D) and Patripassianism(H) are individually sufficient conditions for the following:

Patripassianism(P). “The Father suffers” obtains and the predicate “suffers” is apt (or true) of God.

If God suffers through one of his natures or the other, the state of affairs “the Father suffers” not only obtains, but also makes it the case that it is true to say “God suffers.”

Neither Patripassianism(D) nor Patripassianism(H) is individually necessary for Patripassianism(P) because God could have assumed some other nature by virtue of which he suffered. These two conditionals, then, are true:

P-Conditional(1). If Patripassianism(D) is true, then Patripassianism(P) is true.

P-Conditional(2). If Patripassianism(H) is true, then Patripassianism(P) is true.

It should also be clear that Patripassianism(P) is not sufficient for either Patripassianism(D) or Patripassianism(H). For, once again, the predicate “suffers” can be apt of the Father because the Father suffers by virtue of some other nature that God assumes (say, a martian nature).

It seems to me that what’s really at issue in this whole discussion is Patripassianism(P). Even in the earliest debates, it seems the problem was saying that it was true that God suffered rather than God’s Word (or Logos). At issue is not how it is true that God suffers, but that it is true that God, rather than the Word, as a Person, suffers.

Now for when Patripassianism(P) is the case. There’s are a few other distinctions I can make here, but sufficient for our purposes is a particular time that “the Father suffers” actually obtains. So the discussion centers around:

Patripassianism(P-A). For some time t, the state of affairs “the Father suffers” obtains at t. (“P-A” stands for “Particular-Actual.”)

For our purposes, let’s say t is the time that Jesus is on the Cross. Now, let’s see what Dulle has to say about all of this.

Dulle’s Dodge

Some Oneness Pentecostals might try to avoid Patripassianism by saying only Christ’s human nature experienced suffering. Dulle doesn’t buy it because he accepts an abstract nature view of Christ’s human nature:

Natures are just a set of properties that demarcate what kind of thing something is. Natures are not conscious, do not think, and do not act. In short, they do not experience anything. They are objects, not subjects. Only persons are subjects, capable of conscious experience. It should be obvious that death is an experience. If experiences belong to persons, and death is an experience, then who experienced the suffering and death of the cross? If Jesus is a single person, and if we believe the divine person [i.e., God] became incarnate, then it follows that the person who experienced the suffering and death of the cross is none other than God Himself.
“Patripassianism and the Death of God”

Notice that my Patripassianism(H) is not affected by Dulle’s abstract nature view, and therefore is not what he’s arguing against. That’s because God can still suffer by virtue of his human nature, seeing how (as Dulle says) a nature grants to a thing a certain set of capacities.

But if God suffers, isn’t it the case that the Father suffers? Dulle denies this:

Having established that the divine person experienced suffering and death, would it be just as appropriate to say the “Father” suffered and died on the cross as it is to say the “Son” or “Jesus” suffered and died on the cross? After all, according to Oneness theology the divine person in Jesus is numerically and personally identical to the Father. If Jesus suffered and died, in virtue of His ontological identity with the Father, wouldn’t it be accurate to say the Father suffered and died as well? No, for two reasons. First, this falsely assumes that because the person who is Father is the same person who is Son, both Father and Son share the same conscious experiences. Such is not the case.

Notice a crucial distinction here. The Father and the Son are the same Person, but they are nevertheless numerically distinct. How does that make sense? If you recall from the previous post, this is because, for Dulle, “Father” and “Son” refer to ranges of conscious experiences (or “minds”) that God has subsequent to the Incarnation. One mind is not identical to the other, but both belong to God. This is what he means when he says that Father and Son are the “same” Person.

I think that what Dulle means by “according to Oneness theology the divine person in Jesus is numerically and personally identical to the Father” is “typically according to Oneness theology,” etc. Otherwise he accepts that God=Father, which contradicts the view I presented in the last post and what Dulle goes on to say later about God’s “modes of existence.”

Here is the paragraph that present’s Dulle’s dodge of Patripassianism:

God became man by bringing human nature into union with His person. The properties of that nature allow God to function as a human in every way, including psychological functioning. In Jesus, then, God is conscious of Himself as man in a truly human way, and yet because God continues to exist beyond the incarnation (and because He retained His divine nature) He continues to be conscious of Himself as God as well. So we have a unique situation in which a single person is conscious of Himself in two distinct ways simultaneously, in two distinct modes of existence. As Father, the single person is conscious of Himself as God, and as Son, the same divine person is conscious of Himself as man. A distinction in consciousness [i.e., “Father” and “Son”] necessitates a distinction in experience as well. As Father, YHWH experiences everything in a divine way via His divine nature; as Son, YHWH experiences everything in a human way via His human nature. While YHWH is the subject of both modes of consciousness—and hence both modes of experience—because death is a human experience, YHWH only experienced suffering and death in and through His human mode of existence as Son.

Obviously, Dulle is here signing on to Predicative Patripassianism. God (he says “YHWH”) is (predicatively) the Father because “Father” refers to one way that God is conscious of himself. Furthermore, it’s through God’s human consciousness (“Son”) that God experiences death, and therefore it is true that the Son suffers. So, it is true that God suffers and that the Son (God’s human mode of existence) suffers. Since God does not experience suffering through his “cosmic” mode of existence (i.e., “Father”), one cannot say the Father suffers.

Dulle concludes:

The second reason we should not say the Father suffered and died is because this is a misuse of Biblical terminology. Scripture uses the appellation “Son” to designate YHWH’s human mode of existence, and “Father” to designate YHWH’s cosmic mode of existence. . . . Given the modal distinction between Father and Son, it is more appropriate to describe the death of God incarnate by saying “Jesus” or “the Son” suffered and died on the cross since these appellations refer to God’s human existence.

As I keep stressing over and over again, if “Father” and “Son” designate “modes of existence,” then neither term refers to God himself. Both refer to minds/consciousnesses that God has.

Now, I agree that the New Testament nowhere says the Father suffered, nor that the Father died. If Dulle’s position is correct, he can affirm that it’s true that the one divine Person there is died, but he can also deny that the Father died (since the Father is not a Person). If he can achieve the latter, he can avoid the obvious non-biblical result of his view.

The New Testament Data

The New Testament also doesn’t say that the divine Person who is (predicatively) the Father died. This is an implication of Dulle’s view. As I already tried to say, Predicative Patripassianism would have been unwelcome to those who first objected to Patripassianism, even if they were objecting to Patripassianism in the strict, rather than loose, sense.

What is puzzling, and almost baffling, to me is that Dulle decries the “misuse” of biblical language, and yet his view has it that the one that Jesus called “Father” isn’t a Person at all. This position completely undercuts any plain reading (in English or Greek) of favorite Oneness proof-texts, and turns much of the New Testament into nonsense. Both results ought to be unwelcome to him, and he ought to reconsider.

To see what I mean, consider some of the texts I have in mind:

Now this is eternal life—that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.
—John 17:3

In 17:1 Jesus addresses the Father and calls him “you.” In this verse, as no doubt many unitarian-types love to point out, Jesus says the Father (“you”) is the only true God. If “you” doesn’t refer to the Father as a Person here, it’s odd that Jesus says the Father is the only true God. At least, if Oneness Pentecostals want to take this verse to mean that only the Father is numerically identical to God.

Furthermore, if the first “you” in 17:1 refers to the Father as a non-Person, while the second “you” refers to the “only true God” who is a Person, then Jesus is equivocating in a matter of sentences. Truthfully, if this is how Jesus uses the term “you,” I simply fail to see how this isn’t misleading, and plausibly deceptive. After all, in ordinary discourse between rational subjects, the indexical “you” refers to a person distinct from the one uttering the indexical. But when Jesus calls the Father “you” in 17:1, this isn’t at all what the word means, since the referent isn’t a Person at all.

Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory is worthless. The one who glorifies me is my Father, about whom you people say, ‘He is our God.'”
—John 8:54

Jesus replied, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”
—John 20:17

On Oneness theology, John 8:54 seems to straightforwardly imply that the Father just is the God of the Jews. The Jews say, of the Father, “He is our God.” Is this a predictive “is”? Not likely, because the Jews also say “Abraham is our father” (John 8:39), and that, “We have only one Father, God himself” (John 8:41). In the latter verse, “God” is an accusative of apposition that relates to “Father.” This means that “God” and “Father” refer to the same thing. If “God” refers to a Person, then so does “Father.”

The accusative of apposition is also what we get in John 20:17. Since “God” and “Father” cannot co-refer on Dulle’s model of the Incarnation, this strongly indicates that Dulle’s view is incorrect.

He said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
—Mark 14:36

So pray this way: Our Father in heaven . . .
—Matthew 6:9

Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.
—1 Thessalonians 3:11 (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)

In Jesus’ prayer in Mark 14:36, God is addressed, in the nominative case, as “Father.” Jesus also goes on to predicate two things of the Father: (1) omnipotence, and (2) a will. On Dulle’s view, I suppose the Father, as a way God is conscious of himself, can have a will if “range of consciousness” is synonymous with “mind.” Wills are plausibly contained by minds. But do minds/consciousnesses have omnipotence, or the ability to do all possible things? No. Truly divine Persons do though.

Jesus instructs us to address God as “Father,” and to go on to request things of the Father. On Dulle’s view, this amounts to us praying like so: “Our God who is aware of himself exclusively in his cosmic mode of existence (i.e., ‘Father’),” etc. We’re not really praying to the Father at all, but to God who is (predicatively) the Father. This doesn’t make sense of the Lord’s Prayer.

Neither does it make sense of the fact that in one of the earliest epistles, Paul prays directly to “God our Father” (ὁ θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ ἡμῶν) and to the Lord Jesus. I assume Dulle has read Wallace’s grammar; if so, he should know that there’s a TSKS construction here. There’s no reason to take “God our Father” to mean “God, who is (predicatively) our Father.” No, the Father just is who Paul is referring to as “God” here. “God” and “Father” in “God our Father” don’t refer to different things any more than “God” and “Savior” in “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (τοῦ μεγάλου θεοῦ καὶ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ; Titus 2:13) refer to different things.

I think I’ve said enough here. If Dulle wants, we can go page-by-page in the New Testament and see if it really makes any sense to say that “Father” does not refer to a divine Person. But if there’s anything that’s prima facie true in the New Testament, regardless of what your position on whether there’s one divine Person or three, it’s that the Father is a divine Person.


Dulle is privy to abductive reasoning, as his presentations on Oneness theology show. In the previous section I took Dulle’s overall view, and its attempt to avoid Patripassianism, and presented some New Testament evidence that’s surprising on his model of the Incarnation. Honestly, this simple procedure shows just how implausible Dulle’s view is.

Since any Predicative Patripassianism is going to run into the issues from the previous section, a far more plausible procedure, it seems to me, is to adopt Identity Patripassianism and a two minds/consciousnesses view. What I propose in my paper on Jesus’ prayers can be utilized here, although I should say that the basic material in that paper can also be used to apply to a view like Dulle’s. From the foregoing, I just think Dulle’s sort of view needs to be abandoned altogether. There are better ways to achieve what he originally wanted to with his model anyway.

If Dulle is right that Identity Patripassianism results in a “misuse” of biblical language, and if my arguments are right, Dulle should just bite the bullet about Patripassianism. It’s just a part of being a consistent Oneness Pentecostal, whether he likes it or not.

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