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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Kazoh Kitamori’s Theology of the Pain of God: An Appraisal

Published Friday, January 21, 2022 By Q. Luo

In his 1973 trip to Tokyo, Jürgen Moltmann met with the Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori, whose book Theology of the Pain of God had been published in German. They communicated through translation from English to German, then to Japanese, and diagram-drawing their respective theology on a backboard. Moltmann concluded that Kitamori “was prepared to let pain touch God only externally,” while his theology “goes through God’s very heart” (177-78). In the context of post-World War II, both Japan and Germany each contributed to the world an influential theologian addressing the issue of pain and suffering by revising the classical doctrine of the nature of God. Despite Moltmann’s obscure critique that Kitamori’s theology was not radical enough, it is without a doubt that they share not only similar theological concerns but also common experiences as their starting points: for Moltmann, it was that of Auschwitz; for Kitamori, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

Theology of the Pain of God

Kitamori explicitly traces his train of thoughts back to Theodosius Harnack, who had argued two attributes in God, his wrath and love, produce “tertiary,” a third thing. For Kitamori, this tertiary thing is the pain of God. The pain of God reflects the divine will to love the object of his wrath. Borrowing Luther’s notion of “God fighting with God” at Golgotha, Kitamori pictures God as the God “who must sentence sinners to death” fighting with the same God “who wishes to love them.” The tension between wrath and love causes God’s pain (Pain of God, 21). Therefore, God in pain is the God who resolves our human pain by his own.

Kitamori bases his theology on Jeremiah 31:20, which, from the Japanese Literary Version, can be translated as “my heart is pained.” He laments that the recent version has abandoned this translation and appeals to Luther’s translation, “therefore my heart is broken,” as the closest rendering (8). Kitamori found the verb astonishing, and found it even more astonishing that so little had been made of it until his writings.

Another text that struck him is Hebrews 2:10, “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.” He says, “[t]he little word eprepen [fitting] thundered in my ears as though it would shake the entire universe.” This very word “gives us a glimpse of a world which is no longer a world of human beings or of history, but a world within God – the world of the ‘essence of God’ in the classical term” (45). For Kitamori, the suffering of Christ is for His substantial perfection, and “to be fitting” means to be necessary to the divine essence.  Therefore, the cross, the suffering, is not an external act of God in redemptive history by any sense; it is an act within God.

Kitamori is aware that the concept of “essence” in classical theism has no place for the pain of God. He complains, “frankly, no concept is so remote from the biblical concept of God as ‘essence.’” God has revealed his “real essence, his true heart” through Jeremiah and Paul: his pain. He proposes to call the essence of God presented in classical Trinitarian doctrine as an “essence without essence” (46). For Kitamori, the traditional theology on the essence of God is influenced and even corrupted by Greek thought. In contrast, the discovery of the real essence of God is the contribution of the Japanese church.

Classical theism distinguishes between opera ad intra, that is, purely immanent works of God in the Trinity, and opera ad extra, the works of God that relate to the creature in history: creation, providence, and redemption. The Father’s works of eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Holy Spirit belong to the immanent Trinity. For Kitamori, eternal generation is not the ultimate action; it is in order to another action. The Father begets the Son in order to cause his beloved Son to die. Just as classical theism has missed the true essence of God, it also has missed God’s decisive action.

This radical revision of the traditional notion of God has consequences for soteriology. Since God is suffering in pain eternally, those who serve Him must suffer as the “means of salvation” (52). Those who do not serve God by their own pain are not worthy of the God who is suffering. Echoing Karl Barth, Kitamori regarded the analogy of being (analogia entis) as “invented by the antichrist and prevent[ing] people from becoming Christians”. He also disregarded the analogy of faith (analogia fidei) and proposes instead what he called the analogy of pain (analogia doloris). God conquers human obedience, which belongs to human nature, by the power in his pain, and through the analogy of pain, God accepts our service. Therefore, “the concept of analogy is regarded as thoroughly soteriological” (56).

For Kitamori, the wrath of God is the estrangement of man from God. When divine wrath is not actualized, men may live happily and die peacefully. When divine wrath is actualized, men suffer pains. The story of Lazarus and the rich men is a perfect example illustrating this. Lazarus was united to God “just because he had led a life full of pain, while the rich man was estranged from God just because he had led a happy life without suffering any pain.” When the rich man was cast into Hades in torment, he began to experience the actualized pain, which would lead him into union with God who pains. In this way Kitamori proposed  “the doctrine of universal salvation” (63).

A Greek vs. Japanese Scheme

Instead of the alleged paradigm of “Greek vs. Hebrew,” Kitamori proposes  Japanese concepts as the alternative to Western theology that benefits from but also is tragically trapped in Greek philosophy. He introduces the concept of “gospel history,” which refers to how the history of  the gospel relates itself to historical realities of the world.

Concerning places, he identifies three prominent cultures that shape biblical theology as the loci of the gospel. Classical theology, as expressed in the Nicene and Athanasian creeds, are, he argues, the products of the Greek and Roman world. The Protestant Reformation represents Christianity in the understanding of the German spirit. In the present era, the Japanese thought, which finds its expression in Japanese tragedies and the word tsurasa, contributes to the proper understanding of the theology of the pain of God. The Japanese mind, “which had seen the deepest heart of his fellowman in pain,” Kitamori maintains, “will come to see the deepest heart of the Absolute God in pain” (136). The decisive aspect of God’s name, which was overlooked by Greek churches, will be recovered by the Japanese churches.

Concerning time, Kitamori categorizes periods of history as the age of life and the age of joy, in contrast to the age of pain. The age of pain is the period in which the very heart of God is better understood than in the other periods. In the context of post-World War II, the truth of the pain of God “became discernible only in our age” (137). In a word, the theology of the pain of God appears in the right culture and at the right time.

An Evaluation

Kitamori, like Moltmann, was very conscious of being novel;  his theology, he thought, unearths “a point never fully grasped in the previous understanding of the Bible” (59). In evaluating his theology, it should be noted in the first place, that Kitamori’s theology of the pain of God is exegetically week.  He establishes his new theology of God almost exclusively based on his interpretation of Jeremiah 31:20 and Hebrews 2:10. However, both texts are unable to support his claim sufficiently. 

Jeremiah 31:20 situates in the context of a section commonly identified as the “Book of Consolation” (30:1-33:26), where God proclaims his promise to bring his people back from exile.[1] Jeremiah 31:15-22 describes the compassion of God and the end of Rachel’s mourning. Hearing Ephraim’s pleading and repentance (31:18-19), the Lord says, “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore, my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him” (31:20). In my judgment, Kitamori’s primary exegetical fallacy is not whether the Hebrew verb רחם can be translated as pain or not. The issue is, he misunderstands the rhetorical nature of the language. In many places of the Scriptures, the authors depict God in the same language customarily used to describe human creatures. This is anthropomorphic language. We read in Scriptures that God speaks (Gen. 1:3), rests (Gen. 2:2), sits on his throne (Isa. 6:1), and walks among seven golden lampstands (Rev. 2:1). In the following chapter, we read that God brought Israel out of Egypt with “a strong hand and outstretched arm” (Jer. 32:21). None of these texts intend to describe the essence of God but use the language that humans understand to narrate his action in redemptive history. To misunderstand this language as a characterization of God’s own heart is entirely unwarranted.

As for Hebrew 2:10, Kitamori maintains that because it is fitting for God to make Christ perfect through suffering, the pain of Christ (God) belongs to the essence of the Trinity. Yet, it is improper to draw a straight line from the Triune actions in relation to creation, providence, and redemption, to the divine essence. Such a movement requires necessary theological qualifications. Moreover, the verb perfect in Hebrew 2:10 has an obvious ceremonial connotation. In the LXX, the verb signifies the act of consecrating a priest to his office (Exod. 29:9, 29, 33, 35; Lev. 4:5; 8:33; 16:32; 21:10; Num. 3:3). This cultic sense of the verb clarifies its meaning and explains the close association of the ideas of perfection and consecration in 2:10-11.

Kitamori constructs his theology on these two verses and then uses the resultant “theology of the pain of God” to reinterpret many other texts of the Scriptures, as we have seen in the example of the rich man and Lazarus. Surely, though, his theology totters on an unsteady foundation.

In the second place, his “Greek vs. Japanese” schema oversimplifies both traditional theology and national cultures in many aspects. Kitamori assigns the task of his theology as “to win over the theology which advocates a God who has no pain” (22). However, while the early church Fathers, who did live mainly in the Greco-Roman cultures, affirmed the doctrine that God has no pain in His essence, they rejected the Greek philosophical categories. For example, Justin Martyr argues that we “have dedicated ourselves to the unbegotten and impassible God,” distinguishing the emotion-driven gods in Greek myths, e.g., Antiope and Ganymede.[2] In this case, it is the Greek gods who have passions and pains, not the biblical God. To ascribe God without pains as merely Greek thoughts is unwarranted. Kitamori, along with many modern theologians who suggested similar schemes, also ignores the complexity of Greek philosophy, which has both Parmenidean stasis and Heraclitean flux.

Conclusion

Kitamori engaged intentionally in an ambitious project: “[a] theology failing to contribute anything decisive to the view of God should not make any final pronouncements” (46). His theology of the pain of God has caused a series of revisions in anthropology, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. After Kitamori, many theologians have continued to question the traditional doctrine that God is impassible. Yet, in doing so, it may legitimately be asked whether they unintentionally remove the very grounds upon which they wish to stand. Only a God who does not suffer can give us the sure assurance that He will eventually conquer all obstacles, wipe our tears, and say to us, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

Q. Luo is currently an international student of Westminster Seminary California, and an intern at Escondido URC. He holds a Ph.D. in the area of artificial intelligence.


[1] For example, see John A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, NICOT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

[2] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers. Justin Martyr. Irenaeus (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1885), 171.

Q. Luo is currently an international student of Westminster Seminary California, and an intern at Escondido URC. He holds a Ph.D. in the area of artificial intelligence.

  • Q. Luo


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