When I was in seminary, I abandoned the doctrine of divine impassibility. For readers who do not know, divine impassibility is the doctrine that God is not affected by creation. It sounds weird at first because in the Bible, God answers prayer, gets involved with Israel, and shows wrath against sin.
The reason this doctrine was so important to the early church is that they had the idea that if God changes from one state to another, then God is no longer the source of all being(s). Why? Because God is becoming something else (changing) and therefore not the source of all being. If God is not the source of all being because God is pure ‘being’, then he isn’t divine.
I had decided that any doctrine which claims that God cannot suffer paints a monstrous truth about God: that God is uninterested in the well-being of his creatures. The problem is that I had misunderstood what the early church meant by this idea. I had thought that since the ancient Greeks saw God as impassible, the early Christian converts from Gentile nations just adopted the idea from Greek philosophy without realizing that it cannot be found in the Old Testament. It hadn’t crossed my mind that the idea might be a necessary corollary to some other Christian truth.
A couple of years ago, I spent several months revisiting the ancient arguments for God’s existence based upon the nature of cause and effect, gradations of goodness in human experience, the existence of consciousness, and the nature of logic and mathematics. All of these arguments entail a God upon whom all things aside from God depend for existence. This means that God must be ‘being itself’, thus God is never in any ultimate sense, becoming anything. God is not, by definition, going from one state to another. Of course, this realization forced me to think much more carefully about how I interpreted certain Old Testament passages about God’s emotions. C.S. Lewis mentions this difficulty in Letter to Malcolm, when he observes that the Old Testament authors take no pains to protect any sort of doctrine of divine impassibility from the notion of a stormily emotional Jehovah (51-52).
There is a sense in which what I am saying does not really matter. One can be a Christian without bothering to figure any of this out. Paul’s standard for Christian conversion is rather meager by many confessional standards (or robust since it requires obedience to Jesus): confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10).
But if you go on thinking about the nature of emotions, particularly in their physical manifestation in human beings, they require a physical/chemical reaction to the environment. God has no environment, if anything, God is the environment in which all space-time has its being. Thus either the Biblical revelation about God’s interaction with creation is wrong or it is given by way of analogy.
The Bible, since it is God’s revelation to the church, requires us to deny the first part of the disjunctive premise, thus God’s revelation appears to be given in Scripture, in some measure, by analogy. But there are certain events in Scripture that are considered ultimate as revelations of God’s nature. For instance, Paul understands the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as a revelation of the fact that God is loving toward weak and ungodly sinners and enemies (Romans 5:1-11).
Here is a rough outline of the premises and conclusion of an argument for God’s impassibility:
- The world made up of things which change.
- Things which change, by definition, depend upon causes to change.
- God is the cause of the whole world, and therefore not the world.
- God depends upon nothing for God’s being.
- God is unchanging or impassible.
This may seem opaque. That’s okay, I’m trying to avoid too much philosophical language. But the big idea (God’s unchangeability) can be summarized this way:
- God is unchanging, Scripture teaches this (Malachi 3:6, James 1:27) in moments of explicit teaching. Reason dictates that it is so as well.
- God is love. Scripture teaches this as well (Romans 5:5-11, 1 John 4:8-16).
- Love is a positive perfection of God, God need not change to be loving and caring.
- Wrath, sadness, anger, etc are privations of mercy, bliss, and harmony. God suffers no privation, therefore these words in Scripture are analogies about God’s works in creation that correspond to human experience.
- Thus, God is, regardless of the state of the creation, unalterably loving.
God’s Love and God’s Impassibility
David Bentley Hart argued in his essay, No Shadow of Turning that God’s impassibility is precisely the guarantee that God’s love is God’s being. Love is not a state from which God could capriciously move or worse, be influenced to move from. As compelling as the idea of a God who suffers with creation can be, it seems that a stronger hope and certainly a more scriptural and reasonable one is that the terrors of creation do not alter God at all, but rather await their sure defeat in space time by God’s own indestructible love and power.
The Incarnation and God’s Impassibility
It it indeed the case as a part of God’s work when the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, the Son of God suffered as a man. Paul Gavriluk argues in chapter two of his book The Suffering of the Impassible God,
…by calling the Christian God impassible the Fathers sought to distance God the creator from the gods of mythology. In this debate the major goal was to rule out popular pagan modes of imaging the divine realm as unworthy of the Christian God. Second, the Fathers viewed impassibility as compatible with select emotionally coloured characteristics, e.g., love, mercy, and compassion.
Many Christians see the revelation of God in Christ as a revelation that God could suffer and change. But in more ancient times this revelation showed what God was like all along despite the piecemeal and partial (Hebrews 1:1-2) revelation which was given in the Old Testament. The revelation of God in Christ is that God is love rather than capricious like the pagan gods or the forces of nature.
God is unchangeably loving. The Trinity, remains the same even as my own religious state of mind wavers, my character changes (for better or worse), the creation groans, and the gospel is preached well or poorly. God the Father, who sends the Son for our salvation, and who upon the enthronement of his Son sends us the Holy Spirit ever remains love and loving. God is goodness. Thus, though the church and humanity are commanded to imitate God’s love (and indeed my nature would flourish should I choose to do so as I am created in his image), his interest in the final salvation of humanity neither waxes nor wanes depending upon this or that congregation’s spiritual temperature (Peterson, Long Obedence, 44).
My Translation of Romans 5:1-11
For Christ, while we were weak, at the appropriate time, died on behalf of the ungodly. You see, with difficulty somebody would die on behalf of a righteous man, indeed, on behalf of a good man somebody might even dare to die. Now God demonstrates his own love for us this way: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Therefore (more so really), having been declared righteous in the present by his blood, will we be saved by him from the wrath. For if, being enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son (more so, having already been reconciled), we will be saved by his life. Now, not only this, but we are boasting all the while in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.
Aquinas on God’s Joy
Again. Joy and delight are a kind of repose of the will in the object of its willing. Now God is supremely at rest in Himself, Who is the principal object of His will, as finding all sufficiency in Himself. Therefore by His will He rejoices and delights supremely in Himself. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Contra Gentiles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 190.
Aquinas on God’s Love
For it belongs properly to the nature of love that the lover wills the good of the beloved. Now God wills His own and others’ good, as stated above. Accordingly then God loves both Himself and other things.
Again. True love requires one to will another’s good as one’s own. For a thing whose good one wills merely as conducive to another’s good, is loved accidentally: thus he who wills wine to be preserved that he may drink it, or who loves a man that he may be useful or pleasing to him, loves the wine or the man accidentally, but himself properly speaking. Now God loves each thing’s good as its own, since He wills each thing to be in as much as it is good in itself: although He directs one to the profit of another. God therefore truly loves both Himself and other things.
Moreover. Since everything naturally wills or desires its own good in its own way, if the nature of love is that the lover will or desire the good of the beloved, it follows that the lover is referred to the beloved as to a thing that is in a way one with him. Wherefore it appears that the proper notion of love consists in the affection of one tending to another as one with himself in some way: for which reason Dionysius describes love as a unitive force. Hence the greater the thing that makes the lover one with the beloved, the more intense is the love: for we love those more who are united to us by the origin of birth, or by frequent companionship, than those who are merely united to us by the bond of human nature. Again, the more the cause of union is deeply seated in the lover, the stronger the love: wherefore sometimes a love that is caused by a passion becomes more intense than a love arising from natural origin or from some habit, although it is more liable to be transitory. Now the cause of all things being united to God, namely His goodness, which all things reflect, is exceeding great and deeply seated in God, since Himself is His own goodness.2 Wherefore in God not only is there true love, but also most perfect and most abiding love. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Contra Gentiles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 191–192.