The Beauty of the Impassible God (Or, Is God an Emotional Teenager?)

For some reason I’ve become interested in the much-maligned doctrine of the impassibility of God over the last couple of years. What is the doctrine you ask? Simply put, it is the idea that God cannot be made to suffer change from without or be overcome with passions. Ever since the early Fathers this has been the standard teaching of the Church: God is not subject to passions. I first found out about this idea in college when reading Jurgen Moltmann’s classic, The Crucified God in which he argues, among other things, that for God to be impassible in light of the world’s suffering and evil would make God wicked. In fact, in light of the cross of Christ where the Godman suffers death and alienation, it’s absolutely blasphemous. Instead, the Bible presents us with a passionate God who suffers alongside of us, who bleeds, who dies, and who understands our pains–because isn’t that what love does? In this account, impassibility is a hold-over from Greek philosophy that crept in and corrupted the pure, Hebrew view of the dynamic, living God of Scripture and turned it into the conceptual idol of the frozen absolute valued by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.

This view, that of the passible God, has become the “New Orthodoxy” that has been growing apace in academic and popular theology since the earliest part of the 20th Century, especially with the rise of process theism, open theism, and panentheism. Impassibility is also generally rejected in various quarters of Evangelical theology that cling to largely traditional doctrines of God, with John Stott citing Moltmann on this point with approval in his great work, The Cross of Christ. Now, given that I first came across the doctrine of impassibility at the tender age of 20, without any real knowledge of historical theology, or most of the reasoning behind the thinking of the Fathers in articulating this doctrine, it’s not hard to imagine that I whole-heartedly rejected it as nonsensical and the silly invention of “Greek” theologians and their systematizing ways.

Luther said that for the Christian all of life is repentance. I’ve come to find out that holds true not only in moral terms, but also intellectual ones. Suffice it to say that after reading some significant criticisms of passibilist criticisms from biblical, theological, philosophical, and historical-theological angles, I’ve come back around to affirming a form of the doctrine of impassibility. Key thinkers who helped me along this path have been Kevin Vanhoozer, David Bentley Hart, and Paul Gavrilyuk.  Kevin DeYoung also has a helpful article summarizing key points.

I’m not going to attempt to cover all the relevant points or even come up with as helpful of a summary case as DeYoung has. I simply wanted to offer up some quick, semi-connected, but inevitably unsystematic correctives of popular perceptions about the doctrine as well as offer some reason to find this doctrine beautiful along the way. In doing so, I will be depending heavily on the account offered in Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology, pp. 387-468. Needless to say, this will be hopelessly incomplete. Any insight that is helpful or intelligent is probably his. Anything silly or reductionistic is probably mine.

Clarifying Thoughts on Impassibility

Not a Rock – It is often charged that the doctrine of impassibility leaves us with an emotionless rock of a God. From the outset it ought to be made clear that to teach that God is impassible is not to deny that God has an emotional life with cares, joys, loves, and so forth. Impassibility does not mean impassivity any more than immutability means immobility. Both are caricatures and misunderstandings of the classical doctrine. Just as the doctrine of God’s immutability or changelessness is not a teaching about a static, stone God, but a God so perfectly overflowing with life that any “change” could only tend towards a lesser state, so the doctrine of impassibility is statement about the perfection of God’s emotional life, his sovereignty over it, not its absence. Anybody who teaches otherwise, both critic and advocate, has been misled on the subject. In the early Fathers, to teach that God was impassible was to teach that God did not have “passions”, or unrestrained feelings ungoverned by reason or will that could simply sweep over him. A passion was thought of as a sort of violent, semi-physical force that could move a person without the consent of their reason or will, or a sinful inclination. To deny that this can happen is to say that God’s emotional life is under his own control and will not erupt violently in irrational or sinful ways. God is not an emotional teenager.

The Bible? – What about those passages in the Bible that talk about God’s very strong feelings about things? What do they point to if God is not a passionate God? Are they “merely” anthropomorphisms that don’t “really” mean what they say? The Fathers and the medieval tradition made a distinction between ‘passions’ and ‘affections.’ An affection is a sort of controlled emotion that is subject to the will and mind of the one having it. It is a rational emotion that does not overcome the person, but is in line with the will. God has affections such as kindness, anger, etc. which he can display. The passages in the Bible talking about God’s anger, kindness, grief, and so forth are pointing to something real in God–his affections, the emotional life of the God of Israel. They are not “mere” anthropomorphisms, even though they are anthropomorphic. They are real descriptions, though not to be taken in a literalistic fashion, of God’s emotional life.

What’s An Emotion Anyway? – One point that clouds this discussion and makes it hard to conceive of God having emotions that are not passions, is that often-times we don’t have a clear understanding of what an emotion is. Kevin Vanhoozer draws attention to the fact that there are various theories on offer as to what an emotion is, but the split is between two basic types: non-cognitivist and cognitivist understandings. Non-cognitivist theories of emotion stress the pre-rational nature of an emotion such as the physical rush associated with fear or anger, which we then attach to cognitive content. Vanhoozer points out a few problems with that. First, God is spiritual, not physical. He cannot have an adrenaline rush with a flush of the face, a flaring of the nostrils, or moistening of the tear-ducts. For us to ascribe emotions to him on this view is to ascribe a body. The second problem with this is that with fear or anger, I feel the rush precisely because of what I believe about a certain situation or action. Third, a lot of emotions “feel” the same physically, like anger and fear, but the only thing distinguishing them is the cognitive content. Fourth, it’s hard to ascribe praise or blame to the way people feel if it’s just a physical reaction. But we seem to think that some feelings are praiseworthy and others are blameworthy. For these reasons, (and a few others), its best to opt for a cognitivist understanding of emotion.

On a cognitivist view, an emotion is a judgment or an attitude that one takes about something.  It is a concern-based, value-laden judgment about a state of affairs. My fear and happiness are flavored understandings about situations or persons that I am concerned with. Given my humanity my loves, jealousy, or fear can be both passions that I suffer as well as affections. We are both patients and agents with respect to them. God has perfect emotions, affections not passions, because his value-laden judgments are true and accurate ones. God’s love, jealousy, wrath, compassion, and kindness are involved judgments, ways of “seeing” with the heart that inclines him towards action of some sort but do not overwhelm him.  They do not incline him towards evil and they cannot sweep over him because they are fully-consonant with his perfect knowledge and will.

At this point some people might be thinking that this makes a sort of sense, but not something you’re willing to buy into too quickly. These highly cognitive emotions seem too distant from our everyday human experience.  In response, Vanhoozer would remind us that “the similarities between God’s emotional life and ours exist in the midst of an even greater dissimilarity, one that marks the infinite qualitative distinction between Creator and creation, Author and hero.” God is God. We might be made in his image, but God’s reality is a whole ontological step up from ours. We should expect things to be a little different up there. Just as God’s sense of personhood will be different than yours given that he exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while you exist as you, it’s unsurprising that his emotional life is a little beyond us.

Sovereign Relationality – A further consideration connected to impassibility is that there is nothing outside of God that is beyond his control. Those agents or situations about which he feels things are not outside of his will or agency. Given creatio ex nihilo, even with a strong view of libertarian human agency, God is not subject to his human creations. His feelings in relation to them are not things which he must passively suffer but ones which he actively chooses to endure. They are not imposed on him from without, but sovereignly accepted. Passibilists might point to passages like Hosea 11:8, where God speaks to Israel, saying that he cannot bear to be parted from him, that his heart recoils within him at the thought of extinguishing him in judgment. The thought is that here human subjects exert a force and cause a change, or suffering in the emotional life of God from without. It must be remembered that these statements are uttered within the context of a covenant relationship which God freely and sovereignly entered into without force or compulsion. God did not have to save Israel. God did not have to covenant with a people. God was not forced to create. He is under no threat to save. Therefore, the situations that he involves himself in, about which he has these value-laden judgments like anger, sadness, etc, are situations over which he is sovereign and in control.

The Incarnation–Chalcedonian Solutions  – “All this theological logic-chopping and conceptional analysis is fine, but what about the cross? Doesn’t that show that God suffers? What sense does it make to say that God is impassible if Jesus is God and Jesus truly suffers on the cross?” This is where a little Chalcedonian christology comes to the rescue.

The classic answer developed by theologians like Cyril of Alexandria is that while it is appropriate to say that the Son suffered on the cross, we make it clear that God the Son suffered in his humanity, which is capable of suffering. Because we confess the unity of the Godman, that this man, Jesus Christ, truly is the Eternal Son, it is true then, to say that God suffered, but only in the soul and flesh of the Godman. If we begin to take suffering up into the divine nature, then we begin to render the incarnation a pointless gesture. If God can suffer in his own nature, then why assume human nature at all? In a sense, it is true to say that the lover wills to suffer alongside the beloved. But without impassibility we lose the wonder of what God has done in Christ–he who knew no suffering in himself, willed to become as we were so the he could experience it alongside of us. We too often forget that nobody takes Jesus’ life from him–even in his humanity, the Son lays down his life of his own accord. (John 10:18) He is sovereign even over his death and “suffering” at the human hands he empowered to crucify him. (John 19:11) What’s more, he did so, not just to “feel our pain”, but in order to end it. There is some comfort when we read that Christ is a sympathetic high priest who knows of our temptations (Heb 4:15), but as Vanhoozer reminds us, the true comfort of the verse comes when we read that he did not give in to the temptation, but overcame it for our sake in order to cleanse us from our sins giving us free access to the throne of grace. (4:16; Heb 2:17-18)

The Beauty of the Impassible God

In the end, the doctrine of impassibility affirms that God did not incarnate himself of necessity to relieve his own unbearable suffering. His existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one of perfect, unconquerable, and impassible “light, life, and love.” (Vanhoozer) Instead, in Christ, he freely, willingly, and sovereignly endured suffering, actively making it his own, so that ours would be put to an end. To affirm God’s impassibility is to confess that God’s action in Christ is nothing other than the beautifully gratuitous outpouring of his invincible, unsurpassable, enduring love for his wayward creatures–it’s the foundation of grace itself.

Soli Deo Gloria

23 thoughts on “The Beauty of the Impassible God (Or, Is God an Emotional Teenager?)

  1. There’s a single verse that explains my aversion to the reformed/systematic approach to theology. John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not seize it.” Katalambano is the verb that I translate into “seize” which the NIV translates into “overcome.” It is not receiving a gift like lambano. The kata prefix makes the exchange a conquest or seizure. Every theological text that attempts to be exhaustively systematic is in danger of trying to seize God’s light and ending up with a fistful of darkness.

    The wisdom that is given to us by God’s Word through the printed words inspired by the Spirit is a light that cannot be seized. When you seek to explain perfectly every aspect of God’s nature in order to insure His freedom, what you’re saying is that the only way God can be free is if you set Him free with your explanation of His freedom. It’s actually a mirror image of the false humility of postmodernity in which “mystery” gives you the excuse to say anything you like since all knowledge can be deconstructed into mush. God is allowed to use people as objects of wrath (Romans 9) just as readily as He is allowed to have mercy on all (Romans 11). There is no resolution to Romans 9-11 nor should there be. Biblical hermeneutics should be perpetually midsrashic because if darkness ever could seize light, then the desire to know the infinite being would disappear as soon as He were perfectly explained.

    It is modernity’s hatred for mystery that chokes the reformed/systematic imagination. I am generally open to everything you’ve said here, but I absolutely refuse to close the door on the possibility that the Platonic/Christian synthesis may have been wrong. I think it is much more prudent to simply let the Word breathe through the inspired words of God and let them take us wherever they do without worrying about whether all our scaffolding comes crashing down at an inconsistency. God cannot be sovereign without mystery.

    I’m good as long as you put that caveat in. You have great points about distinguishing between control over emotions and emotional vacuity. I absolutely can go along with God being in perfect control of His emotions and using them always strategically to accomplish His will. I’m still not willing to commit to everything being preplanned. I think rather that as we grow in our faith, we learn to narrate our lives as though every relationship is ordained, but it doesn’t bother me to allow the possibility that that might be something God accomplishes in real-time in a world whose future is constantly being realized by Him. There are pastoral reasons not to be an open-theist and there are pastoral reasons not to be a Calvinist. I’m a lot more comfortable after my recent experiences with the Calvinist view, but I’m not comfortable shutting the door on a baseline default of prevenient grace as an explanation for how God moves in everyone’s lives in the universe.

    What’s disconcerting is the fury with which some of these neo-reformed guys seem to want to conquer God by explaining Him perfectly. They cloak their conquest by pulling a Kantian sleight of hand in which a God who can be proven not to benefit me directly / have “anthropocentric” shaping is a God who I must have studied objectively.

    I’ve lived most of my life as a reactionary against fundamentalism while I sense that you live as a reactionary against hipsterism. Both of what we’re reacting to are responding to legitimate concerns that neither one of us takes seriously enough. Jesus can still be said to show solidarity with the crucified of the world (the concern of Moltmann) regardless of whether His divine side (which shouldn’t be separable from His human side in the first place) suffers impassibly. I know that you’re badly trying to transcend your reactionary posture just like I’m badly trying to transcend mine. Let’s keep working at it. Push back. As Jerome said to Augustine, “Let us not injure each other as we play together in the fields of the Lord.”

    • Morgan, I love that you can, in a matter of minutes craft a response nearly as long as my original post. A few points of friendly push-back:

      1. I think one of the reasons I affirm impassibility is precisely my desire to preserve mystery. Affirming the passible God is an attempt to bring God’s life down to a manageable, understandable, comprehensible reality. “My love leads to my suffering, therefore God’s must lead him to suffer in the same way.” No mystery there. Impassibility is an apophatic qualifier preserving God’s beautiful life from the kind of modern rationalizing that rejected impassibility in the first place. It is an assertion of the Creator/creature distinction that warns us against trying to fit God into our boxes of what “real relationality” or “real love” mean, to understand that God is much bigger than that. It is protection against a Feuerbachian projection-god, who is simply humanity writ large.

      2. This is an ancient doctrine, not a new one, not modern, nor even a distinctively Reformed one. It was originally put forth long before systematic theologies were ever written. Two of the modern scholars defending impassibility I mentioned are Eastern Orthodox (Hart, Gavrilyuk), and the other one I didn’t but could have, Thomas Weinandy (Does God Suffer?), is a Catholic. None of these theologians are Calvinists. Hart vehemently, (and I think unjustifiably), levels withering criticisms at Calvin all the while affirming it. This is not a Calvinist/Arminian issue. Vanhoozer, the one Reformed guy, draws heavily on borderline-Universalist Von Balthasar.

      3. Also, when you read Vanhoozer, realize there is nothing reductionistic about his project. The whole book is about doing theo-dramatic theology that seeks to elaborate God’s own self-revelation in the text of scripture without imposing a sort of perfect-being theology upon the text from without, whether that of “classical” or “relational” theism. My summary is a sad little, snapshot of his sweeping project of learning to read the text without distorting it, all the while keeping the big, theo-dramatic picture in view.

      4. I’m not saying the “Platonic/Christian” synthesis is never wrong. I am questioning the existence of the “Platonic/Christian” synthesis as well as the myth of “Theology’s Fall into Hellenism” used by those engaged in “Theology’s Hi-jacking into Hegelianism.” I am also questioning the modern rejection of a good piece of theological thinking based on a caricature. The myth of theology’s fall is not a neutral historical judgment, but a narrative that has been used to side-line a broad swathe of the theological tradition. It is not only inaccurate, but harmful.

      5. Again, this is not an attempt to “conquer God” by describing him perfectly. It is an attempt to speak well of the God whom we worship on the basis of what the Scriptures say, and the logic that underlies the Scriptures. It is doing metaphysics with an eye on the text, looking both at what it explicitly affirms as well as what it assumes that makes coherent sense out of it. God is incomprehensible, that is true, but he is not non-sensical. As for the whole “Kantian sleight-of-hand” thing, realize that the argument is that an Impassible God is actually better for us. I, and those of us who affirm impassibility, are appealing precisely to the comfort and beauty of the Impassible God, not his harshness. His free condescension to save us is the beauty of grace.
      Love ya Morgan. That’s it for now.

      • Sounds good. I will ponder and reflect. There’s a way of telling “your side” of the story that is reductionist. I tend to be okay with contradicting myself for pastoral reasons; what I hate more than anything is the tyranny of consistency. Part of where I’m coming from is that I’ve recently had intense personal experiences of God’s sovereignty that I’m trying to account for theologically right now. I’ve come to a place where I’m starting to believe that violence in humanity and nature is the expression of God’s wrath whether it’s against human sin or against disequilibrium that has come over a natural system. But I’m not going to pin somebody else to the ground with this view. It’s something I’m trying to work out for myself as I try to figure out how to help other people learn the delight of actually fearing the Lord in the Biblical sense. Living outside of this delight is bios without zoe which is spiritual death. The cross destroys the barrier to our enjoyment of God. I still can’t name the death and estrangement of sin as punitive in a sense that is reactive and not organically consequential. The wrath of God described in Romans 1 is not we did this and God responded with that; it’s we did this and God did not stop us from degenerating into that. Not sure why I went down this tangent. Anyway God’s peace, my brother.

      • I’m with you. Some understandings of impassibility are skewed and reductionistic. I might have one of them. Still working things out. Thankfully we get to work these things out together. Blessings.

      • If you think about it, most people think of God as a man in the sky with white hair who is obsessed with law, order, and justice, and gets angry and offended at sin. This is essentially Zeus. Which view is actually more Hellenistic?

  2. WCF 2.1 There is but one only(1) living and true God,(2) who is infinite in being and perfection,(3) a most pure spirit,(4) invisible,(5) without body, parts,(6) or passions;(7) immutable,(8) immense,(9) eternal,(10) incomprehensible,(11) almighty,(12) most wise,(13) most holy,(14) most free,(15) most absolute,(16) working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will,(17) for His own glory;(18) most loving,(19) gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin,(20) the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him;(21) and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments;(22) hating all sin,(23) and who will by no means clear the guilty.(24)
    (1)Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:4,6.
    (2)1 Thess. 1:9; Jer. 10:10.
    (3)Job 11:7,8,9; Job 26:14.
    (4)John 4:24.
    (5)1 Tim. 1:17.
    (6)Deut. 4:15,16; John 4:24; Luke 24:39.
    (7)Acts 14:11,15.
    (8)James 1:17; Mal. 3:6.
    (9)1 Kings 8:27; Jer. 23:23,24.
    (10)Ps. 90:2;1 Tim. 1:17.
    (11)Ps. 145:3.
    (12)Gen. 17:1; Rev. 4:8.
    (13)Rom. 16:27.
    (14)Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8.
    (15)Ps. 15:3.
    (16)Exod. 3:14.
    (17)Eph. 1:11.
    (18)Prov. 16:4; Rom. 11:36.
    (19)1 John 4:8,16.
    (20)Exod. 34:6,7.
    (21)Heb. 11:6.
    (22)Neh. 9:32,33.
    (23)Ps. 5:5,6.
    (24)Nah. 1:2,3; Exod. 34:7.

      • And still I must say, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not seize it.” Any finite list creates the illusion of an exhaustive list. Individual verses absolutely breathe the Word just as gold attests to God’s glory but we should not take them out of context and reconstitute them as calves of our own design, which was Irenaeus’ critique of the Gnostics.

      • I don’t think the list is meant to be exhaustive. I mean, I think it’s a good one, but I’m okay with God having plenty more attributes. Some of the ones listed by Westminster makes me expect them. I just think it’s a helpful one.
        Also, the verse-referencing is a bit old-school. But, I like to think of it like the NT practice of alluding to or quoting an OT verse and thereby invoking the entire passage. A lot of times, the context bears out the reading given by the Westminster divines.

      • I don’t think the list is meant to be exhaustive. I mean, I think it’s a good one, but I’m okay with God having plenty more attributes. Some of the ones listed by Westminster makes me expect them. I just think it’s a helpful one.
        Also, the verse-referencing is a bit old-school. But, I like to think of it like the NT practice of alluding to or quoting an OT verse and thereby invoking the entire passage. A lot of times, the context bears out the reading given by the Westminster divines.

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