Doctrine Questions

A Few Thoughts about the Impassibility of God

Impassibility defined plus a few articles
Classic Christian orthodoxy teaches that God is impassible—that is, not subject to suffering, pain, or involuntary passions. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, God is “without body, parts, or passions, immutable.” The doctrine of the passibility of God has to do with the theology of the “suffering” of God. Does God suffer? Can He truly feel emotional pain?
“Those who predicate any change whatsoever of God, whether with respect to his essence, knowledge, or will, diminish all his attributes: independence, simplicity, eternity, omniscience, and omnipotence. This robs God of his divine nature, and religion of its firm foundation and assured comfort.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:158)
According to J.I. Packer, we need to re-think the meaning of divine impassibility (note that this was before the “Open Theism” wars). He writes:
This conception of God [as impassible] represents no single biblical term, but was introduced into Christian theology in the second century. What was it supposed to mean? The historical answer is: Not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in the face of the creation. Not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief, either. It means simply that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us. His are foreknown, willed, and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart form his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are. This understanding was hinted at earlier, but it is spelled out here because it is so important, and so often missed. Let us be clear: A totally impassive God would be a horror, and not the God of Calvary at all. He might belong in Islam; he has no place in Christianity. If, therefore, we can learn to think of the chosenness of God’s grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility, so-called, we will do well.”
J.I. Packer, “What Do You Mean When You Say God?” Christianity Today (Sept 1986): 31 (27-31).
Here’s what I mean—to be specific. What ordinary lay Christian, just reading his or her Bible, without the help of any of the standard conservative evangelical systematic theologies, would ever arrive at the doctrines of divine simplicity, immutability, or impassibility as articulated by those systematic theologians (e.g., “without body, parts or passions” as the Westminster Confession has it)? Without body, okay. But without parts or passions? The average reader of Hosea, for example, gets the image of God as passionate. While “parts” isn’t exactly the best term for the persons of the Trinity, a biblical reader will probably think of God as complex and dynamic being rather than as “simple substance.”
Take the doctrine of God’s “aseity”—absolute self-sufficiency. According to Protestant (and Catholic) scholasticism, including much conservative evangelical theology, God cannot be affected by anything outside himself. He is “pure actuality without potentiality.” Who would guess that from just reading the Bible? I wouldn’t. And yet it is touted by many conservative evangelicals as orthodox doctrine not to be questioned. To question it is to dishonor God and detract from his glory!
Is divine impassibility true?
B1 God does not change—immutability See Psalm 102:27 (God doesn’t get old nor He die), James 1:17 (God’s character and God’s laws and rules. God doesn’t change and later allow what earlier had been a sin), Malachi 3:6 (He keeps His promises (if they are unconditional)).
B2 God does reveal His character in the Bible—mercy, love, anger, etc. See John 3:16, Psalm 11:5, Genesis 19:16, Ephesian 4:30, Psalm 78:40, John 15:11, and Isaiah 62:5.
B3 Jesus suffered See Acts 26:23, Psalm 22:14-18, and Isaiah 53. Some say that it was the “man” that suffered not God, but, it seems to me, they are splitting the Lord Jesus Christ. They seem to believe this: Jesus, the man, suffered with pain both physical and emotional, but Jesus, God, was stoic and did not suffer. This does not sound reasonable to me. Jesus is one person with two natures and two wills. See Athanasian Creed. The important part of the creed for our discussion follows this article.
B4 God felt affliction along with His people. See Isaiah 63:9 and Jeremiah 31:20.
B5 God never changes regarding His decisions, laws, character, and unconditional promises. The immutability of God doesn’t mean that there is inconsistency with His emotions and desires.
B6 Regarding God’s promises
C1 An unconditional promise: God never changes His mind. It will happen. 1 Corinthians 15:52 and many others.
C2 A conditional promise: Depending on a person or nation’s response, God makes a decision. See Deuteronomy 27-28, Luke 13:3 and 5, Revelation 2:22, etc.
B7 God has strong desires.
C1 Psalms 51:6 NRSV You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
D1 The word desire is חָפֵץ châphêts. It means
E1 to delight in, take pleasure in, desire, be pleased with (Qal)
F1 of men
G1 to take pleasure in, delight in
G2 to delight, desire, be pleased to do
F2 of God
G1 to delight in, have pleasure in
G2 to be pleased to do
D2 I would think most humans would understand Shechem’s delight in the following passage. Genesis 34:19 AFV And the young man did not hesitate to do the thing because he had delight in Jacob’s daughter. And he was more honorable than all the house of his father.
D3 I would think most humans would understand what Solomon is writing about in Song of Solomon 2:7. Compare the various translations.
D4 The word can be translated will but when speaking about feelings towards someone it is desire, a strong emotion used in various senses. Even though it can be translated will (NRSV for example), one can sense the strong emotions of God. 1 Samuel 2:25 NKJV If one man sins against another, God will judge him. But if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?” Nevertheless they did not heed the voice of their father, because the LORD desired to kill them.
D5 God does have strong emotions.
C2 God changed His mind, in other words, the conditions He decreed were met. This teaches about His conditional promises. God is NEVER surprised or unaware of the future whether known or unknown to us. Open Theism is error. Exodus 32:14 NLT So the LORD changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people.
C3 I think most people would agree that making another person grieve would cause emotional suffering. How else can we understand the plain words of Scripture? Ephesians 4:30 NRSV And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Compare Isaiah 63:9-10, Matthew 27:46 (is it only his “man” that suffers? Jesus is one person with two natures), and Hosea 11:8. It is true that God does not suffer physical pain for His is not physical; God is spirit.
B7 The penal substitution is what is taught in Scriptures.
C1 A law has been broken. God states that the penalty for breaking His laws is death. Someone must be punished. Regarding my sins either I am punished, or a substitute is punished. That substitute must be sinless (else would have to die for their own sins), voluntary, and otherwise acceptable. Only Jesus is qualified.
C2 Articles about penal substitution: here and here.
C3 Verses: Genesis 22:13, Isaiah 53:4-6, and 1 Peter 2:23-25, etc.
B8 God does not vacillate from one standard or character traits to another set of traits. He is not moody. He is even tempered and reliable. Yet, He does become angry. See how God became emotionally angry
C1 With Moses. God’s anger appears to have happened quickly. Exodus 4:14 NIV Then the LORD’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you.
C2 With Moses. Exodus 4:24 NKJV And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him.
C3 With the children of Israel: Numbers 11:1 NLT Soon the people began to complain about their hardship, and the LORD heard everything they said. Then the LORD’s anger blazed against them, and he sent a fire to rage among them, and he destroyed some of the people in the outskirts of the camp.
We must not turn to philosophy to answer questions. The Bible teaches us about God’s character and is true.
But it is necessary for eternal salvation
that one also believe in the incarnation
of our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully.
Now this is the true faith:
That we believe and confess
that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son,
is both God and human, equally.
He is God from the essence of the Father,
begotten before time;
and he is human from the essence of his mother,
born in time;
completely God, completely human,
with a rational soul and human flesh;
equal to the Father as regards divinity,
less than the Father as regards humanity.
Although he is God and human,
yet Christ is not two, but one.
He is one, however,
not by his divinity being turned into flesh,
but by God’s taking humanity to himself.
He is one,
certainly not by the blending of his essence,
but by the unity of his person.
For just as one human is both rational soul and flesh,
so too the one Christ is both God and human.
He suffered for our salvation;
he descended to hell;
he arose from the dead;
he ascended to heaven;
he is seated at the Father’s right hand;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
At his coming all people will arise bodily
and give an accounting of their own deeds.
Those who have done good will enter eternal life,
and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.
A Few Thoughts about the Impassibility of God
Posted by Choco at 08:22 on 13 Dec 20
Labels: God’s Character Traits, impassibility


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