God is not a Vulcan

According to classical theism, God is “without body, parts, or passions” (LBC 2.1). The real trick is understanding what the confessions meant by “passions.” It is typically taken to mean emotions. So what does classical theism make of the Bible’s language when it says “God so loved the world” or “Jacob I love but Esau I hated”? These are termed anthropopathisms. The word is strange but the concept is familiar. When the Psalms speak of God’s outstretched right arm, these are anthropomorphisms. God uses human physiology to explain something about himself. His “mighty right arm” is an accommodating term for his strength and power. It does not mean that God has a physical body since we know that God is spirit (Jn 4:24), what is happening is that God is communicating to us in a manner we can understand.

The notion, then, is that the same happens with God speaks of his love or hatred or anger. In using anthropopathisms he is explaining something about himself to us in term we can understand. Phil Johnson wrote a piece called “God Without Mood Swings” to take a shot at Open Theism’s moody god. This was my first real exposure to the doctrine of impassability and I wasn’t comfortable with it at the time. I’m still not.

When it comes to anthropomorphisms, we have John 4:24 and Luke 24:39 to tell us clearly that God is spirit and spirits do not have a body. What scriptures do we have to tell us that God does not have emotions? None that I’m aware of. What might be meant be better understood by the term “without passions” (whether the original framers of the confessions meant it so or not) is that God is not carried away by his emotions. When we are hit with a strong emotion we can be carried away and regret decisions we made and actions we took. God is not like that, since he is perfect he never makes mistakes and never has regrets.

Consider this on Johnathan Edwards’ view of how God relates to creation, “We can safely say that Edwards clearly left behind him the old classical theism’s Aristotelian concept of God as Unmoved Mover, who is absolutely impassable and unaffected by what happens in the world of space and time” (God’s Relation to the World, in The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards, Sang Hyun Lee, 68). Now it could be that Lee is just plane old wrong. Wrong about either Edwards or Classical Theism. Though I am not familiar with how Classical Theism understood impassibility, I am sure Lee is correct on Edwards. When I took Systematic Theology with Kevin Vanhoozer, he explained impassability as God’s inability to suffer, not his inability to feel. Indeed, Johnson says the same thing.

However, Johnson takes Wayne Grudem to task in his paper for not being clear enough about God’s unchangeableness even though the part of Grudem’s Systematic Theology that Johnson┬ácites comes right after Grudem’s┬álengthy explanation of how God does not change:

In fact, His joy, His wrath, His sorrow, His pity, His compassion, His delight, His love, his hatred–and all the other divine affections–epitomize the very perfection of all the heartfelt affections we know (albeit imperfectly) as humans. His affections are absent the ebb and flow of changeableness that we experience with human emotions, but they are real and powerful feelings nonetheless. To suggest that God is unfeeling is to mangle the intent of the doctrine of impassibility.

So when we discuss God’s impassability, we are not claiming that God does not feel. What is being affirmed is God’s immutability and his omniscience. He isn’t surprised by something unexpected that happens and suddenly carried away by his emotions. God does love and hate. He is pleased and angry. He is joyful and sorry.

Here is Edwards in his own words:

Nor does anything that has been advanced in the least suppose or infer that it does, or is it in the least inconsistent with the eternity, and most absolute immutability of God’s pleasure and happiness. For though these communications of God, these exercises, operation, effects, and expressions of his glorious perfections, which God rejoices in, are in time; yet his joy in them is without beginning or change. They were always equally present in the divine mind. He beheld them with equal clearness, certainty and fullness in every respect, as he doth now. They were always equally present, as with him there is not variableness or succession. He ever beheld and enjoyed them perfectly in his own independent and immutable power and will. And his view of, and joy in, them is eternally, absolutely perfect, unchangeable, and independent. (Edwards, The Ends for Which God Created the World)

You can see that Edwards held the truths of God’s immutability, his foreknowledge and his emotions all together without creating the god of the Open Theists as Johnson fears. I think I’ll side with Edwards (and Grudem!) on this one.

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5 Comments

  • Hear, Hear. I’ve never liked impassibility one bit. I’ve never seen it in scripture either. I definitely can’t see it in the OT and the since the same OT God who reveals the exact imprint of his nature in Christ are we to conclude that Christ’s feelings are merely an aspect of his human nature and not also his divine nature? Isn’t “Jesus wept” an expression of a divine compassion that led the Father to send his own Son in the first place?

    My point is, I think impassibility is contradicted by the incarnation.

    I honestly think this is one area where Greek philosophy snuck into Christian theology in a particularly unwarranted way. BTW, I dont for a moment think that a “passible” God commits one to Open Theism. Unlike impassibility, I think that the classical notion of omniscience is thoroughly biblical.

  • […] Tim Etherington takes up the topic of Divine Impassability. […]

  • But David, in Christ we have two natures, a human and a Divine nature, in one person. Jesus also grew tired and slept, does that mean that God grows tired and sleeps? In his human nature, Jesus felt emotions just as a man would, in his divine nature he felt as God would (what ever that is like).

    The issue is VERY complicated when it comes to Jesus in the Incarnation.

    I agree that a passible God does not equal an Openness Theology conception of God. Johnson seems to imply that pretty clearly. Where we need to be careful to draw the line is that God is never surprised by what happens nor is he sorry in the way we are nor does he repent or change his mind as we do. Since the Openness Theologians want to maintain human freedom as they have conceived it, God must be more like us since we are more like him. Blah. I’ll have none of it, thank you.

  • It is indeed really complicated to try and work through Jesus’ two natures. My point is there is an analogy between Jesus empathizing with our lot and the God who sends him to share our lot. Being tired is just a function of having a body. But is feeling sorrow just a function of having a body?

    How divine feeling works, we can’t say, but we can approach it analogically. The incarnation is a powerful analogy about God’s passability. I think the doctrine of impassability misses some of the significance of what the incarnation say about who God is.

    Just thinking out loud here . . .

  • The Westminster Confession does the same thing “God is … infinite in being and perfection … without body, parts, or passions ….” The proof text for “without passions” is Acts 14:11, 15. Read it, then tell me how those Brits and Scotts came up with that!

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