There is an historic doctrine of the church whose retrieval might be timely. The Impassability of God. Timely because more often than not I’ve found Christians of all stripes, many with a loosened grip on Scripture, its idioms, context and content, confused by the biblical writers use of anthropopathisms (the attribution of human emotions or the ascription of human feelings/passions to speak about God). Several recent conversations were brought to mind when I read Wesley Hill’s most recent article (linked to below) catalyzing an awareness that perhaps the confusion over the matter is more broad than simply my little corner of the world here in Charleston, SC; and that I might perhaps point to a few resources to flesh out the benefits of our reaffirmation of this doctrine. First though a quick overview.
The doctrine of divine impassability simply states that God is not capable of being acted upon or affected emotionally by anything in creation. The Anglican Church’s Thirty Nine Articles of Religion begin with the assertion that “there is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions”
For some – all in the above referenced conversations – the idea that God does not suffer, or is in any way affected by what we do or not do (that he is ‘without passions’) sounds bizarre. Doesn’t this make God some kind of iceberg? The idea that God only ever acts upon creation and is never acted upon is often dismissed instinctively as self-evidently wrong. Divine impassability is completely contrary our culturally formed and therapeutically informed intuition. To our understanding, it is impossible for God to be impassible, because then God could not in any way identify fully with humanity nor could He be loving in any genuine sense of the word.
It is the thread of divine impassibility that Nicholas P. Wolterstorff picks up in the article, Does God Suffer? (Modern Reformation). There he tells the reader that he rejected the doctrine of impassibility after the death of his own son. Shattered by grief, Wolterstorff concluded that God could not possibly be unmoved by human tragedy. Simultaneously, he admits that the denial of this doctrine is like a thread that, when pulled, unravels our entire understanding of God. “Once you pull on the thread of impassibility, a lot of other threads come along . . . . One also has to give up immutability (changelessness) and eternity. If God responds, then God is not metaphysically immutable; and if not metaphysically immutable, then not eternal” (p.47). I have appreciation for both his paternal instinct as well as his recognition of the necessary end of his argument – which is why I find a reassertion of this historic doctrine timely and necessary.
Is God an iceberg? Is God indifferent and remote from His creation? How are we to read the biblical texts where God is described as having emotions? Christian theology has consistently denied that God is cold and remote from his creation. A distinction, though, is necessary. God’s immutability is not inertia. The assertion that God does not change His mind in no way necessitates that He is absent thought. Likewise, the fact that God is not subject to involuntary passions does not mean He is absent true affections. The Infinite communicating to the finite took upon Himself flesh and blood. The very human authors of Holy Scripture, seeking to articulate this wonder, employed of necessity anthropopathic language. The use of such language was not intended to mean that God’s mind and God’s affections are like human thoughts and passions as there is never anything involuntary, irrational, or arbitrary about the divine affections.
Addressing this matter of impassibility, J. I. Packer wrote:
This means, not that God is impassive and unfeeling (a frequent misunderstanding), but that no created beings can inflict pain, suffering and distress on him at their own will. In so far as God enters into suffering and grief (which Scripture’s many anthropopathisms, plus the fact of the cross, show that he does), it is by his own deliberate decision; he is never his creatures’ hapless victim. The Christian mainstream has construed impassibility as meaning not that God is a stranger to joy and delight, but rather that his joy is permanent, clouded by no involuntary pain. (New Dictionary of Theology, edited by Ferguson and Wright, Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998, p.277)
It is instructive to note Packer’s emphasis: God’s affections are never passive and involuntary, but rather always active and deliberate. Packer writes elsewhere,
[Impassibility is] not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in face of the creation; not insensitivity and indifference to the distresses of a fallen world; not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief; but simply that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us, for his are foreknown, willed and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are. (God Who Is Rich in Mercy, edited by O’Brien and Peterson, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986, p. 16)
Does all of this really matter? If, as has been said, true wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves, it matters a great deal. Knowledge of God is the first necessity to know ourselves. At the very center of our faith is the steadfastness and faithfulness of God. The doctrine of Divine Impassability is, as Wolterstorff notes a thread. One thread in the tapestry of the Christian faith. Woven and interconnected to other doctrines. Some threads are more integral to the whole, and when pulled, threaten to distort the object of our faith and undermine the foundation of our hope. My concern is that pulling this thread – divesting God of His incommunicable attributes and undermining the steadfast constancy of His faithfulness takes us a long way down the road of recreating God in our image.
For further reading:
Wesley Hill: The New “New Orthodoxy” : Only the Impassible God Can Help. The article appeared in First Things.
Mark Baddeley: The God of Love. This article, a longer article appeared in The Briefing (Matthias Media)