There are few doctrines more maligned or misunderstood than that of the impassibility of God—the idea that God cannot be made to suffer change from without or be overcome with passions.
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 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, impassibility is 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, which 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 twentieth century, especially with the rise of process theism, open theism, and panentheism. Impassibility has also been rejected in various quarters of evangelical theology that cling to otherwise traditional doctrines of God, with John Stott citing Moltmann on this point with approval in his great work, The Cross of Christ. Given that many first encounter the doctrine of impassibility without any real knowledge of historical theology, or of the Fathers’s reasoning for articulating this doctrine, it is easy to see why it has been commonly rejected as the silly invention of “Greek” theologians and their systematizing ways.
While I won’t attempt to cover all the relevant points I want to offer up a few key correctives of popular perceptions of the doctrine, as well as offer some reasons to find this doctrine beautiful along the way.
Clarifying Thoughts on Impassibility
Not a Rock
Critics often contend that the doctrine of impassibility depicts God as an emotionless rock. But 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, rather than its absence. 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. 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. In other words, God is not an emotional teenager.
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 we often 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 that there are two basic ways of construing them: non-cognitivist and cognitivist understandings. Non-cognitivist theories of emotion stress the sub-rational nature of an emotion, like 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 (cf. racial anger, schadenfreude, or jealousy at the good fortune of others). 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.
For many, these highly cognitive emotions will likely 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 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.
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 that 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. But 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 obligation 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 the 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 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. This 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
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, God 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 is the foundation of grace itself.
Derek Rishmawy is the RUF campus minister at the University of California-Irvine, and is a systematic theology PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He contributes to Christ and Pop Culture, Christianity Today, and writes at his own blog, Reformedish. He also co-hosts Mere Fidelity. You can follow him on Twitter @dzrishmawy.