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It is a basic tenet of classic Christian theology that God is impassible. That means He is not subject to suffering, pain, or the ebb and flow of involuntary passions.
I remember hearing of this doctrine my freshman year in Bible college. Our professor named “impassibility” in a list of divine attributes. As his proof text, he cited the Westminster Confession, which says God is “without … passions” (2.1).
I wanted to probe this issue further. I was troubled by my collegiate dictionary’s definition of impassible: “Incapable of feeling or emotion.” Is that what we mean when we say God is impassible? Is He unfeeling? Is He cold, indifferent, and impervious to His creatures’ plight? Is He apathetic? If He cannot be hurt in any way. how could He ever be grieved (cf. Eph. 4:30)? If He is “without passions,” how could He truly love, be angry, or show real pity? At first glance, “impassible” did not sound like a very apt description of the God of Scripture.
Indeed, when I tentatively raised these questions in class, my theology professor seemed to grow uncomfortable. I was unable to find anyone who could explain divine impassibility, much less give a cogent Biblical defense of this doctrine. Thus, I began a study of divine impassibility with a bias against it.
It did not take long, however, to see that Scripture clearly portrays God as impassible. Not that He is unfeeling or devoid of affections, but He certainly is not subject to the kinds of passions we experience. He is not susceptible to mood swings or temper tantrums. He is not “vulnerable” in any way; He cannot be hurt by His creatures. He does not change His mind. There is no variation or shadow of turning with Him. Those are the very reasons Scripture gives as proof that neither His lovingkindness nor any of His other dispositions can ever falter, fail, or fluctuate (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Lam. 3:22–23; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17).
Our God is a rock—not in the sense of a cold, unfeeling, inanimate object, but in the sense of being perfectly steadfast and absolutely unchanging (Deut. 32:4). That is what is meant in the creeds that affirm God’s impassibility.
Nonetheless, the doctrine of divine impassibility has lately fallen on hard times. One well-respected Reformed pastor recently wrote: “The notion of God’s ‘impassability’ [sic] is pagan and not Biblical…. The Christian thinkers who advanced this Hellenic nonsense thought they were doing God a favor. He has no need of such help.” And a recent, popular systematic theology offhandedly dismisses impassibility as “the idea that God has no passions or emotions at all” (emphasis in original).
Advocates of open theism have seized on this issue and made it a focus of their attack against the historic Christian understanding of God. They deliberately attempt to perpetuate the notion that a passionless God must be entirely uncaring and unfeeling. Here is how one advocate of open theism caricatures the doctrine of impassibility:
“God dwells in perfect bliss outside the sphere of time and space…. [H]e remains essentially unaffected by creaturely events and experiences. He is untouched by the disappointment, sorrow, or suffering of His creatures. Just as His sovereign will brooks no opposition, His serene tranquility knows no interruption.”
A few years ago, Christianity Today vigorously jumped into this debate, boldly renouncing divine impassibility and insisting that a god who can experience emotional suffering is the only kind of deity who can truly love: “The traditional understanding of God as impassible makes it impossible to say that ‘God is love.’ An almighty God who cannot suffer is poverty stricken because he cannot love or be involved,” the magazine declared.
Open theists have argued that God must be able to experience frustrated desires, suffering, agony, and severe emotional anguish. They say that unless such injuries may be inflicted upon Him by His creatures, God is incapable of knowing true love, for love is vulnerability.
Because so many people who supposedly affirm the classic view of God have abandoned or forgotten the Biblical truth of God’s impassibility, this point of doctrine has become an easy target for cheap shots from open theists. They know (even if the average Christian in the pew does not) that this doctrine is vital to the historic Christian concept of God.
Here are a few important distinctions to help you gain a better grasp of what we mean when we say God is impassible:
- To say that God is “without passions” is first and foremost another way of saying that He cannot be afflicted or injured in any way. The word passion stems from the Latin passio, which means “suffering.” When the writers of the Westminster Confession said God is “without passions,” they did not mean He lacks any feeling or sensitivity whatsoever, but that He is not subject to reactionary fits and feelings such as rage, misery, or romantic desires—emotions that are controlled by external stimuli rather than by God Himself.
- God is certainly not without holy affections—the kind of “feelings” that stem from His own will and character, and are completely under His sovereign control. That is exactly what Scripture means when it speaks of God’s unfailing love for His people, His unwavering wrath against sin, and His tender compassion for those who suffer.
- God’s affections, then, are unlike our emotions in this sense: they are absent any of the rising-falling, ebbing-flowing, rollercoaster effect we typically associate with human passions. God’s affections are fixed and steady dispositions. His hatred, His love, His wrath, and all His other attitudes are proactive, not reactive. They are always deliberate, never involuntary. His tender mercies, for example, are not merely sentimental feelings, and His wrath is not merely a bad mood. These attributes are as immutable as the unchanging mind of God, even though from time to time He reveals His delight and His displeasure, His compassion and His wrath, in lesser or greater degrees. These affections are not to be equated with human excitements.
- That means Biblical expressions such as those found in Exodus 22:24 (“My wrath will become hot”) and Judges 10:16 (“His soul could no longer endure the misery of Israel”) are “anthropopathisms”— figurative expressions assigning human moods to God. They are the emotional equivalent of those familiar physical metaphors known as anthropomorphisms—when hands (Ex. 15:17), eyes (2 Chron. 16:9), arms (Isa. 51:5), or other body parts are ascribed to God. We are not to think of God in human terms. “You thought that I was altogether like you, but I will rebuke you,” God says in Psalm 50:21. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9). Scripture frequently reminds us that the affections of God are ultimately inscrutable (cf. Eph. 3:19; Rom. 11:33).
- Although such anthropopathisms are figures of speech, they are not without meaning. They aim to teach us something about God. Specifically, they reveal His permanent dispositions with regard to sin, sinners, and the elect, whom God loves with an everlasting love. They also are meant as reassurances to us that God is not uninvolved with or indifferent to His creatures. But they are not to be interpreted literally, as if God’s temperament were subject to shifts and oscillations.
- God’s joy, His wrath, His sorrow, His pity, His compassion, His delight, His love, His hatred—and all the other divine affections—constitute the very perfections of the many heartfelt affections we know (albeit imperfectly) as humans. To suggest that God is unfeeling is to mangle the intent of the doctrine of impassibility.
- The “passion” of Christ—His suffering on the cross—was a torment He endured as a man. He also was “moved with compassion” as a man (Matt. 14:14; Mark 6:34). The human Christ epitomized the tender mercies of God, yet the feelings Scripture ascribes to Him in His incarnation are clearly expressions of His human emotions. Christ’s humanity is absolutely essential to His priesthood, precisely because as our Great High Priest, He stands before God as a man—the perfect Man—and as One who knows our frailties (cf. Heb. 5:2). “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknessess” (Heb. 4:15). Thus, in Christ the immutable affections of God are brought together with sinless human emotions, and shown to be perfectly compatible in this important sense: Our emotions are an expression of the image of God in us. In Christ’s divine nature, however, He remains impassible—”the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).