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Addressing the topic of divine impassibility
by Daniel H. Chew
The doctrine of divine impassibility is an established historic Christian doctrine. However, recently it has came under attacks of various sorts. Is the doctrine truly biblical, or is merely Greek philosophy smuggled into the early church?
In his book A Faith Worth Believing, Living and Commending by Dennis Ngien (Eugene, OR, USA: Wipf & Stock, 2008), chapter 2 is entitled The God Who Suffers: An Argument for God's Emotions. In this chapter, Ngien attempts to argue for the position of the passibility of God; or in other words, that God has emotions ad intra and is affected by them..
I have previously addressed the error of Open Theism and also touch on the error of Process Theology in another book review some time back. Being a confessionalist, it is saddening to see Evangelical scholars moving in the same trajectory as the above two systems of thought. The doctrine of the impassibility of God is historically believed and a confessional standard of the orthodox catholic (small 'c') Protestant, Evangelical and Reformed faith. As the Westminster Confession puts it (which is repeated almost ad verbatim in the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith and the Savoy Declaration):
There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, longsuffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal most just and terrible in his judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.
(WCF, Chapter II Of God and of the Holy Trinity, Paragraph I)
And as stated in the 39 articles of the Church of England:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this God-head there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
(39 articles of CoE, Chapter I Of Faith in the Holy Trinity, Paragraph 1)
That God is without passions is a confessional statement of the Reformed and Presbyterian, Baptist and the Anglican faith. Although the continental confessions do not have it (being written earlier in the fires of the Reformation), yet such is a likely inference from their references to God's simplicity and His incomprehensibility and unchangeability (Belgic CoF, Article 1 The Only God).
That said, does the Scripture itself teaches that God has passions? Does God suffers? Let us evaluate the Scriptural basis for the confessional position, and then evaluate Ngien's argument for divine passibility.
The Scriptural basis for divine impassibility
The scripture passage given to support the Westminster position is Acts 14:11,15, which states:
And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11)
“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. (v. 15)
And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein: (Acts 14:15 - KJV)
(Acts 14:15 - NA26)
The phrase "of like nature" in the ESV is homoiopatheis (όμοιοπαθεις), better translated as "like passions" as in the KJV (homoio-: similar; -patheis: passions, affections). The passage states as a fact that God does not have the same or even similar emotions than us, since 'same' (homo-) is a subset of 'similar' (homoio-) as what is same is definitely similar. While it does not rule out God having emotions, the fact of the matter is that God does not have our type or kind of emotions.
When seen in context, Paul and Barnabas were presenting this against the idolatrous worship offered to them by the people of Lystra who thought of them as gods, or rather that the gods have come down in the likeness (homoioothentes) of men. In response, Paul and Barnabas protested that God is most emphatically not like men; the vain things are not like the living God.
While it may seem a stretch to base an entire doctrine on one verse, the fact of the matter is that this is merely the most explicit verse on the topic. Scripture abound with proclamations that God is not like us humans, the most famous being of course Is. 55:9, where God states how much infinitely higher his ways and thoughts are compared to us. Given the (humanly) unbridgeable gulf between God and men, men can never approach God except if God condescends to us in revelation through the twin truths of the logos theopneustos (Jn. 1:1; 2 Tim. 3:16) and the logos ensarkos (Jn. 1:14); both sides of the same aspect of God's revelation, one epistemic and the other ontological.
Since God is unlike us humans at least with regards to emotions, ways and the type of thoughts, God being immutable cannot have passions, since passions are ever-changing and reacting to the environment. Our God is not a Process theological deity who changes with the times, neither is He an Openness deity whose thoughts are ever reacting and changing with the choices of men.
As God does not have passions, whatever emotions He must have (if He possesses them) must be self-determined and independent of the environment whether of heaven (the angels and saints) and of the world (the earth and the universe). In other words, God's emotions must be self-expressed through His will (volitional) ad extra rather than any reactions to the environment ad intra.
Gordon Clark, in commenting on the Westminster Confession on this topic, sums it up nicely:
"What is meant by saying that God has no passions? Is the word passion used in its contemporary romantic sense, or does it have a broader meaning. Is an emotion a passion? If it is, shall we say that God has no emotions? Do we ordinarily consider it a compliment when we call a man emotional? Can we trust a person who has violent ups and downs? Is it not unwise to act on the spur of the moment? Would then an emotional God be dependable? How come God have emotions, if he is immutable?
But someone says, God is love, and love is an emotion, is it not? Well, is it? Or., better, is what we call love in God an emotion? For that matter, is our love for God an emotion? In common conversation we do not think it makes much sense to command one person to love another. We are inclined to think it unreasonable to demand that a man should get emotional about something that happens to please us but does not please him. Love cannot be commanded. Yet God commands out love. He issues an order: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God. Is this a command to become emotional? To have ups and downs, sudden surges and ebbings? Oh, No! someone replies. Our love should never ebb. But it never ebbs, it cannot surge. Without a down, there can be no up. We agree, do we not, that our love for God should be steady. And we agree that God's love for us is unchangeable. Then is not such a mental activity or attitude better designated a volition than an emotion?
[Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe? (Unicoi, TN, USA: Trinity Foundation, 2001), pp. 29-30]
[HT: Joel Tay]
Scripture therefore teaches the impassibility of God. God does not have like passions as us, and His "emotions" are objective volitional ones void of instability and changeability like ours.
Examining Ngien's position
In this chapter of reasonable length, Ngien tried to prove the passibility of God. Although the subtitle is an argument for God's emotions, what is proved is not merely whether God has emotions, but that such emotions are passions ad intra, a real God who suffers. Ngien goes on to even state that "If God is devoid of passions, we would have to re-write the Bible" (p. 14), certainly a strong statement on the topic of divine (im)passibility.
The first section saw Ngien immediately and explicitly stating his opposition to the traditional doctrine of divine impassibility, in which he defines divine impassibility as "the notion that God cannot suffer since God stands outside the realm of human pain and sorrow" (p. 12), a much more narrow definition of the doctrine than previously stated above. It is with astonishment that Ngien has decided to call the doctrine of divine impassibility "a Greek idea". As I have incidentally addressed in my response to Open Theism,
One major problem [with the Open Theists' position] ... is that to postulate that the concept (not just the language) of immutability and impassibility as applied to God as being Greek concepts and not Christian concepts, it must be the case that in Greek thought there must be only one concept of God in these aspects. In other words, there cannot exist in Greek thought concurrently the concept of God being immutable and that of being mutable, or being passable and impassable. If that were to be the case, then either way Christianity can be said to imbibe on Greek thought either way, since both logically contradictory positions are covered by Greek thought. And this is what we will see to the case in Greek culture. The gods present in the popular Greek religion are mutable and passable, whereas the philosopher's Ideal or idea of God is immutable and impassable. Since this is the case, how then can Sanders prove his position? We could say that the Open Theists view is actually the Christianization of Greek popular religion, and that would be even more accurate, since the worldviews of both the modern age and during the times of the Greeks are very similar.
The link to Greek philosophy is simply an example of the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Worse still is the fact that Greek popular religion have gods that are mutable and passible. So whichever position we take on the topic, there is simply no way to get around the charge of "borrowing from the Greeks". Ngien's charge of the Hellinic hijacking of theology is indeed erroneous. Furthermore, if such were the case, is Ngien suggesting that the Church in her 2000 years of history have gotten this most basic concept wrong?
Ngien must be commended for honestly noting his opposition to the established orthodoxy of the Church, and states his opposition stems from the teachings of Scripture. Most definitely, tradition does not determine truth, and it is right to follow Scripture instead of tradition when they differ. However, is Scripture really on Ngien's side?
The two main objections raised by Ngien against the teaching of God's impassibility are: 1) Can an unfeeling God love?, and 2) Was God present at the Cross?, which are also the titles of the sections in this chapter dealing with the topic.
Ngien's first objection lies in what he thinks is the nature of love. In his own words, "love implies vulnerability", and therefore "the traditional understanding of God as impassible makes it impossible to say that "God is love" (p. 13). Quite a few anecdotal evidences of his mother's love for him etc were given, but the main line of evidence is that without vulnerability and the ability to fell pain with us, God's love cannot be true love. In Ngien's own words, "God's goodness means that he loves us with a completely unconditional love, involving himself with us even in our pain" (p. 14).
It can be immediately seen that no exegesis of Scripture is offered for this objection to divine impassibility. Rather, philosophy is utilized. While philosophy per se is not wrong, philosophy must serve the truths revealed from Scripture. If Scripture teaches doctrine X, then no amount of philosophizing should remove doctrine X. As we have seen, the impassibility of God is taught in Scripture, and it can be deduced from the doctrine of God's immutability, a closely linked doctrine.
Ngien offered this objection based upon the love of God. But what exactly is God's love? As quoted by Gordon Clark earlier, is God's love an emotion or a volition? Or put in another way, is God's love a subjective reaction to the environment or an objective choice of His Will? Ngien in possibly reacting to a stoic understanding of God has swung to the other side. Certainly, Ngien is correct to say that "God is not emotionally unstable and cannot be manipulated by humans" ( p. 14). But how does his proposal of God being vulnerable make Him not emotionally unstable and non-manipulatable by humans?
The basic error in Ngien's argument is to wrongly equate love to vulnerability, and to think of divine love as being the same or even similar to human love. But God's love is not human love. As Clark said, God commands love, yet no human can ever commands love. Human love is analogous to divine love, not similar. God's love is an action of His will creating "emotions" ad extra (outside of the being of God). We cannot relate to God as a mere human to human contact, for God is God and we are not. With regards to God having sympathy for us, it is precisely in light of this problem that passages such as those in Hebrews exist.
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb. 2:17-18)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15)
It is in Christ that we can find someone who can sympathize with us. Certainly, that would be a strange thing to say if God Himself can sympathize with us on a human level? Why would Jesus as the High Priest be said to be able to sympathize with us, since the human high priests at their best certainly could sympathize with God's people as well? Such texts could only be understood as saying that in the person of Jesus God could sympathize with us, not otherwise.
Ngien's second line of reasoning is even stranger. In his own words, "If the attribute of impassibility is ascribed to God, there can be no real incarnation of God in Jesus" (p. 14)! The orthodox teaching of Jesus being 100% God and 100% Man does not seem to be factored in here. In the Incarnation, God in Christ took on human flesh (Jn. 1:14) and thus a human nature. Ngien continues to state that this manifests itself in the early church fathers separating "Jesus' humanity from his deity, thus in effect making each nature an independent person, as the Nestorian heresy does" (p. 15). This is wrong on many counts. The orthodox Chalcedon teaching on Christology states that Christ is
... recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ (Definition of Chalcedon)
The two natures of Christ can be distinguished but not separated. When Christ suffered and died on the Cross, he suffered and died as a person, not as natures, for they cannot be separated as Chalcedon maintains. In opposition to Ngien, Chalcedon stresses that we cannot separate the two nature of Christ. It is Christ as a person who died, not the natures that die. So therefore, while the early church fathers can distinguish the two natures and say that Christ's human nature is the one that really suffered and died (certainly it would be blasphemy to said that God has actually died), the fact of the matter is that we cannot separate the natures and confuse nature and persons. The sufferings of Christ is indeed real and for our behalf because Christ did it as a person for us, and this should be enough for us.
So Christ could indeed really suffer for us, and thus His person on earth and His human nature has passions. Yet, it is a stretch to ascribe that to His divinity, and then form there extrapolate that to the Godhead Himself; it is a total logical non-sequitur. God thus suffer for us in the person of Christ, while still remaining impassible as to His essential being. Ngien's objection here therefore does not take into account Chalcedon's formulation of the difference between nature and person, and in fact falls into the error of separating the natures.
With this covered, Ngien's objections against the doctrine of divine impassibility are groundless. What then of the practical aspect?
In the practical application of Ngien's doctrine, Ngien called the church to be the "church of the suffering Christ", suffering for Christ in this world. While certainly, we will suffer for the Gospel and are to help those who are suffering, yet this it seems is taking the whole idea too far. Suffering is what will happen, but our goal in this life is not suffering. The goal of our lives is the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), not suffering per se. Ngien's emphasis seems misplaced here. The Christian is not here to proclaim that Christ suffers for His people and that He suffers when they suffer. The Christian is here to proclaim the Gospel message of Justification by Faith Alone, and that human suffering is the consequences of sins, whether ours or not. The solution is not that Christ suffers with us, but that Christ has paid for the most important penalty (damnation) for us by dying on our behalf. THAT is the gospel.
In conclusion, Ngien's arguments for divine passibility are therefore seen to be without biblical basis, and should thus be rejected as errant. God is thus, as the historic confessions put it, "without passions". The God of the Bible is a God who wills and desires what He will bring to pass, and does not have emotional hang ups. As Phil Johnson puts it, our God is not one with mood-swings. Amen.