God, emotions, passion and impassibility

As we are dipping back into the question about how we know and talk about God, I thought I’d quickly revisit the question of God and emotions.

Remember, that the classical position is that God is “impassible” or without passions. This is interpreted negatively by some (e.g Open Theists) to suggest that God is portrayed as cold, disinterested, lacking emotion. Clark Pinnock puts it this way:

“Impassibility is the most dubious of the divine attributes discussed in classical theism, because it suggests that God does not experience sorrow, sadness or pain. It appears to deny that God is touched by the feeling of our infirmities, despite what the bible eloquently says about his love and his sorrow. How can God be loving and not pained by evil? How can God be impassible when the incarnate Son experienced suffering and death?”[1]

The question about impassibility comes up in the recent debate I mentioned where a number of Reformed scholars are accused of departing from a classical position on the Doctrine of God.

I thought it might be worth just picking up on how just a couple of key Christian thinkers and writers have talked about God through history including some key Reformed thinkers from before the 20th and 21st Century.

First of all, here is Athanasius

“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own.”[2]

Note, that Athanasius describes the Son’s love as expressed in him “stooping” and entering “the world in a new way.”  He sees our state and is “moved with compassion” and “unable to endure…” Remember,  Athanasius is one of the Church Fathers. He was a key figure in the battle for an orthodox view of the Trinity. He is firmly within the classical theist tradition.  Yet here he is using language a long way away from the stereotype suggested by Pinnock’s accusation.

Secondly, here is John Calvin describing God’s providence:

“It were cold and lifeless to represent God as a momentary Creator, who completed his work once for all and then left it.”[3]

He goes on to say about the human mind

“On learning that there is a Creator, it must forthwith infer that he is also the Governor and Preserver, and that, not by producing a kind of general motion in the machine of the globe as well as in each of its parts, but by a special Providence, sustaining, cherishing, superintending, all the things which he has made, to the very minutest, even to the sparrow.”[4]

Remember that this is John Calvin, a founding figure  of the Reformation and father of Reformed Theology. This is a man who is often portrayed as austere and strict. He is the guardian of theology that emphasises God’s sovereignty. Here we find Calvin wanting to reject a theology that is “cold and lifeless.” Notice his choice of language to describe God’s engagement with creation. We have a God who cherishes “all the things which he has made.”

Commenting on John 3:16, Calvin says:

“The correct direction in which faith should be fixed, says the evangelist, is on Christ, where it view God’s heart filled with love. Our firm and constant support is to rely on Christ’s death as the only pledge of that love. The Greek word for ‘one and only’ is emphatic to emphasise the fervour of the love God has for us.”[5]

As a Reformed thinker, Calvin was not alone in seeking to pick up on something of the depth and tenderness of God’s Love.  Reformed Historian, Richard Muller comments:

“The Reformed orthodox conception of divine impassibility does not argue a God who lacks love, mercy, anger, hate, or (indeed!) pleasure, but who has all of these relations to the world order. The exclusion of ‘passions’ from the divine being never implied the absence of ‘affections’.”[6]

The distinction between “passions” and “affections” is perhaps a helpful distinction as we look for appropriate analogical language to describe God’s relationship to us.

Now the point is this. A classical understanding of the God who is eternal and unchanging, the God who is “impassible” in that he is not governed by and does not succumb to passions does not go against or exclude description of a God who is full of affections and that God’s Word and Christians throughout history do not shrink back from describing in emotional terms.

This means:

  1. That you do not need to abandon a classical understanding of God’s sovereignty, his aseity, impassibility and immutability to talk about God’s loving engagement with us.
  2. That seeking to describe God in those terms, providing all the safe guards of an appropriate Biblical, Theological framework are in place does not put someone outside of reformed orthodoxy and beyond the pale.

[1] Pinnock, “Systematic Theology” in The Openness of God, 106.

[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 2 (8).

[3] Calvin, Institutes, I.xvi.1. (Beveridge 1:171).

[4] Calvin, Institutes, I. xvi.1.  (Beveridge 1:172).

[5] John Calvin, John (Crossway), 77.

[6] Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 33.