In my mind, one of the easiest doctrines in Christian theology to caricature is divine impassibility, the notion that God is not subject to passions. Ever since my study in divine simplicity last spring, I’ve been wanting to read more about divine impassibility, which is something like a sister doctrine to simplicity. In my mind, divine impassibility is one of those doctrines that demonstrates the value of studying historical theology. When we approach it directly from a theological or philosophical angle, it can seem (like simplicity) bizarre, plainly unbiblical, even monstrous. But if you trace its development historically, getting a sense of why it was developed and what its defenders meant by it, a very different picture emerges. I would say, after a little bit of study, that what impassibility ultimately means is not that God is devoid of an emotional life, but that He is perfect God in His emotional life. Counter-intuitively, I find it a comforting doctrine.
Two great resources for learning more about divine impassibility are:
1) Derek Rishmawy has a helpful and articulate post over at Mere Orthodoxy in which he untangles many of the misconceptions associated with this doctrine. He rebuts the wrong idea that impassibility means God has no emotions whatsoever, drawing attention to the distinction the fathers and medieval theologians made between “passions” and “affections.” He interacts with some of the biblical arguments, showing that biblical assertions about God’s emotions need not be taken as mere “anthropomorphisms,” although they must be interpreted in light of a strong Creator-creation distinction. He also demonstrates how impassibility springs from a high view of divine sovereignty and Lordship, and how a rich doctrine of impassibility and a rich doctrine of the Incarnation ultimately support one another. Here’s my favorite quote:
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.
2) Crossway put out a helpful book recently by Rob Lister called God Is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion (2012). It comes from Lister’s doctoral work under Bruce Ware at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He argues that divine simplicity in patristic thought did not generally entail the notion that God was completely without emotions, but rather that God’s emotions are completely unlike our own. According to Lister, the majority of church fathers held to a “two-pronged approach” which affirmed “both the impassibility of God and God’s passionate involvement with his creation” (21). As Lister quotes J.I. Packer: “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” (33).
One of the things I appreciate about his book is that he does not present his view as “third way” between the classic doctrine and contemporary rejections of it (a strategy that often feels artificial and too convenient), but rather as clarification of what the classic doctrine had always affirmed. Early on he writes, “it was not until I read the Fathers themselves that I came to realize how markedly different their views seemed to be in comparison to the interpretations of their views by their modern critics” (32). Although I have not read widely enough to know if Lister is right, I am sympathetic to this claim because I found the exact same thing to be true in my study in divine simplicity. You approach the doctrine via systematic theology and philosophy, and it appears cold, static, “Greek,” and often incoherent. It seems easy to disprove and obvious to jettison. The tone of the treatment frequently comes off as, why in the world did anyone believe this? But when you approach the doctrine via historical theology, it appears as a living, vibrant part of the church’s witness and worship, filling an important apologetic gap, and complexifying and enriching our vision of God. You start to get a sense of just how much we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, and how our attitude toward tradition should always be marked, not by slavish devotion, but nevertheless by respect and carefulness.
It seems to me that this is a reason why evangelicals should spend more time reading the church fathers and medieval theologians. They can help us bulk up our understanding of classical theology proper, an area in which I think we have historically been weak. Its encouraging to see evangelical Protestants like Lister engaging with these important issues. I think it fills a gap.