Divine impassibility?

I think I’ve posted on similar topics in the past here, but I just finished reading a blog post by Reformed philosopher Paul Helm, and it has got me to thinking. I have gone back and forth about this particular divine attribute, but a few things are making me think there is a good biblical defense for it, once it is understood correctly.

Starting from an attribute nearly every Christian would affirm is biblical, God’s omniscience (in the full sense), we know that God knows everything about every moment in time. His knowledge does not grow or decrease through time.

In addition, we affirm that God is everywhere present. He is not spatially limited, but is equally present in all places (and in “no-place”, in the sense that he even has the mysterious power to be able to create things out of nothing else).

If we just reason from these two attributes, we have to recognize God’s “emotional” life must be different than ours. God simultaneously knows all the pain and all the joy of all creatures at all times. If we start from the biblical language of God’s compassion, we must recognize this is a unique compassion. The closest thing we could come to it, I think would be to imagine being a situation where one of your children had extremely good news, while at the exact same moment your other child had extremely bad news, and you found out about both at the same time. What would your emotional state be? Now recognize that God does not “find out” about anything.

(If one were to join the Reformed in stressing not just that God knows about everything, but that everything comes to pass by the will of God in some sense, this only adds to the difference/transcendence of God in comparison to us.)

Impassibility, classically speaking, has never meant God has no emotions, just that his emotions do not change with time, and that they are the positive ones: God is infinite joy, love, peace, etc.

Even this, I think, must be true in some sense, for ultimately the joy/love that each person of the Trinity experiences because of other two persons must outweigh any “pain” he might be said to experience because of his creation.

Finally, as many theologians who support impassibility have pointed out for a long time, the Bible is full of examples of descriptions of God that the majority of Christians would not take literally, especially, e.g., descriptions of God having body parts. But if we acknowledge metaphor here, it is not a stretch to acknowledge the possible metaphorical nature of descriptions of God’s emotions. (And recognizing that God is incorporeal/immaterial would just make this easier, considering how much our emotions are tied to our bodies.)

Saying these descriptions are metaphorical, however, implies they are analogical, not completely equivocal (i.e., they have a similar, not identical, but also not absolutely different meaning). What would the descriptions of God having these negative emotions correspond to in God, acknowledging that whatever it is they correspond to would only be analogous, not identical, to what they are like in human beings? I think Helm’s discussion is helpful here:

So God knows “many things” and we may think of God’s “feelings” as simply his attitudes to what he knows. What he knows—the details of everything that comes to pass—is present to the divine mind, even though that mind is itself simple, without parts or divisions, immutable and impassible. What could be more complex than the universe, with its unparalleled variety? God the Father takes pleasure, no doubt in the goodness of the various aspects of the creation, and in the Incarnation, being well pleased with his beloved Son. And we find in Scripture that among the many things that God knows that he has delight in are: a just weight (Prov. 11.1); the upright in their way (Prov. 11.20); those that deal truly (Prov. 12.22); the prayer of the upright (Prov. 15.8) and so on; among those things which he has ordained which he hates are a proud look (Prov. 6.16), Esau (Mal. 1.3), all workers of iniquity (Psalm 5.3) and so on.

How are we to understand these attitudes of God? I suggest that it is improper to strongly model these on human feelings, to think of these as passions. Although undoubtedly as God has accommodated himself to our human condition in this way he represents himself as passionate, God cannot really be passionate because of the suggestion, in the use of the word “passion,” that the one who is passionate is overtaken or derailed or blinded by the passion. The passion is an irrational response. Though even here we must be careful, for a person may speak with full control of himself, yet in an impassioned way. His passion may be a way of speaking of the strength of his commitment. Because of it he may speak and act with greater care than otherwise. This is unlikely with us, but if God is to be said to be passionate then this is how it must be with him. So perhaps we would not be far astray if we thought of God not as ‘having passions’ but as utterly impassioned in all that he does.

Does God have feelings, then? We may, influenced by our touchy-feely culture, think that the answer is obvious. Of course he has. But here again some caution is called for. For we use the term “feeling” to cover not merely mental states, feelings of sympathy or compassion, or of betrayal or alienation, but also feeling arising from changes in our bodies, or event the fact of being embodied. We feel tired, we have aches and pains, scratches and itches, sexual pleasure, we experience cold and heat. Is this how it is the God? Clearly not. And our mental states, our feelings or emotions, are frequently the result of selfishness and ignorance. If in saying that God feels, or even that God has emotions, we are simply (and carefully) speaking of God’s impassioned attitudes of delighting in, and hating, and loving in the manner sketched above, then clearly the answer is yes. …

Perhaps we need a new word, or a new family of words, to express the constancy and fullness of God’s emotional life, his feelings. [A footnote here refers to Helm’s suggestion of the term “themotions”] But perhaps more than this, we need to allow ourselves the time to re-think our way into the older way of thinking about God. Part of this process will involve resisting the pattern of thought which says; either God is simple and impassible, uncaring and unfeeling or he is an all-too-human God who reacts with human-like passion to what he learns about his creation. There is a “third way,” to recall God’s settled attitudes to what he has ordained to come to pass, the varied ways in which the fullness and goodness of God is refracted in the varied life of his creation, and to see this fullness and goodness supremely refracted in the Incarnation, under the all too familiar conditions of time and space.

I don’t have a complete answer for how to understand God’s emotions. But the more I think about the other differences between God and us, the harder a time I have simply dismissing any idea of impassibility on God’s part.


Some more thoughts based on some biblical texts:

Psalm 16:11 You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Isaiah 6:5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Job 40:3-5 Then Job answered the LORD and said: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”

Job 42:1-6 Then Job answered the LORD and said: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

These texts tell us a few things, I think. Firstly, when imperfect people encounter God’s presence, every emotion flees (even extreme suffering like Job’s) except for one: a guilty dread. However, the Psalm I mentioned describes a different emotion, one felt on the part of the redeemed: in God’s presence is absolute joy. God’s presence seems to “clear the mind out” very effectively, and depending on one’s relation to God creates either soul-crushing dread or soul-drenching joy.

Now: what must God feel like, to be God? What must the persons of the Trinity feel like, being in each other’s “presence” (even this is deeply mysterious) eternally? Something more to meditate on in relation to this theme, anyway.