Thursday, November 27, 2008

Paul Helm on the impassibility of God

We had Paul Helm, who blogs at Helm's Deep come to speak to our Ministers' Fraternal which meets at the Old Baptist Chapel, Bradford on Avon yesterday. He was invited to address the subject, "Does God suffer?"
'Without body, parts or passions' - The Impassibility of God
"But to God nothing of this sort occurs; for He is neither deceived, nor does He deceitfully promise anything, nor, as James says, is there with Him any “shadow of turning.” (James 1:7.) We now understand to what this dissimilitude between God and men refers, namely, that we should not travesty God according to our own notions, but, in our consideration of His nature, should remember that he is liable to no changes, since He is far above all heavens." (John Calvin commenting on Numbers 23:19 - see here).
1. Approaching Divine Impassibility
We need to be careful to define terms. We are talking about impassibility - that God is without passions, just as he is without a body. This is not about impassability, which means that a road has become impassable due to an avalanche or some other obstruction. God is not a blockage. Impassibility does not mean impassivity - that God is Stoically disengaged or not concerned about the world. God is not psychotic.

When we talk of divine impassibility, we are using negative language. We are saying what God is not. Theologians often have to resort to negative language when describing the being of God. He is impassible, infinite, incomprehensible, immutable and so on. This reminds us that God's being is a great mystery. From our stance as finite human beings it is easier for us to say what he is not than what he is. We should exercise reserve and modesty before the great mystery of God's being. He is above and beyond us in every way.

God's impassibility is a quality of his aseity or divine fullness. Unlike us, God is not dependent upon anything outside himself for emotional fulfilment or satisfaction. I've been dipping into David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite. He discusses the divine impassibility or apatheia against the background of the intertrinitarian fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Godhead.

"I can at least offer a definition of divine apatheia as trinitarian love: God's impassibility is the utter fullness of an infinite dynamism, the absolutely complete and replete generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit from the Father, the infinite "drama" of God's joyous act of self-outpouring - which is his being as God. Within the plenitude of this motion, no contrary motion can fabricate an interval of negation, because it is the infinite possibility of every creaturely motion or act; no pathos is possible for God because pathos is, by definition, a finite instance of change visited upon a passive subject, actualising some potential, whereas God's love is pure positivity and pure activity." (The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, David Bentley Hart, Eerdmans, 2003, p. 167).

Impassibility then, is not a defect in God. He is not emotionally stunted or remote. Rather he is perfectly fulfilled and satisfied in the perichoretic fellowship of the Trinity. It is out of this self-sufficient aseity that God relates to us as his creatures. He is not dependent upon us for love or emotional completion, but he generously condescends to bring us into the rich blessing of loving fellowship with himself. That is why he made us in his image. That is why he acted in Christ to reconcile us to himself after the fall.
Impassibility reminds us of the Creator/creature distinction. "God is not a man that he should repent" (1 Samuel 15:29). He is not like us, a creature of the moment with moods and fleeting passions. He is the transcendent Creator and we are his finite creatures.
2. Immutability - the unalterability of God
Helm drew attention to some of the many Bible texts that show that God does not change, Hebrews 6:17-18, James 1:17, Malachi 3:6, Numbers 23:19, Exodus 3:14-16. If God is immutable, then he is impassible, since passibility implies change. God's emotions are steady and constant. He does not waver in his love for his people or in his determination to punish the wicked for their sins. The divine immutability does not imply a denial of God's ability to relate to the world. He is not immobile. God, though immutable, created and sustains creatures who change, and engages with them. Precisely because God does not change and is not subject to fluctuating passions, his engagedness with the world is constant. His mercies are new every morning. His lovingkindness is over all his works. Great is his faithfulness.
3. The Nature of Divine Impassibility
Passions are not necessarily negative or turbulent like bad moods or loosing one's temper. When we are overcome with such passions we may say and do things that we later regret. But it is possible to speak more positively of passion. A judge may have a passion for justice, which makes him all the more careful and scrupulous when trying a case. A scientist's passion for physics will drive him to make new discoveries and add to the sum of human knowledge. When we say that God is impassible, we are not suggesting that he is unfeeling or uncaring. He looks on a suffering world with pity and has mercy on sin-broken humanity. But God is not the subject of fitful moods. He is not spasmodic, irritable or liable to irrational outbursts of temper. But we can perhaps speak of God being impassioned, like the judge or scientist in the examples just given. In his single-minded, impassioned justice, God will hold the world to account and right all wrongs. In his impassioned love, he reaches out to the lost and secures their salvation through the death of his Son.
4. Objections
Scripture sometimes seems to speak of God as if he were passible. His anger flares up and then subsides. He is described as "repenting". But Scripture is God's accommodated self-revelation. Here he reveals what he is to us, rather than what he is in himself. The Bible uses anthropomorphic language of God, speaking his his hands, eyes and back parts. As God is a pure spirit, and is without parts, he has none of those things. But anthropomorphisms communicate the truth in a very vivid way. In a similar way, we have "anthopopathisms", where God's emotions are depicted in terms of human feelings. He does not really repent. But such language is used to help us understand how the eternal God relates to his time-bound creatures. In his wrath, God threatens us with judgement, we repent, his anger turns away and we are forgiven. The Book of Jonah is a case in point. But that sinners are brought to repentance unto salvation is God's gracious, eternal and unalterable purpose.
It is in the incarnation of Jesus and his suffering on the cross that we see God's impassioned love revealed in the assumed human nature of the Son. What the Christ felt in his human nature was the expression of his divine person. His tears at Lazarus' grave and his anger at the money changers in the temple expressed God's compassion for the lost and his anger against sin. The heart of the impassioned and impassible God is refracted in the humanity of Jesus Christ. The incarnation of the impassible One shows us that divine impassibility does not mean that God is emotionless or disengaged. Out of love for his people, the Son of God suffered and died for us in his human nature. In him we have a sympathetic high priest, who feels as we feel (apart from sinful passions!) -Hebrews 4:14-15.
Theology is not meant to explain the mystery of God's being like a detective may solve a crime. In the words of Augustine, the best we can do is erect a hedge around the mystery to protect us from misunderstanding the God whose ways are past finding out. The church's teaching on divine impassibility, when properly understood, is part of that protective hedge and we tear it down at our peril.
5. Uses
God is entirely faithful and reliable. We can trust his promises, certain in the knowledge that he will not renege on them in a fit of passion.
Impassibility reminds us of the divine transcendence and incomprehensibility. We can know him truly but never fully comprehend his being.
Without the safeguard of impassibility, we may be in danger of creating a passible God in our own image. He is not a man that he should repent! "I am the Lord, I do not change: Therefore you are not condemned, O sons of Jacob." (Malachi 3:6).
A time of discussion followed where many interesting points were raised. Can we divide up the life of Christ as we find it in the Gospels into the divine bits and human bits? No - that's Nestorianism. What do we make of the fact that the Son did not know the time of his second coming? I suggested (following John Murray) that in the Person of Christ we have one self-consciousness, but two levels of consciousness, divine and human. But Paul Helm thought that such a construction was attempting to explain away the mystery. I'm not so sure. I think it helps to preserve the fact that in Christ we have a divine person with a human nature. We touched on Donald Macleod's views on impassibility, which Helm finds unobjectionable. But he was unhappy with Jurgren Moltmann's emphasis on the suffering of God [the Father] at Calvary. Open theism, handling "God repented" passages in the Bible and some other issues were thrown into the pot to make for a very stimulating session.
What Helm had to say certainly clarified my thinking on a difficult and often controversial aspect of the doctrine of God. I especially liked his emphasis on impassibility as a consequence of divine aseity and his proposal on God being impassible and yet impassioned. (See also his B. B. Warfield On Divine Passion, Westminster Theological Journal 69 (2007): 95-104). Thanks also to Paul for giving me a free copy of the newly published Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, Crossway, 2008. He contributes a chapter, No Easy Task: John Franke and the Character of Theology.


Gary Benfold said...

If 'mystery' means 'Gary has no chance of understanding' - then I'm sure it's the right word! But I'm surprised Helm finds McLeod on impassibility 'unobjectionable'; I'm sure I remember a dust-up on that one!

Guy Davies said...

I raised Macleod's teaching in the discussion. Paul admitted that he hadn't read all that DM has to say on the subject, but he didn't have any problems with what he had seen. I think that DM's strongest argument in favour of passibility is the chapter "The Crucified God" in From Glory to Golgotha, Christian Focus, 2002.

As I show in the post, in Helm's construction, impassibility does not make God emotionally distant or disengaged from his creation. The impassioned God reaches out in pity to fallen mankind. He embraces our sorrow and bears our sin in his Son at Calvary. Whether this reading of impassibility would satisfy Macleod, I don't know. Helm was cautious over whether we may speak of the Father suffering at Calvary. DM has no such inhibitions saying,

"We cling therefore to the belief that not only did God the Son suffer crucifixion, but that God the Father suffered the pain of delivering him up." (p. 107 op. cit.).

Helm agreed that it cost the Father to deliver up his Son to the cross. But he argued that to suggest the Father suffered is go beyond what we are told in Scripture. I still have some sympathy with Macleod on that point.

Gary Benfold said...

Thanks Guy. I confess to never having studied this subject in any detail at all, obviously unlike you. From what I have read, though, the 'historic' doctrine of impassiblity goes against the most natural sense of many, many Scriptures and seems to stem from Greek philosophical ideas of deity rather than Biblical revelation. Helm, as you summarise him, seems to have a definition of impassibility that isn't quite impassibility at all; however he's the philosopher and I'm sure knows more about it than I.
I'm quite used to seeing 'God so loved the world' reduced to 'God so loved the elect...' - I'd hate to see it further reduced to 'God so loved (in a way that means he didn't feel anything at all...) Helm seems to avoid this. I just wonder why we should call his doctrine 'impassibility' at all, though.

Guy Davies said...

I think that the doctrine of impassibility is intended to safeguard three truths about God:

1) His aseity or emotional self-sufficiency. He is not emotionally dependent on anyone or thing outside himself because God finds complete fulfillment in the perichoretic life of his own triune being.

2) His unchangeability. His love for the world (yes love for the world!)is not an emotional spasm. It is both intense and stable, unlike say, a teenage love affair.

3) His transcendence. God's emotional life is not like ours in some important ways. He does not have moods etc. He is Lord of his own emotional life, so he loves and gives of himself freely and unconditionally. If God suffers, as he did preeminently at Calvary, it is because he chooses to suffer rather than because suffering is imposed upon him against his will.

I think that for those reasons a properly defined doctrine of impassibility is worth retaining.

Gary Benfold said...

Perichoretic? Lovely word; what does it mean? (oh,yes - co-inherance. Glad I've got that cleared up...!)

I'd want to safeguard those three truths, too. It's a vital part of Christian truth, isn't it, that God's love, and his anger, are not spasmodic: he is not variable or given to changing.

But: does he feel anger? Yes. (I appreciate Helm's distinction between impassibility and impassivity. But is that distinction historically valid? I don't know.) Is God's anger produced (or provoked, perhaps you'd prefer?) by beings outside himself? Of course: for while we can say 'God is love' we cannot say 'God is anger' (the nearest to it is Hebrews 12.29). It's an interesting point - but speculative - whether God wills himself to feel anger at sin, or whether he just does feel anger at sin. If he wills it in himself, then presumably it would be possible for him not to have willed it, and not to have been angry at sin, which would lead us down some interesting roads...

And I think it's the danger of speculation - or to put it another way, its uselessness and dangerousness in practice - that's stopped me reading much about or thinking much about impassibility.

We are told that God loves, hates, grieves, etc - and while there's a sense in which such descriptions must be anthropopathic, I'm still not convinced that 'without passions' is as absolute as 'without body'.

Aseity, unchangeability and transcendence may well go together to suggest 'impassibility'. But it's not a good word for it, I think. Immutability does not necessarily imply impassibility at all. God is immutable if he always feels the same anger at the same sin; he does not have to be angry all the time to be immutable. (I know he IS angry at the wicked every day, but that's not the point I'm trying to make.)

Thanks for helping me think a little bit about this. And thanks too for pointing me to Helm's Deep - a fascinating blog I shall consult regularly. Blessings on you this weekend.

Guy Davies said...

Without getting too involved. Yes, God does feel anger against sin. But that anger is not tantamount to a raging fit of temper. It is his necessary, settled and just response to human rebellion against him. Hence, impassibility, at least as defined by Helm still stands.

cath said...

This is fascinating. (I got here by following the link from The Wanderer, - maybe it's time i subscribed to the feed so as to read on a regular basis!)

This comment is a bit shameless actually, but I wrote a review of 'From Glory to Golgotha' which actually focused on that particular chapter - here

I have to say i found it rather objectionable and I'm glad to find i'm not the only one :-)