Robert Matz and A. Chadwick Thornhill have edited a volume on the doctrine of impassibility. In the book, four authors argue for God’s impassibility or its opposite: God’s passibility. Each of the four authors situates the doctrine of (im)passibility along biblical lines, which has the benefit of clarifying the relationship between doctrine and Scripture. At the same time, the editorial restrictions for this volume prevent it from being a smashing success.
While the edited volume gives space for each author to argue their case from Scripture, the editors instructed each author to bypass the historical development of the doctrine of impassibility (7).
Yet that qualification reduces the value of Divine Impassibility because a doctrine’s history tells a story of how Christians have interpreted Scripture and natural revelation. In essence, such a restriction pulls back centuries of reflection on truth and implicitly authorizes nuda scriptura—that Scripture is not only the supreme authority (sola scriptura) but that it is the only authority (nuda scriptura).
Still, any doctrine stands or falls on whether the ultimate authority of Scripture authorizes it. In this sense, the volume despite its weaknesses provides a helpful outline of various arguments on the topic of impassibility.
Secondly, no one author in this volume actually argues for the classical or patristic conception of God’s impassibility. The closest to come to such a conception is Daniel Castelo. One might expect James Dolezal to at least mention the patristic argument, but instead, he follows the Thomist argument that centres on causation and simple act.
I grant the coherency of the Thomist argument, but Dolezal fails to articulate the position in a winsome or compelling way. Instead, he sets up a metaphysical framework and simply affirms that framework as if it’s a fullsome argument.
If we are going to start in Scripture, the patristic argument makes the best sense. It works like this (and I should note that there is not one patristic argument. So I am using the phrase here loosely). Scripture tells us that God is unlike humans because he is the Creator. Pagans make God’s just like humans in their lusts and passions. Yet God is not like us or the pagan gods. Instead, God is Spirit. So he has no passions that are mediated through the body like lust or hunger or bodily pain.
In this sense, an affective life according to the Spiritual nature of God is not outside the limits. As Origen states: “God bears our ways, just as the Son of God bears our sufferings. The Father himself is not without suffering” (Orig., Hom. Eze. 6.6.3). But the suffering that Origen mentions is the love of God for us (suffering here is used in a technical sense unlike its regular use today). This love is not something that changes God, nor something that affects something new in God. Rather, God’s nature is self-giving love. In this sense, a sort of affective life does exist in God—just not in a bodily way.
Such an argument seems rooted throughout Scripture in the creator-creature distinction (Dolezal affirms this), the Spiritual nature of God (Dolezal affirms this through the argument of causation), and the reality that God controls all things by his providence.
Third, Thomas Jay Oord’s chapter had a winsome tone but a sort of under-argued case. Many of the citations in that chapter had no page numbers. And his theological language was idiomatic and open to misinterpretation. Further, it was hard to read his chapter as a faithfully Christian presentation of truth when he can write: “Few Christians want to say that three Gods exist” (146).
His argument that God is impassible according to nature but passible according to experience seems to mix human attributes with divine attributes to create a chimera that lacks coherence (142–3). While an interesting chapter, I doubt it will convince anyone not already convinced of the strong passibility view because of its under-argued or incoherently premises.
Despite these problems, I found each essay (and the responses) instructive. Dolezal does an excellent job of summarizing the high scholastic and reformed scholastic view of impassibility. He probably could have done a better job of arguing for this position—but the constraints of such an edited book may have prevented him from doing so.
Both Castelo and John Peckham provided similar yet powerful arguments for a more nuanced view of God’s impassibility or passibility. Both highlight rightly the role of analogy in speaking about God. And this should be the primary hermeneutical argument for adjudicating the doctrine of (im)passibility.
How directly does scriptural language about God’s emotions relate to his inner-being? In this volume, Thomas Jay Oord takes a somewhat univocal tack by assuming that what Scripture says directly relates to God’s inner-being.
Yet if God is uncreated and a Spiritual being unlike us, then language cannot work univocally. If Scriptures says steam rises from God’s nostrils—and God has no body—then such language idiomatically and metaphorically says something true about God. And it does say something true. Now, perhaps Dolezal could be accused of dipping to hard into equivocacy by asserting that the biblical language about God’s emotions means something quite different than what the text says (i.e, that God has no emotional life).
I don’t think such an accusation holds water, however. The particular metaphysical apparatus that Dolezal uses coheres to reality well. In my view, reason and Scripture require us to believe that God is uncaused, uncreated, spiritual, and thus simple. Further, even though Oord dismisses the metaphysical language of Thomas Aquinas, such a view does not preclude our relationship with God.
Hence, the language that describes God in human ways should and must be taken anthropomorphically and anthropopathetically. Still, this language does mean something. It has an analogical sense—a sense which speaks truly about God but according to our human capacity.
Scripture must be read theologically. God is the single subject of Scripture, and so his existent Being persists without change no matter where we read in Scripture. And he is the object to which Scripture testifies.
Yes, if you want to understand current conversations about impassibility or passibility. If you want to deepen your understanding of God’s nature, however, it may be better to start with a book like The Five Theological Orations by Gregory of Nazianzus.
IVP Press provided me with a review copy of the book.
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