I learned yesterday that RM Hurd’s recent article on divine impassibility among the scholastics started a conflict with some reformed baptists. I say “learned yesterday” since I have yet to see the specific disagreement. Apparently, some reformed baptists did not like the argument that Hurd made.
I shared a meme created by Hurd yesterday, which I found funny partly because it came from the mind of one of the most studious persons I know. Some did not find it funny. Someone accused the meme of asserting falsehood!
Now, memes are meant to be comedic. But if one is the object of the meme’s joke, I can see why it would not be funny. Had I known the debate was in fact heated, I would not have shared the meme because it’s not my goal to frustrate allies in the Gospel.
So what is the debate about? I still do not fully know. But let me lay out Hurd’s view in simple terms and how I have heard others talk about divine impassibility. Even if I have missed the heart of the controversy in doing so, I suspect laying out these views will help those who have not heard of divine impassibility before (or know only a little about it).
At the end, I will define my view of divine impassibility, since I affirm this important doctrine.
RM Hurd’s Argument:
To understand Hurd’s argument, one would likely have to read the sources in Latin as he has, since he brings to the conversation an expansive list of scholastic authors. But in an effort to make sense of the difficult, I will do Hurd a minor disservice by simplifying his view.
Hurd argues that the scholastics (including Aquinas) affirm divine impassibility to say that nothing in creation can affect or change God. They do not affirm divine impassibility, he avers, to say that God cannot have compassion or hurt along with our hurt.
More technically, impassibility means that God cannot receive from creation. Speaking of passions, Hurd explains that the underlying power of receptivity does not apply to God. But the speaking of passions as to their objects, divine impassibility does not apply.
Hurd explains, “These certain passions affirmed of God are, unsurprisingly, all the good emotions you want to say of God, and you had better say of God, and had better not negate: things like, that he delights in us, that he is wounded by our pain, and so on.”
He continues: “And as a general rule of thumb, the attributes most average people think that God should have, and the ones they are quite bothered over when rather strange theologians tell them that he doesn’t, God does indeed have. And scholasticism is geared for saying that he has them.”
According to Hurd, divine impassibility among the scholastics means the power of passions, namely, the capacity to receive anything from creation does not apply to God. But language that describes the objects of passion can apply to God.
Hurd concludes, “The system of Thomas Aquinas, prince of all scholastics, is maximally designed to say that God has these passions according to their proper objects.” These passions do not involve the bad ones, of course, like lust and so on.
Divine Impassibility as Others Define it:
Steve Duby in Jesus and the God of Classical Theism defines passions in various ways. But he notes that most properly, passions refer to receiving something bad while losing something good (327). This is not the only definition but probably constitutes the one most people use when they think of divine impassibility.
God cannot receive something bad and lose something good. He cannot receive hate and lose his joy. Duby also (seems to) know of the distinction between the power and object of passion (329).
Even so, Duby generally restricts the language of passion to creatures, not to God. Good affections, Duby avers, still implies a lack in the subject since a passion toward the good implies the lack of it prior to that instance of passion (330). There is “passive potential”
Duby believes applying the word passion to God could work, but one would have to redefine the older language of passions to do so (330).
At this point, neither Duby and Hurd disagree. Remember Hurd’s point—again I am doing the disservice of simplification—squares on divine impassiblity’s purpose as meaning a negative thing: God cannot receive bad and change. Duby agrees.
Hurd says divine impassibility in the scholastics does not prevent us from saying God feels sad when we do. Despite Duby’s affirmations above, he may agree with Hurd.
Duby, as Hurd would likely do, says we cannot apply “passions or affections” to God “in their ordinary sense” (333). Yet he affirms that “affections like amor and delectio or gaudium do still have a positive application to God” (333).
In short, Duby affirms (as Hurd almost certainly does) that by removing creaturely senses of love (change, lack, newness) and affirming that passions “belong preeminently to God,” we can speak of passions in God (333-4).
In short, divine impassibility properly means that God does not move from potency to act, or receive a change for the worse or the better. At the same time, the Bible often affirms God’ affective life—he loves, he desires, he wants, he rejoices.
And so we can and should think of these affections—in technical terms—as preeminently belonging to God by removing the creaturely implications of such passions since God has no hormones that make him hangry, no tiredness that makes him grumpy, nor a lack that makes him potentially loving but not Fully Love.
In March of 2020, I wrote an article in which I affirmed, “ God does not suffer, and only the impassible God can help us now.” I concluded in much the same as Hurd or Duby did above. I deny that God can love us more or less—but always loves perfectly.
I affirmed, “If God could suffer the pains of loss, his love could be an act of protection to avoid loss. But God loves freely without any need to protect himself. He is open and never-closing.”
In other words, divine impassibility means that God (among other things) can perfectly love us without the fear of loss or the need to perfect his love.
But my primary idiom for divine impassability comes from the the Church Fathers who generally defined impassibility to mean something like: God has no body and thus is not like the pagan gods of Greece and Rome (e.g., Ignatius, Aristides, Justin Martyr, Letter to Diognetus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen).
These Christians did not precisely deny an affective life in God. But they denied that God had a body that could get a cut and so hurt God; a hunger that affects God’s well being; a tiredness that prevented God from doing his work; and all the rest of things that belong to us.
“Even Origen,” I wrote, “can admit that God ‘suffers something of love’ when we pray to him (Hom. Ezek. 6.6.3). Yet here Origen has in mind not that God’s love fluctuates or is affected by biology; rather, God’s love lifts us up in a steady and sure way (Hom. Ezek. 6.6.3).”
As I said, “If God could suffer pains of the body, he would be no God; he would be a human. If God could get angry due to hunger, then he is a creature. If God’s mood changes on the basis of weather, hormones, or heat, then his love does not outpour upon us with constancy.”
Who is right?:
Everyone grounds their answers in Holy Scripture. The Bible tells us that God is Spirit and so has no human body; that he created and so is not a creature. But it also tells us that God loves, hates, and grieves.
The traditional way to combine these teachings is simply to say that God accommodates himself to our capacity, which is why the Bible describes him as long of nose, or as having a right arm. The same thing is true of having human and bodily passions.
And so some doctrine of divine impassibility arises directly from the Bible. The question is how to speak about that doctrine in the best way.
As noted, I find the common early Christian idiom as the most directly helpful. God has no body and therefore is impassible. He is also the Creator and cannot be thought of as a creature. So he has no passions like we do. And he has no sinful passions at all. But there is an affective life of God, however that’s defined.
That affective life—or whatever it means for God to be love, good, and compassionate—must be affirmed because the Bible affirms it. And it can be understood well even though God is impassible as Duby notes: good passions belong to God preeminently.
These are not contradictions.
RM Hurd has spent a good deal of time reading the scholastics, and I believe his interpretation of the scholastics unlocks my intuition of what the Fathers taught. As I wrote in 2020, the Fathers affirm a positive affective life in God while advocating for strict impassibility.
Aquinas may do something similar—I don’t have the requisite experience in Aquinas to make this assertion with full confidence.
In his Summa, he distinguishes passions into their irascible and concupiscent parts. And powers have different objects (diversae potentiae habeant diversa obiecta; ST IaIIae 22.3.A1). Thus, the powers of different passions have different objects. And love and joy (amor et gaudium) are in concupiscence (in concupiscibili; ST IaIIae 23.4 ).
Here is not too much of a leap to say that God is love and joy. And God can love and overflow with joy when one considers the objects of passions. This does not mean that God has passions per se; it means that God does not possess these passions in potency; nor does it mean he is made up of parts like concupiscence.
On the other hand, we have to be careful since Aquinas can also say clearly that God has no passions (SCG 1.89). But if Hurd is correct, then distinguishing between the powers and objects of passions clarifies how God is both impassible and able to grieve as Scripture says.
I will let the debate continue. I affirm impassibility, but I also think we have to recognize these subtle differences have major impact in how we counsel those who suffer and talk about God, which is the most important thing in the universe.
Anyway, I will leave it here since one can read Hurd’s own writings or take his class on the topic this January by registering here.