Divine Impassibility (photo credit: Pixabay)

A Brief Overview of Divine Impassibility

The term divine impassibility has been used to describe God as unable to suffer, devoid of uncontrollable passions, generally unsusceptible to outside causal or moral influence, unable to experience emotions. The Early Church Fathers, understood that divine impassibility is closely related to divine immutability. Aquinas, says: God is “altogether immutable…it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable.”[1] Paul Helm explained, “God cannot change or be changed, and a fortiori God cannot be changed by being affected. So that impassibility is a kind of immutability.”[2] In other words, God’s perfection is absolute, that is, God can neither degrade into a worse state nor can he improve into a better one.

Moreover, divine impassibility has also often been seen as a consequence of divine aseity — the idea that God is independent of any other being, that is, in no way causally dependent.[3]

God’s emotions in the Bible

Within both the Old and New Testaments context, God nonetheless, is seen as displaying a variety of emotions. For instance, God grieves, at the pervasive evil of humankind, (Genesis 6:6). He equally grieves when people reject him, (Isaiah 63:10; Psalm 78:40). Yet he is “pleased” with Abel’s offerings (Genesis 4:3), Noah’s faithfulness (Genesis 6:8), and His Son’s obedience, (Matthew 3:17).

Furthermore, God demonstrates his love by giving the world “his only begotten Son” (John 3:16), and the Son demonstrates his own love toward humankind by dying on the cross, (Romans 5:8). God also expresses joy (Zephaniah 3:16) and rejoices over his people, (Isaiah 65:19).

The traditional defense for God’s impassibility, in the light of the passages above, is said to be anthropomorphic, thus, cannot be taken literally — God does not “suffer,” or “grieve,” his heart does not “recoil.” Taking Stephen Long’s idea, what if these passages are predicated on “of the “Wholly Other,” that is, God is entirely unknowable and impossible to describe in human terms.[4] So, does this means that God is a Being who somewhat transcends what is beyond the merely customary and human?[5] In my opinion, He does — God grieves but does not grieve in the same way humans do. God is completely different from creations and his emotions, which are revealed in Scripture, are perfect and holy — tied to his glorious nature and they are by far magnified (Isaiah 55:6–9).

The Church Fathers view on Divine Impassibility

The Church Fathers agreed on God’s impassibility. They did not separate impassibility from divine simplicity but regarded it as a necessary aspect of simplicity. Basically, the Church Fathers understood that God does not exist as a being like humans — He is magnified to a greater degree of power and perfection.

In other words, the Church Fathers understood God as perfect and saw suffering as being a weakness and a sign of vulnerability in God. It seemed to them as a compromise of God’s absoluteness because it entails him being provoked by something lesser than He. Thus impassibility is needed to protect the transcendence (aseity) of God.[6]

Contemporary issues about Divine Impassibility

For scholars who hold on to divine impassibility, the passages of Scripture that indicate that God feels passion or pain are simply anthropomorphisms. However, other scholars like Leftow disagree with God being impassible and writes: “An immutable God can be passible. He can be continually undergoing an emotion without change — for instance, he could be continually feeling the sorrow over human sin without change.” Jürgen Moltmann also denies impassibility and writes: “How can Christian faith understand Christ’s passion as being the revelation of God if the deity cannot suffer?”[7] For Moltmann, the God of Christianity is revealed in the suffering of the cross, which distinguishes Him from all other gods. He notes that at the cross, the Father abandons the Son, and the cross causes both to grieve. The words of Jesus in Matthew 27:46, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (cf. Ps. 22) show both the Father and the Son grieving: the former for the death of his Son and the latter for the anguish of the cross. Both grievances are equally important.[8] Moltmann also uses 2 Corinthians 5:19, where God is said to be “in Christ,” to show that the Father suffered with the Son at the cross. Moltmann claimed that all human suffering becomes God’s so that he might overcome it, and this is seen in the cross of Jesus Christ[9]. Equally, Barth[10], Kitamori,[11] and Galot[12] have affirmed that the Father also, in his love for the Son, must be understood to suffer in the occurrence of the cross.

[1] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Divine Immutability,” https://iep.utm.edu/div-immu/ (assessed June 24, 2021).

[2] Paul Helm, The Impossibility of Divine Passibility, in the Power and weakness of God: Impassibility and Orthodoxy, ed. Nigel M. de S Cameron (Edinburgh: Rutherford, 1989), 120.

[3] Wikipedia, “Divine impassibility,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impassibility (assessed June 25, 2021).

[4] D. Stephen Long, Speaking of God: Theology, Language and Truth, (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009), 15.

[5] Encyclopedia, “Impassibility,” https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/impassibility-god (assessed July 12, 2021).

[6] Jürgen Moltamann, Crucified God, 143.

[7] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God, (London: Science Media Centre, 1981), 21.

[8]Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundational Criticism of Christian Theology (London: Science Media Centre, 1974), 243.

[9]Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 246.

[10] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/2, 357.

[11] Kazoh Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God, (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005), 115.

[12] Jean Gallot, Dieu Souffre-t-il?, (Paris: P. Lethielleux, 1976), chapter 2.