Divine Impassibility: Why Is It Suffering?
By Paul Helm Emeritus Professor, University of London
The doctrine of God's impassibility has fallen on hard times. In the era of the Suffering God and of “Holocaust theology” scarcely anyone has a good word to say for it. This in itself is a striking fact, given the Christian church's eras-long commitment to the doctrine. These days nearly everyone sees the eclipse of divine impassibility as an unqualified blessing. For them the idea is totally unscriptural, a case of “baptised paganism,” an object lesson in what happens when theology takes its lead not from divine revelation but from Neo-Platonism.
The modest aim here is to say a word or two in favour of the doctrine before it finally slips from the Christian consciousness. The words may even help, in some small way, to arrest its eclipse. I hope so. I shall try to show why impassibility is suffering, then to try to show a little of what impassibility, properly understood, means, to offer some scriptural support for it and finally to reflect a little on what divine impassibility commits us to.
The Problem of Language
I suggest two sets of reasons each having to do with language. One set has to do with the accidents of the English language (and perhaps for all I know, of other languages. I have not gone into this). The other is more fundamental.
There is, I believe, at least for Anglophones, often a basic confusion between three English words: impassivity,(the English form of impassitas), impassability, and impassibility. The Oxford Shorter Dictionary defines “impassive” as “deficient or void of mental feeling or emotion; unimpressionable, apathetic.” (And it also notes a “good sense,” “imperturbable.”) It goes without saying that Christians do not wish to worship and serve an apathetic God; a God who, like a human psychotic, is unconcerned by the needs of human beings. Nor even a God who, like a Stoic philosopher, is imperturbable no matter what happens. But then to suppose that the doctrine of divine impassibility commits one to such a view is based upon simple linguistic confusion, between impassivity and impassibility—of which more in a moment. But first, what about impassability? If the road is blocked by ice or mud then it is impassable. There is no way through. Such an idea, applied to God, makes matters worse. For if God is not only apathetic, if he is also impassable, then there is no way open to get through to him. He must forever remain in a state of apathy; perhaps, to make matters even worse, of blissful apathy.
Let's turn finally to impassibility. Unfortunately, among the senses the Oxford Dictionary gives of “impassible” is this: incapable of feeling or emotion; impassive. However the main sense is “incapable of suffering injury or detriment” along with “incapable of suffering; not subject to pain.” I believe it is possible to provide an understanding of “impassible” which does justice to Scripture and church teaching, but it is clear from this glance at the dictionary that it is an uphill struggle. A word, such as “impassible,” that continually needs guarding against confusion and misunderstanding is not a good tool for theological discourse.
There is a second reason having to do with language why impassibility is suffering an eclipse. “Impassibility” is a negative term. Even when properly understood, and then applied to God, it tells us what God is not, or what God cannot do, rather that what he is like and can do. Such a negative approach to thinking about God is nowadays regarded as being too vague and insubstantial for the modern Christian church. For the modern church is impatient with learning what God is not like, she wants to know what God is like, and in particular she desperately seeks reassurance that God is like us—that he is accessible to our imagination, and especially in need of reassurance that he is our emotional peer. This is one reason for the current stress on biblical narrative, on the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language of Scripture, and on Christology “from below,” as is evidenced (in different ways) by the prevalent social trinitarianism, and by the appeal of “open theism.” Put in conventional theological terms, in the modern Christian mind the language of divine immanence swamps the language of divine transcendence. And impassibility is part of the language—part of the “grammar”—of divine transcendence. I shall return to this point shortly and develop it.
This contemporary craving for a human-like God is heightened by modern approaches to suffering and evil. Bonhoeffer's phrase, “Only a suffering God can help,” is repeated like a mantra. There is of course a perfectly good sense to these words. God in Christ suffers in taking our sin, and so helping us in a way that nothing else can. But a suffering God who endures suffering in the same way that we suffer may help by comforting us, but he is helpless to deliver us from evil.
The grammar of God
The key idea for any appreciation of the idea of divine impassibility, and of its reappropriation and defense, must be the Creator-creature distinction, and the biblical idea of divine fullness. In the case of emotions, we must focus on the idea of a divine life of unimaginable richness and constancy, not of fitfulness and spasm. In this connection it is unfair as well as unbalanced to separate the divine impassibility from all other divine characteristics and to single it out for special treatment. Divine impassibility is part of a web of ideas which constitute a “grammar,” a canonical way of talking about God, a way of articulating the reality of the divine fullness. In this respect, impassibility is an aspect of divine immutability (God cannot change or be changed), of divine simplicity (the sovereign God does not depend for this existence on 'parts' which are more fundamental than he is) of divine necessity (God exists non-dependently), and of divine eternity (God is not bound by time, with part of his life in the past, as all his creatures are). God’s immutability covers his will, his decrees, his promises and counsel, and of course, his emotional life. Its biblical basis is found in such passages as Jas. 1.17, Ps. 102.29, Is. 14.24, Rom. 11,.29, Heb. 6. 17: 13. 8, Is 46. 10, 2 Cor. 1 18-20.
But none of this means that God is devoid of (what we call) feelings. He loves his creation, he cares for his people, he hates unrighteousness, and so on—he is pure goodness. The trouble is that we are in something of a bind when we attempt to articulate this further. When we think of constancy, steadiness, and dependability at the human level we think of people possessing dispositions that are virtuous. So a person who dashes into the icy water to save the child expresses courage, a courageous disposition. He may never have to act in this way again. But in God these dispositions are never latent, for there is no “slack” in God, but he is utterly engaged. So what are we to make of the expressions of divine anger, or of compassion, in Scripture? We are to understand them in terms of the “big picture” or (in more academic language) a “pattern of judgment'” about God, and thus to see them as expressions of the divine fullness accommodated to the real-time situations of his people, their characters and needs, and of God's purposes for them. For instance, to draw out their faith, (as with Hezekiah) or their obedience, (as with Moses) or their patience (as with Job).
So divine immutability does not signal total inaction or immobility, like the face of the Moon, a state incapable of personal relationship. Rather, it speaks of firmness, faithfulness, covenantal constancy, grounded in who God essentially is. Likewise divine impassibility is not impassivity, but constant goodness, variously expressed (according to God's will and to the specifics of human history) as (for example) love, or wrath, or mercy. Such expressions are rooted in the immutability of the divine nature, the fact that God is unchangeable in goodness and perfection, and cannot be deterred or deflected by outside forces. Of course God’s immutable relation to his creation is not perceived as such by it, but what is perceived is a function of the situation or condition of the creaturely recipient. Just as (we say) the Sun is now setting, now rising, so God is now wise, now just, now loving etc. depending on the human circumstances in which he is “encountered” and on God's purposes in these circumstances.
By contrast human emotion is affected by ignorance and moral weakness, by surprise, fear, partiality and physical distance. (This reminds us that a range of emotions is necessarily connected with human physical embodiment.) For instance, while all of us know that at this very moment there are hundreds of children dying in Darfur this fact fails to move us, whereas if children were dying in a similar fashion on our doorstep we would be moved to grief and compassion and action. These outbreaks of emotion would not be unrelated to our own self-interests, of course, and to what follows from the fact of our physical embodiment.
So emotion in humans is not an unmixed good. Emotion is better than no emotion, but its expression is often the result of selfishness and ignorance. With God it is otherwise. He has an emotional life— he cares and loves and judges and has compassion on his sinful world. But his life—unlike our own emotional lives—is not spasmodic and moody. God does not have a temper. He cannot be cowardly or vain. Rather his “emotional life” is an expression of his perfect goodness and knowledge. The life of God is not first passive and then reactive, as ours is, but it is wholly active.
Is divine impassibility Scriptural?
This, for Christians, is of course the chief question, and we have already begun to offer an answer to it. But it is currently taken for granted by many Christians that the question is easily answered. Many are quick to say that divine impassibility is not and could not be Scriptural. For does not Scripture assert that God suffers, that he is angry, that he expresses surprise, that he fears, and laughs, and repents? Did not Christ, the Son of God, suffer? How could such a God be impassible? Then quickly—all too quickly—it is concluded that the idea of divine impassibility is the result of imposition of Scripture rather than exposition of it, of eisegesis rather than exegesis. It's part of an attempted theological takeover by Greek ideas. But now, it is proudly claimed, we have learned to “take the Bible seriously!”
There are a number of reasons why we should be cautious about this all too common reaction. One is historical. The anthropopathisms of the Bible are not new, nor newly discovered, any more than its anthropomorphisms are. They loom large. Those who affirmed divine impassibility—the theological mainstream from (say) Augustine to Jonathan Edwards—were aware of them. Yet the presence of these data in Scripture was not a sufficient reason for them to deny impassibility. Did they not take the Bible seriously? Why then did they come to the view that God is impassible?
Secondly, this approach to Scripture, if carried out consistently, has rather embarrassing consequences. For Scripture also says that God has eyes, ears, a backside—anthropomorphic language, as we quickly say. And we say that God uses such language in Scripture not because he in fact has eyes, ears and a backside but because by the use of such terms he adapts himself vividly to our way of thinking. There is something in God that corresponds to this language, which it draws attention to, even though it is not literally descriptive of God. God sees—what does this mean? That he has eyes? And if he eyes, does he have eyelashes and eyebrows? How many eyes does he have? Does he have 20/20 vision? None of this is appropriate. Talking in this way about God would be absurd. In saying that God sees, Scripture means (something like) God has immediate, unimpaired knowledge of what he allegedly sees. A child will readily understand this.
Why not something similar with the language about God's emotions? Are we really to believe that God gets angry, that he is overcome with anger? That he is incapacitated by suffering? That he is paralysed with fear? Can we allow that such expressions of anger or suffering carry the connotations of surprise and ignorance and apprehension and impatience and selfish vengefulness that human emotion typically does?
What does affirming divine impassibility commit us to?
As already noted, in the thinking of the classical Christian theologians, the Fathers, the medievals, Reformers such as Calvin, the Reformed Scholastics, Jonathan Edwards, impassibility is an aspect or consequence of divine immutability. Immutability is in turn rooted in divine simplicity. But divine simplicity has been frequently misunderstood, or caricatured.
For though God is simple, without parts, without division, there is nevertheless a complexity in the mind of God, but this complexity does not depend on something other than himself. The classical Christian tradition readily recognises this. So—to take one historical example—in discussing the question “Does God know things other than himself?”  Aquinas asserts that God's essence contains the likeness of things other than himself, and since there are many kinds of things other than himself there are presumably many likeness of things contained in the divine essence. However, Aquinas wishes to deny that God knows things other than himself by learning about them, because then the divine intellect would depend on them, and (Aquinas thinks) God's sovereignty or aseity or Creatorhood would be compromised.
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.
But what of the Incarnation? For many, anxieties about divine impassibility are at their highest in the case of Jesus. They say: Jesus is God, and Jesus suffered, therefore God suffered. The conclusion seems inescapable. But is it? Is it then equally valid that: Jesus sat on the side of the well, Jesus is God, therefore God sat on the side of the well......Are we not at such points as these faced with the mystery of the incarnation, of the union of the human nature with the person of the Son of God? But must we not say, to avoid absurdity, something like: Jesus Christ, being God incarnate, the Mediator, sat on the side of the well, and suffered for our salvation?
How are we to understand the emotional life of our Lord? Are episodes in the life of our Lord—his reaction to the Temple money-changers, or to the death of Lazarus, for example—cases of God's emotion made flesh? In a way they are, but not in any way which involves the transmutation of the divine emotion into something else. It is God expressing his impassioned love (along with much else he expresses) through the vehicle of assumed human nature. So the emotional life of our Lord is what you get when the second person of the impassible God assumes is embodied in human nature. It is an inevitable expression of the divine character in a way conditioned by the necessities of being united to what is human and so localised in time and space.
When Jesus was angry then - no doubt - this is expressive of God's impassioned anger. But the predicate anger is not univocal in each case. It is rather like the different ways in which a French horn and a cello sound out middle C; their sounds have the same value, but they sound somewhat different. The predicates “Jesus is angry,” “God is angry” express emotion which has moral parity, but its human expression is conditioned in a way in which the unincarnate divine reality is not.
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. 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.
 Though see the excellent treatment in Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer? (Edinburgh, T and T Clark, 1999)
 See Stephen E Fowl, (ed.) The Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Oxford, Blackwell, 1997).
 Summa Theologiae 1a 14, 5.
 I once suggested the term of art 'themotion' ( in 'The Impossibility of Divine Passibility' in The Power and Weakness of God, ed. Nigel B Cameron (Edinburgh, Rutherford House, 1990), but obviously it has not caught on!