Friday, August 29, 2014

Disambiguating impassibility

There's currently a debate within evangelicalism generally and Calvinism in particular over the question of whether God is impassible. One problems with the current debate is equivocation: there are two different definitions of impassability in circulation. If you Google "impassibility," you pull up definitions like this:

1. Classic theism teaches that God is impassible — not subject to suffering, pain, or the ebb and flow of involuntary passions. 
Incapable of suffering or of experiencing pain 
Incapable of feeling 

Compare that to a more academic definition of the term:

2. Nothing created can cause God to change or be modified in any way…Many classical theists make this point by insisting that God is impassible. In this context "Impassible"…means "not able to be causally modified by an external agent"…God cannot be altered by anything a creature does. B. Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford, 3rd ed, 2004), 5. 

Notice that #1 doesn't mean the same thing as #2. #1 defines impassibility in terms of divine emotional generally or divine suffering in particular.

By contrast, #2 does not include emotion or suffering in the definition. Rather, it defines impassibility in terms of divine independence. God cannot be influenced by his creatures. 

Take another example:  

The view that God is in no way affected by creatures is called the impassibility of God. This seems to be the view that you favor. God cannot suffer emotional pain. 
Read more:

Craig begins with one definition, but immediately substitutes a different definition. He oscillates between two different senses of the word, without even registering the equivocation.  

For now I'm not discussing which one is true, or whether either one is true. The immediate point is that the current debate suffers from this semantic confusion. 

It's possible to see how these two different definitions might be interrelated. If you deny #2, then that makes God susceptible to emotion or suffering if God reacts to events in the world. 

Finally, I'd point out that impassibility, in the sense of #2, dovetails with Reformed theism, which stresses divine independence. God is never conditioned by the creature, but vice versa. 


  1. I personally don't think that an affirmation of #2 entails an affirmation of #1.

    It seems to me that an author of a book can be emotionally moved by the contemplation of the details of the drama within his book even though he himself choose to write it the way it is written. Analogously, maybe God can be emotionally effected by human tragedies which He Himself has ordained will come to pass. Especially if God's choosing the second order goods He purposes and plans might logically constrain Him to permit things that of themselves (per se) He disapproves of. For example, God ordains every sin we ever commit, yet we're called to not grieve or vex the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30; Isa. 63:10). Maybe not all the Scriptural data that speaks of God experiencing emotion is anthropopathic.

    However, our experience of emotion is often tied to temporal consciousness, and therefore "emotion" (as we experience it) may not apply to God if He's timelessly eternal. But there might be something analogous to our experience of emotion that God experiences. Maybe more intensely than we do. At least that's what some Calvinists seem to believe (e.g. John Piper).

    1. Piper wrote:

      It is not surprising, then, that Jonathan Edwards struggled earnestly and
      deeply with the problem that stands before us now. How can we affirm the
      happiness of God on the basis of His sovereignty when much of what God
      permits in the world is contrary to His own commands in Scripture? How
      can we say God is happy when there is so much sin and misery in the world?
      Edwards did not claim to exhaust the mystery here. But he does help us
      find a possible way of avoiding outright contradiction while being faithful to
      the Scriptures. To put it in my own words, he said that the infinite complexity
      of the divine mind is such that God has the capacity to look at the world
      through two lenses. He can look through a narrow lens or through a wideangle
      When God looks at a painful or wicked event through His narrow lens, He
      sees the tragedy of the sin for what it is in itself, and He is angered and grieved: “I
      have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 18:32).
      But when God looks at a painful or wicked event through His wide-angle
      lens, He sees the tragedy of the sin in relation to everything leading up to it and
      everything flowing out from it. He sees it in relation to all the connections and
      effects that form a pattern, or mosaic, stretching into eternity. This mosaic in all
      its parts—good and evil—brings Him delight.5
      - Desiring God page 39

    2. John Piper wrote:

      God's Happiness Is A Great Part Of His Glory

      In 1 Timothy 1:11 Paul focuses on the gospel as "the glory of the blessed God." The word translated "blessed" in this phrase (makarivou) is the same oen used in the beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5:3-11. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." And so on. The word means "happy" or "fortunate." Paul himself uses it in other places to refer to the happiness of the person whose sins are forgiven (Rom. 4:7) or the person whose conscience is clear (Rom. 14:22). It is astonishing that only here and in 1 Timothy 6:15 in the entire Old Testament and New Testament does the word refer to God. Paul has clearly done something unusual, calling God makarios, happy.

      We may learn from the phrase "the glory of the happy God" that a great part of God's glory is his happiness. It was inconceivable to the apostle Paul that God could be denied infinite joy and still be all-glorious. To be infinitely glorious was to be infinitely happy. He used the phrase, "the glory of the happy God," because it is a glorious thing for God to be as happy as he is. God's glory consists much in the fact that he is happy beyond all our imagination.
      - God is the Gospel page 100

  2. In studying Grudem's Systematic Theology, it seems that he equivocates. If he didn't start it, he at least perpetuates it.

    I have to note that those who equivocate seem to yearn for justification for their equivocation. it would seem to me to be cleaner if a distinction could be made and then the relationship clearly defined.

    The problem I have with impassibility referring to emotions is that the term is typically viscerally understood, and today especially given the sensibilities of romanticism. In other words, it isn't theologically analyzed in terms of anthropology. So it is typically apprehended merely by personal experience in terms of anthropology and conveyed to the doctrine of God. Then, by conflating it with the true doctrine of impassibility, those who have done so miss out on what is, I would think, an important aspect of God's nature.

  3. I've just created a blog that lists some interesting articles on the doctrine of impassibility. I'll be adding to it whenever I find more good articles. Recommendations welcome. Here's the list I have so far.

    More blogs from Steve: