Thursday, December 28, 2023

Post #29 The Doctrine of God - P2 An Introduction To Divine Impassibility (God's Constant, Unchanging Emotional Life): How Divine Impassibility Is Related To His Immutability



    In our last post for this series we introduced readers to the doctrine of Divine impassibility (DDI) here When we talk of this attribute, theologian J.I. Packer helps us out,

"What was it supposed to mean? The historical answer is: Not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in the face of the creation. Not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief, either. It means simply that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us." 

Packer then writes,

"His are foreknown, willed, and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart form his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are."

    The reader will note that J.I.Packer alludes to the relationship between DDI (Doctrine of Divine Impassibility) and the question of whether or not God suffers along with us. I'll touch upon that particular issue in the next post. 

    What we will note from Packer's observations is how God is "not surprised" nor "caught off guard". In the previous post of this series, we noted how human beings as "passive" agents in the emotional sense have the potential to be affected and changed emotionally from the outside. 

    To put it colloquially, we are an "up-and-down" folk. God, on the other hand, is constant in His emotional life. For God, there is no such thing as a "bad day", since within His own being and eternal blessed existence, He knows all things that happen because of His decree. In such a decree, God's intutive awareness of all there is and all there will be includes a constant, steady, appropriate emotional state. By not having "ups and downs" and not being "affected", this makes God's Divine impassibility a superior emotional-life, since we can trust that whatever happens in our world, our God always knows the appropriate response - since such emotional expressions are rooted in His goodness, Sovereignty, and wisdom. 

    In today's post, we want to understand how DDI is closely related to another doctrine which I've written about in this series - Divine immutability here  

God's unchangeability and His emotional impassibility

    God is unchanging in His being and attributes, which means He can never get better nor get worse. The Westminster Confession of Faith in its Article 2: "Of God and the Holy Trinity", paragraph 1, gives a summary definition of God with a list of attributes. The reader can note how God's Divine impassibility is listed next to Divine immutability,

"There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutableimmense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free,o most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal most just and terrible in his judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty."

    Scriptures such as Malachi 3:6 and Hebrews 1:8-11 talk about Divine unchangeableness or immutability. It would seem that in the Malachi 3:6 passage, God's impassible or eternal love for His chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:7-8), Israel, whom He foreknew (Amos 3:3-4), was why He never "consumed them" as an outworking of His unchangeable character. Since it is the case that God does not change His nature and attributes, it follows that He would not vary when it comes to His emotional life. 

    Author Barry Cooper in the December 2021 issue of Ligonier "Tabletalk Magazine" notes on this very point,

"If you think about it, God’s impassibility flows inevitably from the fact that God is unchangeable. An unchanging God cannot, by definition, have passions, which in the technical language of theology are emotional states that can be affected or changed by external forces."

    We dealt in the last post with a few Scriptures that affirm the Biblical reality of Divine impassibility. It is important to bring out this point futher, Why? Two reasons. 

    First, if it can be shown that God internally changes when acted upon by His creation, then DDI would lose its claim as a Biblical doctrine. 

    Secondly, we must understand how the Bible talks about God to see how the doctrines of Divine immutability and impassibility accurately express the Biblical doctrine of God. 

Clarifying the Biblical language of God changing His emotions
   Some people will claim that God changes His being and His emotions by noting the passages that describe God as "relenting" or "changing His mind". The conclusion typically drawn is that such a God does change. As the argument goes, since God changes, then He alters His emotions too. Consequently, as the argument would follow, DDI is an unbiblical doctrine. 

    My response to this is to note that often, such objections to DDI stem from unclear definitions of DDI (which I have attempted to clarify in the last post and at the beginning of this one). 

    Secondly, DDI has ample proof from Scripture when we note how the Bible uses two ways of talking about God. It is to this point I'll turn our attention.

So what does the Bible mean when it says "God changed His mind", even though it elsewhere describes God as unchanging?

1. Scripture does present God as unchanging in terms of His being while using figurative language when expressing His "changing His mind".

     Scripture says that on several occasions (for instance in the book of Jonah), that Jonah is talking to God in chapter three of His prophecy. Jonah said something to the effect: "I knew that you were a God who would change your mind".  Jonah had been told by God to proclaim throughout the city of Nineveh in three days God was going to judge them. Then, the King of Nineveh decreed a time of repentance where everyone was to dress in sackcloth and sit on ashes (a customary ancient form of mourning) and cry out to God for repentance. 

    Jonah notes in Jonah 4:1-2 that God changed His mind.  So, some people have asked: "well, how can that be the case?" We read, for instance, in Numbers 23:19 

"God is not a man that he should change his mind nor son of man that he should repent". 

      Yet, there in the book of Jonah, we see God changing his mind.  Although God is by nature unchanging, we see instances in scripture where we see him described as changing his mind that is referring to God from the standpoint of the creatures. What is going on then? 

2. God, in Scripture, uses two different methods of expressing His nature and identity.

      Scripture talks of God in two ways. There are those verses that speaks of God as He is in and of Himself - namely, He's unchanging. Then, there are those verses in which God adapts the revelation of Himself in forms of figurative language to bridge understanding to His people (older writers liken this to a parent speaking baby-talk to their child).
Top Surprises of Life After Baby Arrives
      As to the first sort of way scripture refers to God, we turn to James 1:17, which says - 

"every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of heavenly lights with whom there is no variation nor shifting of shadow." 

      So, with respect to God from God's perspective, there is no change within Him. His emotions are constant. They are "always-on", so-to-speak. God's emotional life is unvarying. Romans 2:4 says this: 

"do you think lightly of the riches of his kindness and tolerance and patience, knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance". 

      So, we understand that it is God's intention to change people and to change their lives. So whenever we read in scripture those places where God is described as "changing his mind", that is, figurative language used in scripture to ascribe changeable human-like emotions to God (called "anthropopathism", or "human-like emotions"). God does this in revealing Himself  by adapting the revelation of Himself to people so that they can relate to Him. 

       The author A.W. Tozer puts it this way, more-or-less:

"that whenever we read of God changing his mind that means there's been a change in the moral situation of the person. So, for example, a person who perhaps all their lives was in rebellion against God and opposition against God hears the Gospel. The Spirit of God does His work in them and now they're responding by faith to Jesus Christ. What has taken place? Has there been a change in God? No. God's always angry at sin and He hates it. God is always gracious and merciful towards those who repent. So what's changed? It's not God. Instead, its the person that's changed." 

3. God has an emotional-life without the frailties and sin we typically have because of what kind of God He is by nature. 

     Sometimes I have been asked: how is it that God can have an emotional life and yet we have emotions? First of all, we've been made in the image of God.  We read in Genesis 1:26 where God says: "Let Us make man in our image in our likeness." 

    And so when God made human beings, He included in His design of human beings that they were to have emotions. Moreover, they were to have a creaturely emotions that were expressive of their Creator.  Of course, when man fell into sin, that meant that the entire nature of man's being (emotionally, psychologically, intellectually) was affected by sin. 

    We as human beings have "passible" emotions, subject to change. As sinful creatures, those changeable emotions are tainted by sin. Although God has communicated emotions to us, His image bearers, the one feature He did not communicate is that trait of "impassibility". 

    Thus, God's emotional life derives from within Himself. He as a Holy God cannot sin, nor can He even look at it (Habakkuk 1:13). Therefore, God's impassible emotional life means He is always joyful about what is good, since He is good. He always approves what is holy, since He is holy. He always hates what is sinful, since He is not sinful. God's emotions flow from the kind of God He is, unchanging, constant, without beginning and without end. This gets us to the heart of what we are talking about in regards to the doctrine of Divine impassibility (DDI). 

Closing thoughts

        So, emotions in of themselves are not sinful.  Rather, they are expressed in connection with the nature of the one that expresses them. For God, God has emotions that are expressed without sin because He is God, that by nature, cannot sin (see Habakkuk 1:13; Titus 1:2; James 1:17; 1 John 1:5-7).  

    We express emotions and they are subject to change. We respond to the changes of circumstances.  Just because God has emotions, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are sinful. As a final thought, Scripture certainly bears out that God has an emotional life, even though it is different from our own."
    In our next post we will deal with the question of whether God suffers, and how Christ in His two natures can aid us in seeing the importance of affirming the doctrine of Divine impassibility. 

No comments:

Post a Comment