Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Post #28 The Doctrine of God - God's Constant Unchanging Emotional Life: An Introduction To The Doctrine of Divine Impassibility (DDI)


    In our series on "The Doctrine of God", we've considered attributes of God that pertain to His emotional life. We looked, for instance, at God's wrath here We also look at other attributes that express God's emotional life, such as love here and here Then most recently, we began exploring God's attribute of mercy, starting here and here

    When we look at God's wrath, love, mercy, as well as other emotional attributes, are we to understand God's emotional life as a bigger version of our own? What is His emotional life like? Does God have an emotional life? Is God devoid of emotions altogether, with things like "mercy", "love", and "wrath" mere words that have no connection to Him? These questions represent inquiries that abound when getting into conversations about a doctrine that addresses God's emotional life - The Doctrine of Divine Impassibility (DDI for short). 

    I'll let the reader know that the doctrine of Divine impassibility (DDI from here forward), has been unliked for the last century or so. Part of this is due to the term "impassible" itself. Also, the opposition stems from major shifts in rejecting the classical historic Christian doctrine of God that asserts God's unchangeability in His nature, attributes, and emotional life. Some perceive "impassibility" as meaning God is emotionless, situated in Heaven as an aloof, "rock-like" God.  

    For the reader's sake, let me say that "impassibility" does not mean "no emotions". Rather, the term "impassible" is denying a certain way of expression emotions. The first step to better understanding "DDI" is in seeing how God's emotional life differs from our own. I'll briefly expound those differences, and then conclude with some Scriptural examples.

How God's impassible or constant emotional life differs from our passible or changing emotional life

    We as human beings are "passible" or have "passions", that is, the sort of emotional life that is affected by things other than ourselves. Author Samuel Renihan in the May 2022 edition of "Tabletalk Magazine" gives a helpful illustration of human passions or "passible" emotions. He writes,

"A long-standing and beloved tradition of church life is a potluck or fellowship meal. Food abounds, and everyone enjoys the bountiful feast. When you walk by the food and desserts with your plate, you choose certain items and pass others by. Why is that? Why do you choose some but not others? The truth is that each of the foods or desserts that you see before you is operating on you, exerting an influence on you, and affecting you. How so? You perceive each item as good or bad, and then you are drawn to the good and repulsed by the bad. When you move to take the good and move away from taking the bad, you have been changed, moved, and affected by those foods and your perception of them. This is the life of a passible creature." 

Renihan then observes,

"To be passible means that you are capable of being acted on by an outside influence. You are capable of being the patient of an agent."
    Human beings, in their emotional life, are prone to "ups and downs" due to being affected from the outside. But what about God? Unlike ourselves, God's emotional life derives from who He is as God, rather than being manipulated, coerced, or changed by something that is outside of Himself. 

    The term "impassible" has that Latin "im" prefix that negates the word with which its associated. Thus, God is not "passive" or "subject to have His emotions sway with whatever is going on" to use colloquial terminology. We can note further that the Latin verb "patior"(the root behind "passion") also is the same root for our English word "patient" (note the "pat" root that is related to the Latin verb "patior"). When we use the word "patient" in a medical context, it is someone who has things being done to them by a doctor. If I use the term "patient" to reference my emotions, I am meaning that I am waiting and controlling myself so as not to be affect by someone else. These sorts of uses describe us a beings with "passions". 

    These observations are vital when explaining the teaching of DDI, since the doctrine teaches that God cannot be coerced or manipulated like human beings in their emotions. God's emotions are always active, never passive. God's emotions are always constant, reflecting His unchanging, immutable nature. 

    We note of course that God's emotional attributes are "communicable", meaning He shares them with us. However, to say God's emotions are communicable does not mean they are identical. Think of God's mercy for example. God is always merciful. Renihan writes again in this respect,

"But God’s mercy is not a passion. God helps the helpless from the infinite fullness of His own goodness, not from sincere movement or emotional manipulation. Therefore, the helpless can always call on God, knowing that He is not merciful but mercy itself. God is not moved to mercy; He is mercy. Let us worship and adore our God and say, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22–23)."

Scriptural examples of the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility (DDI)

    DDI is a consequence of considering the other attributes of God (most notably His Divine changelessness or immutability) and is directly provable from Biblical texts that assert God's emotional life as an expression of His being. In the next post I'll deal with the matter of how DDI relates to God's Divine immutability or changelessness. What I want to do now is close out with Scriptures that highlight DDI in action.

1. God is always, impassibly, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness. 
Exodus 34:6 “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth". This most common description of God in the Old Testament ties God's emotional life to His personal covenant name - Yahweh or LORD. This covenant name speaks of He being "the unchanging, self-existent one". Hence, the emotional attributes of "compassion", "long-suffering" or "slow to anger", and "love" or "loving-kindness" are constant, unvarying, unchanging.

2. God is impassible or unchanging in His love. 
      Psalm 136, on twenty-six occassions, asserts, "For His lovingkindness is everlasting." What is amazing about Psalm 136 is that God remains constantly this way regardless of the circumstances. In 1 John 4:8 plainly states, "God is love". In God, His attribute of love has no beginning. If we say God is changeable in His emotions, then it would follow there are moments in God where He is not loving by nature and essence. This point is most clear in the internal relationship between the Persons of the Trinity. In John 3:35 and John 5:20, we are told that "the Father loves the Son". Is there ever a time that the Father did not love the Son? In God, the love between the Father and the Son has had no end, no beginning, no diminishment, and no alteration. 

3. Acts 14:15 "And saying, O men, why do ye these things? We are even
men subject to the like passions that ye be, and preach unto you, that ye should turn from these vain idols unto the living God, which made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that in them are."
(Geneva Bible, 1560 edition). 

    I bring up this final passage due to how classical, historic Christianity in documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith and Baptist Confession of 1689 have used this text as a major proof text for DDI. How? The underlined word above in the Geneva Bible 1560 edition (as well as the KJV and older English translations) describe Paul and his hearers as those sharing in the same "passible" or changing nature. The Liddell, Scott, Jones Greek Lexicon, 9th edition, rightly notes about the underlying Greek word translated "like-passions", "like, of the same quality or kind of desires being affected in the same way, as another." 

    Most modern translations render this word as "like nature", indicating that Paul and his listeners are of a contrary nature to the God whom He is pointing them, namely, "the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein."  

    Thus are some examples of Bible passages that affirm the truth of the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility (DDI).