Sunday, January 14, 2024

Post #31 The Doctrine of God - P4 Divine Impassibility, How An Impassible God Can Have Affections, And The Two Ways The Bible Talks About God


    For the last three posts, I've dwelled on the subject of God's constant emotional life, otherwise known as "the doctrine of Divine impassibility". In today's post, I want to further our discussion of Divine impassibility. First, we will look at an important distinction about God having affections and He being impassible. Then, we will revisit an area we've talked about before in this overall series, namely the two-fold way the Bible speaks of God, and how that can shed even more light on the doctrine of Divine impassibility. 

God's affections and impassibility

    How we understand the Bible's teaching on God's emotional expression is tied to how we understand His very nature. If God is immutable (i.e. unchangeable), and yet we posit that He can change His emotional response to somehow fit with circumstances, then we have an inherent contradition. Alternatively, if we propose that the Bible teaches God having some sort of change in His very being (whether limited omniscience, a limitation of power, or a limitation upon His presence), then by default we have to conclude God's emotions are as fickle as our own. 

    What I've noticed about objections to DDI is they assume Divine impassibility denies God any affections. I've read opposing viewpoints that think an impassible God is devoid of emotions, or that He is somehow detached from the plight of His creatures. As I've observed these discussions over the years, it has occurred to me (and no doubt others) that a distinction must be made between "affections" and "passions". As I'll explain below, classical, Trinitarian theism affirms God having affections, while denying Him having passions. 

What are affections? How do we distinguish "affections" from "passions"? Why can an impassible God have affections?

    As in any discussion, definitions are important. I get confirmation of this point from noting author James Dolezal's teachings on Divine impassibility. In his work, he gives a careful distinction between "passions" and "caring", noting that God can certainly care, even though He would not do so as a passible being. As a constantly caring God, Dolezal shows that Divine impassibility is what makes God's caring a constant reality.  

    At issue in this discussion is not about whether God has affections (which I'll define momentarily), but more to do with "how" those affections are expressed. 

    It is in terms "passibility" and "impassibility" that we talk about the manner in which God exercises His Divine affections (such as mercy, love, long-suffering, wrath, etc). So lets lay out some definitions.

    The first is what we call God's "affections". An affection is an older term that is synonymous with our term "emotion". An affection refers to how the deepest part of someone is stirred or inclined in preparation toward a specific act. 

    The second set of distinctions are words we ought to have become more familiar ("passiblility" and "impassibility"). These have to do with "how" or "in what way" the affections are stirred. For us creatures, our affections are activated when something happens to us is a "passive way" - i.e. "passible affections". 

    When I as a creature observe a moving scene in a film or hear a touching story from someone who is undergoing great difficulty, my affections are stirred to sorrow, get angry, or motivated to want to do something to allviate the pain. That describes human "passibility" and the accompanying affections. 

    God has given human beings passible affections that mimic His impassible affections. God constantly loves, shows mercy, is angry with sin, injustice, and unrighteousness. As God's image-bearers, we too express those affections, except in a passible way. We can get angry about injustice and show love and mercy when stirred to do so.  

    God's affections (such as mercy or justice) are constantly in motion as a result of His impassibility. In other words, God doesn't need to be moved to pity or mercy, since He is by nature always merciful. 

    God doesn't require an event or another creature to convince him or motivate him to anger over injustice, since He by nature is holy, and thus is always hating sin. Divine impassibility explains "how" God expresses the Divine affections which are His very nature (love, holiness, wrath, long-suffering, just, merciful, and so-forth). 

Keep in mind the two ways God is spoken of in the Bible

    Now that we have expounded a little on "affections" and the terms "passible" and "impassible", how can we understand the Bible's way of speaking of His emotions? 

    Let me remind the reader of the two ways the Bible speaks of God. He is spoken of "directly" in "being language" or what theologians refer to as God communicating Himself ontologically (the term "ontos" speaks of "being"). This first method used by the Bible means we will see God revealed "as He is". For example Malachi 3:6 "I the Lord do not change", or Hebrews 13:6 "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever". 

    Then there is that second way Scripture speaks of God, namely in figurative or analogical language. Thus, God can be described as having arms, eyes, and feet, even though we know that He by nature is not some physical humanoid in the sky, but rather is non-physical or spirit by nature (see John 4:24). Instead, we understand such language is using human expressions (called  "anthropomorphisms") to convey how God is relating to His created world. 

    The figure of speech that uses human emotional expressions to convey God's relating to His creatures is what we call "anthropapathism". By nature, God is impassible, constant in His emotional life. In His relating to us, the Bible uses anthropapathism to show the change brought about in the creature's experience of God. The experiences of God's people in regards to how they perceive His emotional expressions are legitimate situations, viewed from their vantage point. 

    If we keep in mind the two-ways the Bible speaks of God, we will avoid faulty interpretations of His emotional expressions, just as we saw in understanding how He shows forth His will, actions, and attributes to accomodate our understanding versus the kind of unchanging, impassible God He truly is.

Closing thoughts for today

    We've attempted to shed further light on the meaning of Divine impassibility by distinguishing "affections" from the terms "passibility" and "impassibility". We noted that God and humans have affections. God expresses His affections impassibily or constantly. Human beings demonstrate their affections passibly or as occassions come upon them. 

    We then reviewed how the Bible speaks of God in two ways - directly revealing God as He is in His being or "ontologically" and indirectly through figures of speech or "analogically" when describing people's experiences of Him. By observing the Bible's two ways of talking about God, we avoid the mistake of viewing God as passible in His emotional life, and thus running into the error of introducing some sort of change in God. In the next post, we will see how the discussion of Divine emotional impassibility and human emotional passibility is relevant to understanding Jesus Christ as God and man at the cross.

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