ReThink everything you thought you Knew

What do you think of the classical view that God is impassible?

The classical view has historically held that God is impassible, meaning he is above pathos (passion or emotions). The main reason the church came to this view was that, following the Hellenistic philosophical tradition, they associated emotions with change while believing God was above all change (immutable). Moreover, experiencing emotions implies that one is affected by something outside of oneself, and the Church, again following the Hellenistic tradition, generally came to believe God was “above” being affected by anything outside of himself.

I think this entire tradition is, frankly, seriously flawed.

If we keep our focus on Jesus Christ as we think about what God is like — and we must — how could we ever come to the conclusion that God is above having emotions? Jesus certainly had passionate emotions, ranging from joy to anger to sorrow. And remember, he said “If you see me, you see the Father” (Jn 14:9). Many try to argue that these emotions were simply part of Christ’s human nature, not his divinity. This response splits Christ’s divinity from his humanity (a heresy known as Nestorianism) and undermines the revelatory nature of Christ’s humanity. Even more fundamentally, one would only come to this conclusion if they started with the assumption that they already knew what God was like before they came to Christ to find out what God is like. If we instead started with Christ — allowing his humanity to reveal to us all we need to know about God — we’d never come to the conclusion that God is “above” experiencing passionate emotions.

The rest of the Bible confirms this point. From the portrayals of God as a compassionate mother (Isa. 49:15–16) and the ecstatic Father of a wayward son (Luke 15), to the depiction of God as a Father who is willing to painfully sacrifice his only Son (Rom. 8), the Bible gives us a beautiful portrait of a God whose experience of suffering and love can scarcely be imagined.

But the portrayal hardly stops there. Expressing profound joy, God sings and claps his hands as he delights in his children (Zeph. 3). Conversely, God experiences profound grief over the disobedience of his children—the grief of a parent losing her child, or of a husband married to an unfaithful wife (Gen. 6:7, Hosea 1:2). Moreover, the God of the Bible is a God whose experience of anger and frustration at rebellion is outrun only by God’s experience of compassion and happiness when his children return to him (Luke 15). Whereas the Greeks—and far too much of the Church’s theological tradition—considered this sort of passion and vulnerability to be a defect, in Scripture such features are clearly among those things which make God the supreme God that he is. They are foundational aspects of God’s eternal character and sovereign Lordship over the earth.

To suggest that the “higher” view of God is that God is “above” such emotions in his essence, and that such passionate depictions are simply anthropomorphic concessions to our limited ability to understand or due to Christ’s humanity, is to pull the rug out from under the most beautiful and exalted dimension of the Bible’s teaching on the nature of God. And, consequently, such approaches arrive at a view of God that is contrary to the view offered throughout Scripture, and embodied in Jesus Christ.

Even beyond the scriptural data, we have to seriously wonder why we should consider experiencing passionate emotions to be a weakness in the first place. Certainly the way humans experience emotions is often flawed. Our emotions often control us and cause us to act irrationally or immorally. But when this occurs the problem is not the emotions themselves, but the way they’re experienced and expressed. God would certainly be above experiencing and expressing emotions in these flawed ways. But there’s simply no reason to think this means God is above emotions as such.

In fact, don’t we generally consider the absence of emotions to be a character flaw? An incapacity or an unwillingness to empathize with others is usually considered at the very least rude, if not unhealthy or even malicious. Why think this insight is absolutely invalid when applied to God?

If the willingness and ability to empathize is a praiseworthy attribute for us — and it certainly is — then it seems we should come to the opposite conclusion of the classical view. God, who created us in his image and is the source of all our strengths and virtues, must be viewed as being supremely empathetic. Not only does God experience emotions, he experiences them to a degree that infinitely outruns our deepest and richest emotions. Rather than being impassible, we should see God as supremely passible.

So, for biblical as well as philosophical reasons, I consider the classical view of God as impassible to be seriously flawed.

What do you think of the classical view that God is impassible?