Cross

Theology Proper, or the Doctrine of God, is inherently problematic for any individual undertaking its study. Indeed, Theology Proper is a labyrinth of topics and subtopics which if not navigated properly will inevitably create a false notion of God. This has a profound impact on people’s lives, both as individuals and corporately as a society. As Elmer Towns notes,

“But When we misunderstand God, we automatically drift in our theology. And those who drift in their theology ultimately suffer in their practical life, because proper belief is the foundation for proper action…A study of civilization shows that no culture has even risen above its religion, and no religion is greater that its view of God. Therefore, those who have the greatest view of God obviously will have the greatest civilization.”[1]

The necessity of the scholar to provide a responsible Theology Proper is significant. Indeed, the task is a daunting one. Each topic and subtopic are, in themselves, a playing card in the construction of a house of cards. When done properly, what is in view can be absolutely astounding, but one imperfection can bring the whole enterprise down upon itself. It is the aim of this paper to examine on such card, namely the doctrine of impassibility.

Impassability is the doctrine that “God is not capable of being acted upon or affected emotionally by anything in creation.”[2] This doctrine is irrevocably linked to the ideas that God is absolute perfection (Perfection Theology) and that he cannot change in any of his essential nature (Doctrine of immutability). These doctrines are in turned based upon Greek philosophical thought which the early church fathers used as their foundation to expound the Doctrine of God. However, it is the intention of this paper to show that the doctrine of impassibility is biblically untenable. This will be accomplished by demonstrating that the proper key to use in forming a correct Theology Proper is the revelation of God through the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, as he is revealed in scripture. Once this Christological perspective is applied it will be shown that the whole revelation of scripture is one of a God who is affected by emotional stimulus and therefore, passive.

An Overview of the Doctrine of Impassability

There is little doubt that Christian Theology has been significantly influenced by ancient Greek philosophy. Indeed, classical Greek thought and Western Christian thought have been so intertwined with each other that many of the concepts have become synonymous with one another. Commenting on this phenomenon, Tony Lane writes, “The task of the early Christian Fathers was to express the Christian faith in relation to their Greek heritage. This meant expressing it in Greek terms, yet without distorting it. To a large extent, they succeeded in doing this. In due course Greek thought became Christian thought.”[3] Furthermore as early as the second century Christian thinkers were incorporating Greek philosophy into Christianity. Justin Martyr wrote, “I both boast and strive with all my strength to be found a Christian. Not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not totally identical.”[4] This fusion of Christian belief with Greek philosophy would lay the foundation for much of Christian orthodoxy, the doctrine of impassibility included.

Greek thinkers, generally, taught that human beings and their nature were made up of a two-fold anthropology, the body and the soul. This form of anthropology harkens back to Plato’s distinction between being and becoming. According to Plato, everything in the physical world changes and therefore is in a constant state of becoming. However, there is another realm, according to Plato, the realm of ideas or forms. These ideas or forms are unchanging and in a constant state of being. Additionally, this world of becoming was not considered to be transient, but also irrational. In contrast, the universe was thought to be indwelt by a “divine reason” (Logos) which came from the realm of being. The Apostle John would use “Logos” to describe Jesus in his Gospel (John 1:1, ESV).[5] This way of viewing cosmology led the Greek philosophers to believe that human beings consisted of body (an irrational substance of becoming) which housed the soul (a divine spark of Logos from the realm of being). As a result, the goal of human beings was to shed the becoming to free the being.[6]

With John’s use of Greek philosophical terminology, early Christian Fathers had found a point of contact to use a springboard to combine Christian and Greek thought. Thomas Aquinas and his followers (thomists) readily embraced this point of contact. They presented a God who was transcendent, simple, rational, and unchanging. Furthermore, they argued that emotions and passibility involved potentiality. Potentiality, they claimed, involved change. Furthermore, since God had to be absolute in moral perfection, thomists argued that any suffering by God would deny his divine blessedness.[7] Novatian, a thomsist, assumed that impassability was a foregone conclusion as result that “God is incorruptible spirit who is not made up of somatic parts.”[8] The thomists were persuasive as a result the Church of England affirmed in their 39 Articles of Faith that God is without body, parts, or passions (emotions).[9]

However, by the late 1700’s hundreds, challenges began to arise which would persist to this day. Many scholars understood impassibility to rob of God any affectional attributes. These attributes, it was felt were essential to God’s personality and agape love. How could God be love if God were unaffected by love? In 1786 the Council of Bishops issued a statement of faith that omitted the word “passions.” This was later followed by a statement released by the Methodist which also omitted the word.[10]

More recently, in the twentieth century, the challenge has largely arisen from the theological work of Jűrgen Moltmann, widely viewed as the forefather to modern liberation theology. Moltmann argues in his trilogy of theology against the ideas of divine immutability and impassibility. For Moltmann, the cross is the point where God enters into human suffering. This suffering is not merely experienced by Jesus, the son, through the reality of crucifixion; but also by the Father who must hand over the one in whom he is well pleased. In Moltmann’s view, the resurrection offers meaning to suffering through the promise of new creation.[11] Still, Moltmann’s work has largely been dismissed by conservative Christian scholarship. D.A. Currie notes, “Moltmann’s thought can be characterized as Marxism with a religious soul, leaving many Marxists with doubts about its religious core and many Christians with questions about its optimistic view of human nature in revolution, in light of the basic human propensity toward evil experienced by Moltmann himself in World War II and by Jesus in crucifixion.”[12]

Despite these challenges, the classical view of impassability has survived. Stephen Duby has argued for divine impassability on the grounds that the dual nature of Jesus as the God-man allows for the doctrine. He writes, “It is proper to the person to undertake actions (actus sunt suppositorum26) and to suffer, and, as the Son assumes and subsists in a second nature by which he acts and suffers, this opens up the possibility that Jesus might suffer on the cross not in his deity but in his humanity alone.”[13]

Still, even with affirmations such as Duby offers, the doctrine of impassibility remains confused and complex. Most of the confusion revolves around what does impassibility really mean? Is impassibility simply the idea that God cannot suffer; or is it the idea that since God cannot change, he cannot experience or be affected by emotions? Such confusion is acknowledged by scholars on both sides of the aisle, even within the same denomination. Daniel Castelo, a Pentecostal adherer to divine impassibility, suggests,

Language cannot carry the burden of encapsulating comprehensively and sufficiently the glory of God; metaphysical and epistemológica؛ categories are outstripped of their rhetorical power before thepresence of God; even some of our most heartfelt convictions of who God is and how God is like can simply be scaffolding to aid us but in time require significant revision as we grow in wisdom and grace.[14]

While Andrew Gabriel, a Pentecostal adherer to passibility, writes, “Theology must always adjust to its context. For the majority of theologians (and pastors) today, impassibility does not mean what it meant for many Patristic theologians.”[15]

In spite of this linguistic muddle, the classical view of impassibility remains strong.

The Necessity of a Christological Framework

As previously discussed, the foundation for most of the classical thought on impassibility derives from the Christian Church Fathers of the second century and beyond who relied heavily upon Greek philosophical thought. Christianity, however, despite the Johannine passage, is primarily a Jewish derivative. Jesus Christ was a first century Jew who thought, spoke, and taught in accordance with Jewish thought. Therefore, any Christian Theology Proper must be founded upon, not Greek philosophy, but Jewish theology and philosophy. The primary source of that thought is to be found within the scriptures of the Old Testament. Overall, the Old Testament portrayal of God is one who was sorry over an action (Genesis 6:6); one who changes his mind from wrath to mercy (32:7-14); one who folds Israel into arms like a shepherd who loves the sheep in his charge (Isaiah 40:11); loving with a love which is greater than a mother’s love for her child (49:15). These Old Testament passages, along with countless others, seem to depict a God of passibility. According to John Feinberg, such passages as must be seen figurative anthropomorphic expressions and therefore does not negate the impassibility of God.[16]  While he does not deny the figurative nature of the scripture, Lewis notes, “All of these anthropomorphic expressions are figurative, but the figures of speech illustrate a nonfigurative point. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not without feeling, not without the capability of loving and feeling the hurt of love spurned.”[17]

It would seem, then, that when one moves away from the Greek philosophical premise to a more Jewish perspective that one comes to see a God who experiences and is acted upon by emotions. However, while Christian thought is most certainly dependent of Jewish thought, this is far from conclusive. Christian thought is not limited to the Old Testament alone. Any series consideration must include the writings of the New Testament as well. As shown by the use of Logos in John ,1 the writers of the New Testament certainly included Greek philosophy as they developed their theology. Still as N. T. Wright has argued the Christian thinking in the New Testament is primarily Jewish in origin.[18] Indeed, one of the reasons for Luke writing his secondary volume, the book of Acts, was to justify Roman tolerance of Christianity as a Jewish subsect as Judaism was a protected religion within ancient Rome.[19]

Although dependent of Jewish theology, the God of the New Testament is very different from the God portrayed in the Old Testament. This is not to say that they are incoherent or inconsistent, rather just different perspectives. For example, Jewish thought cannot embrace a Trinitarian God. For any Jewish scholar, God is simply one (Deuteronomy 6:4). Yet, New Testament scriptures present God as one numerically, but subsisting as three persons. Additionally, no Jew would have dared to suggest that the “Son of Man” messianic passage of Daniel 7 would mean that God would take on the nature of man to become the slaughtered messiah. They would have considered that to be blasphemy, yet the Jewish authors of the four Gospels, especially John’s, do not shy away from that assertion. These are but two of the many additions and modifications that the New Testaments writers made to orthodox Judaism. This begs the question, why? Why did these writers feel obliged to change what they had spent a lifetime thinking of as sacred truths into what most of their contemporaries would have found as sacrilege?

The answer, of course, is that they began to filter these truths through the reality of Jesus. For as St. Augustine famously said, “What the Old concealed, the New revealed.”[20] At the risk of redundancy, it may be asserted that Christianity would not be what it is without the reality of Jesus. As John Walvoord affirms,

Christianity by its very name has always honored Jesus Christ as its historical and theological center. No other person has been more essential to its origination and subsequent history and no set of doctrines has been more determinative than the doctrines of the person and work of Christ. In approaching the study of Christology, one is concerned with central rather than peripheral theological matters.[21]

The New Testament writers agree with Walvoord. According to the writer of Hebrews,

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature… (1:1-3, emphasis added).

Therefore, Jesus is not only central to Christian theology, specifically He is the full revelation of God as a whole. This was not an apostolic idea, rather it is a claim that Jesus makes himself. He tells the scribes and the pharisees that entire Old Testament is about him (John 5:39-40). Furthermore, when Jesus is asked by his disciples to show them the Father, Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:8-9). Finally, Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth and the life” (v. 6). Since, with the exception of the Hebrews passage, these claims were made pre-crucifixion and resurrection, it may be implied that Jesus was speaking to his condition at the time. Therefore, it cannot be contended that those attributes only occurred as a consequence of the resurrection. It seems that any doctrine within a Theology Proper must be viewed through a Christological perspective.

 Biblical View of Passibility

 Having presented the necessity of a Christological approach to developing a theological doctrine of God, let alone one of impassibility, all that remains is to examine what the Biblical portrayal of God’s impassibility is. However, the evidence for passibility does not need to demonstrate that change actually occurred as a result of emotions, rather demonstrating that there is a potential for change is sufficient. With this caveat in mind, the evaluation of the scriptural evidence commences in the Gospel of Luke.

In the twenty-second chapter of Luke, Luke records the account of Jesus’ time spent in the Garden of Gethsemane. There Jesus prays, “Father, if you are willing remove this cup from me. Nonetheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (v.42). Luke tells us that after this prayer that Jesus “being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (v.44). These verses indicate that Jesus wanted his circumstances to change as a result of experience emotional stress. However, this does not mean that any change to God’s nature or will has occurred.

Yet this is not the end of the narrative. Matthew’s account gives more to the story. As Jesus is arrested after this emotional breakdown, one of his disciples cuts off the High Priest’s ear. (26:51) Matthew records Jesus’ rebuke of this action, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (vs.52-53) Jesus, during this interaction with an over zealous disciple, acknowledges his freedom to change whether he is to be arrested and crucified, or not. The reality that the Father would honor Jesus’ request shows that there is the potential for the will of God to be changed, had Jesus so desired. The passage implies that Jesus could have changed his will by engaging in an alternative action. He was not, in any way constrained, to go through with what the Father had seemingly implicit. The fact, that he did go through the crucifixion, only suggests that God is committed to his word and promises. However, commitment does not make absoluteness implicit.

Another scripture which offers substantial contribution to the idea that Jesus possesses passibility is Hebrews 2:10. Here, the author of Hebrews writes, “For it was fitting that, he for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”  Here, the author is definitely distinguishing between the Father (the one who made perfect) from the Son (the one made perfect). Now the Apostle John tell us in his revelation that Jesus is the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8), whereas the suffering and slaying refer to the same incident, namely the crucifixion, whereby the son is made perfect is attached to the preexistent Christ. It may be assumed that the imperfection which is changed is also attached to the preexistent Christ. This, then would suggest that Christ encompassed imperfection before the foundation of the world. This then would mean that the Logos who was God (John 1:3) changed from imperfection to perfection. Nonetheless, some scholars are convinced that the perfection referred to in the Hebrews passage deals simply with the human Jesus’ qualifying as a perfect leader.[22] This is assertion errors by skirting the issue. As Feinberg comments, “Perfect being theology informs us that God must have all perfections a divine being can have (and each to the highest degree)…”[23] This would mean that Jesus, who according to the creed, would possess a divine nature. Similarly, he would already have the qualifications of a perfect leader. Orthodox theology requires that God be absolute perfection, to then ascribe some imperfection to Jesus would then deny his divinity. This, then, would destroy the entire orthodox theology of which impassibility is apart of.

Additionally, the author of Hebrews further endorses a passibility scenario in respect to the attributes of God. He writes, “For because he himself suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). In this passage, the writer states that Jesus could not help those who are tempted unless he suffered when tempted himself. For the orthodox theist, who assumes that God is all powerful, this would imply that God’s all powerfulness derives from being acted upon by suffering. No denial of impassibility could be any more straightforward. Jesus, God, can only help and redeem his creation through his own suffering. This denies the possibility that God cannot be affected by emotional stress, since suffering, by default, necessitates emotional distress. This cannot simply refer to the human nature of the two-natured person of Christ. Again, as previously noted, the suffering was experienced by the pre-existent Logos. Otherwise, God would not have been able to help anyone prior to the incarnation of Jesus. That is, unless, Jesus possessed a human nature prior to the incarnation. However, if this was presumption were true, it would nullify the concept of the kenosis (Philippians 2:6-8). Such a situation would deny the unity of scripture and nullify it coherence. No, the author wanted his Hebrew readers to grasp the hope that Jesus was available to help them since he had already suffered in his preexistent state. God had suffered as they had suffered, so that God could help them through their suffering.

Conclusion

The entire Theology Proper of orthodox Christianity is a construct of Greek philosophical thought. This stands in stark contrast to the Jewish thought of scripture. It is hard to imagine a more incoherent symbiotic relationship. However, nonetheless, the scholar would be wise to remember Lane’s warning on judging to harshly the early Christian Father’s use of Greek philosophy. Lane writes, “But to say that the outcome was not perfect is only to say that the early Fathers were human. It is not to belittle their considerable achievement or to claim that we could have done better.”[24]

Still, the Apostle Paul encourages us to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). This paper has suggested that the doctrine of impassibility is simply not good. For without preexistent Logos having the ability to be made perfect through suffering, any individual living in the time before the incarnation would have no access to the help of God. Yet, the Old Testament is full of various evidence that such help was readily available.

Furthermore, the God of Christianity has chosen to reveal himself through Jewish thought. As Paul reminds Timothy, “All scripture is breathed out by God…” (2 Timothy 3;16). This revelation came to fullness in the person of Jesus, who died in for the transgressions of the world. To create a theology which does not filter through the Christological perspective is to create an erroneous portrait of the living God. Nothing could be more dangerous.

 Bibliography

“Anglicans Online | The Thirty-Nine Articles.” Angelicans Onlline. Accessed August 24, 2018. http://anglicansonline.org/basics/thirty-nine_articles.html.

Barnard, Leslie W., and Iustinus. St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies. New York: Paulist Press, 1997.

Castelo, Daniel. “An Apologia for Divine Impassibility: Toward Pentecostal Prolegomena.” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 19, no. 1 (2010): 118-26. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/174552510X489928.

Currie, D. A. “Moltmann, Jurgen.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Duby, Steven J. “Atonement, Impassibility and the Communicatio Operationum.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 17, no. 3 (2015): 284-95. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/ijst.12108.

Feinberg, J.S. and H.O.J. Brown. No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God. Crossway, 2006.

Gabriel, Andrew K. “Pentecostals and Divine Impassibility: A Response to Daniel Castelo.” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 20, no. 1 (2011): 184-90. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/174552511X554609.

Hill, E. and J.E. Rotelle. The Works of Saint Augustine : A Translation for the 21st Century. New City Press, 1994.

Keener, C.S. and InterVarsity Press. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Lane, T. and A.N.S. Lane. Concise History of Christian Thought, A. Baker Publishing Group, 2006.

Lewis, G. R. “Impassibility of God.” In The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. Fortress Press, 1993.

Radmacher, D., R.B. Allen, and H.W. House. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary: Spreading the Light of God’s Word into Your Life. Thomas Nelson, 1999.

Song, John B. “An Exploration of Novatian’s Hermeneutic on Divine Impassibility and God’s Emotions in Light of Modern Concerns.” Journal of Reformed Theology 6, no. 1 (2012): 3-23. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156973112X643994.

Towns, E.L. Theology for Today. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2001.

United Methodist Communications. “The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church.” The United Methodist Church. October 31, 2013. Accessed August 24, 2018. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-articles-of-religion-of-the-methodist-church.

Walvoord, J.F. Jesus Christ Our Lord. Moody Publishers, 1969.

Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. Fortress Press, 1992.

Wright, N.T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Fortress Press, 2008.

 

[1] E.L. Towns, Theology for Today (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2001), 95.

[2] G. R. Lewis, “Impassibility of God,” in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 598.

[3] T. Lane and A.N.S. Lane, Concise History of Christian Thought, A (Baker Publishing Group, 2006), 7.

[4] Barnard, Leslie W., and Iustinus. St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies. New York: Paulist Press, 1997.

[5] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).

[6] Lane and Lane, 6-7.

[7] Lewis,  in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 598.

[8] John B. Song, “An Exploration of Novatian’s Hermeneutic on Divine Impassibility and God’s Emotions in Light of Modern Concerns,” Journal of Reformed Theology 6, no. 1 (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156973112X643994.

[9] “Anglicans Online | The Thirty-Nine Articles.” Angelicans Onlline. Accessed August 24, 2018. http://anglicansonline.org/basics/thirty-nine_articles.html.

[10] United Methodist Communications. “The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church.” The United Methodist Church. October 31, 2013. Accessed August 24, 2018. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-articles-of-religion-of-the-methodist-church.

[11] Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. Fortress Press, 1993.

[12] D. A. Currie, “Moltmann, Jurgen,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 784.

[13] Steven J. Duby, “Atonement, Impassibility and the Communicatio Operationum,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 17, no. 3 (2015): 291, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/ijst.12108.

[14] Daniel Castelo, “An Apologia for Divine Impassibility: Toward Pentecostal Prolegomena,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 19, no. 1 (2010), http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/174552510X489928.

[15] Andrew K. Gabriel, “Pentecostals and Divine Impassibility: A Response to Daniel Castelo,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 20, no. 1 (2011), http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/174552511X554609.

[16] J.S. Feinberg and H.O.J. Brown, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Crossway, 2006), 274.

[17] Lewis,  in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 598.

[18] See N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press, 1992); N.T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Fortress Press, 2008).

[19] C.S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1993).

[20] E. Hill and J.E. Rotelle, The Works of Saint Augustine : A Translation for the 21st Century (New City Press, 1994).

[21] J.F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord (Moody Publishers, 1969), 11.

[22] D. Radmacher, R.B. Allen, and H.W. House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary: Spreading the Light of God’s Word into Your Life (Thomas Nelson, 1999), 1638.

[23] Feinberg and Brown, 211.

[24] Lane and Lane, 8.