God without Passions, Full of Perfections

(The following is a brief reflection I wrote in seminary.)

1.  Sociohistorical Context

Burchell Taylor’s essay, entitled “The Self-Revealing God and the Human Predicament,” in Diverse and Creative Voices seeks to present a Trinitarian understanding of the nature of revelation, as well as the importance of the Trinity for the Christian life.  Taylor argues that the main question concerning God in the Majority World is not “Does God exist?” but rather “What kind of God is God?”  Often faced with poverty and oppression, those in Majority World contexts seek an understanding of God which enables them to experience him in their day-to-day activity.  A God who is near to the human life, one who is sympathetic to the plight of humanity, is what is needed.

2.  Question

Can an impassible God demonstrate emotion to His creation?

3.  Response by Author

Taylor asks, “Is the Triune God immune to being affected by the plight of humans as the concept of impassibility suggests?”[1]  His answer is unequivocal: “Certainly not!”[2]  The reason that Taylor conceives of God as being passible, at least in some sense, is because he emphasizes the reality that God “always responds with concern and compassion to realities and conditions of human life and the creation.”[3]  An impassible God, one who is not subject to undergoing change in his being, virtues, emotions, or perfections in any way whatsoever, is apparently incapable of identifying with the plight and struggle of humanity.  Indeed, Taylor argues for God’s passibility on this very ground: “the Triune God has chosen to become identified with the human predicament and suffering, working for redemption and hope.  God grieves over human rebelliousness and becomes identified with the predicament and agony that it causes.”[4]  Taylor’s phrase “becomes identified” implies strongly that God endures or undergoes the “agony” of suffering caused by the human predicament, even if not in the precisely the same way that humans might experience it.  Thus, in conceiving of God as sympathetic to the human struggle, and even as being able to undergo grief or agony in Himself, Taylor rejects the classical formulation of God’s impassibility.

4.  Assessment

Much could be said of this discussion, and Taylor should be commended for his effort to conceive of a God who genuinely interacts with and cares for His creatures, especially those who endure much suffering.  But is it necessary to reject the doctrine of divine impassibility on this ground?  The classical theologians of the Christian tradition did not seem to think so.  But how, then, did they conceive of God?  Part of the answer lies in the fact that, for them, God’s impassibility does not render God emotionless, but rather passionless.  God fully and perfectly possesses His emotions, but He is not subject to passions.  Why is that?  Passion, from the Latin passio, suggests the idea of something “coming upon” or an “undergoing” of some kind.  The reason that the classical theologians said that God is “without passions” (see Westminster Confession of Faith, 2.1) is because they wanted to safeguard the idea that God does not undergo a change of any kind in His virtues or perfections and that He is not in any way caused to be something other than what He perfectly is.

God does not come to hate sin, nor is He caused by something in creation to hate sin; rather, He perfectly and eternally hates sin since He is infinitely holy.  God does not come to love His elect in Christ, nor is God’s love for them in any way caused by something in creation; rather, He loves them freely, perfectly, and eternally since He is love (cf. 1 John 4:8).  The question with impassibility is not whether God has emotions, but whether God’s emotions are caused to be in any way by the creation.  The classical theologians, safeguarding God’s perfection and unchanging virtues, said that God is not subject to passions.  His emotions are not subject to fluctuation or change since He possesses His virtues perfectly.

5.  A Tool for Interpreting Scripture

Now, one might rightly ask: “What of all the language in Scripture which seems to depict God as genuinely changing in His emotional states?”  The burden of proof here is on the theologian who claims that God is impassible, especially since Scripture in many places suggests that God is genuinely passible.  But there are many ways that have been used to answer this question.  Perhaps most simply: God’s changing manifestation of Himself to creatures via revelation does not necessarily suggest that God’s being is changed as He reveals Himself.  God can reveal Himself one way or another in time, and while that change in revelation is genuine, this does not mean that God Himself changes.  This interpretive key (i.e., that God’s being is not subject to change, but His revelation of Himself is) serves as one helpful way to read Scripture, complete with the apparently contradictory statements about God’s changeability.  This key helps us put all the pieces together in order to see that there are no genuine contradictions in Scripture.


Endnotes

[1] Burchell Taylor, “The Self-Revealing God and the Human Predicament,” in Dieumeme Noelliste and Sung Wook Chug, eds. Diverse and Creative Voices (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishers, 2015), 59.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.


Thanks for reading.  Have any additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

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