Abstract:Modern scholars charge that the traditional view of divine impassibility had been corrupted with Greek philosophy and thus strayed away from Scripture’s testimony of the true God. The attempt to construct a new theology of God has brought many scholars to embrace a vulnerable God. A God who is worth enough is a God who can suffer with human beings. Contrary to the opinion, an overview at the patristic theology of God and at the mediaeval theologian, including the Reformed ones, provides us with a proof that their understanding was not influenced by Greek philosophy per se but mainly based on the doctrine of creation: God is impassible but not unemotional.
In Jeremiah 14:17 Yahweh speaks of shedding “tears night and day.” We can argue that it is Jeremiah, and not God, who is crying. However, it was God who told Jeremiah to tell Judah that he, Yahweh, was crying for their plight. McConville writes that verses 17–18 “ represent again the pain of the Lord through the mouth, and the experience, of Jeremiah. The Lord is not indifferent to the grief of the people, even though he himself brings it upon them as judgment. His mourning corresponds to Judah’s.”1 Isaiah 63:9 also states, “In all their afflictions, he [God] was afflicted.” These two passages are only two examples of the emotion of God that is depicted in the Bible. These are also some of the reasons over the controversy of the doctrine of divine impassibility which holds that God is not subject to emotion. It has been argued, on the one hand, that a God who does not weep or rejoice with his creature is too distant, that an impassible God is inferior. On the other hand, a God who feels emotions will be in some sense dependent upon his creation. If things go badly with his creation, then he will feel sorrow. If he is to feel joy, then that joy will result from contingencies in the world. This idea of a God who is dependent upon creation for his well-being has been thought to diminish God, to make him vulnerable.
1. Addressing the Problem
Perhaps no traditional Christian doctrine has been subject to greater contempt from modern theologians than the assertion that God is “impassible” by nature. Such a doctrine sounds to many people today as if God does not care about human life. And in the wake of terrible sufferings of our time, the impassibility of God is under fire. Jürgen Moltmann has said:
A God who cannot suffer is poorer than any man. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is a loveless being. Aristotle’s God cannot love; he can only be loved by all non-divine beings by virtue of his perfection and beauty, and in this way draw them to him. The “unmoved Mover” is a “loveless Beloved.”2
Taking their cue from men like Jürgen Moltmann, who lived through the destruction of European Jewry and who had some personal experience of that catastrophe, many theologians have looked for a God “after Auschwitz.” This movement has been affirmed by Moltmann himself, when he said: “My book The Crucified God was said to be a Christian theology ‘after Auschwitz’. This is true. It was for me an attempt to speak to God, to trust in God and speak about God in the shadows of Auschwitz and in view of the victims of my people.”3 There is a desire, then, to have a God who is near to us, who understands our suffering, and who participates in it with us. Only by such participation, it is argued, can redemption occur, because only then has God truly committed himself to the reality which he himself created. No wonder Ronald Goetz can even speak with some accuracy of the emergence of a “new orthodoxy” of a suffering God.4
In such a context, it is commonly claimed that patristic theology fell prey to the assumption of Hellenistic philosophy about the impassibility of God and departed from the allegedly biblical view. Francis House explained:
The patristic writers may have been mistaken in taking the notion of the impassibility of God as a self evident truth. If this philosophical axiom is rejected as incompatible with the fundamental New Testament doctrine that God is above all to be thought of as a loving Father, then many false dilemmas are cleared away.5
House and many others charge that for centuries the Christian church has been in thrall to an alien philosophy, from which it must now liberate itself.
In this article I will limit myself to the discussion of divine impassibility in general. More specifically, I will not undertake the task of explaining the relation between divine impassibility and Christology, though it is indeed very interesting.6 I am interested mainly in the question of whether or not the divine nature is capable of emotion.
2. Patristic Understanding of Divine Impassibility
According to the doctrine of divine impassibility, God is invulnerable to suffering. Nothing can act upon him, but he is in no way passive. However, the suffering of the impassible God provides a major reconsideration of the notion of divine impassibility in patristic thought.
In this section I will not present extensively every thought of divine impassibility in the church fathers. I will only deal with the charge that early fathers had a corrupted understanding of divine impassibility. A helpful summary of their doctrine is found in Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines. He helps us understand the unity of patristic understanding with respect to divine impassibility. He confirms that all the fathers, including even most heretics, strongly believed that God is impassible.7 Nobody orthodox denied impassibility and even the heterodox acknowledged it. They did not cite Aristotle’s unmoved mover, Plato’s eternal forms, or anything of the sort. Rather, their arguments were based mainly on the usual biblical texts that theologians today still cite to teach God’s immutability (Ps 102:27; Isa 43:10; Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17). Early fathers understood that divine impassibility is closely related to divine immutability. The reason is, as Paul Helm has explained, that “God cannot change or be changed, and a fortiori God cannot be changed by being affected. So that impassibility is a kind of immutability.”8
What actually is the reason behind modern theologians’ charge? Weinandy believes that the reason is a corrupted presupposition:
Contemporary theologians have not come to the Bible and the Fathers philosophically neutral, but rather already convinced that an impassible and immutable God will not do. Thus, their interpretation of the Old Testament and the Fathers is driven, at least in part, by an already preconceived understanding of the philosophical issues involved and the philosophical answers that must be given.9
For example, Francis House believed the charge can be established because not every father held the doctrine of divine impassibility. He quoted Tertullian who seemed to contradict other church fathers: “If the Father is impassible he cannot suffer with another; if he can suffer with another, then he is passible, should we not prefer the second alternative?”10
However, House has misunderstood Tertullian’s understanding of divine impassibility. While the Bible attributes to God hands, eyes, and feet, what they depict about God is far different from what they refer to human beings. Similarly, while we can speak of God’s sensations and emotion, they too designate something radically different of God from what they designate of humankind. Elsewhere Tertullian explained,
These sensations in the human being are rendered just as corrupt by the corruptibility of man’s substance, as in God they are rendered incorruptible by the incorruption of the divine essence. . . . [I]t is palpably absurd of you to be placing human characteristics in God rather than divine ones in man, and clothing God in the likeness of man, instead of man in the image of God.11
In other words, for Tertullian divine impassibility does not mean that God is without emotion, rather it means that God possesses emotions in a divine manner.
This modern corrupted interpretation of the relationship between Christian theology and Greek philosophy is deeply rooted in Adolf von Harnack’s theory of the development of dogma in terms of Hellenization.12 Harnack saw the development of Christian theology as the Hellenization of the gospel. The process of Hellenization for Harnack had a negative meaning: it implied a deterioration of the originally unadulterated gospel into a rigid doctrinal system. The interesting thing is that this theory was not unknown to the early fathers. It had been around since Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170–235), who argued that the heretics did not derive their doctrines from the scriptures and apostolic tradition but rather from Greek philosophers.13
The early church fathers actually had anticipated the charge that they corrupted a pure biblical doctrine of a loving, personal God through introduction of Greek speculative philosophy. For example, when Clement of Alexandria had to face opposition from those who oppose any employment of philosophical learning, he said that they “prefer to block their ears in order not to hear the sirens” and that Christians as a whole “fear Greek philosophy as children fear ogres—they are frightened of being carried off by them. If our faith (I will not say our gnosis) is such that it is destroyed by force of argument, then let it be destroyed; for it will have been proved that we do not possess the truth.”14
We must understand that the early Fathers lived and worked within the environment of the Jewish and Hellenistic culture. Therefore, they did not think it inappropriate to use language and concepts that were prevalent among their contemporary philosophical proponents. Following the apostles—especially Paul, who engaged with the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16–34)—the apostolic fathers saw themselves as apologetic and evangelistic “bridges” to the pagan and philosophical world in which they lived. Do we today dare to ask: did they do so without any, or little, gospel and theological discernment?
Thus, what the fathers did was not “as Harnack tried to maintain, the product of encounter between Gospel and Hellenism. It is not the Hellenisation of Christianity. It was not the fruit of speculation but sincere effort to use the techniques of the learning of the day to elaborate Christian truth.”15 Even someone as critical as J. K. Mozley could write: “To suppose that Christian thinkers carelessly passed over all that seems to us involved in our belief in God’s loving care, his fatherly providence, and his moral purposefulness, would be the greatest injustice both to their words and their thought.”16 Paul Helm has further written:
While the categories of Greek philosophy, or for that matter Cartesian or Kantian philosophy, might be the occasion for maintaining some metaphysical view from Scripture, they are not (or ought not to be) the grounds or reason for maintaining, say, divine impassibility or immutability. Greek or some other philosophy might provide the conceptual tool for developing the doctrine of divine impassibility, but it does not follow that what doctrine results is derived not from Scripture but from philosophy.17
Patrick Lee explained that the doctrine of divine impassibility was actually derived from the doctrine of creation. It is because God is the source of the total being or existence of the things in this world that early fathers began to seek an adequate explanation of the existence of things.18 He concluded that “the truth at stake does not originate in ancient Greek metaphysics; rather, it is a fundamental truth of Scripture and the creeds that God is the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”19
In summary, let me quote two theologians in this modern era on the doctrine of divine impassiblity as understood by the early church fathers. First, Weinandy wrote: “For the Fathers, to deny that God is passible is to deny of him all human passions and the effects of such passions which would in any way debilitate or cripple him as God. Thus, to say that God is impassible is again to ensure and to accentuate his perfect goodness and unalterable love.”20 Similarly, Prestige has said:
It is clear that impassibility means not that God is inactive or uninterested, not that he surveys existence with Epicurean impassibility from the shelter of a metaphysical isolation, but that his will is determined from within instead of being swayed from without. It safeguards the truth that the impulse alike in providential order and in redemption and sanctification come from the will of God.21
Thus, the misreading of the early fathers by some modern theologians is founded upon the false premise that to be impassible is to be devoid of emotion.
3. The Impassible God Who “Cried”
Impassibility continued to be an uncontested assumption of orthodox theology beyond the church fathers. The scholastic work of Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-man), affirmed divine impassibility in his dialogue with Boso: “Therefore when we state that God undergoes some lowliness or weakness, we understand this to be in accordance with the weakness of the human substance which he assumed [in incarnation], not in accordance with the sublimity of his impassible [divine] nature.”22
Aquinas himself does not object to some of what are affections in human beings being a part of God’s character. He only objects to those affections that, if, they are possessed by anything, require God to be passive and to be in time.23 These attributes, which God has, cannot carry such implications as they in fact carry when possessed by human beings. Aquinas recognized that clearly there are such emotions—joy, delight, care, love and grace, for example—in God and he has each of these with the greatest possible power and intensity.
Similarly, Calvin urged submission to God as he has revealed himself to us. He said, “Let us then leave to God the knowledge of himself . . . but we shall be ‘leaving it to him’ if we conceive him to be as he reveals himself to us, without inquiring about him elsewhere than from his Word.”24 In his writings Calvin often reluctantly speculated about God’s essence. He preferred that we should contemplate God in his works as guided by the Bible.25 However, Calvin did not reject the patristic consensus on divine impassibility. Once in commenting upon God’s “repentance” he explained that the depiction of the divine Being is
accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind . . . whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion [i.e., passion] in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience.26
At this point, I will try to explain the doctrine of divine impassibility, seeking to be faithful to the scriptures and to the inherited theological tradition of the early fathers, mediaeval and reformed theologians. My aim is not to solve all theological problems but to allow the glory of the mystery of the divine impassibility to shine forth ever more radiantly, and then within it the pure radiance of God’s love for all who suffer.
If one says that God is not affected by people’s sufferings and stops with this negation, one strongly suggests that God is aloof, cold, and unconcerned about our sufferings. However, in talking about God, one must not restrain a certain set of descriptive attributes and then think that God is like contingent entities in a few respects, which can be included in a minimum description of God. Any such minimum description is not only inadequate to God but is altogether false representation of God.27 What we should say is that while God is not affected by people’s sufferings, it does not mean that he has no emotion at all.
Calvin explained biblical descriptions of God having emotions as examples of divine accommodation to our human limitations like “nurses are wont to do with little children.”28 He condescends to human incapacity and weakness in permitting such terms to be employed to portray him. Clement of Alexandria had already made this point: “deity cannot be described as it really is, but only as human beings, themselves fettered to the flesh, are capable of hearing; the prophets therefore adopted the language of anthropomorphism as saving concession to the weakness of human understanding.”29
The language of accommodation is not the result of human thought to make something about God. Rather, it is an expression of the act of divine condescension. The direction is from God to mankind, and not vice-versa. More importantly, God’s act of accommodation is also an act of grace. God reveals himself by speaking to us in a human-like way, so that we may know and understand him. Paul Helm asserted:
[T]he centrality of God’s grace in the activistic language of Scripture needs to be given emphasis. It is because God wishes people to respond to him that he must represent himself to them as one to whom response is possible, as one who acts in time. Only on such an understanding is that divine-human interaction which is at the heart of biblical religion is possible.30
The doctrine of divine accommodation relies on the logically necessary condition of conversation or dialogue. If such dialogue is to be real, then God cannot represent himself as wholly impassible. Another conclusion that we can derive logically is that the disclosure of God in the Bible is primarily toward shaping our covenantal relationship to God. Thus, one must read Scripture as a whole and, in the context of the tradition and life of the church, understand this covenantal relationship. It is upon this ground that we can build our understanding about God much more than by natural reasoning unaided by revelation. Even though we still do not understand God’s intrinsic essence, we may understand that God has in himself what is necessary for this relationship to him to be possible and appropriate.31
For instance, the assertion “God is love” means that God presents himself as a true and faithful lover and offers in himself what is necessary for a loving relationship with his people. To say that “God cries” is to say that God treats his people as someone responds to his precious one being lost. Again, God is in himself what is necessary for this relationship to be real. This is the reason Grisez insisted that “in reality, an existential description of a necessary entity is informative only if it is either negative or relational—that is, if it indicates how other things are related to D [God].”32 God accommodates himself in this kind of relationship so that human beings can understand what it means for God to love and feel sorrow for them. This does not necessarily mean that God in himself has emotion. It only demonstrates God’s care for humans.
Thus, if we are presented by the question: “Does God have emotion?,” then we should probe the question deeper. If it means that the concept of our various emotions is also of what God is, then the answer is no. We should remember that this is equally true of other concepts, such as our concepts of knowledge and willing. The answer is yes if we understand it in the relational sense explained above. The way we understand God’s relational wrath towards us is informed by our own capacity to be angry as human beings. This divine wrath is not just an imagination or false depiction, even though we understand it in a human way since God has what is necessary to be related in this way. Calvin says that though “this is said in accommodation to the weakness of our capacity, it is not said falsely.”33 This predication (“the wrath of God”) and all of the others which the Scriptures portray indeed tells us indirectly something about God in accommodation to the limitation of human capacity
We can better understand this when we enter the realm of human beings. We all know that we have a distinction in human emotions between a disposition and the exercise of it. We may be disposed to be angry, or fearful or joyful, but we may also under certain circumstances express one of these emotions. Then consider this. God accommodates himself to this kind of distinction. For example, God has the disposition to love. When the creatures need and he becomes aware of it, his disposition to love comes into exercise. As the need vanishes, the disposition is no longer exercised.34
Therefore, while it may be helpful to think of God’s emotions as dispositions, unlike human beings, we should always keep in mind that God’s moral traits are both essential to him and never having division between the disposition and the exercise of it. These dispositions are maximally active and exercised without any limitation or conditionality.35 The love of God, for example, is never not exercised where it is appropriate for it to be exercised. This is part of what the scholastics and others meant when they referred to God as “pure act.”36 There is no unfulfilled potential in God.
From what we have discussed above, there are three things that we should understand in regard to the doctrine of divine impassiblity. First, the doctrine does not mean God has no emotions at all. The term “emotion” here, however, should be more qualified. Divine impassibility does not merely mean “God does in fact has emotions but they are a lot different than human emotions.” This qualification is important since God’s emotions are revealed relationally to humans. Human emotional relationships are conditioned by our human senses. Since God is incorporeal and has no sensitive appetite, one may correctly argue in this sense that God has no emotions. Aquinas, for example, gives us a sophisticated account of how it is that God has love, joy, and delight without having emotions.37 Calvin also argues that “whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion [i.e., passion] in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience.”38 So when we talk about God’s emotions or “dispositions,” they are far beyond and not the same as human emotions.
Second, biblical portraits of divine emotion should be understood in how God relates to us in a human sense. For instance, when Scripture speaks of God “repenting” (Gen 6:6; Judg 2:18; 10:16; etc.), the passages are a means whereby God relates to human beings in human way. Or when the Scripture says God has eyes, or a mighty right arm, or that he comes down to dwell on Mount Sinai (2 Chron 16:9; Is 62:8; Exod 19:20), such descriptions are accommodations to humans that are designed to communicate certain truths humanly. They reveal the infinite God in language that humans limited by their finite capacities can comprehend.
Third, human sufferings and catastrophes cannot be denied as tragic events. However, our suffering in this fallen world, even that of mass genocide, should not shape our understanding of God. Rather, the understanding of God that all believers hold to be faithful to the Scripture should shape our understanding of our own suffering. Rather than having a finite god who can be a fellow-sufferer with us, we should rather have the God who, in his eternal bliss, understands our suffering and overcomes them.
This is evidenced by the incarnation of the Son of God. The sufferings that Jesus Christ went through were real. He was despised and rejected by people. He was crucified but then resurrected victoriously. As the one glorious Person with two natures, human and divine, Christ as God did not suffer and die, but Christ as human. There are not two Christs, but one Christ who has two natures. Ignatius writes about this to Polycarp as such:
Look for Christ, the Son of God; who was before time, yet appeared in time; who was invisible by nature, yet visible in the flesh; who was impalpable, and could not be touched, as being without a body, but for our sakes became such, might be touched and handled in the body; who was impassible as God, but became passible for our sakes as man; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.39
Or, as Tertullian puts it succinctly: “As for Soter (Jesus), he remained in Christ to the last, impassible, incapable of injury, incapable of apprehension.”40 To keep the suffering and death of Christ within the bounds of his humanity assures divine impassibility. Conversely, divine impassibility puts away the notion of a God who suffers and dies. And this Christ, who once crucified and resurrected, keeps calling us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28 NIV).
Theologians today want to affirm that God can suffer in his divine nature, and to claim that the whole concept of “suffering” needs to be rethought. If it is true that human beings can have a relationship with God which is both just and caring, then God must be capable of entering into our pain. In order words, it is all about compassion and “empathy.” However, it is not merely the understanding of pain per se, but the overcoming of it is what all sufferers really want. The analogy of a doctor and a patient capture this well. We indeed do not want a doctor who is only capable of sleeping in the bed next to his patients, and then mourns and groans with them. Rather, we need a doctor who understands our pain and then is able to take action in curing it. The incarnation and the resurrection of Christ reveal God’s compassion and solution for human sufferings and pains.
The modern reaction to impassibility may be understandable in its context, but it is essentially misguided. Accusations that the fathers of the church were influence by their pagan philosophical background do not stand up to serious examination. More importantly, the doctrine is not a barrier to understanding God’s compassion, but is in fact the assertion that his compassion is always fully available and functioning. Impassibility may not be something that we need to think about very often (when things are going well, we usually take them for granted), but it is vitally important. As Christians we need to appreciate where divine impassibility fits into the overall picture of God’s saving work.
Furthermore, the argument that if God is personal love then he must be open to suffering reveals the basis of our understanding of personal love. Do we begin from the human perspective and then try to stretch our concept by applying it to the divine? Or, are we humble enough to take our starting point from his unique personhood, by which love is only understood as it is revealed to us according to his eternal nature? Dawn DeVries critiqued the argument very well: “Intensified personal language for God may encourage us to imagine that God is at our disposal or to project onto God our own favorite wishes and highest value; in other words, it may lure us into a form of idolatry.”41
I believe that those who question or disagree with the doctrine of divine impassibility do not necessarily reject the authority of Scripture. If this belief is not mistaken, then those who still uphold the authority of Scripture should not easily fall into a trap of too quickly jettisoning impassibility. We should realize that the doctrine should not be set aside merely by the consensus of a single generation, despite the aftermath of this exceptionally brutal time. Such attitude presupposes that our reading today of the Bible is better than the way that church has viewed God’s impassibility.
We should understand that God’s impassibility also meant that he does not have the same emotions as the gods of the heathen. His care for human beings is free from self-interest and any association with evil. Prestige said, “There is no sign that divine impassibility was taught with any view of minimizing the interest of God in his creation or his care and concern for the world that he had made.”42 Furthermore, Jonathan Edwards rejected every notion of an indigent, insufficient or mutable God “or any dependence of the Creator on the creature for any part of His perfections or happiness.”43
This is also the reason why we must understand that the biblical accommodations or anthropopathisms are based on analogy. Analogy means similarity, but not equivalence; otherwise it is not an analogy but a definition. God’s repentance is not an emotion of his Being but a change of treatment towards mankind from a human point of view. Thus, as to God’s love and all other emotions—jealously, hate, etc., we then must say that they are an analogy of our emotion. Something about men is analogous to something in God because we are his image-bearers. God indeed has emotion, but his emotion is far beyond and even not the same as our emotion. Divine impassibility presents, first of all, the transcendence of God’s emotion, or, borrowing Paul Hem’s term, themotion: “A themotion X is as close as possible to the corresponding human emotion X except that it cannot be an affect.”44 And then, it also encounters us with the sovereign God who is not subject to human suffering but rather understands it (even better than our attempt to understand our suffering itself) and overcomes it. We should remember what Paul taught almost two thousand years ago, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28 NIV).