Divine Impassibility (Part 1): A Passionless God
The doctrine of divine impassibility refers to the belief that God is passionless in himself and does not suffer. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions” (Chapter 2, Section 1).
To say that God is passionless or emotionless sounds rather strange, especially with our modern-day emphasis on God “relating” to us at an emotional level. We typically think of a passionless being as mechanical or robotic, incapable of processing emotions.
However, the doctrine of divine impassibility is crucial. It helps us understand how God relates to us as his creatures. Ultimately, it helps us to appreciate Christ’s work for us on the cross. This article will be divided into two parts, the first outlining the doctrine proper and the second, exploring how it should be understood in relation to Christ’s suffering.
1. The Unchanging God Who Is
One cannot understand the doctrine of divine impassibility without first understanding God’s self-existence (aseity) and unchangeableness (immutability). God is a being who always exists as he is. He has no beginning and no end. He was not created. He does not need anyone or anything to sustain his own being (Acts 17:24-25). His being does not change over time.
When God revealed Himself to Moses through the burning bush, he revealed himself as “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). In God’s divine name, he communicates to us his own being and attributes. God is self-existent and independent of all beings. He is the Creator who is. At the same time, he has revealed himself to be the covenant-keeping God who redeems his people (Exodus 3:16-17).
In contrast, human beings have an origin and beginning. Genesis 1 tells us that God created the universe through his word (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). When God spoke, it was so (Genesis 1:7, 9, 11, 15, 24, 30). So, God created humanity: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But not only did we need God to create us, our ongoing existence depends on God’s power to continuously sustain us (Hebrews 1:3). We are dependent on the God who is independent. We change over time, growing old and deteriorating.
God does not.
2. Divine Impassibility
In the light of God’s self-existence and unchangeableness, what does it mean that God does not have passions? When we speak of ‘passions’ on a human level, we refer either to being driven by our impulses or by things that are beyond us. Whenever we do not satisfy those passions, we inevitably ‘suffer’.
These passions are not stable, constantly changing over time. Consider, for example, how you feel when you crave for a particular food or beverage but are not able to satisfy that desire? You ‘suffer’. But these cravings may also change over time. What you crave for now may be very different to what you crave for later.
But unlike us, God is without passions and does not suffer. Because he is self-existent and unchanging, there are no passions that ‘attract’ him the way they attract us. Moreover, there is nothing in him that changes over time, which means he will not be overcome by passions in the future. God’s promises and counsel will always stand as he has planned from the foundations of the world. As Numbers 23:19 puts it, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
3. Emotionless and Unrelatable?
With our modern-day emphasis on emotions, we face a hurdle in accepting divine impassibility because it makes God seem emotionless and unrelatable, like some kind of cosmic machine. After all, how could a passionless God possibly show love? However, divine impassibility does in fact helps us to better understand how God relates to us in love. It gives us a better understanding of who God is, especially his unchanging and passionless being, which is constantly full of steadfast love and faithfulness.
Let us consider God’s love as an example. Scripture tells us “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He is and evermore shall remain a loving God. Love is who he is. His love for his people is unchanging. There are no passions that are able to derail him from being the God of love. God is not like us, who so often waver in our love. One moment, we love the Lord, the next we go our own way. One moment, we love our neighbor, the next moment we live in selfishness towards them. But God always remains faithful in his love towards us, because it is who he is.
If God was so filled with passion like us, we could have no security in his love. In one moment, we might experience his love, the next we may be afraid that he will break his promises and no longer desire to save us. But Hebrews 13:8 assures us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever”. We can always be sure of our salvation and of God’s love, because our God is unchanging, unwavering, passionless and faithful.
The doctrine of divine impassibility ought to bring us immense comfort and assurance. It is to our advantage that God is not like us, ever tossed to and fro by things outside of us. God is self-existent and unchanging. He always wills and acts according to who he is. And that is solid ground for great assurance and rejoicing, because it means his steadfast love and faithfulness will never change. For it is who he is.
In Part 2, we will look more closely at Christ’s suffering and explore the following question: Did God suffer in Christ?
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Sir Neng is currently planting a church named CityLight. He is passionate about theology, apologetics and discipleship. He loves to help people see how theology is more than just head knowledge, but it is applicable in our daily lives.
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