Divine Impassibility

God’s Affection and Unbreakable Purpose

In a recent post, we covered the incommunicable attribute of immutability (see the post here). This attribute of God denotes his “nonchangeability,” that is, the reality that God’s being never alters, diminishes, adds, or in general, changes. Because God is a se––independent for his own existence (self-sufficient and self-existent)––he has no need or lack. Thus, there is nothing for God to become because he is pure actuality––he has no potential. He is fully is. It follows then that if God is immutable, he must be impassible. Thus, God is both unchangeable in his essence and, consequently, without changing passions. This article aims to expound and explain the doctrine of impassability even in the face of daunting challenges against it.

Thesis

 A theological thesis shall guide the following content of this article: Since God is immutable, he must be impassible. Impassability is not non-feeling or the state of being apathetic, rather, it indicates God’s un-breakable nature and purpose. Furthermore, Scriptures that speak of God “repenting” are to be explained in light of the doctrine of two wills in God—that is, that God has both a revealed will and a hidden will.

Impassibility

Since God is immutable, he must be impassible. He is not overwhelmed or overtaken by anything. This reason of thought follows because if God does not change, then nothing exterior can affect him in such a way that he would alter (change) his being, will, or purpose. Immutability and impassability go hand in hand. However, some may see difficulties in holding this.

As Michael Horton puts it, “According to Scripture, it is not only God’s character but also his eternal purposes that do not change.”[1] Neither God’s being nor his ultimate will changes. Yet we see within time that God responds in various manners (seeming to change his mind) to his covenant children. A clear example of this is the episode in Exodus 32:1–14 where, in response to God’s intention to destroy stiff-necked Israel, Moses intercedes and asks God to remember his covenant with Moses’ forefathers (32:13). In response, God withholds his wrath (32:14). Yet even in this, God’s ultimate purpose remained unchanged (I’ll explain this more below).[2] The question posed then is this: How is God affected by creation, provided if he is affected by it at all?

As one who is impassible, God is not conquered and controlled by any creaturely passion. He may be provoked[3] by creatures, but he is never overcome. That is, while creaturely rebellion may incite anger or even grief in God (e.g., Isa 63:10), his ultimate will for the world remains the same.

On this, Aquinas says, “it is not possible for God to be somehow drawn outside His natural condition, since He is absolutely immutable.”[4] While “every passion of the appetite takes place through some bodily change,” God is noncorporeal and, naturally, not a body; therefore, he is not composed of passions.[5] This, however, is not meant to imply that God is apathetic or stone-cold, being void of response and affection.

Impassability and Response

Impassability does not deny response by God to creatures. Horton puts it this way: “it is not denying God’s responsiveness to creaturely actions; rather, it is denying (a) that God is ‘made up’ of various faculties or emotions and (b) that God is taken captive by anything other than his own nature.”[6] Further, impassability does not compromise God’s affection for creatures. To the contrary: precisely because God is impassible can he love the unlovable. As D. A. Carson puts it, “God exercises [his] love in conjunction with all his other perfections, but his love is no less love for all that, [and] his love emanates from his own character; it is not dependent on the loveliness of the loved, external to himself.”[7] Thus, “God shows his love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The Scriptures reveal God to be a being with affection, both through the prophets (e.g., Hos 11:1–9) and, preeminently, in Jesus (John 11:35; 14:7, 9; 1 John 4:16). Yet he is not made up of multiple conflicting affections, paralyzing his purposes, but of one will. He is neither static nor apathetic in this; he moves toward us in love as Love. And, as the one Lord of all creation, he sovereignly rules without deterrence from the tranquility of his triunity. He has pledged himself to save, and since he is inherently impassible, no creaturely thing can change or overthrow his will. We confess, then, that God is God and he, along with his purposes, cannot be thwarted. Whereas creatures often change their mind, God’s will remains the same.

To answer the question, “how is God affected by creation,” we would then answer, God is not ontologically affected in a sense that alters or changes his being, will, or ultimate purpose. Nevertheless, God responds to creatures in a manner consistent with his being and hidden will.[8] No purpose of God can be thwarted (Job 42:2).

We would do well to at least comment on the “relenting” passages (Gen 6:7; Exod 32:14). Horton comments well here:

“We have to distinguish God’s revealed will and his hidden or secret will. Deuteronomy 29:29 distinguishes explicitly between ‘secret things’ and ‘things that are revealed.’ The passages that speak of God relenting do not refer to God’s secret [ultimate] plan, decreed from all eternity; indeed these decisions are hidden from us. Rather, they refer to the revealed will of God in his word. God promised blessing for obedience and judgment for disobedience. Yet even in covenantal breach, the faithless partner is at the mercy of a God who is free to be compassionate toward whomever he will. He may relent from the judgment threatened in his revealed word, but this says nothing about what he predestined.”[9]

God is unchangeable, and so is his ultimate purposes. He nor his ultimate plan cannot be thwarted, overcome, surprised, or overthrown. We do well then to confess with Paul that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).

Conclusion

In speaking of impassibility, we must never envision God as a being without living affection. God has affection deeper than our frame could ever hold. This is exactly the reason why Paul prays that we have the very strength of the Spirit to know the incomprehensible love of the Messiah for us (Eph 3:14–17). Knowing this, we may trust that this God knows our pain (Exod 3:7), especially in Jesus Christ (Heb 4:15). Furthermore, knowing our suffering in Jesus, he works out every trial “for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28; cf. Eph 3:11). We may praise God for his impassibility in affectionate adoration, knowing that no evil can overthrow his eternal purpose in Jesus Christ, and that his affection for us is stronger than the fickleness of human emotion, beyond the bounds of any human passion. We may trust in God, for he alone is our Rock.




* This article is an adapted version of a co-authored essay with David A. Larson entitled, “The Doctrine of God: Divine Attributes.” Much thanks for many revisions go to David.

[1] Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 78.

[2] John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God?” http://www.desiringgod.org/art.... Distinguishing between God’s “secret” will and his “revealed” will, Piper states that “God decrees one state of affairs while also willing and teaching that a different state of affairs should come to pass.” The is a clear example of this: while the death of Christ was against God’s will—being “a morally evil act inspired immediately by Satan (Luke 22:3),” his death simultaneously fulfilled God’s revealed will. As Luke says elsewhere, Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God."

[3] By “provoked” we mean to imply that God is responsive to our actions in himself. As Scripture reveals, he clearly becomes angry at his image-bearers’ rebellion against himself. As Psalms 7:11 says, God is “a God who feels indignation every day.” He is “slow to anger,” yet he is not void of anger; he is impassible. As Piper writes, “God's emotional life is infinitely complex beyond our ability to fully comprehend” (Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God?”).

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 1.89.4.

[5] Ibid., 1.89.3.

[6] Horton, Pilgrim Theology, 80. Emphasis added. “Various” is key here.

[7] D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 63. Emphasis added.

[8] See Horton, Pilgrim Theology, 78–80.

[9] Ibid., 78.