What does it mean to say, “God is love,” as John does in 1 John 4:16? Most of us recognize that it does not mean God approves of everything or will never punish sin. We’d have to throw out half of both Testaments to think that.

So what does it mean that God is love? One oft-neglected divine attribute can help us understand: impassibility.

What is the divine attribute of impassibility? Simply speaking, impassibility is the confession that God does not have “passions.” Yet common English usage of that word does not bear out what has been meant by it historically. Aquinas explains the two different senses of the word “passion.” It is either “the effect of action” (i.e., a reaction) or “any kind of change, even if belonging to the perfecting process of nature.”[1] So then, “passions” are responses of emotion as a reaction to external stimuli or voluntary variations of emotion.

God must be impassible if He is to be all of the other things the Bible claims He is. To be passible in the first sense is to have a body and sensation, but God does not have a body (1 John 4:24). It is to acquire knowledge from without, but God knows all, “declaring the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10). It is to have experiences that originated in the will of someone else, yet God “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11), so that there are no truly external stimuli.[2] In the divine nature, there is no such thing as a reaction.

What, then, of the second sense of “passion?” God does not react to external stimuli, but does He voluntarily change? That is to ask, does God will Himself to change? As even the loudest naysayers of impassibility admit, the very possibility of change in God undermines the classical conception of His perfection.[3]

If we truly want to understand the love of God, we have to understand that He is impassible love, and He is also loving impassibility. 

The concept of impassible love helps us to understand the love of God negatively. What is the love of God not? It is never a response to His creation. It does not increase or decrease on the basis of His creatures’ behavior or being, nor does it originate in them. Indeed, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This is not only true in a chronological sense, but also in an ontological sense. The determination of God to bring His chosen people to maximal enjoyment of the maximal good has its initiating and ongoing ground in the being and act of God and no other. This is pure altruism. The determination of God to bring His chosen people to maximal enjoyment of the maximal good has its initiating and ongoing ground in the being and act of God and no other. Click To Tweet

If impassible love helps us to understand the love of God negatively, then loving impassibility helps us to understand impassibility positively. What can be stated positively about the emotions of God if they do not change? God is never reactionary, but rather, “pure act,” as Aquinas put it.[4] He loves in everything that He does, at all times, because His loving and acting and willing are all inextricable from His being, which is impassible.

Loving impassibility is, then, a complete and utter love.[5] With God “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas 1:7). God is impassible precisely because He is love. Were God not constant love, He would certainly be passible – in one moment loving more, another moment, loving less. It is precisely because God is love without degrees that He is impassible. He is not moved or swayed involuntarily, instinctually, or any other way by the presence or absence of love from His creatures. He is pure love in Himself with no need for the love of others. He does not suffer lack. This kind of impassibility does not make God distant, cold, and detached. Rather, He is present, impassioned, and committed. His absence of passions is the ground of His love, and His perfect love is the ground of His impassibility.[6]

If God is impassible love, then His love is pure altruism. That kind of love, unlike the necessarily conditional promises of human beings, can be absolutely certain. If God is loving impassibility, then He is pure act. That kind of impassibility, far from being cold and distant, assures the believer that he or she is at all times experiencing the maximal goodness of the love of God, in whatever way it is manifested.[7] Indeed, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Prov 3:12; Heb 12:6). Christians ought to rest secure in the impassible love of God, which will undoubtedly bring them to maximal enjoyment of His maximal goodness.

As Anselm put it:

“If true security delights thee, undoubtedly they shall be as sure that those goods, or rather that good, will never and in no wise fail them; as they shall be sure that they will not lose it of their own accord; and that God, who loves them, will not take it away from those who love him against their will; and that nothing more powerful than God will separate him from them against his will and theirs.”[8]

God is impassible love and loving impassibility, and that is a love that casts out fear.

Endnotes

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, Ltd., n.d), I.97.2.

[2] Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, Vol. I-V (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson; G. Herbert, 1864–1866), 405. Charnock makes an illuminating point when he writes, “As the will of God for creating the world was no new, but an eternal will, though it manifested itself in time, so the will of God for the punishment of sin, or the reconciliation of the sinner, was no new will, though his wrath in time break out in the effects of it upon sinners, and his love flows out in the effects of it upon penitents.”

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 214–215. Explaining what he calls the “the philosophical concept of God,” Moltmann writes, “Suffering, dying and similar negations simply cannot be predicated of that which is conceived of as pure causality and the unconditioned mover. The God who was the subject of suffering could not be truly God.”

[4] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.9.1 (emphasis mine). Aquinas writes, “From what precedes, it is shown that God is altogether immutable. First, because it was shown above that there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality, for the reason that, absolutely, potentiality is posterior to act. Now everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable.”

[5] Paul Helm makes this point well in his article, “The Impossibility of Divine Passibility,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology Special Study 4 (1990): 119-140. Helm uses the term “themotions” of God, and writes, “Necessarily, human being experience emotions as affects. (They are ‘affections’). But it is conceivable that what are necessarily experienced by human beings as affects are, as a matter of logic, capable of being experienced, or possessed, in non-affective ways.”

[6] Thomas Weinandy expounds on this point in his article, “Does God Suffer?,” Thomas Weinandy, First Things, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/11/does-god-suffer.

[7] Charnock, Complete Works, 336-337. Charnock wrote, “According to the vigour of his immutable love will be the strength of her immutable establishment.”

[8] Anselm, Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix, 31.