The new issue of Credo Magazine is now here: The Impassibility of God. The following is an excerpt from James Rehinan’s article, What is Impassibility? Defining a forgotten attribute. James Renihan (PhD) is President of IRBS Theological Seminary in Mansfield, TX. He has authored several books including True Love and Edification and Beauty


Impassibility may be defined in this way: “God does not experience emotional changes either from within or effected by his relationship to creation.”[1] It is a necessary complement to the doctrine of divine immutability, expressing the fact that God is unchangeable in his essence or being, and in his outward acts in the world.

Christian theologians recognize that there is a fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creature. God alone has life and immortality. He needs no one and is perfection itself. We are not like this. Humans are dependent beings, relying on him for life and all things. For this reason, Christian theologians have acknowledged that it is easier to say what God is not than what he is. This has been called the Way of Negation. Impassibility is one of many such negations. Just as God is infinite—not finite, immortal—not subject to mortality, incomprehensible—beyond our ability to comprehend and immutable—not changeable, so also God is impassible. He is not subject to passions. Christian theologians have acknowledged that it is easier to say what God is not than what he is. Click To Tweet

On the other hand, when making positive assertions about God, our teachers have expressed the Way of Eminence. This principle teaches us that when God is described to us in terms of human virtues, we recognize that those virtues exist originally, eternally, essentially, and perfectly (i.e., eminently) in God. Since he is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, he is perfect in all that he is. His love, mercy, justice etc. are infinite, eternal and unchangeable virtues. Our problem is that we forget this basic truth and impute human characteristics to God. This is the root of modern exceptions to the historic Christian doctrine. It makes God over in the image of humanity. God is love; divine love, infinite, eternal and unchangeable love. His love does not increase or decrease, it is what he is.

Without passions

One of the most famous statements of this doctrine may be found in the Westminster Confession of Faith. In its Chapter 2 we read,

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, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most absolute . . .

The phrase “without … passions” refers to the doctrine of divine impassibility. It has been consistently confessed by Christians through the ages. At the time of the Reformation, the Church of England declared in 1552 and 1563 in its 42 Articles and 39 Articles that,

There is but one living, and true God, and he is everlasting with out body, parts, or passions, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the maker, and preserver of all things both visible, and invisible.

The Irish Articles of 1615 followed suit in almost identical words, and the great Puritan confessions continued this trajectory. These confessional documents establish a tradition of the doctrine of God which specifically incorporates the doctrine of divine impassibility.[2] It is a necessary component of classical Christian theism. Herman Bavinck said,

Those who predicate any change whatsoever of God, whether with respect to his essence, knowledge, or will, diminish all his attributes: independence, simplicity, eternity, omniscience, and omnipotence. This robs God of his divine nature, and religion of its firm foundation and assured comfort.[3]

Read James Renihan’s entire article in the new issue of Credo Magazine: The Impassibility of God.

Endnotes

[1] Samuel D. Renihan, God Without Passions: A Primer (Palmdale: RBAP, 2015) 19.

[2] Some portions of this article are taken from my chapter “The Doctrine of Divine Impassibility: “Pre-Reformation through Seventeenth-Century England” in Ronald S. Baines, Richard C. Barcellos, James P. Butler, Stefan T. Lindblad and James M. Renihan, Confessing the Impassible God (Palmdale: RBAP, 2015).

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, gen. ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003-2008), 2:158.