Can an Impassible God Love? Why an impassible love is not a contradiction for God
The new issue of Credo Magazine arrived: The Impassibility of God. The following is an excerpt from Thomas Weinandy’s feature article, Can an Impassible God Love? Why an impassible love is not a contradiction for God. Thomas G. Weinandy (PhD, King’s College, University of London), OFM, Cap., is a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission and the author of numerous books including Does God Suffer?, Does God Change?, and Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels.
The earliest Christians held with certainty the belief that God is immutable, that is, that he does not change and equally, then, that he is impassible, that he does not undergo emotional changes of state. In particular, that he does not suffer. This continuous theological tradition dramatically changed toward the end of the 19th century. Many, if not most, Christian theologians began to hold that God is passible. This change was so consuming and held with such assurance that Ronald Goetz has simply labelled it, the “new orthodoxy.” This understanding of a passible God continues today, though over the past twenty years, many theologians have pushed back and have argued that such an understanding is not only incompatible with the Christian tradition, but that it is also contrary to biblical teaching.
There are a number of reasons why this radical reconception of God came to be, but here I will focus on merely one. Theologians argue that a personal and loving God cannot be impassible, or that would make him inert, indifferent and apathetic. If God truly loves us, then surely he must rejoice when we rejoice and suffer when we suffer. He must emotionally change within his personal loving and living relationship with us.
The Old Testament seems to provide ample proof that God, in his love, is not only passible but that he also suffers. God revealed himself to be a loving and compassionate God who has freely engaged himself within human history. He responded to the weeping of his enslaved people in Egypt and so he rescued them. Moreover, God revealed himself, especially in the prophets, to be a God who grieved over the sins of his people. So dismayed was God by their hard-heartedness that he actually became angry. However, “my heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not mortal; the Holy One in your midst and I will not come in wrath” (Hos. 11:8-9). Thus, God appears to express a whole range of emotional changes – compassion, anger, repentance, dismay, forgiveness and suffering. Expressing the sentiment of many, J. Moltmann writes: “Were God incapable of suffering in any respect, and therefore in an absolute sense, then he would also be incapable of love.”
Such an argument may appear, biblically, intellectually and emotionally persuasive. Nonetheless, I believe to embrace a passible notion of God is utterly misconceived – biblically, philosophically and theologically. It inflicts total chaos upon the entire authentic Christian Gospel.
God’s Immanence and Transcendence
Undeniably the Old Testament speaks of God as though he did undergo, at different times and in diverse situations, emotional changes of state. However, I believe that such passages must be interpreted within the deeper and broader revelation of who God is. While the Old Testament does not philosophically or theologically address the issue of God’s impassibility or passibility, yet it does provide the revelational context from which such must be examined. This context consists in rightly discerning the biblical notion of God’s transcendence and immanence. Within the Old Testament, it is precisely the very immanent actions of God that reveal the character of his transcendence. God, in initiating the covenant and acting within it, manifested that he possessed at least four fundamental characteristics that set him apart as God.
First, he is the One God. The more the unique oneness of God matured within the biblical faith the more God was differentiated from all else – the created many. Thus, to say that God is one not only specified that there is numerically only one God, but also that, being one, he is distinct from all else. His oneness speaks to his transcendence.
Second, God is the Savior. As Savior, his will and actions are not frustrated by worldly power, or by the vicissitudes of history. Thus, the very same immanent actions of God that manifested his saving relationship to his people equally identified his unique transcendence. God could be the mighty Savior only because he transcended all this-worldly forces.
Third, the mighty God who saves is the powerful God who creates. As Creator, God is intimately related to and cares for his good creation, particularly his chosen people, and yet, as Creator, he is not one of the things created, and is thus completely other than all else that exists.
Fourth, God is All-Holy. God sanctified the Israelites for they were covenanted to him as the All-Holy God. God’s holiness distinguished him (the root of the Semitic word means “to cut off”) from all that was profane and sinful. Even when the Israelites sinfully defiled themselves, God was not defiled. Rather, because God is transcendent (“cut-off”) as the Holy One, he could restore them to holiness. Thus, God’s immanent acts define his transcendent divine nature. Because God transcends the whole created order of time and history his immanent actions within time and history acquire singular significance. The one who is in the midst of his people is “The Lord [who] is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable” (Is 40:28; also see the whole of chapters 40-45).
From within this biblical context of the immanent activity of the totally transcendent God, God is said to undergo emotional changes of state or even to change his mind. While such statements are saying something literally true about God, they are, I believe, not to be taken literally. Such statements do wish to inform us that God is truly compassionate and forgiving. He does grieve over sin and is angry with his people. However, such emotional states, firstly, are predicated not upon a change in God but upon a change within the others involved. God is sorry that he created human beings (Gen. 6:6-7) or that he appointed Saul king (1 Sam. 15:11, 35) because they have become sinful. He relents of his anger and threatened punishment of the Ninevites (Jon. 4:2) or of the Israelites because they have repented (Ex. 32:14). Such reactions or changes predicated of God express a deeper truth – that of God’s unchanging and unalterable love and justice as the transcendent other.