God without weakness: Paul Helm explains why impassibility matters
The new issue of Credo Magazine has arrived: The Impassibility of God. The following is an excerpt from our feature interview with Reformed philosopher and theologian Paul Helm, in which we discuss why he is persuaded that impassibility is an attribute essential to God. Paul Helm taught philosophy at the University of Liverpool and was appointed to the Chair of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London, in 1993. He was the J. I. Packer Chair of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, from 2001 to 2005, when he was appointed a Teaching Fellow. He blogs at Helms Deep and is the author of numerous books including Eternal God: A Study of God without Time, The Beginnings: Word and Spirit in Conversion, Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards, The Providence of God, and Calvin and the Calvinists.
Paul, let’s begin with definitions: How do you define God’s impassibility?
It is the property of God’s nature as being utterly steadfast, not being subject to moods, or temperamental changes of any kind, fits and spasms, much less in being overcome in any respect.
You have made the argument that our understanding of divine impassibility should be approached through divine immutability and timeless eternity. Why is this approach so crucial?
There are pedagogical reasons. Impassibility is better approached via God’s immutability, because impassibility is not served well by the English language: impassibility is easily confused with impassability, and impassivity is something else. The Lord is not psychotic! So impassibility is best approached via immutability.
As I said briefly in my preface to James Dolezal’s book on divine simplicity, God Without Parts, divine simplicity is one of a framework of interrelated divine attributes, what I called a “grammar.” If God is timelessly eternal then he “cannot” change; he is independent, Creatorly rather than creaturely. He is necessary, simple, immutable and impassible. Each of these implies and is implied by the others.
There are some who want to claim impassibility but with certain modifications. For example, God may be impassible in his nature, but he chooses to be passible in his relations. Is this problematic?
Modifying God’s nature is a parlous business. Once that process is started, where to stop? In more detail, how is the unity and simplicity of God to be preserved by a division between part of God with relations, and part of him not. This is distinct from his condescension (see next question). But remember, simplicity, of which impassibility is an aspect, is compatible with God’s tri-unity. It is not featurelessness! There is a qualification I think we can make, about the character of God’s care and grace and judgment: In expressing (or communicating) these qualities it may be wiser to think of God as impassioned, without rest in their delivery. He never slumbers nor sleeps!