The new issue of Credo Magazine has arrived: The Impassibility of God. The following is an excerpt from Charles Rennie’s article Is Impassibility Really Biblical? Why impassibility is far more biblical than some think. Charles Rennie (PhD candidate, Durham University) is the pastor of Sycamore Reformed Baptist Church. He is a co-contributor to Confessing the Impassible God: The Biblical, Classical, & Confessional Doctrine of Divine Impassibility


Is impassibility biblical? Although it is becoming more and more common to hear this question raised in a context that assumes a negative response, we must insist with so great a cloud of witnesses that it is indeed biblical.[1] It matters, of course, what we assume is necessary for something to be considered biblical. A doctrine in general, or a divine attribute in particular, may be considered biblical if it is either explicitly set forth in the Bible, for which a proof text might be produced, or it is implicitly, though necessarily, contained in that which is expressly set forth. Those who argue that impassibility is an unbiblical doctrine have been quick to point out the absence of an explicit proof text. Nevertheless, as this article will argue in the brief space below, divine impassibility emerges as a necessary implication of other divine attributes that are expressly set down in Holy Scripture.[2]

Methodological Assumptions

In the interest of objectivity, we are taught to interpret the Bible as we would any other book, i.e., by allowing our interpretation to be determined by the author’s original intentions. This is designed to prevent us from “reading into” the text ideas and implications that would have been foreign to the mind of the author, given his culture, context, and audience. This is good practice; of course, insofar as we remember that the Bible is not like any other book, and the human author is not the only author that one needs to consider (2 Pet. 1:20-21).

It would be fair to say that neither Moses nor Paul were aware of all the practical and theological (even philosophical) implications of what they wrote, but the same cannot be said of the Lord, who knows and intends every logical and necessary implication of His word. Jesus affirmed this conclusion when he argued that the resurrection is a necessary implication drawn from a text like Exodus 3, and without presuming that it was present in the mind of Moses he faults the Sadducees, who rejected the resurrection, for not rationally discerning all the necessary implications of the biblical text (Mark 12:18-27). The Lord knows and intends every necessary implication of His word, so that that which is implied is no less biblical than that which is explicitly stated.

The Name of God

There are a number of divine attributes and biblical passages which could serve as a point of departure, but there are perhaps none so fecund as the revelation of the name of God in Exodus 3:14. The chapter begins with Moses being summoned into the divine presence manifest in the burning bush and his being commissioned to lead Israel out of Egypt. Moses responds with two questions: who am I (v.11) and who are you (v.13)? Both of these questions have ontological significance (i.e., they are questions that pertain to what God and man are respectively) and are best answered conjointly. Our present interest, however, is most especially with his second question. Moses anticipates that the Israelites may be a little skeptical. Surely, they will want to know who this God is that has sent Moses and what He is relative to the gods of Egypt who have seemingly held them in bondage for nearly 400 years. So Moses asks, “What is your name?” to which He simply replies with the present tense verb to be, without any direct object, “I AM WHO I AM.” Divine impassibility emerges as a necessary implication of other divine attributes that are expressly set down in Holy Scripture. Click To Tweet

What difference does His name make? There is an often-quoted line from Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet says to Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.” What’s in a name? Contrary to the way it sounds, Shakespeare was not suggesting that names are meaningless. After all, it was on account of what Romeo’s name signified that prevented Juliet and himself from being together—they were of rival families. Rather, Juliet is saying that she does not especially love him on account of what his family name signifies. She is in effect saying, “change your name, disavow your family, and though you will no longer be a part of that family, like a rose by any other name, you will be no less sweet to me.” So, what’s in a name? It depends on what that name signifies. In the case of Romeo, his family name signified a reality so great that it stood in the way of their love, and so she says, “change your name.”

A name, therefore, defines what something is. In our case, we might say, “I am a man,” just as Romeo could say of his family name, “I am a Montague.” We identify ourselves by pointing to something else (I am something), but God simply and absolutely says of Himself, I AM, to be, without any direct object, without pointing to anything outside of Himself, without comparison to any other thing, and without the possibility of changing His name or the reality which it signifies, as if He should cease to be what HE–IS and become something else. He just IS.

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

Endnotes

[1] This cloud of witnesses is far too great to enumerate. It was the early, medieval, and reformed consensus, as may be observed in the writings of Augustine, Bonaventure and Aquinas, Calvin and Owen, and the reformed confessions.

[2] What bearing impassibility should have upon our interpretation of other passages that seem to speak of emotional change in God is beyond the limits of this article. It should be remembered, however, that Scripture interprets Scripture, and clearer passages interpret the more ambiguous passages. “Clear,” however, is not synonymous with explicit, nor “ambiguous” with implied. Passages, for instance, that explicitly describe God grieving are nonetheless ambiguous, because it is not immediately clear how they should be interpreted. On the other hand, a necessary implication, though implicit, is necessarily certain and, therefore, clear. If impassibility is necessarily implied in the Scripture, then it should necessarily guide our interpretation of other passages that are ambiguous.