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Aquinas on Divine Impassibility

This is the last of three posts on theological connections between medieval and reformed theology. The Reformation was a re-formation, not a revolution, and the Reformed churches regarded themselves as catholic, building on the ecumenical creeds and the patristic and medieval theology, and paying great respect to the great doctors of the church, notably Thomas Aquinas. The Reformed theologians had much in common with the patristic and medieval conception of God:

There is but one living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfections, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory, most loving, gracious merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, the rewarda of them that diligently seek Him, and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty. (Westminster Confession II.1)

Because God is immutable, neither able to change for the better or change for the worse; he is impassible, not subject to the fits and starts of moods and passions. Click To Tweet[Incidentally, thinking of our earlier post on Anselm, we may note how much the formulation here owes to his way of thinking about God. The eight ‘mosts’ express the perfections of this most perfect being. He is most loving; he cannot be more loving. He is most pure: he cannot be more pure. So God is perfectly loving and pure, and wise, and holy and just. Though the manner of the formulation owes much to Anselmic patterns of thinking, of course the compilers believed that these expressions have the clear and emphatic support of Scripture.]

Some people get passionate over the very idea of divine impassibility, even in their haste misspelling it as ‘impassability’, and equating it with ‘impassivity’. An impassible/impassive God is said to exhibit psychotic unconcern. So at the outset there is reason to relax and to keep cool, and to try to think clearly and exactly. Richard Muller has noted that by and large there is no separate treatment of divine impassibility in Reformed dogmatics, but that the idea is treated as a consequence of divine immutability. Because God is immutable, neither able to change for the better or change for the worse; he is impassible, not subject to the fits and starts of moods and passions. But not impassable, nor impassive. In the medieval treatments, impassibility generally receives a separate locus. So it is with Thomas Aquinas, to whom we now turn.

I shall take the material from Chapter 89 of Book I of the Summa Contra Gentiles. The chapter is entitled ‘That in God there are not the passions of the appetites’. Before we examine what Thomas says here, it is worth noting the position of the chapter. It is followed by ‘But in God there are delight and joy, but they are not opposed to the divine perfection.’ (Ch. 90), and ‘That in God there is love’(Ch.91) and ‘How virtues may be held to be in God’ (Ch.92) and ‘That in God there are the moral virtues that deal with actions’. (Ch. 93) Remembering our chapter’s location may help us to orientate what Thomas is saying. Whatever he says in Ch.89 is consistent with a God in whom are delight and joy and love. So, at least no impassivity!

What of impassibility, then? This is some of what Aquinas says. First argument: passion is connected with the appetites, and appetites with the body. But God does not have a body, not does he have appetites. [Aquinas deals with the Incarnation elsewhere than here, and we here leave it to one side. But you can be sure that God’s having a body in the person of the Logos uniting with human nature, body and soul, in no way diminishes or compromises the full deity of the Logos).

So, passions are appetites. But (second argument, passions are disturbances.

Again, in every passion of the appetite, the patient is somehow drawn out of his usual, calm or connatural disposition. A sign of this is that such passion, if intensified, brings death to animals. But it is not possible for God to be somehow drawn outside His natural condition, since He is absolutely immutable, as has been shown. (ch.13)

Since the onset of a spasm of anger, or jealousy, is a change, God, who cannot change, much less change in his nature, cannot be subject to such spasms.

God does not nor cannot move from potency to actuality, and therefore he cannot have passions which arise from a lack of some sort. Click To TweetThird argument: not only is the very idea of passion foreign to God, particular passions are unworthy of God, ‘unbefitting to God’. That is, even if God might be subject to passions, certain passions would be contrary to his character. Which passions? ‘Sorrow or pain, for its subject is the already present evil, just as the object of joy is the good present and possessed. Sorrow and pain, therefore, of their very nature cannot be found in God’. Sometimes passions are distinguished by what Thomas calls their mode. The mode is intrinsic to the passion, as is seen from the distinction between joy and hope. Hope has as its object a good that is not yet possessed. ‘This cannot befit God, because of His perfection, which is so great that nothing can be added to it. Hope therefore, cannot be found in God. And likewise, neither can the desire of some [for] something not possessed’. Other passions are connected with evil, as is fear. ‘By a twofold reason╔.therefore, is fear excluded from God: both because it belongs only to one existing in potency and because it has for its object a threatening evil.’

Thomas’s word ‘potency’ gives us the clue to the assumption that drives this entire discussion. This is, that God possesses fullness of being. He does not lack anything, or need anything. Therefore he does not nor cannot move from potency (potentiality?) to actuality, and therefore he cannot have passions which arise from a lack of some sort.

Another consequence of these arguments connects directly with Reformed discussion. Thomas writes

Again, repentance implies a change of affection. Therefore the nature of repentance likewise is repugnant to God, not only because it is a species of sadness, but also because it implies a change of will.

This may remind us of Calvin.

Shortly after, it is added, ‘The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent’. (1 Samuel 15:29.) In these words, his immutability is plainly asserted without figure. Wherefore it is certain that, in administering human affairs, the ordination of God is perpetual and superior to every thing like repentance. That there might be no doubt of his constancy, even his enemies are forced to bear testimony to it. For, Balaam, even against his will, behaved to break forth into this exclamation, ‘God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: has he said, and shall he not do it? or has he spoken, and shall he not make it good?’ (Numbers 23:19.) What then is meant by the term repentance? The very same that is meant by the other forms of expression, by which God is described to us humanly. Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of him must be lowered to our capacity in order to be intelligible. And the mode of lowering is to represent him not as he really is, but as we conceive of him. Though he is incapable of every feeling of perturbation, he declares that he is angry with the wicked. Wherefore, as when we hear that God is angry, we ought not to imagine that there is any emotion in him, but ought rather to consider the mode of speech accommodated to our sense. (Inst. 1.17. 12-3)

Returning to Thomas, there is one more thing to notice. God is not angry. Anger is the appetite of another’s evil for the sake of revenge. Anger, therefore is far from God according to the nature of its species, not only because it is an effect of sadness, but likewise because it is an appetite for revenge arising from sadness due to an injury received.

So, God is not angry (Aquinas), but he does hate all sin (West. Conf.) More to think about here.

One last remark. Whatever one may think of Aquinas’s position, it is a thoughtful one, in that he thinks through the consequences of God being a pure spirit from a number of angles. He is a thousand miles away from the Legoland ‘The God I Want’ approach that is characteristic of so much present-day evangelical (and other) theology.


Paul Helm

Paul Helm is Emeritus Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London, and publishes online at his blog Helms Deep. the author of several books including Eternal God: A Study of God without Time, The Beginnings: Word and Spirit in ConversionHuman Nature from Calvin to EdwardsThe Providence of God, and Calvin and the Calvinists.

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