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. While they are often accused of transforming the living, loving, compassionate, and personal God of the Bible into the static, lifeless, inert, and impersonal God of Greek philosophy, this, on the whole, is blatantly false. Click To Tweet
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.
It follows, secondly, that God is said “to change his mind” or is portrayed as undergoing differing emotional states precisely because, as the transcendent God, he does not change his mind or undergo emotional changing states. “God is not a human being, the he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind” (Num. 23:9; also Pss. 110:4; 132:11; Ezek 24:14). The very language used, such as compassion, sorrow, suffering, anger, forgiveness, and relenting, seeks to express God’s unswerving and unalterable transcendent nature as the One All-Holy God who is Savior and Creator. The predication of various emotional changes of state within God are not literal statements of his passibility, but illustrate and verify the literal truth that God, being transcendent, far from being fickle as men are, is unalterably, within all variable circumstances, all-loving, all-good, and all-holy.
The God of the Early Fathers
Let us return to the Fathers of the Church. While they are often accused of transforming the living, loving, compassionate, and personal God of the Bible into the static, lifeless, inert, and impersonal God of Greek philosophy, this, on the whole, is blatantly false. What the early Fathers brought to the long-standing philosophical discussion concerning the nature of God was not primarily their own philosophical acumen, but their faith in the biblical God. In keeping with biblical revelation, as opposed to pagan mythologies, they were concerned with upholding the complete otherness of the one God in relationship to the created order. They accentuated and clarified, against Platonism and Aristotelianism, that God did not merely order or set in motion pre-existent matter but that, by his almighty power, he created all out of nothing – creatio ex nihilo. God was then no longer merely at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of being, but his transcendence, as Creator, radically placed him within a distinct ontological order of his own. As such he is the perfectly good and loving personal God who eternally existed in and of himself.
In order to accentuate these positive biblical attributes, the Fathers predicated of God a whole cluster of negative attributes. These negative attributes served a twofold purpose. They primarily were employed to distinguish God from the created order, but in so doing they equally gave more noetic content to the positive attributes. For example, negatively, God is immutable in the sense that he does not change, as do pagan gods and creatures, but he does not change for positive reasons. God’s immutability radically affirms and profoundly intensifies the absolute perfection and utter goodness of God, who as Creator, is the one who truly lives and exists. Because God is unchangeably perfect, he is then the eternally living God who is unreservedly dynamic in his goodness, love, and perfection.
Similarly, while the divine attribute of impassibility primarily tells us what God is not, it does so for entirely positive reasons. God is impassible in that he does not undergo successive and fluctuating emotional states, nor can the created order alter him in such a way so as to cause him to suffer any modification or loss. Nor is God the victim of negative and sinful passions as are human beings, such as fear, anxiety and dread, or greed, lust, and unjust anger. To deny that God is passible is to negate all passions that would debilitate or cripple him as God. Almost all the early Fathers attributed impassibility to God in order to safeguard and enhance his utterly passionate love and all-consuming goodness, that is, the divine fervour and zealous resolve with which he pursues the well-being of his cherished people.
The Impassible Love of God
Thomas Aquinas brought new depth to this biblical and patristic understanding of God and as to why he is immutable and so impassible. Creatures constantly change because they continually actualize their potential either for good and so become more perfect, or for evil and so become less perfect. God is not in this act/potency scheme self-actualization. God, Aquinas argued, is “being itself” (ipsum esse) or “pure act” (actus purus), and so cannot undergo self-constituting change by which he would become more perfect. Two pertinent points flow from this. God is impassible in that he does not undergo successive and fluctuating emotional states, nor can the created order alter him in such a way so as to cause him to suffer any modification or loss. Click To Tweet
First, by being “being itself,” God possesses the positive potential to perform acts that are singularly his alone. While we cannot comprehend how God, as pure act, acts, God’s act of creation is an act whereby created beings come to be, and are related to God as “pure being.” Thus, the very act of creation that assures the wholly otherness of God is the very same act that assures creation’s immediate, intimate, dynamic, and enduring relationship with God as God truly is.
Second, as “being itself,” all that pertains to God’s nature is in act. While God and rocks may both be immutable and impassible, they are so for polar opposite reasons. A rock is impassible because, as an inert impersonal object, it lacks all that pertains to love. God is impassible because his love is perfectly in act (“God is love”), and no further self-constituting act could make him more loving. God is absolutely impassible because he is absolutely passionate in his love.
Similarly, the Trinity is perfectly loving, for the Father, in the perfect unchanging love of the Holy Spirit, loves his begotten Son, and the Son, in the perfect unchanging love of the Holy Spirit, loves his Father. Thus the persons of the Trinity are impassible not because they are devoid of passion, but because they are entirely constituted as who they are in their passionate and dynamic fully actualized relationship of love. Creatures, as created, are then immediately related to this trinitarian mystery of love and, human beings can, through faith, actually abide within the very trinitarian relationships by being conformed by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of the Son and so becoming children of the loving Father.
We can now turn God’s fully actualized love in relation to the changing circumstances of human life.
The God of Love and Compassion
First, we must consider the nature of human love. Human beings have to enact various aspects of love depending on the situation. Sometimes love requires kindness or compassion, or mercy or forgiveness. At other times it demands correcting and even anger. However, because God’s love is perfectly in act all aspects that pertain to that love are fully in act. God does not need, therefore, in a sequential passible ever-changing manner, to enact these various facets of love in accordance with changing human situations. God is always in “go position.”
For example, when a person repents of sin, God need not change the manner of his love from being that of an admonishing love to that of being a forgiving love. If God did need, sequentially in a potency/act manner, to adapt and re-adapt and re-adapt himself again to every personal situation in every momentary instance, he would be perpetually entangled in an unending internal emotional whirligig. Correlatively, human beings are able to experience in faith the various facets of God’s fully actualized love in accordance with their personal situation. In sin they experience God’s love as rebuke and admonishment. In repentance they experience God’s love as compassion and forgiveness. But it is God’s unchanging love that is moving them and they experience that unchanging love in various ways as they move.
More specifically, God’s compassion is then subsumed and contained within his perfectly actualized love, but now, unlike human compassion, devoid of the suffering that would render his love less than perfectly actualized. God is perfectly compassionate not because he suffers with those who suffer, but because his love fully and freely embraces those who suffer. The absence of suffering in God actually liberates God from any self-love that would move him to act to relieve his own suffering. The absence of suffering allows God’s love to be completely altruistic and beneficent. What human beings cry out for in their suffering is not a God who is passible and so suffers, but a God who loves wholly and completely, something a suffering God could not do. Love and not suffering is ultimately at the heart of compassion, for love brings true healing and comfort. God is perfectly compassionate not because he suffers with those who suffer, but because his love fully and freely embraces those who suffer. Click To Tweet
Thus for Aquinas, “mercy is especially to be attributed to God, as seen in its effects, but not as an affection of passion.” The truly compassionate person endeavours to dispel the cause of suffering, and thus God’s mercy and compassion is most clearly manifested in his divine power and perfect goodness through which he overcomes evil and the suffering that it causes.
The perfect and unchanging love of the Father is manifested in the sending of his Son into the world. The perfect and unchanging love of the Son is manifested in his becoming man and dying on the cross for our salvation. Importantly, it is the Son’s human suffering as man, and not in some sort of divine suffering as God, that is salvific. The Son of God incarnate experiences our human suffering, suffering caused by sin, and transforms his suffering, in the prefect love of the Holy Spirit, into the one perfect sacrifice of salvation – a loving sacrifice to his Father out of his love for us.
In his efficacious love and compassion, Jesus Christ frees us from the suffering of sin and death, and in his resurrection, he brings us into the new and everlasting life of the Holy Spirit. Only a God – Father and Son and Holy Spirit – who possesses such perfect and unchanging love, could enact such a marvelous salvation. A passible God could never do so. Only an impassible God could so passionately and steadfastly love us in his prefect and unchanging love.