In this feature interview we talk with Reformed philosopher and theologian Paul Helm to 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! 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. Click To Tweet
If God is impassible, why does scripture so often use the language of human emotions to describe God? For example, God is said to grieve or even regret.
Yes, God is said to repent, to grieve, to take pleasure in, to be angry, and so forth. That is, when scripture says he grieves, this faithfully represents his attitude to who he is grieved at, at that time. So now we are considering an aspect to God’s relation to us. In his unchanging (and unchangeable) love and grace we can consider God as he is in himself, and contrast with it God as he is toward this or that aspect of his creation, or to this or that state and condition of his people.
Human beings are creatures in time and space. In order to carry out his covenant purposes towards them he has to represent himself as changing his mind. To Hezekiah or to Jonah, say. In this he comes down. That is the great and awe-inspiring message of the scripture and of the Christian religion: God comes down, finally in Incarnation, the Logos, who was God, was made flesh, the “mystery of Godliness.”
Do we understand the Incarnation? We do not. Do we at all understand what it is to be possessed of a divine and human nature? No, we do not. Do we understand God’s movement to us in any way? No, we do not. When God stood by Samuel (I Sam. 3:10.), did he really stand by, occupying the space in part of Samuel’s room? Was he standing on legs? Not likely. Heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain him. So he was manifest to the boy in an unusual way, as if he were standing there. God is ubiquitous. How’s that?
Another common objection is that impassibility creates a God who is indifferent, even lacking compassion. Can an impassible God still love?
This is partly due to difficulties with language. Impassible is here confused with impassivity; God is not moved by weakness or in need of any kind. Yes, he loves us. He became incarnate in Jesus. God was in Christ reconciling the world. Jesus wept. But though he was incarnate, his divine nature was holding together the created order. God loves meticulously. Just as a judge given to justice pores over the law in order to best administer it, so the Lord is impassioned in the expression of all his attributes. What we might call impassionedness goes with steady deliberation, and so it must be with the Lord.
Jesus suffered and died on the cross. Can we still say, then, that the incarnate God-man is impassible?
When he was suffering, surely. He suffered. When he was resurrected? Perhaps not so much. Can we have assurance about the cross? Why is it that only an impassible God can really give Christians the assurance that the God they have placed their faith in is utterly reliable?
Note Hebrews 6:13-20. According to this passage God’s immutable promise is critical for our assurance. Is God impassible eternally? Yes, but the human nature which clothed him as the incarnate Logos changes with his situation, like our emotions change with our human nature. (But I don’t think there’s as much difficulty with the incarnate one having passions is there?) But how the God-man suffered is not our business. Scripture is silent.