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.

What is Implied in God’s Name?

There are those who are either dismissive[3] or apprehensive[4] of the ontological or metaphysical implications of God’s revealed name, preferring rather to reduce its meaning to its historical significance, i.e., I AM (for you). We would do well, however, to remember the context in which God reveals His name. Moses is standing before an ontological wonder, a burning bush that is not consumed. The wood of the tree adds no fuel to the fire, and yet the fire neither grows nor diminishes. It has its being of itself; it just IS. And out from the burning bush the Lord declares, “I AM WHO I AM.” It would be counter intuitive to suggest that Moses was not to contemplate the full implication of God’s name in the light of this wonder. In fact, this is where both of Moses’ questions come into sharper focus: what am I and what is God? We receive our being, our to be, from another, but God, not unlike the burning bush, has being and life in and of Himself (cf. John 5:26; Acts 17:28). Theologians have referred to this as God’s aseity, derived from the Latin a se, which speaks of God possessing the infinite perfection of all that HE–IS by or from Himself. What God is determines what God is for you. Click To Tweet

The aseity of God is a concept pregnant with implications. Bavinck remarks that “All other perfections [may be] derived from this name.”[5] If He just IS, there is in Him no becoming but only being (to be), and therefore He is necessarily immutable (Mal. 3:6). Again, if He has no beginning and no end, but just IS, He is necessarily eternal (Deut. 33:27). And without a doubt, the one who has neither a beginning nor an end must also be infinite (Psalm 147:5) and immense (1 Kings 8:27) in all that HE–IS. Therefore, He is immeasurable, though He is the measure of all other things. And when we stop and consider, we see that there cannot be more than one immutable, eternal, infinite and immense, immeasurable being who is the measure of all else. If there were even two such beings, the measure of their power would have to be both greater and lesser than the other, their wisdom greater and lesser than the other, and so forth. Similarly, there cannot be two Lords who alone are worthy of all worship and obedience, for each would have to worship and serve the other. Even at a moment’s reflection, we see that there can be only one God who just IS uncreated, unchangeable, eternal, infinite and immense, immeasurable in power, wisdom, and goodness – I AM WHO I AM. Because HE–IS immutable, eternal, infinite, immense, and immeasurable, He must also be impassible. Because God just IS WHAT HE IS, the attributes of God necessarily stand or fall together.

This is no mere philosophical exercise, but serves to ground the historical in the ontological; what God IS determines what God IS for you. Here, Yahweh reveals His name and reassures Moses that He who is with him, who sends him, is HE–WHO–IS, compared to whom all things are close–to–nothing, compared to whom the gods of Egypt are–nothing. And what He makes known in His name, He confirms throughout the exodus ordeal in order to demonstrate that HE IS WHAT HE IS, i.e., that He alone is God and there are none like Him (Exod. 7:5; 8:10). Each of the plagues were a symbolic act of judgment upon their gods in order to bring them to nothing in the eyes of the people (12:12). For instance, when Moses struck the Nile with his rod and it turned to blood, Yahweh drove a symbolic dagger through Hapi the god of the Nile. When God eclipsed the sun, He rendered Amen-Ra, the god of the sun, powerless. He came through Egypt like a consuming fire, and yet His people were not consumed. He made a distinction between the Egyptians and His people, so that they would learn to make a distinction between Yahweh and every other so-called god. He alone is, and therefore, if HE–IS for them, who can be against them?

What about Impassibility?

Impassibility emerges here, as it does elsewhere, as a necessary implication of what has already been set forth. Emotional change, which impassibility absolutely denies with respect to God, would necessarily involve a mutation from either a worse state of being to a better one or a better state of being to a worse one. On the one hand, how can one who is infinite in perfection be in need of any change for the better? Moreover, where would this good come from with respect to Him who possesses all that HE–IS from and by Himself? If He did not possess it from Himself, He could not impart to Himself what He does not already have. And yet, if He already possesses this good from Himself, then there would be no emotional change after all. On the other hand, how could one who is infinite in power, wisdom, and goodness suffer any change for the worse? God is incorruptible and, therefore, cannot become worse; He is immutable and, therefore, cannot improve or mutate in any way. From this we see that God must necessarily be impassible. Because HE–IS immutable, eternal, infinite, immense, and immeasurable, He must also be impassible. Because God just IS WHAT HE IS, the attributes of God necessarily stand or fall together. Click To Tweet

Nevertheless, suppose it were possible to speak of a third option, as though the ‘emotional life of God’ entailed a movement from one emotional state to another of equal perfection. This would still imply a change of being. For instance, we could say of ourselves, “My mood changed from being happy to being angry.” Another way of saying this would be, “I became angry.” But if God were able to become something other than HE–IS, He would no longer be immutable, eternal, infinite, immense, or immeasurable. This scenario, of course, is counterfactual and unbiblical. Because HE–IS immutable, eternal, infinite, immense, and immeasurable, He must also be impassible. Because God just IS WHAT HE IS, the attributes of God necessarily stand or fall together.

Is impassibility biblical? Yes. While some attributes of God are expressly set forth in the Holy Scripture, others are necessarily implied in the biblical text and in relation to the divine attributes as a whole. Impassibility is of the latter sort, but no less biblical on that account. Rather, it emerges as a corollary of God’s aseity. Because HE–IS, He is impassible; because He is impassible, He will never cease to be (for you).

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.

[3] E.g., Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 1.179-187, esp. p.180.

[4] E.g., Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Christians on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 231-232.

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 2.151.