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What Hath Parts To Do With Passions?

A Surprising Intersection at Divine Blessedness

With a 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Queen Latifah’s 2006 film Last Holiday could fairly be considered, as the kids say, “mid.”[1] The storyline surrounds one terminally ill woman’s decision to spend the rest of her money and days pursuing the ‘happy life’ she’d always dreamed of in Central Europe. Despite the film’s forgettability, one scene often comes to mind, which has an apt word for contemporary evangelicals.

While dining at one of the finest restaurants in town, Latifah’s character orders the chef’s special with no alterations. Behind the scenes, we’ve seen the world-renown chef’s disgust with the “elites” in his restaurant, those customers with such pride as to think they can improve upon the chef’s culinary creations with their own modifications. Yet with Latifah, the chef is moved by the respect and honor he’s given with an order as is, nothing taken away, removed, or added.

What’s the point?

Our contemporary evangelicalism can often treat confessionalism like the “elites” in Latifah’s Last Holiday, removing those items that do not yet suit our appetites or might not be as easily palatable to modern sensibilities. In a spirit of “chronological snobbery,” some theologians can place themselves as the judge over theological history rather than the recipient of God’s grace in the great doctrines from the great tradition. God is happy because he is simple, and the simply happy God is without passion. Click To Tweet

Two doctrines that prove no exception are the doctrines of divine simplicity and divine impassibility.

In the great confessions of the 17th century, the Reformed penned these two denials of God so close together you might be tempted (rightly so, I might add) to think they are related: without parts or passions.

Today, we see modern theologians attempting to affirm divine simplicity while altering divine impassibility, and vice-versa. I would submit to you, however, that divine simplicity and impassibility are not merely consistent with each other but dependent on each other. If passions, then parts. The attributes of God’s simplicity and impassibility have such an inherent connection and consistency that one cannot be correctly understood apart from the other.

To make such a claim, one might simply point to the definition of divine simplicity. For, if simplicity proclaims that each of God’s perfections are what the others are, then we could rightly say that simplicity and impassibility are distinct refractions in our human understanding of the simple divine essence. Though this is true enough, there is more to be said and more beauty to behold. I will show below that simplicity and impassibility meet at the junction of divine blessedness. To demonstrate such an argument, let us first examine the connection between divine simplicity and divine blessedness.

Simplicity and Blessedness

In formative works in the Great Tradition, several theologians have placed divine simplicity and divine blessedness as bookends in their conversations surrounding the divine attributes. While these cases may be preferential or contextual, such an ordering of attributes beginning with simplicity and concluding with beatitude seems to be much more intentional than meets the eye.

Divine simplicity and divine blessedness encompass each of God’s attributes collectively.

As you’ve seen throughout this magazine, God’s simplicity proclaims that God is his attributes. His essence is his existence. He alone can say, “I am he who is.” Simplicity has a direct referent to all of God’s attributes together, so to speak. Simplicity is both prefatory and summative of each attribute to follow, aiming to display the unity and analogy of God’s manifold perfection.

Simplicity is both prefatory and summative of each attribute to follow, aiming to display the unity and analogy of God’s manifold perfection. Click To Tweet Furthermore, divine blessedness, or beatitude, also seeks to consider all of God’s attributes together. Boethius explains God’s beatitude as “a state made perfect by the aggregation of all good things.” Aquinas adds that divine blessedness is the complete possession of the good. Similarly, Turretin explains that the Hebrew word for blessedness “denotes the confluence of every good.”

If blessedness, however, is the culmination of the resplendence of all God’s perfections, as these great theologians imply, how can the blessed God be simple? Does blessedness imply an innate partition, addition, or a synergistic cacophony of culmination within the divine essence?

Aquinas helps here, clarifying Boethius’s definition of blessedness as the “aggregation of the good” in God as “after the manner of his simplicity, not composition, for those things which in creatures is manifold, preexist in God in simplicity.” Blessedness, then, means not a composition of perfections in its most proper sense of the phrase but a complete and eternal possession of perfect goodness, rest, and satisfaction according to intellectual nature. Blessedness is a whole rest of the intellect, a lack of striving after a good yet to be possessed and a fullness of delight in act.

Turretin agrees, stating how God’s blessedness is not “through composition, from the confluence of multiple goods, or from formal and objective blessedness, but a blessedness he possesses by a single, most pure, most simple act.” Aquinas states the point even more explicitly, “God is happiness by His essence; for He is happy not by acquisition or participation of something else, but by His essence.”

If we read between the lines, then we can see God’s simplicity in such a statement! For, per simplicity, God is the standard by which we understand him and his attributes. God is wise and kind and all the rest by virtue of himself and not by some superimposed external definition. God is God; and because he has so acted in creation to display who he is, we understand him to be wise and kind as refractions of the simple essence that he is himself. And, in this same way, we can also say that God is blessed.

In other words, God is happy—supremely satisfied in himself. He is at rest in himself, not striving to attain any further actuality or perfection, because he is wholly and fully complete in himself. In this way, God is happy because he is simple, and the simply happy God is without passion.

Impassibility and Blessedness

At this point, you may be thinking: what does this have to do with impassibility? For if simplicity and impassibility are uniquely related, as we stated at the beginning, why all this talk about divine blessedness?

Divine blessedness is a junction point between divine simplicity and impassibility. Divine impassibility and blessedness share a unique relation with one another, much like the unique relation shared between divine simplicity and blessedness.

Blessedness and impassibility are two sides of the same coin. The former emphasizes the cataphatic while the latter emphasizes the apophatic. In other words, impassibility is an overflow of beatitude—God is so fully himself that nothing can give him a further actuality that is not already and eternally his to enjoy.

As passions are actualized potencies of the soul, God in his impassibility is unable to “suffer an effect,” as Richard Mueller defines. He is purely actual. Passions, in light of the previous definition, are not proper to God’s nature. To those whose natures are mutable and corporeal, such as humans, passions are taken properly; passions for Pure Act must be understood another way.

Blessedness is a whole rest of the intellect, a lack of striving after a good yet to be possessed and a fullness of delight in act. Click To Tweet Such an understanding accords with the narrative of Scripture. While many examples could be given, and indeed have been given in the wealth of helpful retrieval projects that have arisen on the topic in recent years, it would suffice to say here that Paul understood and spoke as much to be true in Acts. Explaining how his party could not be divine, the Apostle Paul says, “We also are men of like passions with you” (Acts 14:15), therefore exposing the chasm between the natures of men and God. Passions are inherently creaturely. They are not evil nor to be avoided, but most properly speaking they are in direct reference to the creature. Passions are predicated properly to mankind, not God.

Among the many distinctions Aquinas makes in the differing forms of predication, two terms draw to the fore for our present conversation: namely, the distinction between metaphor and analogy. This distinction leads us to consider the connection between simplicity and impassibility as well.

When certain attributes are predicated of God metaphorically, God is not the proper referent of the attribute considered, but creatures are. Aquinas states, “All names applied metaphorically to God, are applied to creatures primarily rather than to God, because when said of God they mean only similitudes to such creatures.”

In this way, then, we best understand what the Scriptures intend when naming God as a lion when we consider what a lion is.[2] The understanding of the creature sheds light on a certain quality of God, in this case his strength, rather than identifying God as a lion in its most proper sense.

Since passions are inherently creaturely, as they are potentialities or accidents of a particular substance, then when Scripture attributes passion to God it does so metaphorically.

Anger, sadness, grief, and other passions that imply an imperfection or potentiality waiting to be actualized should be understood metaphorically when applied to God. Passions such as these are properly predicated of creatures, yet metaphorically predicated of God to shed light on certain qualities or effects, such as a change in administration, judgement of wrongdoing, drawing his consolation away from his people, or otherwise. Metaphorical predication does not remove substance or meaning from Scripture; it further clarifies what Scripture intends and helps us to contemplate God more truly.

Still, not all predication in Scripture is metaphorical. Another important category is analogical predication. Analogical predication attributes certain qualities to God insofar as he is the essential and causal referent of the attribute.

Attributes such as goodness, wisdom, love, and others, which imply no imperfection, are to be understood most essentially and truly in relation to God himself. Yet, we still understand such attributes analogically—not because they are not proper to God, but because he is the qualities in himself. They are perfections in God; and therefore, these perfections are synonymous to the very essence of God, while such perfections are merely accidental qualities in creatures.

As such, perfections in God which may be understood as passions in man, such as love and delight, are most essentially and infinitely true of God in himself, which is why we so joyfully affirm the truth: God is love.

Simplicity and Impassibility

So, what does simplicity have to do with impassibility?

God is happiness itself. Fullness of joy in God does not mean, as it can with man, that God is the most passionate being, but that he is being itself—and so much so that no further actuality could be added to him. He is the fountain of love and delight. Thomas Weinandy wrote, “There is no passion in God, not in the sense that he does not love, but because, being pure act, there is no need for an arousal of his will to love the good and so to come to desire the good and rejoice in it. God’s arousal to the good as loved, and so rejoicing and delighting in it, is eternally and perfectly in act.”

He is most immovable and incorruptible and impassible, not because he is lifeless or lacks vibrancy but because he is so full of life. He is who he is, fully and completely. He is not brought from one state of actuality to another, as we are when experiencing passion; he is actuality itself. God is his will (simplicity) and needs no arousal to be that which he eternally is. Our desires need to be brought into actuality to love, but not with God. He is love in his simplicity.

Impassibility is an overflow of beatitude—God is so fully himself that nothing can give him a further actuality that is not already and eternally his to enjoy. Click To Tweet We see further into the resplendence of the perfectly happy God through his inner life as a Trinity of persons. God fully knows himself in the Son and fully loves himself in the Spirit—perfectly actualizing the analogical operations of intellect and will, which in turn defines in himself and communicates to us the essence of true happiness.

As we contemplate this simply blessed Trinity, we are drawn up to participate in the blessedness which he himself is. Created in the imago Dei with unique capacities to know and love God, mankind was gifted with the potentiality to enjoy God and all things in relation to God forever. True happiness, then, is not merely a blissful vacation to Central Europe with all the trappings of comfort. Rather, as God himself analogically displays, true happiness is the perfect operations of intellect and will. Therefore, as long as it is called ‘today,’ God is inviting us back to the purpose of our creation—to find our happiness in God by knowing and loving him in intellect and will. Boethius states it well,

Since men become happy by acquiring happiness, and happiness is identical with divinity, it is plain that they become happy by acquiring divinity. But just as men become just by acquiring the quality of justice, and wise by wisdom, so by the same reasoning, by acquiring divinity they become divine. Every happy man then is divine. But while nothing prevents as many men as possible from being divine, God is so by his nature, men become so by participation.[3]


[1] For those unaware, see mediocre.

[2] This example is inspired by Aquinas’s own example in the Summa Theologiae.

[3] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 3:10, 39.

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Brett Fredenberg

Brett Fredenberg is the Director of Marketing and Content Strategy for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Managing Editor of For the Church. Brett is married to Katelyn and has three kids. His family are members of Trinity Church, KC.

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