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What is Impassibility?

Defining a forgotten attribute

The doctrine of Divine Impassibility is an ancient Christian belief, confessed throughout the long history of the Church, and yet often misunderstood or rejected today. It reflects classical Christian theism, and its import is well-known by theologians and has been fixed for centuries. It is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and confessed by every major English Protestant church—both the 1552 42 Articles of the Church of England and their 1563 revision known as the 39 Articles; the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith; the 1658 Savoy Declaration of the English Congregational churches, and the 1677/89 Second London Confession of the Baptists, (reprinted in America with two additions in 1742 as the Philadelphia Confession). And yet over the past 150 years this teaching has been criticized, modified and rejected, so that today it is an unpopular doctrine among evangelical theologians.

Impassibility with an i

Before we begin our brief study, we must take note of two things. In the first place, since the word may be easily confused with a similar homophone, we must briefly speak about the spelling of the term. The theological word is impassibility (with an i in the middle), not impassability (with an in the middle). The latter perhaps refers to the problem your Fiat 500 might have overtaking a Corvette on a highway, or to an impassable flooded road after a heavy storm, or perhaps to the impasse reached because of the inability of two sides to conclude a negotiation. But it does not refer to our doctrine!

Second and more importantly, we must remember that any examination of God and the teaching about Him recorded in Scripture must be done in the context of devotion. The words of Leviticus 10:3 provide the context for our study: “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified.” Our discussions of theology must be carried on in this context.

The Way of Negation and the Way of Eminence

Impassibility may be defined in this way: “God does not experience emotional changes either from within or effected by his relationship to creation.”[1] It is a necessary complement to the doctrine of divine immutability, expressing the fact that God is unchangeable in his essence or being, and in his outward acts in the world.

Christian theologians recognize that there is a fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creature. God alone has life and immortality. He needs no one and is perfection itself. We are not like this. Humans are dependent beings, relying on him for life and all things. For this reason, Christian theologians have acknowledged that it is easier to say what God is not than what he is. This has been called the Way of Negation. Impassibility is one of many such negations. Just as God is infinite—not finite, immortal—not subject to mortality, incomprehensible—beyond our ability to comprehend and immutable—not changeable, so also God is impassible. He is not subject to passions.

On the other hand, when making positive assertions about God, our teachers have expressed the Way of Eminence. This principle teaches us that when God is described to us in terms of human virtues, we recognize that those virtues exist originally, eternally, essentially, and perfectly (i.e., eminently) in God. Since he is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, he is perfect in all that he is. His love, mercy, justice etc. are infinite, eternal and unchangeable virtues. Our problem is that we forget this basic truth and impute human characteristics to God. This is the root of modern exceptions to the historic Christian doctrine. It makes God over in the image of humanity. God is love; divine love, infinite, eternal and unchangeable love. His love does not increase or decrease, it is what he is. Just as God is infinite—not finite, immortal—not subject to mortality, incomprehensible—beyond our ability to comprehend and immutable—not changeable, so also God is impassible. He is not subject to passions. Click To Tweet

Without passions

One of the most famous statements of this doctrine may be found in the Westminster Confession of Faith. In its Chapter 2 we read,

There is but one only, living, and true God who is infinite in Being and Perfection, a most pure Spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most absolute . . .

The phrase “without … passions” refers to the doctrine of divine impassibility. It has been consistently confessed by Christians through the ages. At the time of the Reformation, the Church of England declared in 1552 and 1563 in its 42 Articles and 39 Articles that,

There is but one living, and true God, and he is everlasting with out body, parts, or passions, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the maker, and preserver of all things both visible, and invisible.

The Irish Articles of 1615 followed suit in almost identical words, and the great Puritan confessions continued this trajectory. These confessional documents establish a tradition of the doctrine of God which specifically incorporates the doctrine of divine impassibility.[2] It is a necessary component of classical Christian theism. Herman Bavinck said,

Those who predicate any change whatsoever of God, whether with respect to his essence, knowledge, or will, diminish all his attributes: independence, simplicity, eternity, omniscience, and omnipotence. This robs God of his divine nature, and religion of its firm foundation and assured comfort.[3]

Expressions of effect, not affect

To deny the doctrine of divine impassibility is to open the door to heresy. In the seventeenth century, this was expressed by a group of people known as Socinians. John Owen responded to them:

Quest. Are there not according to the perpetuall tenor of the Scriptures, affections and passions in God, as Anger, Fury, Zeale, Wrath, Love, Hatred, Mercy, Grace, Jealousy, Repentance, Grief, Ioy, Feare? Concerning which he [Owen’s Socinian opponent, John Biddle] labours to make the Scriptures determine in the affirmative . . .To the whole I aske, whither these things are in the Scripture ascribed properly unto God, denoting such affections & passions in him as those in us are, which are so termed, or whither they are assigned to Him, & spoken of him Metaphorically, only in reference to his outward workes and dispensations, correspondent and answering to the actings of men, in whom such affections are, and under the power whereof they are in those actings. If the latter be affirmed, then as such an attribution of them unto God, is eminently consistent with All his infinite Perfections, and Blessednesse, so there can be no difference about this Question, and the answers given thereunto; all men readily acknowledge, that in this sence the Scripture doth ascribe all the affections mentioned unto God.[4]

Here, Owen seeks to employ the Way of Eminence. While Scripture in some places does seem to attribute emotions to God, we must look past the human language to the perfections they signify. For example, love is in God as an eternal perfection, not as a passion brought about by an encounter with the creature. Theologians have often said that when God is described in the language of human emotion, these are expressions of effect, not affect. In other words, we are reading about the effects God causes us to experience of himself, not effects that we have caused God to experience in himself. If we read of them in the same way that we experience human passions and affections, we diminish God, making him only a greater version of ourselves. While Scripture in some places does seem to attribute emotions to God, we must look past the human language to the perfections they signify. Click To Tweet

Do not tinker with it

More recently, Clark Pinnock wrote,

Impassibility is undoubtedly the Achilles heel of conventional thinking. It was as self-evident to our ancestors as it is out of question for us, but as soon as one tinkers with it the edifice trembles.[5]

Pinnock, who denied impassibility and became an advocate of Open Theism, acknowledges that repudiating impassibility necessitates a complete revision of the classical Christian doctrine! Divine impassibility must be maintained, or the church will lose its identity.

Writing nearly 340 years ago, the great Puritan John Owen could say of the doctrine of divine impassibility:

It is agreed by all that those expressions of “repenting, “grieving,” and the like, are figurative, wherein no such affections are intended as those words signify in created natures, but only an event of things like that which proceedeth from such affections.[6]

Our prayer is that these words may be written again today.


[1] Samuel D. Renihan, God Without Passions: A Primer (Palmdale: RBAP, 2015) 19.

[2] Some portions of this article are taken from my chapter “The Doctrine of Divine Impassibility: “Pre-Reformation through Seventeenth-Century England” in Ronald S. Baines, Richard C. Barcellos, James P. Butler, Stefan T. Lindblad and James M. Renihan, Confessing the Impassible God (Palmdale: RBAP, 2015).

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, gen. ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003-2008), 2:158.

[4] John Owen, Vindiciae Evangelicae Or, The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated, and Socinianisme Examined (Oxford: Printed by Leon. Lichfield, 1655), 73. This page is incorrectly numbered 65 in the original. The spelling is original.

[5] Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), 77.

[6] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 23 vols. (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965-1991), 21:257, emphasis added.

James M. Renihan

James Renihan (PhD) is President of IRBS Theological Seminary in Mansfield, TX. He has authored several books including True Love and Edification and Beauty

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