the impassibility of god

Mark Baddeley has been posting about the impassibility of God over on the SolaPanel. I’ve always had reservations about the doctrine, so here’s a copy of the comment I posted over there:

There’s obviously serious danger in questioning centuries of theological thinking, but where angels fear to tread… So here are my primary concerns with this doctrine:

  1. Much theologising, particularly in this realm, is somewhat troubling because it is not derived from exegesis so much as an imposition of a framework on exegesis. One example of this has always been the treatment by some theologians and exegetes of the “image” and “likeness” of God in Genesis 1. It can also be seen in some theological treatments of the doctrine of the Trinity, but perhaps most pervasively it appears in theological treatments of the impassibility of God.

  2. This particular theological framework ultimately appears to diminish the status of God’s revelation: God reveals in human language but, when referring to God, the language cannot mean what it means in all other contexts. It is no longer perspicuous in any real sense. If God is a speaking God and relates to us through language, if human language itself finds its roots in God, then this would seem to have implications for language about God in his revelation to us. Ultimately, notions of absolute impassibility call into question the effectiveness of God’s ability to communicate with us. This is particularly troubling when essentially passible language is said to have an impassible meaning!

  3. It undermines the relational nature of God. If “image” does incorporate any notion of relationship (as suggested by the plurality of the image in Gen 1) then the language of relationship could be expected to reflect something of the nature of the Creator in the creature made in his image.

  4. ISTM that the reason why God created is never comprehensively explicated in Scripture and hence any proposal is probably incomplete. Consequently the idea that God created so he could be good to someone/something cannot be said to offer a comprehensive account of God’s motives.

  5. It seems to go too far to conclude that if God is affected by his creation then he needs it in some way. Surely this all reduces to matters of metrics — how things are measured, how “need” is measured or assessed. Are we less without things that affect us? Perhaps in some cases, but in all cases?

My third point above prompted a lengthy response by Mark Baddeley, but the SolaPanel has not allowed any comments to be posted (which was the reason I originally stopped commenting there some time ago — I had thought that maybe things had changed, but apparently not). Update: commenting was re-enabled and the discussion has continued at the SolaPanel through a number of subsequent comments and posts.

Anyway, here’s my response to that subsequent post:

Otherwise, I agree with much of what you have to say. My point was not that all theologising results in eisegesis but that some does, and that it is particularly apparent when it comes to questions of divine impassibility (so your initial summary of my point as claiming only two possibilities ignores the opening condition of my words as you’ve quoted them). The whole issue is somewhat more complex than I made out in that one short paragraph and even more complex than you’ve allowed for in your response. Yes, a framework is necessary to interpretation in order to resolve ambiguities in a specific direction, and in part that framework is derived from reference to Scripture as a whole. Aspects of this complexity can be identified even if not fully explicated in a “brief” comment like this:

  1. There is a danger in application of any such framework that it smoothes out Scripture too far and becomes self-fulfilling and circular. The solution is, of course, not to dispense with the framework but to recognise its contingency and thus allow it to remain open to revision.

  2. There is a tendency to move beyond the ambiguities of Scripture (and there are some, not all questions are answered and not all tensions resolved) in order to produce an integrated reading. There is a tendency, for example, to decide between divine determinism or human free-will, depending upon where one’s emphases lie, rather than to recognise the inherent tension and even paradoxical nature of the teaching of the Bible. If one then adopts a theological framework which prefers one of the options over the other, that then necessitates “smoothing” specific texts which don’t immediately fit with the framework.

  3. Historically there has been an imposition of inappropriate extra-Biblical data in establishing or refining theological frameworks. It is, of course, impossible to read or understand the Bible without reference to extra-biblical knowledge, and it is also necessary to read it appealing to this knowledge because each part was written within a specific historical context to people who were enmeshed within a specific linguistic, cultural, and religious context. Appeal to the audience’s context is thus necessary to derive the true meaning of the text.

Consequently, the framework must constantly be examined and questioned. Interpreting passible language about God as impassible is, I think, a sufficiently serious semantic inversion that it ought to prompt us to re-examine the framework even if we ultimately conclude that it is appropriate to apply special rules to such God-language. In this instance, my impression is that too much is lost in such re-interpretation of the terms, that it requires too great a semantic inversion of the terminology, and that the presuppositions inherent in the requirement that God be impassible in an absolute sense are themselves neither derived from the Bible nor from the historical contexts out of which the various biblical texts pertinent to the discussion arose. Hence I maintain that the doctrine of impassibility as expounded in your original posts is ill conceived.

One thought on “the impassibility of god

  1. I’ve been finding the passibility/impassibility discussion on Sola Panel interesting. I think you have made some good points, which I don’t think have been satisfactorily dealt with. I haven’t found it easy to follow what Mark Baddeley writes and some others have used so much Latin that is not translated or defined, that I’m not sure I follow what they are saying either.

    One question I have is about the incarnation and exaltation of Jesus. I understand that one of the wonderful benefits of Jesus’ incarnation and exaltation is that God became Man and that Jesus remains forever an exalted Man. He is God but he is truly human. One of the things I take from Hebrews is that we have a great high priest who is a perfect man who is interceding for us. It is nice to know that he *had* the experience of being a man like us. He suffered and was tempted like us, but he was triumphant over all this suffering and temptation. He never sinned.

    But I would have thought that it is important to know that he still feels for us *now* as an exalted Man. Has he retreated from sharing truly in our experiences and become impassible again?
    The more I think about it, the more this doctrine makes God to be cold and unfeeling.

    I had previously accepted this teaching and thought I understood it, but now I am dithering.

    David McKay

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