Review: Divine Impassibility

Divine Impassibility

Divine Impassibility (Spectrum Multiview Books), Edited by Robert J. Matz and A. Chadwick Thornhill. Contributions by Daniel Castelo, James E. Dolezal, Thomas Jay Oord, and John C. Peckham. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A discussion of God’s experience of emotions and the possibility of God suffering with views ranging from one of God not changing or experiencing emotion to God, while not changing in nature, is in relation with his creatures and experiences emotions and suffering in those relationships.

Doesn’t God hear our cries and feel the pain his people suffer? Many of us would say, “of course,” not realizing that many throughout church history may have differed with us. The assertion is that God is impassible, which means that God is not able to suffer or experience pain or pleasure from the acts of others. One may wonder, “why would anyone believe that?” There are actually good reasons. If we believe that God is self-existent, and not dependent upon anything else in the universe for God’s existence, then the possibility that the acts or suffering of others could affect God would seem to jeopardize the idea of God’s self-existence in recognizing the possibility that other beings may influence or change God in some way.

In this work, a spectrum of four views are considered: strong impassibility (James E Dolezal), qualified impassibility (Daniel Castelo), qualified passibility (John C. Peckham), and strong passibility (Thomas Jay Oord). Each proponent sets forth the basic ideas of their particular view and arguments that support, the other three respond from their perspective, and the proponent makes a final response.

One of the most helpful aspects of this book are the four questions the editors ask each person to respond to. These are:

  1. To what extent is God’s emotional life analogous (similar and dissimilar) to the human emotional life?
  2. Are God’s nature, will, and knowledge passible, and to what extent?
  3. Do the incarnation and passion of Jesus Christ necessitate passibility?
  4. Does human activity (such as prayer) occasion an emotive/volitional response from God?

The introduction to the book provides a chart with summary answers to each question, showing in brief the places where the four views agree and differ. Basically, the strong impassible position would answer all of these “no,” while the strong passible position would answer all of these yes.

The qualified positions would answer “no” in some cases, a qualified “yes” or “yes” in others, and hence “qualified.” One thing that separates the qualified impassible from the qualified passible is the question of “are God’s nature, will, and knowledge passible, and to what extent. The qualified impassible would say only God’s nature is passible, and that only to the extent God allows. The qualified passible would say both God’s nature and will are passible, but not God’s knowledge–that God is voluntarily passible in relation to the world. They also differ on whether and to what extent the human and divine natures of Christ are passible. The qualified impassible would say this is so only temporarily during the incarnation in the context of an impassible God. The qualified passible would say the incarnation reveals both a passible Christ in both natures and a passible God. They would also differ as to whether God is affected by prayer, no, for the qualified impassible along with the strong impassible, yes for the qualified passible along with the strong passible.

It is thus harder to distinguish the qualified positions from each other, while the differences between the “strong” positions are clear. The strong impassible position seems most shaped by extra-biblical theological categories–God’s self-existence and actuality, and the logic of these means a refusal to take passages that speak of God’s emotions, or God “changing” in response to human acts or pleas at face value. For others, definitional issues and how language is used seems important, and I found myself wondering how this might be worked out if not framed in an impassibility/passibility binary, or dividing God into nature, will, and knowledge as if these are not part of an integral whole.

It does helpfully press the ways in which Creator and creatures are like and unlike. It seems critically important to ask how we are like and unlike God rather than the reverse, which we often do. But this begs the question of both relational and emotional capacities. If our capacities in this regard reflect (albeit in fallen ways) what it is like to be in the image of God, they must find their source in something in the nature of God. How then does a strongly impassible God create passible creatures?

This work is valuable in thinking through our thoughts of God and his relation to his world beyond our sentiments. The thoughtful and yet respectful responses of the participants model good dialogue practices one wishes were more widely evident among Christians who differ. They also respect each other’s commitment to orthodoxy and a high view of scripture. For both the content and the character of the discussion, this book is worth a read.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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