One of my best friends from college sent me a paper he wrote on Divine Impassibility. The subject intrigues me because the doctrine on the one hand is foreign to the God I know through Scripture. Impassibility a part of a family of beliefs about the nature of God. In other words, what is God really like?
Impassibility under my friend’s definition means “God does not experience emotional changes either from within or effected by his relationship to creation.”1 Impassibility is a part of a family of doctrines under the umbrella of “Classical Christian Theism” (hereafter CCT) which has been a focus of some theologians recently. These theologians go so far as to define this family of doctrines as ‘orthodoxy’ (gk. literally meaning “right opinion”) – the minimum standard belief to be Christian.
What is the foundation for these doctrines? Are they explicitly biblical and taught explicitly by the Bible? Further are people who deviate really ‘heretics‘? Is this the standard of orthodoxy?
It seems from the early days of the Church, these doctrines were embraced wholeheartedly. Men like Ignatius of Antioch (35-108 AD), Irenaeus (130-202 AD), Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD), Tertullian (155 – 240 AD), Origen of Alexandria (184 – 253 AD), and Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373 AD), all expressed these doctrines (impassibility and others in the family of this doctrines) in one form or another. But let’s be clear, this was not a monolithic belief: there were variations in each’s position. I say all this because this seems to be the biggest reason for people to support it. The church fathers believed it and pretty much everyone did as well until 200 years ago.
Where did the fathers’ get this doctrine? How did they express it?
The Two Streams
It seems that regarding the Patristics’ doctrine of God there were two streams, the first was Scripture which they then theologized through the terminology of Greek philosophy.
An example of immutability (part of the family of doctrines) would be 1 Samuel 15:29,
“And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”
Only a few verses before, God says,
“I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night. (v.11)
And at the end of the chapter
And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel. (v. 35)
Given the seeming contradiction, and the rule of Scripture that it will not contradict itself, one of those passages does not mean what it appears to mean. Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395 AD) interprets God’s regret (or repentance) as anthropomorphic.2 CCTers take this a step further make a rule of interpretation out of passages like these that whenever Scripture talks about God’s actions (“regret”), it’s non-literal and anthropomorphic; whenever it talks about his nature (“He is not a man”), it’s to be taken literally.
The idea that the patristics got much of their doctrine from Greek philosophy is sometimes called “the Hellenization Hypothesis.” Despite what CCTers say, this is the biggest problem with CCT. It’s not merely that CCT is influenced by Greek philosophy but rather by metaphysical concepts not taught by Scripture. Metaphysics is about the nature of being. What is a thing and its properties? In this discussion, it means what is the nature of God and what is he like?
Unfortunately, this is where the church for most of its history has capitulated to natural theology (general revelation – things we think we know about God outside of Scripture) rather than relying on Scripture to understand God.
Underlying Impassibility is the idea that if God were changing he would be an imperfect being. This is true as far as it goes, but the application of that idea that for God to interact with Creation or respond would constitute a change in God is not an objection raised by Scripture, but rather from philosophy. It’s a part of a doctrine called “divine simplicity” which means
divine simplicity denies any physical or metaphysical composition in the divine being. This means God is the divine nature itself and has no accidents (properties that are not necessary) accruing to his nature. There are no real divisions or distinctions in this nature. Thus, the entirety of God is whatever is attributed to him. Divine simplicity is the hallmark of God’s utter transcendence of all else, ensuring the divine nature to be beyond the reach of ordinary categories and distinctions, or at least their ordinary application. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 3
The origins are quite extra-biblical. Greek philosophy starting as far back as Thales (640–546 BC), Anaximenes (588–524 BC), Parmenides (515–450 BC) believed “all things are of a single substance.” Plato (428–348 BC) contributed the idea that there was a unity in “Forms. ” He believed in “a supreme good constituting a unity beyond all ordinary being.” Aristotle (384–322 BC) developed the idea into a “supreme being to be a subsisting and unchanging form that is also a first mover.”4
Aristotle’s phrase of a “first mover” (or “first cause”) is important because it’s littered throughout CCTers works including James E. Dolezal’s All That Is in God (p. 6, 15-16, 87), after Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 AD), the Christian systematizer of Aristotle’s philosophy, whom we will discuss shortly. Obviously this is not a concept explicitly drawn from Scripture.
The Jewish philosopher and theology/philosophy harmonizer Philo of Alexandria (30 BC-50 AD) was among the first to bring the Greek philosophical concepts into a marriage with the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. He was perhaps the first to reject as anthropomorphic God’s emotions and actions in Scripture based on philosophical categories (Stoicism, Platonism), as God was clearly outside of the world.5
While CCTers deny the role philosophy played in the patristics’ understanding of God, the connection is beyond refutation. Here’s the biggest proof that CCT is based on philosophical speculations rather than the teaching of Scripture: theologians of all three monotheistic religions have said that God must be simple.
Take for example this website article exploring the Islamic concept of “Tawhid” (oneness):
Therefore, as God, the Exalted, is completely simple, and composition, which implies contingency,poverty, and dependence on another, does not affect Him absolutely, He is perfect in all aspects and possesses all the Names and Attributes, and He is the very ground of reality and the essence of being, without His existence bearing any taint of non-existence, and without His perfections bearing any taint of. imperfection. Hence-He is sheer being, for were non-existence to find way into Him; the evil of composite things, which consists of the composition of existence and non-existence, would find way into Him. Thus He is the sheerness of Knowledge, the sheerness of Life, the sheerness of Power, the sheerness ‘of Sight,’ of Hearing and all other perfections.”6
Listen also to this:
To say that God is simple is to negate any composition from him. This means that His attributes are at the core of His essence (صفاته عين ذاته) and there can be no separation between his attributes! This has been mentioned by Imam Ja’afar al Sadiq (as) in another narration that says, “And Knowledge is His Essence, and so are Power, Hearing, and Sight His Essence.”7
Thus, divine simplicity comes not from the explicit teaching of Scripture but speculation based on human reasoning which any religion can adopt. Islamic theologians who reject the Bible, nonetheless, like Aquinas, integrate Aristotle’s concepts into the mix as being revelatory about God.
Other Islamic theologians have said the same including Avicenna (980–1037 AD), and Averroes (1126–98 AD).7
Listen to Paul about the ability of people to peer into God through human wisdom:
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 1 Corinthians 1:21.
It is telling that you will find entries for divine impassibility, immutability divine simplicity, and aseity in philosophical encyclopedias. These entries scarcely refer to any Bible passages at all but are full of speculations based on man’s fallible reason. I do not mean to say that these are without any biblical warrant but there is a danger in allowing our philosophy to inform our theology rather than vice versa.
I may write more entries on this because of the incredible audacity of CCTers to call this orthodoxy whereas it is actually speculation.
James E. Dolezal whose book All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism has lobbed grenades at theologians who are not in step with these speculations. These theologians include J.I. Packer, Bruce Ware, D.A. Carson, John Frame among others.
What is the biblical foundation of Dolezal’s attack? Under the misnamed heading “Biblical Basis for Divine Simplicity” hear the supposed biblical basis for the doctrine:
There is no single biblical proof text for this doctrine. It follows, rather, by way of good and necessary consequence from a number of other doctrines that are clearly taught in Scripture. And though the cognitive realization of divine simplicity requires that we contemplate the implications of other doctrines, it is not for that reason any less biblical.8
In a footnote to that last statement he says the following:
In claiming that divine simplicity is a biblical doctrine, it does not follow that one can only arrive at this doctrine by considering the biblical witness…9
In other words he claims this is knowable outside of Scripture which is his real claim. That we can know God without Scripture.
As suggested in the remarks of Aquinas and Charnock above, one can also arrive at the conclusion God is simple by contemplating what is required for him to be the first cause of being.10
Please note that this “first cause” presupposition is a claim of Aristotle who did not know God.
Let me summarize what Dolezal is saying: he doesn’t have a Scripture proof but it should just be self-evident to us through speculative thinking. And thus we should censure anyone who disagrees with our speculation as heretics.
Philosophical Speculations are Open to Scriptural and Philosophical Analysis
What we have in CCT are impositions upon the God of Scripture based on philosophy. Since its based on philosophy and not Scripture, it’s open to critique of the philosophical methodology of gaining those conclusions not to mention Scripture itself. God indeed has emotions, which any plain reading of Scripture displays. God indeed enters into time and enters into relationships (covenants).
If a protestant is true to sola Scriptura, we must reject this imposition of the philosophers upon the God of the Bible which transcends the folly of man’s wisdom.
I’ll let Spurgeon have the final word:
It is a bold thing to speak of God as moved by joy or affected by grief, but still, since He is no God of wood and stone, no insensible block, we may, speaking after the manner of men, declare that God rejoiced over His risen Son with exceeding joy, while the Son rejoiced also because His great work was accomplished. Remembering that passage in the prophet, where God speaks of His saints, and declares that He will rejoice over them with singing, what if I say that much more He did this with His Son, and, resting in His love, He rejoiced over the risen One, even with joy and singing. 13
- Renihan, Samuel, God without Passions: A Reader (Palmdale, CA: Printed by Richard Barcellos for Reformed Baptist Academic Prefs, 2015), 19.
- Oden, Thomas. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2005), 259
- Dolezal, James. All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 44.
- Ibid, n7p44.
- Spurgeon, Charles. Spurgeon’s Sermons: Volume 15: 1869, from https://books.google.com/books?id=kt46DwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA163&dq=the%20Gospel%20of%20Abraham’s%20Sacrifice%20of%20Isaac%20spurgeon&pg=PA166#v=snippet&q=%22He%20rejoiced%20over%20the%20risen%20One%22&f=false