Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Divine Impassibility

There was a day when the impassibility of God was impassible. That is, it was assumed as something we simply knew about God's being. But that day appears to have passed: now it seems that the mass of men and women in the know (those who think and write about such things) want to affirm as basic theology the passibility of God. And by this they mean that God feels pain and suffers emotionally as one who is subject to the free agency of others and the vicissitudes of a broken and battered world mired in tragedies.

The first step we must take, in order to decide whether or not we ought to walk in lockstep with these people on the passibility path, is one in the direction of definition. Specifically, we need to define what we mean by suffering and by emotions.

If by emotions (or we might say passions) we mean, for example, that God "loses his cool" from time to time, or "flies off the handle" (as they say), or becomes overwhelmed, or is overtaken by sorrow unexpectedly, or the like, we must assert emphatically that God has no such emotions or passions. God is the sort of being who, although experiencing emotions analogous to ours, never experiences them apart from his deliberate and sovereign choosing in line with all his perfections. And in this sense—at least vis-à-vis fallen creatures—God is sui generis. There is none like unto him, as the King's English told us hundreds of years ago.

Now, if by suffering we mean, for example, that God experiences pain inflicted upon him from without, as a passive subject of hurt or harm done to him, unable to avoid the pain or keep himself from experiencing emotional hurt, well, then, again we must assert unequivocally that God experiences no such suffering. God is "above it all" in this sense. He's out of the reach of any harm or pain that might be inflicted upon him. The aseity of God and the absolute freedom of God are unassailable. God's Godness is immutable. All that he is, he always is (God's simplicity). And no one can take his serenity or joy from him. Or anything belonging to his essential nature, for that matter.

So, at some level, in some sense, we really do need, then, to affirm the impassibility of God. For if we don't, we shall end up de-godding God. But, in doing this, let us never forget, if we go along with the cool crowd in the direction of divine passibility, we shall only be de-godding God in our idolatrous minds (for in truth God is beyond our attempts to domesticate him). And in this reducing God to the size of a giant human, we shall lose all our hope and joy. For a god who is unable to avoid pain that a creature throws his way is a god who cannot save us in our plight either. He can only commiserate with us in our misery as one subject to a similar misery. And so, it turns out, such a god is not God at all.

Yet, we must say more. Even while we seek to steer quite clear of reducing God to our size, we must also steer equally quite clear of the god of the philosophers, a deity who is stoical and untouched in any sense whatever by our pathetic condition. We must not head off in the other unbiblical direction and confess a god who commands us to "weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15) while he himself is unmoved by our tears. No, we ought not to suppose that the God who lives is the sort of being who puts our tears in his bottle (Ps. 56:8) without any feeling for us in his doing so. "Jesus wept" (Jn. 11:35). The God who reveals himself in Scripture is a God who grieves (e.g., Gen. 6:6; Eph. 4:30). Yet he does so (and this point is crucial) as one who embraces the grief willingly, in total control, without his perfections being altered in any way, without a loss of sovereign serenity and volcanic joy.

Immediately an objection comes to mind. (That bubble over your head gives it away.) You say: "But how can it be that God really experiences grief if he never loses his peace and joy?" To which I reply: it must be something like what Paul says redeemed humans can experience in 2 Cor. 6:10. It must be like Paul's "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing," but without any creaturely limitations or imperfections, and without God ceasing to be all that he is in his triune glory. If we can be both sad and glad simultaneously, why can't we get our minds around a being far more resourceful than we are doing the same? And doing it far better than we do, with far more integration and consistency of character. I can't see why God couldn't be infinitely glad and yet choose to embrace sorrow in some way akin to the sorrow we suffer. It seems to me that the biblical presentation of God necessitates this sort of stance and way forward in our walk with God (for after all, we're going to walk with him along the path of life, and not with those who seek to assault his glory, aren't we?).

It is important at this point to elaborate on and elucidate (one hopes) the element of choice in God's being who and how he is. Since I've now claimed twice in this post that God chooses as one completely in control of all things at all times (including his emotional or affectional life), we need to think a little how this can be so. How can it be that God would choose to experience certain emotions in response to his nearness to his creatures? We all know that you don't just turn on an emotion like you do the light switch in the entryway to your home. Right, not just like a switch. Agreed. It's not mechanical like that. But perhaps we also need to think about whether or not we're thinking about controlling our emotions entirely rightly. After all, God does command emotions in Scripture. A lot. And how could he dare do this unless there is some capacity for doing what he commands, or some culpability for not doing what he commands?

I've already mentioned one such passage (Rom. 12:15). If God commands us to "weep with those who weep," presumably there is such a thing as choosing thoughtfully to respond to others with an appropriate emotion that fits the situation. To point out only a few others, we're commanded to "rejoice always" (Phil. 4:4), and this includes even tough times. We're commanded to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44), which emotionally is not easy for reasons with which we're all familiar. And, to cite only one more, we're enjoined to be grateful in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18), which really can't sincerely be done with a sour attitude. So, if we are to be subject to God's mind on these matters, we must say that at least for those renewed according to God's Spirit there is a capacity to "turn on" (to stay with the light switch illustration) certain emotions.

And so now, perhaps we can see, on analogy with what we're required and enabled to do, God himself chooses to embrace certain emotional responses that are fitting and meaningful as he relates to his creatures. If his word speaks to what we're required to be and do in line with imitating who he is (and it does), then it ought to be clear that God himself behaves similarly to what he requires of us. That is, God, for example, weeps with those who weep, as it is fitting to respond this way according to his infinite perfections and wisdom.

Lastly, we need to take a look—the longer and harder the better—at the cross of Christ. For there God's glory shines most brightly. And there we see the divine Son of God suffering at the hands of sinners. On those Roman gallows hung the God-man like a damned malefactor, tortured by mere mortals, spit upon by their hatred, mocked and ridiculed by fools, all the while suspended stark naked because they chose to strip him in their malice with the volitional and legal powers they possessed as free agents. And yet, Jesus taught us that no one took his life from him, but he laid it down of his own accord (Jn. 10:18). Moved by love, he suffered the cross because he wanted to do it in obedience to his Father (Phil. 2:8) and to redeem his people (Gal. 3:13). So, yes, he experienced pain. But he did not do so as one who was merely the subject of circumstances and volitions that neither he nor his Father could thwart. No, they planned it. They foreordained that the Son would suffer (Acts 2:23; 4:28). But they were by no means passive or helpless in this. No, as the church fathers used to say, Jesus was even then reigning from the cross.

Therefore, we should continue to affirm that God is impassible. But we should not do so in a way that, for example, mutes the testimony of Scripture that God took to himself suffering by embracing a body in order to die. And we must also affirm that he experiences emotions on analogy with ours, but without any imperfections tainting the emotion, and without any diminution to any of his perfections. Surely there is mystery here. But if we're Christians at all, we've already come to grips with many such mysteries, mysteries that we glory in. We know the incarnation is true, but can't fathom how it can be true. The mechanics, so to speak, are beyond us. We know man made upright rebelled against God, because God has revealed this to us. But we can't for the life of us see the depths to how it can be so. How on earth did a righteous man do unrighteousness? Yet, there it is, from the mouth of God. And so we bow low. And submit in faith.

And so it is with the nature and character of God. We know certain characteristics about him are true, because he's revealed these, but we don't foolishly pretend or suppose we're getting to the bottom of these things. "The finite cannot contain the infinite." God is God, and we are not.

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