The Trinity: Impassibility, What is Denied
The doctrine of divine impassibility is a biblical, catholic, classical, and confessional doctrine of the Christian church which states that because God is simple, infinite, eternal, and immutable, he cannot undergo any change in state of being, or be acted upon in any way. The Reformed confessions of faith express this by saying that God is “without passions.” This negation separates the being of God from an aspect of creaturely existence.
To understand divine impassibility, therefore, we have to study the divine nature that requires such a negation and the creaturely existence being denied of God. Many authors, far more capable and knowledgeable than myself, have dealt with the first part, arguing convincingly that the divine nature cannot be acted upon by anything or undergo anything. It is my goal to address the second element of this question, often untouched in these discussions, passions and affections in the context of the human nature. As we improve our understanding of the imperfections of our creaturely nature, we will improve our understanding of the perfections of God’s divine nature.
Man’s nature has parts—body (material) and soul (immaterial). And it has faculties seated within those parts—the mind, the will, and the passions or affections. The affections bring together the parts and faculties of the human nature. Affections are motions of the mind and will relative to perceived good and evil.
In other words, as a given person goes through life, their mind interprets the world around them and regards various objects as good or bad. If perceived as good, the person is drawn to those objects. If perceived as bad, the person is drawn away from those objects. These motions are the affections, and can therefore be sorted into two opposite lists.
- Affections wherein one is drawn towards an object perceived as good: love, desire, joy, hope, confidence, mercy.
- Affections wherein one is drawn away from an object perceived as bad: hate, repulsion, sadness, depression, fear, anger.
We are constantly encountering objects that change us and bring about new states of being. As the object arises, so arises the affection or passion. As the object disappears, so disappears the affection or passion. When traffic is good, we are happy. When traffic is bad, we are sad. When hunger arises, we are grumpy. When hunger abates, we are pleasant.
Human affections and passions depend, therefore, on one’s understanding of what is good and bad, and on the disposition of one’s will according to one’s nature. They also depend on the objects we encounter. This brings us to two important conclusions.
First, we can understand the profound reality of regeneration in the believer’s life, and we can better understand the historical language of Reformed theology as it gives practical exhortations to believers. Because the unbeliever’s mind and will are enslaved to error and sin, he wrongly perceives good and evil. He will love sin and hate righteousness. He will believe lies and suppress truth. God alone can change a sinner’s mind and will by regeneration in effectual calling. And in so doing, God changes our affections. When Paul exhorts the Colossians to “Set [their] minds on things above” (Col 3:1-15), older translations rendered it as “Set your affections on things above” because the born-again Christian is to pursue what God calls good, and to shun what God calls evil.
Second, we can understand the amazing comfort of a God without passions. In God, love is not an affection that rises and falls depending on perception of good or evil in us, but rather love is a perfection of the very essence of God. “God is love” (1 John 4:8). As Thomas Adams said, “They are perfections in him, what are affections in us.” God cannot be moved to be anything other than what he is, he cannot be acted upon in that highest of metaphysical senses, nor is his existence time-bound like ours in which we interpret and react to objects. Furthermore, God’s love is immutably set upon his Son, Jesus Christ. Thus, those who are in the Son by faith cannot be separated from the infinite, eternal, immutable, and impassible love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:39).
We may be fickle and passionate, but God is faithful and perfect. The more we understand the divine nature and the human nature, the more we can understand and rejoice in the difference between God’s love and our love, and the more we can seek to pattern our love after God’s love.
Sam Renihan is a pastor at Trinity Reformed Baptist Church in La Mirada, CA. He is also a PhD candidate at the Free University of Amsterdam studying 17th-century Particular Baptist Covenant Theology. Sam edited God without Passions: A Reader, he wrote God without Passions: A Primer, and he contributed to Confessing the Impassible God.