God Never Sweats it: Impassibility

When speaking about God it’s always crucial to remember that we are speaking about He who is incomprehensible, the infinite One of Whom finite language cannot fully describe or define. Thus, theologians have rightly stated that most language concerning the Being of God is analogical, rather than univocal; there’s no one to one equivalency between the words we use to describe God and the reality of who and what God is in and of himself. And yet, though our words fall short, we cannot not talk about God. We follow Augustine in how he began his Confessions that though there are not words enough to fully express the truth of who God is, “Yet woe to them that speak not of Thee at all.”[1]
            When it comes to speaking about who and what God is, it hardly gets more difficult than when speaking about his so-called “affections”, “passions” or even the so-called “emotional” life of God. When we’re told that God so loved the world, are we to understand the way in which God loves to be roughly synonymous with how people love? Traditionally, Christians have said no, the two are not entirely synonymous. John Owen could rightly say that “It is agreed by all that those expressions of repenting, grieving, and the like, are figurative, wherein no such affections are intended as those words signify in created natures, but only an event of things like that which proceedeth from such affections.”[2]

            Classically, orthodox Christians have affirmed the truth of God’s impassibility, the understanding that God is without passions. Consider chapter 2 and part 1 of the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith which states that “The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions…”
            So what exactly is meant by passions? What are affections, or emotions for that matter? And why have Christians throughout the ages been so adamant that God does not have passions? We’ll define some terms in a moment, but it’s good to say upfront that what’s being protected in the doctrine of Divine Impassibility is any creatureliness or finitude within the Godhead. If being impassioned or passible is an inescapable component of created creatures, then to be Divine must mean that God is impassible. Joel Beeke puts it this way: “Impassibility is an aspect of the biblical distinction between the eternal Creator and his creation that guards his divine transcendence. God’s creation changes and perishes, “but thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end” (Ps. 102:27).”[3]
            So let’s start with defining affections. Samuel Renihan helpfully defines affections as “the actions of the whole man, relative to an external object which it perceives as good or bad.”[4] Some common affections are love, hatred, desire, abomination, joy, sorrow, hope, despair, boldness, fear, anger, error, zeal, or pity. At first blush we want to say, “well of course God experiences these. God loves, He shows anger, jealousy, etc.” But again, we must not forget how theological language (even in Scripture) is analogical and so what we understand as love, anger, or jealousy from a finite, creaturely perspective cannot exactly find an exact equivalent in the transcendent and infinite Godhead.
            Hence an older writer, William Bridge, comments that affections are “these movings of the rational soul, whereby the heart is sensibly carried out upon good or evil; so as to embrace the one, or refuse the other.”[5] This is important. Notice that to have an affection is to be moved to action by some good or evil outside of yourself. We understand this concept when we say things like “I fell in love.” What we mean is, I was moved by her beauty and grace into a state of uncontrollable attraction; I couldn’t help myself in how I felt. But is this true of God? The answer is no.
            D.A. Carson rightly makes the distinction that when God looks upon man there is nothing within man himself which causes God, or moves God, to elicit the response of love. As Aquinas might argue, God is always First Cause. So when God loves it is God first willing to reveal Himself toward an unworthy creature, not in his wrath (which the creature deserves) but in his love (which the creature is unworthy of receiving). To be clear, God doesn’t begin to start loving the person anew. We’ve already shown in a previous article that God is immutable; He is love and unchangeably so, indeed, infinitely and perfectly so. What changes is the recipient: he was an object of God’s wrath but now through electing, covenant grace he becomes the object of God’s eternal love. Or as the Apostle John argues, we love because God first lovesd us” (1 John 4:19).
             This is why many theologians prefer to speak of God’s love (and his wrath, jealousy, pity, joy, etc.) as His perfections. They are immutable expressions of a simple and infinite God. But the point to be seen here is that God isn’t moved into a state of love by something or someone outside of himself; to be so would to be a God who has passions. So what is a passion?
            The root idea undergirding the word passion is “to be passive.” To have passions is to be passive in your affections, i.e., to be moved to some affection by something outside of yourself.  So, what has this to do with God?
            Well, as Psalm 115 verse 3 tells us, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” Since God is simple and independent, then the whole of God’s being is free from coercion or outside influence. God cannot succumb to any impassioned response since all of God, including the perfections of his love and anger, are a se. God is love and how he loves is eternal and unchangeable. Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, could well state that “The love that is in God, is no passion arising of some good that it apprehends, but it is the very simple essence of God… The cause of that love of his, is not in the creatures, as though they were such as could allure God to love them, but it is rather in God, who of himself is good, and pours goodness upon his creatures.”[6]
            Listen to David in Psalm 36:7. “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” Here we see God independent in his love, a perfection which does not change due to outside influence but is infinite, unchanging, and of God. It is a steadfast love and since it is God’s love then it is fully divine; all that is in God is God. And so notice how David applies this marvelous truth. He finds immense comfort, safety, and an assurance in God’s protection. What a glorious truth we have in the doctrine of Divine Impassibility.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Augustine, Confessions (1.4.4), translated by F.J. Sheed (Hackett Publishing, 2006), p. 5.  Peter Kreeft comments on this line: “Another dilemma transcended: we must either speak or be silent, but woe is pronounced on both speech and silence. Best is the speech that comes from silence, from the presence of the One for Whom even dumb creatures speak, the mountains dance, the hills skip like lambs, and the trees clap their hands; the One to Whom the very rocks would cry out if we do not. For He is the Word before Whose face words die and then rise again” (Kreeft, I Burned for Your Peace: Augustine’s Confessions Unpacked (Ignatius Press, 2016), p. 5)).

[2] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 23 vols. (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965-1991), 21:257

[3] Joel Beeke & Paul Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Revelation and God, vol 1, p. 840.

[4] Samuel Renihan, God without Passions: a Primer, (2015), p. 38.

[5] William Bridge, Bridge’s Remains, Being VIII Sermons (1673), p. 26. Found in Samuel Renihan, God without Passions, p. 38

[6] Theodore Beza, Propositions and Principles of Divinitie (1595), p. 22. Found in Samuel Renihan, God without Passions, p. 69


Stephen Unthank