The Trinity: Impassibility and the Incarnation

Many of God’s attributes are denied these days by so-called Bible-believing Christians. Among these “questionable” attributes are divine simplicity which has been amply discussed on the Theology on the Go podcast. James Dolezal of Cairn University has been an indefatigable defender of simplicity and classical theism more generally among the ranks of Reformed-oriented Evangelicals. He is to be commended for this stand, which is contrary to the position advocated by such influential Christian philosophers as Alvin Plantinga. Another attribute that it is popular to reject or retool is divine impassibility.

The doctrine of divine impassibility asserts that God is not subject to pain or suffering and does not feel or experience emotions. It is exceedingly necessary to affirm, uphold, and proclaim this aspect of God’s character as its denial leads us a long way down the road to open theism. Open theism teaches that God is both ignorant of the future free actions of human creatures (because future free actions are as such not existent things that can be known) and that he is capable of suffering with his creatures. Bringing God down to our level supposedly makes him more sympathetic or empathetic with our own misery. God rather than being sovereign in the biblical sense is now our co-sufferer and sympathetic friend.

But the Scriptures proclaim that God does experience emotions and indeed that he experiences powerful emotions. We find this in Genesis 6:5-7:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

Notice the italicized words. God regrets (or repents) having made man because of his sinful rebellion and the downward spiral and degradation of sin’s outworking (ala Romans 1:18-32). We also find the language of wrath and laughing derision, love and mercy, grace and forgiveness found in Scripture as well. First Samuel 15:11 tells us that God regretted having made Saul king over Israel. But we also find passages that deny that God repents or regrets anything, even a few verses from First Samuel 15:11 at verse 29: “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” What do we do with this apparent contradiction within sentences of one another?

In a previous article I noted that human thinking (and therefore, it would seem, human language) about God is analogical. There is an infinite quantitative and qualitative gap between God the Creator and man the creature. Our thinking and talking about God is neither univocal nor equivocal. That is, our language and concepts of God are neither identical to his own of himself nor are they totally off course. The analogy is based on revelation. God tells us in Scripture what he is like and what he wants us to know about him and his will for our salvation. Because this is true, what God says does not reflect the exhaustive truth about himself although what he does reveal is absolutely true. It is also said that language about God (and how we think about him) in Scripture is anthropomorphic. God condescends to speak to us in ways to which we will understand and relate. When God says that he regrets having made man and then that he is not a man that he should repent he is using the word regret or repent in somewhat different senses both from each other in the same passage and from what the words mean when used of men.

God is not subject to suffering or feeling pain. He is a spirit. He is not subject to anything outside of himself. He is never a patient in the sense of ever being overwhelmed by suffering inflicted upon him by his creatures. Suffering and being subject to fluctuating emotions is the result, among other things, of possessing a body and undergoing change. God is also unchangeable. To say God is impassible is to say he, among other things, does not change from a state of unperturbed bliss to one of perturbed irritation and back. Remember we are talking about who and what God is in himself (a se). However, he is not immobile. Very often God is imagined to be immobile. But this is not true since he is pure action. Since God is impassible in himself, in order to relate to his creation he reveals himself in ways embodied, time-bound creatures will understand. It is true that God is love, but not in the sense of love where we fall in and out of love as we experience romantic love over and over again.

If God was passible then he would be subject to us. To put it starkly, he would no longer be God. God could be held an emotional hostage to our whims. Is that the God of the Bible? While it might seem initially appealing to have a God who can relate to us in the way Open Theism suggests, we end up with a “god” who is just like us in all the ways he really isn’t.

What I have said so far obtains for the Triune God prior to the incarnation. In the eternal covenant (the covenant of redemption), the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit planned for our redemption and the Son agreed to take to himself a true body and a reasonable soul to save a people for himself. The incarnation does not undermine or undo the impassibility of the Son. How so? As Professor John Murray has so well said, the incarnation was a subtraction by addition. That is, the Son lowered himself by adding to his divine nature a true human nature (body and soul) with sin excepted. What Professor Murray was getting at in his discussion of Phil. 2:5-11 was that the Son did not set aside his divinity in the incarnation but added to his deity real humanity.

The doctrine of the hypostatic union can help us here. The early church wrestled with the fact that the Scriptures spoke of the Christ as possessing divine attributes and clearly human attributes. How do we make sense of this? The church spent centuries searching the Scriptures and developing a grammar for understanding the nature of the Trinity and the nature of the Son as incarnate. We now affirm, articulate, and proclaim that Jesus is truly and fully God and truly and fully man. Jesus is not a mixture of the two nor is he schizophrenic. He is one person with two natures. The Chalcedonian Formula (or Creed or Definition) says it this way:

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.

Once again notice the italicized words (and the epexegetical remarks that follow). The two natures are distinct and retain their proper attributes. The divine nature is truly divine and the human nature is really human. There is no cross fertilization either. We can speak of the one person Jesus Christ in both divine and human terms. While the Scriptures sometimes apply terms appropriate to the one nature to the other (as Paul does in Acts 20:28), the natures do not actually interpenetrate and blend and blur. This is the error of some who advocate, for instance, for the real presence of the Son’s body and blood in every place where communion is celebrated (called the ubiquity of the body and blood of the Lord). If the two natures did interpenetrate then Christ would become a third thing, a tertium quid, a monster. He could save no human being. He would not be fully God nor fully man. There would be no other reality corresponding to the kind of being he would be.

I note all of this because in the incarnation God’s impassibility is not undermined as to Christ’s divine nature. Christ suffers as to his human nature. He grows, he matures. He learns. He feels hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, tiredness. He is finite. He is not all-knowing. But as to his divine nature he is infinite (thus the so-called extra-Calvinisticum), simple, perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. Christ is both of these without being psychotic and he is a wholly integrated human being. In fact, he is the only fully integrated human who has ever lived. Because the Son has become incarnated he is able to sympathize, even empathize with us in our suffering and weakness. Jesus, as the writer to the Hebrews repeatedly tells us, has learned through suffering. But he suffered as to his human nature. Not as to his divine nature. How all of this works together is a great mystery and I have not scaled its heights. I have merely spied the truth of Christ’s hypostatic union from afar with the spyglass of the Scriptures.

Oddly enough, the sympathetic “god” that Open Theism (and other process philosophies and theologies) blindly gropes for in the pitch dark, is found in classical orthodoxy and not in Open Theism itself. I don’t mean that classical orthodoxy affirms the erroneous view of an emotional “god” but that God the Son did come down to earth in the fullness of time and was born of a woman, born under the law. Jesus Christ did experience the sin and misery we all do with the exception that he had no sinful nature and he committed no sin. Jesus experienced the full spectrum of human emotion (see B. B. Warfield’s excellent article on the emotional life of the Lord Jesus). But as to his divine nature Jesus was not passible.

While this has been a long article, it has skirted the issues and not dwelt long in the land of the incarnation. God is impassible. Jesus as to his divine nature was and is impassible. Jesus as to his human nature is passible. Both truths are taught in Scripture. We must affirm both. We must not confuse, blend, or blur the two natures in Christ. We ought neither to think that what is true of Christ as to his two natures is also true of God simpliciter. But that is a story for another day.

For us and for our salvation the Lord Jesus came down and took to himself a true body and a reasonable soul. In the incarnation the Son added to himself what he was not. He did not subtract anything but the blandishments of glory for a season. Those benefits of divinity he has taken up again as the God-man Redeemer.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.


Jeffrey Waddington