The Trinity: Impassibility and Relationships
It is unfortunate that many Christians reject the doctrine of God’s impassibility with the assumption that since Scripture portrays God as having love, wrath, kindness, and anger, God cannot be “impassible.” It is a gross negligence in understanding the doctrine and its relationship to God’s aseity, simplicity, and immutability that leads to a wrongheaded rejection or outright denial of the doctrine today.
What does impassibility mean? Impassibility means immunity to suffering or passions (passions refer to emotions). Originally the word apatheia was a term used by the Stoics to describe a person unaffected by the emotional highs and lows of other people. It is similar to the modern word apathy, where a person does not care or sympathize with others. The Bible shows that God has love for His creation and for His redeemed. It also shows God manifesting His holiness in wrath and anger towards sin. We are not to think God is impassible in the Stoic or pagan sense. God relates to His creation.
The doctrine of God’s impassibility means that God is not affected by His creation. God is perfect and His perfections are immutable. If God changed in some way then it would suggest that he was not perfect or he is not now perfect. The doctrine of impassibility means that God’s disposition is not changed or added to. God’s being or essence does not receive new emotional qualities based on some sort of dependence to His creation.
Why does impassibility matter? Let us use an illustration: when my first daughter was born I remember feeling a rush of emotions of joy and love filling my heart. When my second daughter, was born new emotions and love grew in me. I realized I did not love one less than the other. My love expanded and grew in response to them and their new life. Something was added to my emotional life, feelings I did not have before came into existence just as these little lives came into existence. Something in creation added emotional happiness and wellbeing to me. They bring fulfillment to my life.
At the heart of impassibility is this question: does anything in creation add emotional meaning and wellbeing into the life of God? Can God’s essence take on new qualities? Can God have some feeling now that He was previously lacking? This is important: the plan, purposes, will, and inward qualities of God never change. Scripture says: “Mal. 3:6 “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” If God changes, if God was passible (subject to emotions and passions), there would be no certain basis for God keeping His promises. It is God’s immutability, and impassibility, that keep Israel from being consumed.
Num. 23:19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
God is not moved by His creation. Human emotions can change or be swayed on whims of circumstances. Thankfully, God is not like this. God is not moved to new experiences or to some new completeness that had been previously lacking. However, God having made His creation, He is not unattached or disconnected to it. His overflow of love and goodness into creation is His freed determination towards it not a movement based on some quality intrinsic to the creation. It is based upon self-determination not a co-dependent relationship.
I can dare say, I need my children. They bring something to my life, a quality and emotion that previous to them did not exist. God’s impassibility means that His passions and emotions are not subject to His creation. He is not dependent upon them nor is there some previously unrealized fulfillment in God, which He can now reach. Yet God has chosen and freely determined to relate to His creation through making covenants. God’s essence does not change. Nor does His covenantal relation create some sort of feedback loop adding what was lacking. God out of His goodness and freedom of His own self-determination and self-existence does show goodness to us as creatures but in no way does God add to His nature, being, or emotional state in doing so. Thus, God is glorified in creation but not because of His creation. God is related to the world having determined to create it but His relationship to it is not conditioned by the world. If we can put it another way: God impacts us, we do not impact God.
Last, to understand this difficult doctrine, we must take it back to the Lord Jesus. In His humanity, the Lord Jesus Christ shares in all our infirmities and weakness except sin (Heb. 2:18; 4:17)—yet God in His eternal nature cannot be tempted or suffer (James 1:13). The human nature that Jesus took on died at the cross—yet the divine nature did not change. Because of this great truth, we know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). In the same way, God does not change or experience dependent emotions just because He enters genuine fellowship with believers.
The doctrine of God’s impassibility flows from several different Biblical themes. At the end of the day, we should want a God who is impassible—not in the Stoic sense but in the truly Biblical sense. How majestic is it that God is absolute, unchangeable, and self-existence? How wonderful that God depends upon no one. If God was vulnerable to being effected by actions and emotions think of how intemperate He might be in relationship to me.
God does have a real relationship with us through the work of Jesus Christ. It is a genuine covenant relationship. The wonder that always leads us back to worship is that I have added nothing to God and God has brought everything to the relationship. I am not worthy of God’s love or fellowship with Him, I am both sinful and a mere creature. But He has freely determined that He would enter into a relationship with me where there is genuine goodness and love towards me. I have not moved God but God has moved me.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.