The Trinity: Impassible Love and Hate
A month before our son was born my wife came home from the baby shower with a gift even a father could love: two over-sized plush boxing gloves in the shape and color of Hulk’s famous fists.
Smash those green fists just right and your opponent hears a threatening audio track in Hulk’s voice: “You are making me angry! You won’t like me when I am angry!”
The doctrine of divine impassibility reminds us that God is no Hulk.
The three persons in the Godhead do not suffer fitful spasms like mild-mannered Bruce Banner does while he contorts into the full-sized expression of his rage.
The Westminster Confession of Faith says God is without passions (2.1). It is not of the divine essence to suffer the emotional modulations of creatures. God does not change from cool indifference to red-hot hatred like a man. Neither does God change from cool indifference to impassioned love like a man.
Proverbs 6:16 says, “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”
Hearing that God hates something we might make the mistake of thinking he hates a thing in the same way a man hates a thing. When man hates a thing he often hates it with a visceral hatred. Visceral meaning instinctual, animal-like. Visceral is the opposite of reasoned consideration and factual investigation and willful determination.
Much of man’s hate runs along the same rails as man’s anger. It is sparked unthinkingly and surges in sinful and involuntary, though culpable, ways. Man’s hatred and his love is like a rope modulating between slack and taut.
The Lord’s hatred and love is not like that of a man. For the Lord is not a man. God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable. All the so-called emotions of God in scripture are unlike a man’s emotions that go by the same name because those emotions belong to God.
To whom an emotion belongs makes all the difference. If the emotion belongs to a man, it is affected by the being of man, man’s creatureliness which is subject to change and man’s fallen nature which is subject to corruption.
If the emotion belongs to God, then it is affected by the being of God. His infinite perfections, his eternality, and, of course, his immutability – his unchangeableness. Thus the Lord’s affections are like a rope which is always taut. Whether we consider God’s affection of love, his affection of hate, his affection of sympathy, or any of his affections, they are always taut, always on, always active. God’s affections never slacken nor improve. They are always perfect. He is the Lord.
Does God ever suddenly discover bad news? No. God knows all things from their beginning to their end. Does God ever experience the disappointment of seeing his purposes suddenly thwarted? No. God’s purposes cannot be broken. He has even eternally decreed the setbacks to his purposes which in time appear to men as unexpected (Rom. 1:13, 15:22).
This all means God is eternally and perfectly blessed. He has no unsatisfied or frustrated desires. He is not susceptible to outside forces. He is never forced to react to his creation. He cannot be provoked from without toward a fitfulness and spasm within.
We find the impassible God revealed in Numbers 23:19, when the mercenary prophet, Balaam, had to tell Balak there was no way he could move God to curse Israel: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” We see impassibility in 1 Samuel 15:29 when Samuel tells Saul that God has taken the kingdom away from him: “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” And again in Malachi 3:6 where the Lord tells sinful Israel not to mistake their survival for his approval of them: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”
Divine impassibility then teaches us that God does not experience sinful emotions nor involuntary emotions. Our passions ebb and flow in response to the changing world for we ourselves are subject to change. God is without passions, he is not subject to change, but he is not without hatred and he is not without love.
In fact, because he is impassible, God’s hatred and love are all the more terrible and wonderful, respectively. God’s anger, hatred, and wrath is infinitely more terrible than man’s – and the Hulk’s – for his is constant and unmovable, ordained and decreed in all its objects and expressions. God’s love, on the other hand, is infinitely better than man’s because his love is constant and unmovable, ordained and decreed toward all its subjects and in all its expressions. Only this divine impassible love explains the sending of the divine Son into a world of hardened rebels like us to save us from our sins, we who have nothing in ourselves to move God to love us.
John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.