God is Impassible and Impassioned

Nathan Sasser
Rob Lister, God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013, 333 pp. $22.99.

The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that God is "without body, parts, or passions" (2.1). Perhaps most evangelicals would agree immediately that God has no body, scratch their heads over whether he has parts, and deny that he has no passions. After all, passions are the same as emotions, and love is an emotion, and God is love. Ergo, God has passions. (And what about God's passion for his glory, after all?) On top of this elegantly simple argument from God's love, contemporary theologians from within and without conservative Protestantism have brought forward many other objections to the doctrine of divine impassibility. 

Rob Lister enters the conversation with a deep respect for and interest in the classical Christian tradition and its doctrine of impassibility, but also with a desire to reexamine the doctrine in light of biblical data. His thesis, encapsulated in the title of the book, is that everything that the classical Christian tradition meant to affirm in the doctrine of impassibility is true; on the other hand, it is also true that God has passions or emotions such as love, wrath, compassion, and joy. 

The book divides into two parts, after an introductory chapter. Part 1, "The Doctrine of Divine Impassibility in Historical Context," surveys the views of major theologians from Irenaeus through John Frame. Against this backdrop Lister identifies what he takes to be the core meaning of the historic affirmation of impassibility: that God does not experience sinful emotions, involuntary emotions, or emotions that are in some way unworthy of him. But those qualifications do not leave God absolutely impassible or entirely without emotion. In Part 2, "A Contemporary Case for Understanding God as Both Impassible and Impassioned," Lister sketches out his hermeneutical approach, makes an exegetical case for divine emotions, and then integrates those exegetical conclusions into a theological model of the divine attributes. Although the book focuses on theology proper, Lister adds a final chapter on Christological concerns wherein he defends the classical view that Christ suffered only in his human nature.(1) Lister's conclusion is that while God is deeply impassioned, his passion is ontologically transcendent: "he is perfectly and voluntarily responsive to his creatures" but "never in the ultimate sense passive" (p. 281). God's passions are also ethically perfect and hence superior to sinful human passions. Because divine emotion so transcends human emotion, it is appropriate to say that God is impassible--without human emotions--as well as impassioned. 

Part 1 of the book begins with two chapters on the development of the Patristic doctrine of impassibility. In the first chapter of Part 1 (chapter 2 of the book) Lister surveys major schools of Hellenistic philosophy (Stoicism, Middle Platonism, and Neoplatonism) on the subject of divine emotion. He primarily aims to clear the fathers of the charge that the doctrine of impassibility represented a capitulation to the authority of the Greek philosophical milieu over the testimony of Scripture. Not only did these philosophical schools hold diverse positions on divine passion, but none of them taught the existence of "a personal, creator deity marked by absolute emotional detachment from his creation"--which is precisely the idea which the Patristics are accused of borrowing from them (p. 61). Lister denies that the Patristics, in the main, actually held this idea, let alone borrowed it from Greek philosophers.

In chapter 3 Lister treats a dozen fathers, from Irenaeus through Cyril of Alexandria. He concludes that the Patristics mostly held to a "Qualified-Impassibility Model" (p. 66). While the Patristics explicitly stressed the impassibility of God, they also continued to ascribe emotion-laden attributes such as kindness, compassion, love, and anger to God (p. 102). Lister, following the suggestion of Paul L. Gavrilyuk, concludes that the ascription of impassibility was not a denial of all divine passion, but only a qualification of it, and was intended to stress the important difference between human and divine emotion.

Lister arrives at similar conclusions in chapter 4, "Medieval and Reformational Reflections on Divine Impassibility." Anselm does write "thou [God] does not feel emotion," but it may just be possible to read him as saying "God does not feel involuntary or sinful emotions" (pp. 108-9). Aquinas denies divine passion in the technical sense, but nevertheless ascribes love to God. Hence both Anselm and Aquinas affirm "an anthropomorphically circumscribed yet no less 'real' category of divine emotion" (p. 112). Although Calvin explains divine anger as metaphorical and not as a proper attribute of God, Lister says that Calvin intends only to deny that God experiences involuntary or sinful anger (pp. 116-17). Stephen Charnock explains God's regret (in Gen 6:6) as the willing of a change in events rather than a proper change in emotion, but Lister notes that Charnock does ascribe to God "detestation" of sin (pp. 120-21). On that basis, Lister concludes that "as with many impassibilists before him, it appears that Charnock's affirmation of divine impassibility did not thereby lead...him to the conclusion that God is entirely dispassionate, even when 'negative' emotions are in view" (p. 121).

I have misgivings about Lister's historiography up to this point. Aquinas and Calvin (to confine myself to the authors I have read) never say anything like "God does in fact have passions/emotions, but they are a lot different than human passions." They consistently affirm that God does not, in any sense, have passions. To read them as merely qualifying their affirmation of divine impassibility is to read them against the grain. Lister's primary basis for finding a doctrine of divine passion in Calvin and Aquinas (and others) is that they ascribe to God attributes (like love) that for Lister are, by definition, emotions. But Aquinas, for example, gives us a sophisticated account of how it is that God has love, joy, and delight without having passions.(2) So the mere affirmation by older writers of divine attributes which contemporary readers may think of as "emotion-laden" does not constitute a qualification on the older writers' doctrine of impassibility. 

On the other hand, I would have welcomed counterarguments against the conceptual framework and exegesis of Calvin and Aquinas, for example, whereby they maintain unqualified impassibilism in the face of apparent counterevidence. For Aquinas, passions are specific to corporeal beings who have not only intellective appetite but also sensitive appetite. God is incorporeal and has no sensitive appetite, so he has no passions. But in virtue of his intellective appetite (i.e., his will), we do indeed properly ascribe to God love and joy, though for God they are not passions. Perhaps Lister might dismiss the distinction between the sensitive and intellective appetite and say, "Corporeal or not, if God has love and joy, he has passions/emotions in my sense of the term." That would merely be a semantic change but not a material change to the impassibility tradition. 

But there are still the other "negative" passions such as anger and grief which Scripture ascribes to God. Aquinas and Calvin read these biblical ascriptions metaphorically. Properly speaking, the biblical ascriptions to God of, for example, wrath refer to (1) God's immutable, eternal, essential characteristic of justice whereby he wills to give to each his due, and (2) the temporal events of punishment which he brings about accordingly. The reason why Aquinas and Calvin do not properly ascribe anger or grief to God, even in the non-passional sense in which they ascribe love to him, is that anger and grief essentially involve a disruption of his perfect blessedness and joy. God, however, is eternally and perfectly blessed, and nothing in creation can impinge upon his eternal delight in himself. Just as we read biblical language about divine body parts as metaphorical in light of the biblical assertions of God's spirituality, so also the mainstream Christian tradition reads ascriptions of God's grief and wrath as metaphorical in light of other biblical assertions of his eternal, infinite self-satisfied joy and blessedness. In possessing himself, as he always does, he possesses all good, and hence has no unsatisfied or frustrated desires. Lister does not enter into a critical dialogue with the conceptual framework and exegetical strategy I have just sketched (although he demonstrates his grasp of it in chapter four). In a proper, non-metaphorical sense Lister ascribes grief to God, but without commenting on the compatibility of this grief with divine joy and blessedness (pp. 256-59). As one who is still satisfied with the doctrine of unqualified impassibility, these omissions are disappointing. 

Space permits only a survey of Lister's positive theological formulation of divine passion rather than a thorough interaction with his exegesis. God is Impassible and Impassioned originated as a dissertation written under Bruce A. Ware (who writes the preface). Lister follows closely the position which Ware stakes out in God's Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and The Christian Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004) and, before that, in his article "An Evangelical Reformulation of the Doctrine of the Immutability of God" (in The Journal of Evangelical Theology 29/4 [December 1986]: pp. 431-46). Ware denies that Scripture's talk about God's anger, wrath, jealousy, compassion, patience, mercy, etc. is mere anthropomorphism. (3) Ware not only affirms divine emotion, but he also affirms that some of God's emotions originate in time and change in response to creatures: "His relational changeableness includes, then, his experience of variable emotions as he interacts with us at every level and expresses himself in ways that accord both with his unchangeable character and our changeable states." (4) "Some emotions of God found their first experiential expression only in respect to the created world"--e.g., his anger. (5) Anger within the Godhead prior to the existence of sinners is unthinkable.(6) The same goes for other emotions, such as pity, patience, longsuffering, and compassion.(7) These emotions are contingent properties rather than necessary properties.(8) Because these new, contingent emotional divine attributes arise in response to the creation, God is affected by the creature.(9) 

Ware's position entails that God is temporal, so we might expect him to deny God's timelessness. In fact, Ware argues that God is both atemporal and temporal--or omnitemporal, as he puts it. (10) Ware says that theologians have traditionally affirmed that God is omnipresent as well as immense; but we should treat God's relationship to space and time in symmetric, parallel fashion. We should affirm, therefore, that God is omnitemporal as well as eternal: he exists in every point of time as well as outside of it. It appears however that Ware has misunderstood the traditional meaning of omnipresence, which does not mean "present in all of space" but "co-existent with every point of spatial existence." (11) The temporal parallel is "co-existence with every point of time," not "presence in every point of time." Presence in time or space is incompatible with non-temporality and non-spatiality. The only way to predicate both temporality and non-temporality of God (if it can be done at all) is to imagine that he is divided into parts: a temporal part and a non-temporal part. This is in fact Ware's position, and it in turn entails a denial of God's simplicity.

Lister follows suit on these main points: "God wills to allow his creatures to condition him in some sense" such that "he can be and according to Scripture is emotionally responsive to his creatures" (pp. 224-25).  Some of God's emotional attributes (e.g. wrath) originated at the fall and are contingent properties (p. 225). Lister recapitulates Ware's line of thought on divine omnipresence and temporality (pp. 226-30). God predestines his own emotional responses to predestined temporal events and then experiences these responses successively in time (p. 229). 

The Ware/Lister position on divine emotion thus carries with it a significant alteration of the traditional doctrines of God's independence, immutability, eternity, immensity, simplicity, and necessity. Not only do they classify e.g. God's love as an emotion (possibly a minor semantic point), but they also claim that God's emotions change (altering the doctrine of his immutability), that his properties change in response to creatures (altering his aseity or independence), that they are temporal (altering his atemporal eternity), that God is spatial (altering his immensity), that some of his properties are contingent (altering his necessity), and that God is divided into parts - his essential core and his contingent penumbra (in denial of the doctrine of his simplicity). They also ascribe to God emotions of anger and grief without explaining how to reconcile these with the unmitigated blessedness and joy of God. Older theologians affirmed God's impassibility just in order to maintain these incommunicable attributes of God in an unqualified form. Those who are attracted to a qualified form of impassibility will have to count the costs. 

Throughout God is Impassible and Impassioned Lister demonstrates his commitment to the authority of Scripture and his desire to test both impassibility and its critics against the deliverances of exegesis. Furthermore, he shows his awareness of the need for a theologically sophisticated and historically informed hermeneutic as we bring exegesis to bear on dogma. Lister's respect for the history of the church's reflection on Scripture is admirable; he brings a wealth of literature, ancient and contemporary, to our attention. The radical and deeply heterodox proposals of nonevangelical passibilist theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann are charitably represented but firmly rejected. For all these things we can thank Rob Lister. 

Nathan I. Sasser is completing a Ph.D in philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

1. Although Lister holds that God does experience emotions such as grief, he prefers not to say that God suffers (pp. 256-59).

2. See, for example, Summa Contra Gentiles Book One, chapters 90-91.

3. Ware, "An Evangelical Reformulation," p. 445.

4. Ware, "An Evangelical Reformulation," p. 446.

5. Ware, God's Greater Glory, p. 150.

6. Ware, God's Greater Glory, p. 151.

7. Ware, God's Greater Glory, p. 151.

8. Ware, God's Greater Glory, p. 151.

9. Ware, God's Greater Glory, pp. 148-155.

10. Ware, God's Greater Glory, pp. 133-39.

11. E.g. Francis Turretin: "He who conceives of God as everywhere present by his essence, does not therefore conceive him as extended like bodies through the whole world, but as containing the whole world in the most simple infinity of his own essence (or as coexisting indivisibly with all created things), just as eternity holds in its embrace all time as a point and coexists with it indivisibly" (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger [Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1997] 3.9.19; 200-201).