The Trinity: Impassibility, the Divine Persons, & Creation

Not long ago I received an email asking a question.  Its impetus was from the Westminster Confession of Faith.  The person wanted to know how the Westminster Assembly could have taught that God is impassible when the Scriptures clearly teach that He can be angry, jealous, loving, compassionate and so on.  It is a fair question.  In fact, one might even (albeit wrongly) charge the Assembly of Westminster with having a case of double mindedness.  In other words, how can they maintain that God is without  passions and then go on to say that He is "most loving, gracious, merciful, long suffering," etc?  Doesn't it seem just a bit contradictory to maintain that God is passionless and then affirm His passions?  How should we understand such an affirmation?

     Well, there are several things that we might say, but the first thing that we ought to say is something by way of qualification.  When thinking about the difference between Creator and creature we must remember the distinction between the archetype and the ectype.  Now, what is that?  In this case, it is the difference between the knowledge of God in se or in Himself (archetype meaning beginning) and the knowledge that He has revealed about Himself to His creation (ectype or knowledge from the archetype).  The need for such an accommodated form of knowledge is understood from the phrase, Finitum non capax infiniti or the finite cannot contain the infinite.  In other words, it is impossible for us to know God as God knows Himself.  However, we must be quick to add that ectype knowledge, though accommodated, is true knowledge.  My point is simply this, we must never think that our small minds can attain to the height of God Himself.  Yet, our thoughts based on His revelation are true.

Second, we must never reduce the intra-Trinitarian life of God to the neo-Platonist conception of the Monad of monads or the Idea of all ideas.  Nor can the three Persons of the Godhead be reduced to representations of the diverse attributes of God.  According to Bullinger,

For naturally and eternally God is the Father because he did from before beginnings unspeakably beget the Son.  The same God is naturally the Son, because he was from before beginnings begotten of the Father.  The same God is naturally the Holy Ghost, because he is the eternal Spirit of them both, proceeding from both, being one and the same God with them both.[1]

Clearly, there is a mutua circumplexio among the Trinitarian persons, indicating the ultimate, mutual interrelation of the persons, as appears from John 10:38 and 14:10-13.[2] This is a point we must remember.  Why?  Because our tendency is think like neo-Platonists rather than Bible believing Christians when it comes to the doctrine of God. 

Third, this intra-Trinitarian relationship is part of God's simplicity, which means that God's triunity is not three different parts of God.  Rather, triunity is an attribute of God and as an attribute, triunity is identical with God's being.  As Bavinck says, God is what God possesses!  And therefore, we can and must continue to affirm that God is unchangeable (Num. 23:19, Ps. 33:11, Mal. 3:6).  There is no shadow of turning in God.  He cannot become better or worse but due to His absolute perfection He is what He is.  He is immutable.

But there is a fourth and final point to notice and that is God's relationship to the world He created.  Has God made Himself responsive to the world that He has created?  Some would answer in the affirmative.  They would argue that the Bible's description of God's anger, fury, jealousy and mercy are examples of God's responsiveness to the world.  But is that the way we ought to look at God's actions?  The answer is no.  But, you will ask, "Then how are we to look at them?"  We are to understand them as accommodated descriptions of God's providential acts.  For example, when God punishes idolatry He is said to be jealous, when the course of history alters He is described as repenting, and when He punishes sin He is said to be angry.[3]  These are anthropopathic descriptors of God's work in the world.  Consequently, God is not responsive but Lord of all. 

Perhaps that is the most difficult part of understanding God's impassibility - recognizing that God is what He claims to be.  May we cling to what He has said of Himself in His word with the utmost passion.

Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995.  He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the Managing Editor for Place for Truth.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 202.

[2] Ibid., 185.

[3] Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2008), 62-63.