Zwingli, divine impassibility, and the gospel
January 23, 2015
Wesley Hill's two recent articles at First Things on divine impassibility (see here and here) have caused a bit of a stir among the theologically minded denizens of social media. The traditional doctrine of divine impassibility states that God does not have "passions" and therefore that God is not susceptible to being moved this way or that by external influences. The point of the doctrine is not to deny that God interacts with his creatures. It is rather to insist that God's interactions with his creatures are governed solely by his unchanging wisdom and goodness. No external counselor, no external benefactor moves God to act and interact with his creatures the way he does (Rom 11.34-35). God acts and interacts with his creatures according to his impassible wisdom, goodness, and power.
I'm confident that many objections to the doctrine of divine impassibility rest upon fairly simple misunderstandings about what the doctrine implies (e.g., that God is "apathetic" toward his creatures) or about where the doctrine comes from (e.g., Greek philosophy rather than Holy Scripture). Nevertheless, not all objections can be explained by misunderstanding or misinformation. There is a certain class of objections that arise from perceived tensions between the doctrine of divine impassibility and what are (rightly) deemed as realities central to the gospel. Is divine impassibility consistent with the gospel? That's a good question, and one which we should not pass over lightly.
We may gain some wisdom toward drawing a positive answer to this question by considering the first article in Huldrych Zwingli's Exposition of the Faith, wherein he discusses and defends his understanding of the Christian doctrine of God. The article "Of God and the Worship of God" addresses the importance of distinguishing the Creator from his creatures (in order that we might trust the former and use the latter for God's glory), identifies in brief compass the main contours of Zwingli's trinitarian faith, and concludes with a brief but powerful discussion of God's goodness. It is here that Zwingli unpacks the relevance of divine impassibility for the gospel.
"We know that this [i.e., triune] God is good by nature, for whatever he is he is by nature." Zwingli, like many of his Reformed contemporaries such as Vermigli, Musculus, and Calvin, affirms that goodness is not adventitious to God. Goodness is not a quality that can be strengthened or weakened in God. God is good by nature. According to Zwingli, moreover, God's natural goodness includes "both mercy and justice." Indeed, one cannot have one without the other: "Deprive mercy of justice, and it is no longer mercy, but indifference or timidity. But fail to temper justice by kindness and forebearance and at once it becomes the greatest injustice and violence." "Therefore," he concludes, "when we confess that God is good by nature, we confess that he is both loving, kind and gracious, and also holy, just and impassible."
Zwingli introduces divine impassibility at this point to set up the final section of his discussion on divine goodness, which treats the supreme expression of divine goodness in giving his Son "not merely to reveal to, but actually to bestow upon, the whole earth both salvation and renewal." According to Zwingli, we cannot appreciate fully the motive for the incarnation and atonement of the Son of God apart from a proper understanding of God's impassible goodness. Here it is worth quoting Zwingli at length:
For inasmuch as his goodness, that is, his justice and mercy, is impassible, that is, steadfast and immutable, his justice required atonement, but his mercy forgiveness, and forgiveness newness of life. Clothed therefore with flesh, for according to his divine nature he cannot die, the Son of the Most High King offered up himself as a sacrifice to placate irrevocable justice and to reconcile it with those who because of their consciousness of sin dared not enter the presence of God on the ground of their own righteousness. He did this because he is kind and merciful, and these virtues can as little permit the rejection of his work as his justice can allow escape from punishment. Justice and mercy were conjoined, the one furnishing the sacrifice, the other accepting it as a sacrifice for sin.
For Zwingli the doctrine divine impassibility is anything but an inconsistent Hellenistic appendage to the gospel of grace; the doctrine of divine impassibility identifies the deep divine foundation and motive for the Son of God's suffering on the cross and for our redemption thereby.
It also provides an occasion for marveling in gratitude at the nature of divine goodness. Zwingli thus concludes his discussion of God's impassible goodness, and of its free expression in the cross: "Who can sufficiently estimate the magnanimity of the divine goodness and mercy? We had merited rejection, and he adopts us as heirs. We had destroyed the way of life, and he has restored it. The divine goodness has so redeemed and restored us that we are full of thanks for his mercy and just and blameless by reason of his atoning sacrifice." Indeed.