The doctrine of God’s impassibility has seized the attention of many in the Reformed Baptist world. This is partly due to the recent reappearance of Dr. Robert Gonzales’ lengthy reframing of the doctrine on his blog, It Is Written. It would appear that he has gained a few sympathizers along the way, but the hope is that such sympathy is the consequence of misunderstanding rather than actual misgivings about the confessional and classical understanding of impassibility. What follows is an attempt to give a relatively brief and accessible critique of Gonzales’ position. He has put before us a view of impassibility that undermines the perfections, absoluteness, aseity, and immutability of God, and treats the eternity and transcendence of God as though they were a problem that He must overcome.
What is meant by Impassibility?
The word impassibility has reference to the London Baptist Confession’s statement that God is “without. . . passions” (LBC 2:1). Does God have passions (passio/pati)? When we hear the word passion, we might think of the ‘passion of Christ,’ which refers to the suffering of Christ. Therefore, to say that God is impassible, or without passions, is to say that God, as God, cannot suffer. But merely to equate passion with the passive suffering victim, or impassibility with the inability to suffer, would be an oversimplification.
The theological tradition, from which our confessional statement arose, recognized at least three nuances to the word passio (noun) or pati (infinitive) depending upon the context and subject to which it is applied. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, raises the question whether man’s intellect is a passive power (potentia passiva) of the soul, or in what sense “to understand is to undergo (pati)” change. In seeking to discover in what sense the intellect undergoes passion when someone begins to understand something, Aquinas explains that something may be said to undergo passion (pati) in three ways.
Firstly, in its most strict sense, when from a thing is taken something which belongs to it by virtue either of its nature, or of its proper inclination: as when water loses coolness by heating, and as when a man becomes ill or sad.
A passion is therefore the effect of an action that is always accompanied by change. In this first and most proper sense, a passion refers to a change for the worse, as when a man, whose natural inclination is his own happiness, loses his joy and becomes sad. But this is not the only sense in which something may be said to undergo passion.
Secondly, less strictly, a thing is said to be pati, when something, whether suitable or unsuitable, is taken away from it. And in this way not only he who is ill is said to be pati, but also he who is healed; not only he that is sad, but also he that is joyful; or whatever way he be altered or moved.
The second sense is both inclusive of, and broader than, the first. Something may be said to undergo passion whenever it suffers a loss, regardless of whether it is for the better or the worse. When a man becomes joyful he loses his sadness, and when he becomes healthy he loses his illness. This change, even if for the better, may also be called a passion. In both uses of the word, the subject undergoes some kind of loss. For something to undergo a loss, it must be composed of matter and form, for it is the matter that undergoes change. But, if we recall Aquinas’ original question, the intellect is not composed of matter and form and therefore does not undergo a loss when it begins to understand something. In what sense, then, is it said to undergo a passion?
Thirdly, in a wide sense (communiter) a thing is said to be pati, from the very fact that what is in potentiality to something receives that to which it was in potentiality, without being deprived of anything. And accordingly, whatever passes from potentiality to act, may be said to be pati, even when it is perfected. And thus with us to understand is to be pati. (Summa Theologica, I.a q.79 a.2)
The third sense is both inclusive of, and broader than, the first two; It does not presuppose the necessity of either a body/matter or a loss in order for something to undergo passion. As Mark-Robin Hoogland observes, “All bodies presuppose passiones, but not all passiones presuppose a body; passio in the third sense of the word does not” (God, Passion and Power, 118). The human intellect is one such example. When someone begins to understand something, the intellect does not suffer loss, but rather receives something. In such a case, it would not be proper to say that the intellect suffers. And yet it may still be said to undergo passion, both because the potential to be perfected implies the presence of imperfection, but also because it undergoes change when its intrinsic potential is actualized.
Reflecting upon the threefold sense above, Hoogland concludes:
What all these views of passio have in common is that pati is the consequence of an action (actio): the patiens is being acted upon, undergoes something. This undergoing may be specified by “suffering”, when an evil action is directed towards someone or something, so that his/her/its nature and integrity is violated. An action towards someone or something can also be experienced or described in a neutral sense, without a value judgment (good or bad). When in a particular context pati is used or understood in this sense, it may well be translated by the neutral word “undergoing.” It is obvious that when pati is used in the common sense [i.e., the third sense], it cannot be translated as “suffering”. In the case of knowledge “receiving” seems to cover the content: getting to know something by receiving knowledge (which presupposes an action of giving by someone or something else). Hence in all three cases “undergoing”, with a further qualification if needed, seems to be what Thomas understands by pati/passio. (112-113)
God is Impassible in the sense that He is unable to undergo “inner emotional changes of state, either of comfort or discomfort, whether freely from within or by being acted upon from without” (Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer?, 39). In God there can be no emotional undergoing, whether conceived in a negative, neutral, or positive sense, for there is no potentiality in Him to be either corrupted or actualized in further perfection. He is in Himself pure act, most perfect, fully personal, utterly loving, in every conceivable way immutable, and absolute Being. However, it is precisely at this point, as it has been understood throughout the majority of church history, that the doctrine of divine impassibility has more recently undergone attack.
Bob Gonzales and Impassibility: Rejection by Way of Redefinition
Viewing those who seek to defend the classical and confessional view of impassibility as traditionalists clinging to an unbiblical man-made tradition overly dependent upon philosophical speculation, Gonzales espouses a view he readily describes as “something close to biblicism.” Advocating a more literal reading of the so-called biblical anthropopathisms, he chides the framers of our Confession for interpreting these passages merely with respect to the actions of God ad extra. For Gonzales, a more literal reading of these expressions is to be preferred. God in some way undergoes, ad intra, an emotional stirring in response to his people.
While the older Reformed theologians would offer correctives regarding “what God’s emotions are not”, Gonzales complains that they did not “provide a compelling positive model of divine affections.” Focusing almost exclusively on the first two definitions of passio which presuppose the sort of undergoing that involves a body, Gonzales argues that God’s incorporeality does not necessarily exclude the possibility of genuine emotional change. He asks, “why can’t God experience the psychological aspect without the physical?” In other words, because God is a transcendent, sovereign, immutable spirit, He does not come by these emotions by sense and surprise after the manner of corporeal men. While man’s emotions are the result of being acted upon from without, God’s emotions are caused from within. Quoting Rob Lister, he affirms, “God has eternally known and ordained not only his creature’s actions, but also his [read: internal and emotional] responses to those actions.” In other words, God decrees His own ad intra emotional responses that He experiences in the context of the ad extra temporal outworking of His decree. Put more simply, God decrees His own “relational mutability” and “voluntary emotions”. However, if this were correct, it would be difficult to see how God could escape the sort of passion described in Aquinas’ third definition.Sycamore Baptist Church East Moline, IL .