A Friendly Rejoinder
What follows is intended to be a brief and incomplete critique of Gonzales’ reframing of the classical and confessional view of impassibility. There are certain assumptions that someone must have if they are to adopt Gonzales’ view. That is not to say that either Gonzales or those who sympathize with him claim to hold to all of these assumptions. Nevertheless, whether intended or not, the following must be assumed in order to adopt his view.
1. Gonzales would have us assume that God acquires new relationships as a result of creation.
Prior to stating his thesis, Gonzales rightly affirms that God’s “immutability precludes any ontological change”, and that “what God wills decretively is immutable”, and that “God is ethically immutable”, and finally “that God is perfect and constant in his emotional or affective capacity.” Although the language of the last affirmation is ambiguous and bears a greater resemblance to Barth’s divine constancy than to the classical language of impassibility, Gonzales’ desire to uphold these truths is to be commended. However, it is impossible to see how he manages to do this in light of his thesis that God decrees His own change “in terms of his relationships with his creatures”, which he unashamedly calls “relational mutability.”
Surely, we must affirm the distinction between God’s hidden and revealed will. The Scripture will sometimes depict (if you will) a “relational mutability” according to God’s revealed will in response to His creatures. For example, God pronounced judgment upon Nineveh, only to relent from that judgment in response to their repentance. However, His relenting does not reveal a change in God, but reveals God’s hidden and immutable will to effect a change in the Ninevites. And while I would prefer to believe that this is what Gonzales intends by the unfortunate phrase “relational mutability”, he insists that he is speaking about more than a revealed change in God’s temporal actions. He is not concerned with the manifold actions of God in which God discriminately bestows His immutable and infinite love upon His creatures, but rather the degree to which that love is felt in the heart of God. He is speaking about a decreed emotive and relational change in God in relation to his creatures.
It is difficult to see how such a relational change would not effect an ontological change in God, who does not possess love or goodness as an accidental property as we do, but is love. How does One who is love change from one emotional state to the next in relation to us without changing what He is in relation to Himself? Moreover, what would it mean for God to undergo change “in terms of his relationships with his creatures”? Are we prepared to say that God acquires new relationships as a result of creation? Such a conclusion would require both God and creature to belong to the same order, thereby undermining God’s absoluteness and aseity.
When we speak of the relationship of a father and son, we are describing two mutually dependent parties that belong to the same order. It is on this basis that the formation of the relationship effects a change in both parties. But God and creation are neither mutually dependent nor belong to the same order. As Michael Dodds points out, such relationships are customarily called “mixed relationships” when the nature of the relationship is
real in one term but of idea only in the other. This occurs when the two extremes do not belong to the same order. For instance, the relationship between human knowledge and the object known is real with respect to knowledge, since it arises from and truly depends on that object. But the object, as a reality existing in nature outside the intentional order, does not depend in any way on the knower and has no real relation to knowledge. Our knowledge depends on the object, but the object in no way depends on our knowledge. Its relation to knowledge is therefore in idea only, insofar as the intellect apprehends it as the term of the relationship of knowledge. (The Unchanging Love of God, 165-166)
The relation of Creator and creature is a “mixed relation”. Therefore, we must maintain with the older theologians that God acquires no new relation to us, although He has freely related us to Himself. Having life and being in Himself, He does not depend upon creation, and yet He has most intimately related us to Himself as the cause of our creation and the very source of our being (esse). Put differently, creation does not effect a new relation in God, but rather God effects a change in creation. Thus Charnock says,
There was a new relation acquired by the creature, as, when, a man sins, he hath another relation to God than he had before,––he hath relation to God, as a criminal to a Judge; but there is no change in God, but in the malefactor. The being of men makes no more change in God than the sins of men. As a tree is now on our right hand, and by our turning about it is on our left hand, sometimes before us, sometimes behind us, according to our motion near it or about it, and the turning of the body; there is no change in the tree, which remains firm and fixed in the earth, but the change is wholly in the posture of the body, whereby the tree may be said to be before us, or behind us or on the right hand or on the left hand. God gained no new relation. (Existence and Attributes, 1.339)
God effects change, but is Himself unchanged. To suggest that God acquires new relations as a result of creation and providence requires the assumption that God and man belong to the same order, thereby threatening the aseity and absoluteness of God. Perhaps this assumption explains best why Gonzales is so comfortable attributing anthropopathic language properly to God.
2. Gonzales would have us assume that it is possible for God to decree his own mutability.
Rejecting Open Theism, and attempting to guard the sovereignty of God, Gonzales affirms that “God’s emotions or affections are not caused from without (i.e., passive)”, but rather “from within (i.e., active)”. His desire is to affirm the emotivity of God, but not in such a way that suggests that He is a passive victim whose emotions are caused from something outside Himself. Alternatively, Gonzales would have us believe that God freely and sovereignly decrees His own emotional mutability.
In addition to the resemblance to what is known as voluntarism, Gonzales has not escaped characterizing God as a passive victim. Instead of a God who is passively acted upon from without, he has framed a God who is passively acted upon from within. Rather than the God of the Scripture who is, and must be, pure actuality (actus purus), his God is sovereignly actualizing His own passive potentiality, undergoing emotional change (cf. Aquinas’ third definition above). In decreeing His own mutability, He is made passive in relation to His own decree, thereby undermining both his immutability and the divine perfections (i.e., actus purus).
3. Gonzales would have us assume that because God is impassible He must be passible.
Gonzales is equally concerned to guard God’s transcendence, although it is unclear what he means by this term. At one point he reduces it to “God’s supreme authority”, and on another occasion to “God’s immutability and eternality”. Furthermore, his discussion regarding God’s relation to time and history, or the relationship of God’s transcendence to His immanence, is equally unclear. At one moment he seems to suggest the very thing he previously denied, that the various passages which predicate an emotional undergoing in God refer, rather, to God’s infinite, immutable, simple, and eternal affections refracted in his temporal actions. But throughout he has insisted that these passages refer to more than God’s actions, leaving the reader uncertain as to what exactly he is suggesting. Is the issue merely epistemological, or is it ontological, as if to provide a description of God responsively experiencing His emotions in time and history?
Part of the confusion stems from a misconstrued understanding of the older Reformed view of God’s relation to time. He writes, “Older theologians spoke of God’s relationship to space as both outside (immensity) and also throughout (omnipresent), but they tended to speak of God’s relationship to time only in terms of his being outside of time (atemporal).” He is correct on the first account, but fails to apply the same observation to the latter. Richard Muller observes that,
This pattern of relationality appears consistently throughout the Reformed doctrine of God . . . What has often not been noted in discussions of the doctrine of divine attributes is not only that the pattern of argument explicitly reflects a sense of absolute and relative attributes but also that this pattern is frequently achieved by pairings of attributes. Thus, God is said to be both immense and omnipresent, both infinite and eternal . . . . Not that these pairs indicate different attributes but rather the same attribute considered first ad intra and second ad extra.
Thus, Muller concludes,
[This] provides a view of the consistent foundation in God for all of his relations to the world order and points toward the relational attribute in each pairing. Thus, the God who is immense in and of himself is omnipresent in relation to the world; the God who is infinite in and of himself is eternal in relation to the world. The parallel between the pairs is also important here: eternity is not an attribute that takes God out of relation to the temporal order, as it has often been interpreted in the twentieth century. Eternity is, by definition, a relational attribute that identifies God as in full relation to all time, just as omnipresence identifies God as in full relation to all places. (“God: Absolute & Relative, Necessary, Free, & Contingent”, in Always Reformed, 58-59)
Because God is infinite in Himself, he is eternal in relation to the world. God’s eternality is not something that hinders “but defines the nature of the divine relationality” (Muller, 60). In other words, the God who is transcendent (e.g., infinite) is the very God who is immanent (e.g., eternal), that is, transcendently present and active within the world. It is baffling then when Gonzales concludes that “God really responds emotively to events that transpire within history. One might say that God is ‘impassible’ from the perspective of his transcendence and ‘passible’ from the perspective of his immanence.” Gonzales would have us believe that because God is impassible He must be passible. Surely, God is infinite and therefore eternal, that is, radically free to be active and present within time as one who is transcendently infinite. The latter necessarily follows from the former. But it is difficult to see how this would lead us to say that because God is impassible in Himself, He must also be passible in relation to the world. The latter does not necessarily follow from, but rather contradicts, the former. Moreover, it is difficult to know what this would even mean. It assumes some sort of dualism in God, leaving us wondering which God is God, or at the very least, implying that the God who is is not the same God who is with us.
4. Gonzales would have us assume that we can describe what God is.
What does it mean that God’s compassion grew (Hos 11:8)? Whereas the older theologians would proceed to explain what it does not mean, Gonzales attempts to “provide a compelling positive model of divine affections.” In other words, they emphasized what God is not, whereas Gonzales seeks to describe what God is. Furthermore, he accuses the older theologians of “equivocation” because they stopped short of describing what God is, and, by his estimation, explained away the literal reading of the text. What Gonzales calls equivocation and finds so utterly insufficient, the church has commonly identified as negative theology (via negativa).
It is thought that the via negativa is the result of a prior commitment to Aristotelian metaphysics and an idolatrous reading of the Scripture through the lens of the Reformed tradition. But nothing could be further from the truth. Gonzales would do well to acknowledge that no one comes to the Scripture entirely neutral. Those of us who believe that the Reformed tradition, as it is summarized in our Confession, is a faithful summary of what the Scripture teaches, find great help in our interpreting the Scripture by said tradition. Conversely, none of us would advocate reading the Scripture through the lens of Pelagius, or Arminius, or the individualistic spirit of the age. Moreover, none of us escape the influences of philosophy upon our theological discourse about God. We may not prefer Aquinas, but we cannot reject his metaphysics without replacing it with another. As Michael Horton once said, “The most dangerous theologians are those who pretend to avoid metaphysical/logical/philosophical categories.”
Notwithstanding the influences of philosophy and tradition, these are not the driving force behind the via negativa. Negative theology, presupposes, above all, the biblical conviction that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, who is Being in Himself without genus or species (Exod 3:14; Jn 1:18). Therefore, he transcends our ability to define what He is. Everything from above comes from below; we come to know God, the first cause, by His created effects (Rom 1:20), but these effects belong to a different order and genus. Thus, even our language and concepts about God come from below, as He reveals Himself to us according to a creaturely knowledge of reality. Thus, God is always more than the revelation of Himself, even as the cause is always greater than the effect. Roger Hutchinson observes,
As God is known only of himself, so we must only learn of him, what he is. As for man, he knoweth no more what God is, than the unreasonable beasts know what man is; yea, and so much less, as there is more difference between God and man, than between man and beast. (The Image of God, 16)
Therefore negative theology begins with the scriptural presupposition that God is essentially incomprehensible, unsearchable (Rom 11:33), indescribable (2 Cor 9:15), inaccessible (1 Tim 6:16), all of which are predicated in a doxological context. In other words, the goal of the via negativa is not to solve the mystery of God, but to apprehend the mystery and respond in doxology. Therefore, the negative theologian will come to the biblical text, not with idolatrous philosophical or traditional biases, but with deep seated scriptural convictions, so that “whatever is said of God should always be understood by way of [His] preeminence, so that anything implying imperfection is removed” (Aquinas). This axiom led the older theologians to the judgment that certain predications of God were improper when considered in the context of the divine perfections and other biblical truths about God.
Such an approach to the Scripture does not explain away the text, much less the mystery, but rather seeks to know the mystery of God communicated in the text. The via negativa takes seriously God’s transcendence and seeks to provide necessary corrections and cautions to our affirmative theology. And in doing so, it takes these texts, as well as our finite limitations, seriously. In saying what a passage cannot mean, we gain a more accurate and affirmative theological understanding of what it does mean. Of course this is not to undermine our language of faith, for it is the only language we have, which is why Calvin and others can explain a text via negativa, and then turn around and use the very same language affirmatively in their discourse. Negative theology does not undermine the language of faith, but rather clarifies the meaning of that language when predicated of a God who does not belong to the same order.
While negative theology is often depicted as philosophically speculative, it is in actuality very modest concerning what it believes it is capable of predicating about God (Ecc 5:2). Ironically, the “something close to biblicism” which Gonzales advocates is dangerously and carelessly speculative. His almost purely positive approach rests upon the assumption that we can describe what God is. Against all protest, it has to be pointed out that such an approach presupposes that somewhere along the line we may speak of God univocally, so that not only is man in some way like God, but God is also in some way like man. Yet Aquinas would retort,
Although it may be admitted that creatures are in some sort like God, it must nowise be admitted that God is like creatures. . . For, we say that a statue is like a man, but not conversely; so also a creature can be spoken of as in some sort like God, but not that God is like a creature. (Summa Theologica, I.a. q.4 a.3)
Perhaps unwittingly, Gonzales adopts a kind of “perfect being theology,” but not in the sense which Aquinas or the Reformed Scholastics spoke of God’s perfections. Applying the via eminentia without adequate regard to the via negativa, his God is like man, just more perfect. Perhaps that is an overstatement, but what’s clear is that Gonzales thinks he knows, and therefore can describe, what God is.
Like a tapestry, our Confession is a beautifully woven interconnected system of doctrine. If we begin to pull on one thread, the tapestry may begin to unravel. Of course, not every statement in the Confession is of equal significance. For example, when we interview applicants for church membership and they communicate doctrinal disagreement with the Confession, the question naturally arises, “Which part of the Confession?” Some threads are more integral to the whole, and when pulled, threaten to distort the object of our faith and undermine the foundation of our hope.
Let us not lose sight of what is at stake here. We are talking about chapter 2 in our Confession, Of God and of the Holy Trinity. We are dealing with a view of impassibility that threatens to undermine God’s absoluteness, aseity, immutability, eternity, transcendence, and the divine perfections, to say nothing of the many Christological and soteriological implications. We are dealing with the orthodox understanding of the Church throughout the ages regarding the doctrine of God, which ought to make every one of us wary of Gonzales’ relatively novel amphibological reframing of that doctrine.
Such a low view of our Confession and our theological tradition is typical of the broader evangelical world, as was seen in James MacDonald’s defense of T.D. Jakes’ view of the Trinity in 2011. MacDonald replied to criticism with “something close to biblicism”, saying, “I do not trace my beliefs to creedal statements that seek clarity on things the Bible clouds with mystery. I do not require T.D. Jakes or anyone else to define the details of Trinitarianism the way that I might.” Perhaps MacDonald would agree with Gonzales that his critics are unreasonable traditionalists and hyper-confessionalists that isolate themselves from the broader Christian community (i.e., the T.D. Jakes of the world). The irony, however, is that such a lack of regard for the historic creeds and confessions causes the Gonzales’ of this world to isolate themselves, historically and theologically, from the broader Christian tradition.
Divine Impassibility Under Attack: Does God have Passions? (Part 1)
Sycamore Baptist Church
East Moline, IL