Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies – Sample of Impassibility article

JIRBS angle


Dr. James E. Dolezal’s article for JIRBS 2014 is entitled, “STILL IMPASSIBLE: Confessing God without Passions.” It is a very important subject and Dr. Dolezal handles it with precision and awareness of the doctrine in its history and current state. Here is a sample of his much larger discussion. Be sure to read the endnotes (which will appear as footnotes in the journal).

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Claims of Classical Impassibility


1.   Definition of terms


The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides a standard definition of divine impassibility:


Impassibility is that divine attribute whereby God is said not to experience inner emotional changes of state, whether enacted freely from within or effected by his relationship to and interaction with human beings and the created order.[1]


As this statement indicates, the key ingredient of the impassibility doctrine is that God cannot experience any change in his intrinsic state of being. This is an entailment of divine immutability in its strong sense. Note that intrinsic change cannot be brought about by creatures or even by God himself.[2] It is this strong denial of all change in God that historically led theologians to deny passions in him.

The disavowal of passions may sound odd or even wrong to the modern Christian who regards the term “passion” as synonymous with any affection or emotion whatsoever. The reasoning is as follows: Love, compassion, anger, and the like are all passions. All these things are ascribed to God in Scripture. Therefore God must have passions. Indeed, how could our Reformed forefathers object to such plain reasoning? In short, because they would reject the major premise that “passion” is simply synonymous with perfections like love, compassion, and anger.

The term “passion” is derived from the Late Latin passiō (from Latin patī) which means “to suffer”, “to submit”, or “to undergo”. We still talk this way today in Christian circles when we speak of Christ’s “passion” culminating in his suffering on the cross. Even though passion was often used historically to indicate harm or injury that one incurred by the action of another, the term is not exclusively negative. For instance, we might describe the human experience of falling in love as being “smitten” by the object of our affection. Presumably, this moment of passion is not (ordinarily) a painful or negative experience. The common denominator in all instances of passion, whether inflicting pain or producing joy, is the experience of undergoing some sort of change. All such experiences require a principle of passivity in the subject according to which some new actuality is received.[3]

Passion as passion is an undergoing, a “happening to,” so to speak. Emotional experience brings to its subject a new state of actuality that was not previously present. For example, the one who falls in love is said to experience love as a passion because a new affective state of love comes to exist in the subject where previously it did not. Some movement and alteration has taken place in the human lover. In this sense, passion as such does not so much qualify attributes such as love, compassion, and wrath with respect to their inner meaning, but with respect to the mode in which the subject bearing those attributes comes to possess and exhibit them. Love as love, compassion as compassion, and hatred as hatred are not in themselves passions. We simply call them passions because in our temporal and ever-changing human experience this is the manner in which we come to possess these qualities–through changes we undergo. But if one were to possess the attributes of love, compassion, and wrath without having to undergo some sort of intrinsic emotive change, then those virtues would not be passions in that case. In sum, “passion” is a modal term denoting the manner in which affections come upon creatures.


2.   Theological assertion and support


God does not undergo intrinsic change, yet he is truly loving, compassionate, angry at sin, and so forth. The perfection indicated by each of these terms is real in God. But this reality did not come into his possession by way of passion, that is, by way of unfolding emotive experiences to which he submits himself. Rather, the perfection indicated by each of the affective terms we ascribe to him is purely actual in him from all eternity. He does not require an action, whether from within or without, in addition to the act of his own eternal existence in order to “actualize” these perfections. He does not bring about the intrinsic actuality of his love or wrath by reducing some passive potency (i.e., unrealized capacity) in himself to actuality. This assertion can be borne out by briefly considering a few other classical Christian dogmas.



Impassibility is simply a subset of divine immutability. Numerous biblical passages witness to God’s unchangeableness: “I, the LORD, do not change” (Mal. 3:6); God is the “Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17). Though many have insisted that such passages only indicate God’s ethical immutability–nothing more than his constancy of character–and not necessarily ontological immutability, the classical understanding of immutability argues that God’s ethical immutability requires his ontological immutability as its foundation. How could a God whose very act of being is liable to change possibly guarantee that his purposes and promises will not change? God repeatedly ratifies his covenant promises by swearing according to his own life (e.g., Num. 14:21, 28; Heb. 6:13). If his life could undergo changes, even non-essential changes, then presumably so could those oaths that have been staked upon it. The reliability of God’s unchanging promises is built on the reliability of his unchanging act of existence–his very being.[4]

If God’s immutability means that he cannot undergo ontological change, then it follows that he cannot acquire new states of actuality or shed the actuality he once possessed. The perfections of love and wrath, if they are in fact real and actual (i.e., they exist), are no less ontological than the actuality of one’s essence. Thus, it won’t do to say that God’s essence remains unchanged while his supposedly non-essential states of passion fluctuate. Such an explanation would still require that some aspect of God’s being–his “affective” actuality, so to speak–is changeable. This would also imply that certain aspects of God’s being can be increased or diminished and that his essence can be augmented by non-essential being. Gilles Emery observes:


A change requires the acquisition of something new, the introducing of something that was not there before. To deny immutability signifies that God acts or finds himself in movement in order to acquire something he was previously lacking, and this would shatter the plentitude and perfection of being that pertains to him.[5]



God’s eternity also proscribes the possibility of passions in him. Scripture repeatedly speaks of God’s transcendence over time (e.g., 2 Tim. 1:9; Ti. 1:2; Jude 25). God stands outside of time as its ultimate cause and Creator (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1). If time depends wholly upon God, then God’s being cannot be measured and circumscribed by time, otherwise he would be contained and delimited by his own creation. The finite cannot contain the infinite. Passions, which are simply emotions acquired through one’s unfolding experiences, require one to be in time and to undergo successive states of being and thus to be temporal. As Herman Bavinck reminds us, “One who says ‘time’ says motion, change, measurability, computability, limitation, finiteness, creature.”[6] If temporal succession of life is denied to God, so then must be all those experiences, such as emotional change, that require time.


Pure Actuality and Perfection

God’s perfection of being, by which is meant his absolute completeness and fullness of existence, indicates that he cannot possibly undergo any sort of alteration in his intrinsic actuality. All God is he is from eternity in and of himself. Wilhelmus à Brakel explains the implications of this perfection: “No one can add to or subtract anything from his being, neither can anyone increase or decrease his felicity.”[7] Therefore, if God is loving, compassionate, and opposed to sin, he must possess these perfections in virtue of his own eternal pure act of being and not in virtue of some experience that he undergoes–not even an experience that he himself ordains and controls. If he were to receive or take on any new actuality of love, wrath, and so forth, then he would be actualized by something not identical with himself and so not purely actual in himself. Thomas Aquinas explains how this relates to the denial of passions in God: “[E]very passion belongs to something existing in potency. But God is completely free from potency, since He is pure act. God, therefore, is solely agent, and in no way does any passion have a place in Him.”[8]

God is being, not becoming. This means that even his relation to the world as its creator and sustainer does not produce any new actuality in him. John Owen makes this point beautifully:


God alone hath all being in him. Hence he gives himself the name, ‘I AM,’ Exod. iii.14. He was eternally All; when all things else that were made, or now are, or shall be, were nothing. . . . In this state of infinite, eternal being and goodness, antecedent unto any act of wisdom or power without himself to give existence unto other things, God was, and is, eternally in himself all that he will be, all that he can be, unto eternity. For where there is infinite being and infinite goodness, there is infinite blessedness and happiness, whereunto nothing can be added. God is always the same. . . . All things that are, make no addition unto God, no change in his state. His blessedness, happiness, self-satisfaction, as well as all his other infinite perfections, were absolutely the same before the creation of anything.[9]



Impassibility also derives from the doctrine of divine simplicity. Simplicity denotes that God is not composed of parts. The underlying biblical conviction is his perfect self-sufficiency (see Acts 17:25). The essential logic of simplicity is that if God were composed of parts then those parts would account for his essence and existence. A part is anything that is less than the whole and without which the whole would be really different than it is. Parts precede wholes and wholes depend upon their parts. Furthermore, whatever is composed of parts requires a composer–a source of unity–that is ontologically prior to the thing composed. Nothing is before God and his essence cannot be built up out of realities more basic than himself. If this were so he would depend on that which is not God in order to be God. Thus, it must be that all that is in God is God. Such are the basic claims of the simplicity doctrine.[10] Touching the question of affections in God, it must be that all his virtues are in reality identical with his essence and existence. God just is the love, compassion, and the consuming fire of holiness in virtue of which he loves, is merciful, and demonstrates his wrath against sin. The so-called divine emotions do not come upon him as passions, but are eternally actual in God in that they are identical with his very essence.

The aspect of divine simplicity that is uniquely relevant to the denial of passions in God is the denial that God is composed of substance and accidents.[11] An accident is anything that adds some actuality to a subject (the substance) that the subject does not already possess in virtue of its own essence. For example, a farmer may acquire a suntan by working long hours in the sun. The suntan is a genuine existential feature of the farmer’s being–he is a suntanned farmer. But this actual state of being is not in the farmer in virtue of his essence as a human being. He was fully human even before he acquired the suntan. The suntan is a property that the farmer took on in addition to his essence and which added to him a new state of being. In this process of acquisition the farmer also lost actuality that he previously possessed, namely, the actuality of his pale skin. Furthermore, the farmer as a human is dependent upon these accidental qualities such as a suntan or paleness for the fullness of his actuality–they are not given with his human nature as such. If all passions are accidents–states of actuality that come upon a subject and determine the subject to exist in some new way–then it should be clear why God cannot possess them. God is whatever he is in virtue of his essence as God and thus cannot be conceived as dependent upon anything not perfectly identical with himself. Ergo, God is without passions.

[1] T. G. Weinandy, “Impassibility of God,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 7 (Detroit; Washington, DC: Thomson/Gale, 2003), 357.

[2] By “intrinsic” we mean the actuality of God himself as opposed to the actuality of his extrinsic (ad extra) revelation and operations in the world. The latter, as God’s effects, are said to change in relation to creatures while God himself is wholly unmoved in his existence.

[3] It should be noted that the terms “affection” and “emotion” also suggest some sort of passivity and therefore are also not quite adequate for our talk about God’s love, mercy, wrath, and the like. “Affection” implies a state that is brought about when one is affected or influenced by another (i.e., acted upon and thereby changed) and “emotion” indicates a state or sensibility brought about through some sort of change or motion in the subject. In the writings of the seventeenth-century Reformed scholastics one searches in vain for ascriptions of passion and emotion to God, though theologians will speak of him as possessing affections. Nevertheless, “affection” is attributed to God by way of accommodation to the human capacity and is not predicated properly of God. Richard Muller explains, “Because of the difficulties inherent in the term ‘affection,’ some of the Reformed prefer to speak of the divine ‘virtues.’” He further elaborates: “The terminology itself is interesting: the language of affections and passions is typically a language indicating the changeableness of a living being, specifically of the soul, in its sentiments and dispositions. Strictly, an affection or passion is an acquired quality.” Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520-1725, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), III: 553.

[4] This argument is developed in greater detail by Richard A. Muller in his article, “Incarnation, Immutability, and the Case for Classical Theism,” Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983): 25-33. See also, Weinandy, Does God Suffer?, 61-63.

[5] Emery, “The Immutability of the God of Love and the Problem of Language Concerning the ‘Suffering of God’,” 61. In similar fashion Stephen Charnock writes, “If God doth change it must be either to a greater perfection than he had before, or to a less. . . . If to the better, he was not perfect, and so was not God; if to the worse, he will not be perfect, and so be no longer God after that change.” The Existence and Attributes of God, 2 vols. (1853; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), I:331.

[6] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), II:163.

[7] Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), I:90.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, trans. Anton C. Pegis, James F. Anderson, Vernon J. Bourke, and Charles J. O’Neil (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1955), I.89 [6]. By saying God is “solely agent” Thomas means that God acts but is not acted upon, not even by himself. He is not both agent and patient since such a composite being is at once partly actual and partly non-actual.

[9] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold (1850-53; reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), I:368.

[10] Stephen Charnock is representative of the seventeenth-century Reformed tradition in his explanation of simplicity’s importance:


God is the most simple being; for that which is first in nature, having nothing beyond it, cannot by any means be thought to be compounded; for whatsoever is so, depends upon the parts whereof it is compounded, and so is not the first being: now God being infinitely simple, hath nothing in himself which is not himself, and therefore cannot will any change in himself, he being his own essence and existence. (Existence and Attributes of God, I:333)


[11] See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.3.6. See also, James E. Dolezal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 58-62.