Paul Helm’s Foreword to Confessing the Impassible God: The Biblical, Classical, and Confessional Doctrine of Divine Impassibility

Confessing the Impassible God: The Biblical, Classical, and Confessional Doctrine of Divine Impassibility coming later this year from RBAP

 

FOREWORD

To many readers, Confessing the Impassible God will be a surprising book. It articulates and defends the impassibility of God by Baptists, taking seriously the statements of Baptist confessions of faith of the seventeenth century! Such surprise is due largely to the custom of identifying Baptists exclusively with the culture and theology of modern evangelicalism, the temper of mind of which is concerned with modifying and supplanting the theological heritage of Protestantism with innovations of various kinds. The contributors to this book are well aware of such deviations. Furthermore, many Baptists have been taught to believe that it is altogether alien to the Baptist outlook to formulate and adhere to confessions of faith. Confessions of faith, it is customarily believed, are uncharacteristic of the Baptist mentality, which is strongly inclined to think that adherence to confessions cramps the mind and spirit of the Christian church. The idea is that Baptists, being independents or congregationalists in their polity, are marked by an individualism which fosters in each congregation and each minister their own ways of expressing their faith. But history is not on their side at this point. The authors of this book take a different view.

I

So the first thing to be said is that Confessing the Impassible God is not an exercise in antiquarianism. All the essays which form it have a positive theological stance, and one with distinctive practical and pastoral consequences. The writing is at one and the same time impassioned about classical Christian theism, and careful and serious about the application of this confessional position to the contemporary church. For a modern evangelical Baptist to adopt these recommendations will require fresh thinking.
Before we consider the book’s approach to God and his impassibility, let us reflect a moment on the meaning of ‘impassible’ as applied to God. The word is often mistaken for others, and given a meaning that it does not have. For example, it is often confused with impassable. If the road is blocked by an avalanche we may say that as a consequence it is ‘impassable’; no one can get through. But divine impassibility has nothing that gets in the way of God being accessible or available. Impassibility sets up no barriers. The authors fervently believe that God has revealed himself in Scripture, and that the disclosure of his own impassibility is a fundamental feature of this revelation. But the impassible God may meet us in our need, deliver us from our sin, and bring us unfailingly to glory. He is the very reverse of the impassable road, blocked up after a rockslide.
Another misconception is that an impassible God is impassive, unfeeling and uncaring in the face of suffering and need. This suggestion has links with the caricature of the impassible God as psychotically withdrawn, indifferent to the needs of his creation. But no one in orthodox Christianity has ever said such a thing, that God is blocked off either psychologically or in other ways from his creation or from his people.
‘Impassible’ is a negative term. As ‘impossible’ means ‘not possible,’ so ‘impassible’ means ‘not passible.’ So if God is impassible, then he is not passible, not subject to the onset of passions or moods, and of changes of mind. It is not simply that he is not in fact subject to the onset of passions, like a Stoic, but he is not able to be made to have a passion. Paradoxically, being impassible does not denote a deficiency or lack in God, but it testifies to God’s fullness, to his undiminishable goodness, to his eternal will. The goodness of God is such that while the creation of the universe and the redemption of his people is a consequence of his goodness, God cannot be affected by or molded by his creation, and especially not by his human creation. It is as we, creatures in time and space, change or are changed that this fullness of God comes to us in one form or another, according to our different circumstances, and God’s unchanging purposes operate upon us, as we exercise faith, or are disobedient, or careless, or defiant, or forgetful. So God may be understood as a Savior, a guide, or a judge, as he is understood as the eternal upholder and governor of his creation.
Impassibility is closely connected with God’s immutability. When in Hebrews 6 the author states that it is impossible for God to lie, he grounds this statement in God’s own being. This immutability is not something that God has decided to be—unchangeable—but it is rooted in his nature, as the writer of the letter goes on to explain. “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you.’” Impassibility is an aspect of such immutability. So God does not simply decide to be constant in his character; it is his being (or essence) to be such, an aspect of his greatness, his perfection. He cannot waver. And so he cannot change his care, his love, his justice and so on, nor can he be changed, for he expresses his character in accordance with his eternal purposes. The connectedness of impassibility with other aspects of God’s being or essence is therefore important, and we shall return to it.

II

When the Second London Confession of Faith asserts, as an aspect of the God it confesses, that he is “without body, parts, or passions,” the Baptist authors unashamedly copy the wording of earlier confessions of the English Reformation. That language, in turn, borrows from the thought of the medieval church and of patristic theology, going back to Augustine and beyond. In working in this way those confessional Particular Baptists avowed that their congregations are in direct line with the theology of the Christian church from her inception.
Note the rather brave and gracious way that these men worked. During the times when Baptists were persecuted and discriminated against in England (John Bunyan put in Bedford jail for preaching Christ, and so forth), they nonetheless appropriated for their own confessions the language of the XXXIX Articles of Religion of the persecuting Church of England. (And the same would have been true, I reckon, had the English Parliament of the 1640’s had its way, and its anti-blasphemy legislation had been implemented. Baptists would then have been on the receiving end of Westminster Confession-style discrimination and persecution. But Cromwell intervened.) They deliberately followed this wording both of the Articles, and of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and of the Savoy Confession (so long as conscience permitted them to do so) because they wanted it to be known that they had the same doctrinal pedigree.
The Reformation was not a revolution, the discovering or inventing of a new kind of Christianity, but a re-formation, a protest against a corrupt church. This meant that wherever there were grounds for agreement and continuity, the Reformers upheld the ancient faith. Thus in asserting God’s transcendence, the trinitarian character of the Godhead, the incarnation in which the Logos took on human nature, the creation of the universe out of nothing, the ancient theological landmarks were left undisturbed. But where there was corruption—over the denial of justification by faith alone, by the promotion of human merit, the invention of acts of supererogation, and so on—the Reformers vigorously opposed the Roman Church.
The English Particular Baptists adopted this same stance; opposing paedobaptism, episcopacy, certain liturgical practices, and the intolerance of the Church under the Stuarts, and later on that of the Presbyterians of the Long Parliament. As is shown in this book, they were resolute in upholding the theology and the doctrines of grace of Augustine and the Reformers, and of their Anglican and Puritan successors. To underline the point, they steadfastly confessed this theology in very similar and often identical words. Unfortunately, later Baptists who have acknowledged their confessions have often done so without a great deal of enthusiasm or conviction regarding this abiding theology. This book is an expression of a renewed enthusiasm and commitment for this confessional position.

III

We have already noticed the close connection between divine impassibility and divine immutability, that one is an aspect of the other. They are together linked to divine eternity. God is the Creator of all creatures in time, but is not himself in time, but is timeless, “before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). Not being in time he is not liable to change; he does not age, nor is part of his life over, as parts of all our lives are over. For him time does not pass away. He has no memory, and he “only has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16). So there is no time in which he changes, changing his mind, experiencing onsets of moods, and so forth. The divinely-created universe is contingent in the sense that it is dependent on this God, who sustains and governs all that he has made.
Being the Creator, he is not created, and so he is not dependent on anything else. No one or no thing has created the Creator, nor does he simply happen to be. He exists independently, in the purest and most basic sense. “Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel?” (Isa. 40:13). He is pure spirit: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24), and so not constituted out of parts, as the creation is, parts composed of atoms and grains and cells, or a stream of consciousness. That would be an absurd idea in the case of the Creator; for where would these parts come from? And if we could answer that question, how could we avoid the conclusion that these parts, out of which God is composed, whatever they were, were more basic than God himself? No. God is independent, and not composed; he has a simple unity. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord, is one” (Deut. 6:4). And so, God being one simple essence, the Trinity is not a tripartite being, but each member of the Trinity is the wholly indivisible Godhead, not partitioning the one God, but distinguishing it in ways that are basic to the Christian religion—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Ways of thinking that do justice to God’s eternal being run like a golden thread through the confessions of the church, including the Baptist Confession elaborated in Confessing the Impassible God.
Those in the past who confessed this God, and those who now do the same, recognize that such a God is incomprehensible. This term does not mean that talk of such a God is gibberish, incoherent, but that the being of God is so extraordinary that we cannot fully get our minds around it. We cannot comprehend God, but we can apprehend him from what he reveals to us about himself in Scripture. Nevertheless, to think and to talk of God in these ways requires development of the mental discipline that is also a part of the historic religion of Christianity.
So here we have a family of ideas—simplicity, independence, necessity, eternity, immutability, impassibility—each interconnected with the others in our understanding of God’s transcendence. Divine impassibility is not some arbitrary invention, due to the quirkiness of theologians, but it points instead to the intensely mysterious character of God. Understanding even a little of such grandeur taxes our minds, and stretches our thinking, leading us to use language that Scripture itself uses—negative language, to say what God is not, and metaphorical language to portray the ways that God deals with us in creation and redemption, and stretched language to attempt to do justice to God’s supreme eminence.

IV

What is especially noteworthy about this book is the care and respect with which the writers handle this biblical and confessional heritage. This is not a case of ancestor worship, or of mere antiquarianism, but it arises from a renewed appreciation of “historic catholic theology,” as one contributor puts it. It has often been claimed that such theology was the result of the influence of Hellenistic philosophy on the early thinkers of the church, with the consequent smothering of the pure biblical teaching. But the doctrine of divine impassibility is not affirmed as a result of philosophical speculation. Rather as this book shows more than once, the doctrine of God of which his impassibility is an aspect has a firm basis in sound hermeneutical principles and doctrinal exegesis in both the Old and New Testaments. Included in this outlook is the drawing of the distinction between literal language about God, such as that he is the “only wise God,” immutable and so forth, and the metaphorical language according to which God changes, and has passions and bodily states, culminating in his supreme act of accommodation, in which he becomes incarnate as the Christ. Both the words of God and the coming to us of the incarnated Word of God are aspects of God’s work of sovereign grace.
This exegetical tradition arises from a deep conviction that Scripture is one word of God, possessing a theological unity. There are not many, diverse theologies in Scripture. The Creator is not a creature, nor does he have creaturely features. As we have been noting, unlike the gods of classical antiquity he is the origin of all that is in time and space, but is himself not subject to it. A natural question that arises is: But what about the incarnation? Does God not enter time and space at that point? The key to thinking clearly about the incarnation is to bear in mind that in it God became man not by ‘morphing’ into a human being, but by the person of the Logos taking on human nature and so becoming the two-natured Mediator, the God-man, the Savior. For in the incarnation God did not change in his essence, but took on human nature. This also is seriously mysterious. We shall never come near to understanding what happened, least of all if we try to imagine what it was like to be Jesus. As the definition of Chalcedon, formulated in A.D. 451, put it:

The properties of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one “person” and in one hypostasis. They are not divided or cut into two prosopa, but are together the one and only begotten Logos of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The seventeenth-century Particular Baptist confessions adopted the disciplines of thinking about the incarnation developed by the early church.

V

Finally, the commitment to this pure Christian theism, of which divine impassibility is an aspect, has a practical outworking, a practical theology, issuing in a distinctive piety. To know God is to know this God, and so to know our own creatureliness; to know something of his majesty and grace, and so by reflex to be aware of our own insufficiency, guilt and unrighteousness. This eternal God works out our salvation in space and time in various ways, without in any way diminishing his goodness. And “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:12-13). Belief leads to action, and distinctive beliefs lead to distinctive actions. As a consequence of who he is, such a God is not at our every beck and call.
On July 10th, 1666, the house of Anne Bradstreet, the wife of a colonial administrator, burned down at night. The fire awoke the family, and all escaped from the building and watched the fire engulfing everything. In the poem that she wrote in memory of this occurrence these words occur:

And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That layd my goods now in the dust,
Yea, so it was, and so ‘twas just.
It was his own: it was not mine;
Far be it that I should repine.

She recognized herself to be in the hands of her eternal God, and believed that what he willed was best. God’s gracious purposes for his people remain unchangeable even if the reasons why he permits difficulties are often not presently disclosed to them.

VI

This book can be said to present an interdisciplinary exposition and so a cumulative defense of divine impassibility and of the doctrine of God of which that is an aspect. Each line of argument strengthens and supports the other. Its foundation in Scripture, and the hermeneutics employed, show the doctrine to be not speculative or abstract but to have its foundation in the varied data of the both Testaments of the Bible. The chapters on history show that divine impassibility is not a recent whimsy or the peculiar invention of a Christian sect, but the historic catholic faith. Those on the confession and the doctrine of God set out its Baptist pedigree, and the connectedness of impassibility with other distinctions made in the doctrine of God, and their overall coherence. Each line of enquiry sensitizes the palate to taste the others. There is a polemical strand throughout the book, contrasting this view with those of Open Theism and aberrant statements from contemporary Calvinists and others. But these arguments are used not to score points but to set forth and make even clearer the positive, historic teaching on divine impassibility, by contrasting it with other currently-held views.
I am honored to have been asked to write this Foreword, and delighted with what I have read. Confessing the Impassible God is heartily recommended.

 

Paul Helm
Former Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion
King’s College
London