Recently a young friend of mine has been asked to write 600 words on the impassibility debates as part of a larger essay this has made me think again about this whole area. I just wanted to share some of my thoughts around this whole debate.
Human beings are made in the image of God and therefore our emotional life must in some way mirror God’s emotional life. This is especially true if we regard the key to understanding the image of God in relational terms. If we believe that we are created to relate to God and to one another emotions come into play at once. I am called upon to love God and my neighbour, we can’t do this without some expression of our emotions.
If love is at the heart of our relationships then we realize that as fallen and broken people our love is very often defective or misplaced but this cannot be true of God his love is always pure and is always available there is a qualitative difference between our love and God’s. Our love is not as great as we would like it to be even for other human beings for instance I have been married for 33 years to a wonderful woman but I know that that I want the quality of my love for her to grow. God is love and his love is never weak and it can never be diminished, this to me is the heart of the debate about divine impassibility those of us who affirm impassibility would see it as statement that God’s love and his other emotions are always full and can never be diminished.
Another way to look at this is to look at our emotional reactions, in some circumstances we panic or get depressed because we believe certain things are about to happen but God looking at the same circumstances does not panic because he understands how each circumstance fits into his loving purposes and his sovereign will. Panic and depression show how fallen emotional reactions work whereas the God of the bible is always faithful to his own purposes, nothing take him by surprise therefore to put it crudely God will never suffer a nervous breakdown.
When we look at Church history the idea of impassibility is blamed on the neo-platonism of the Church Fathers, certainly the idea of impassibility can be found in Platonic thought but the god of Plato is not the personal God of the bible and the Church Fathers were well aware of this. One only has to read some of the Church Fathers writings to see that that they believed in a gracious and loving God. It is often charged that the God of the Church Fathers has no feelings but this goes against the facts. Augustine of Hippo of is often cast as the villain who really imposed neo-platonism on the Church but here is a man who could respond to the voice of God and one of the greatest defenders of the grace of God in salvation. did he really believe in a cold unresponsive God, listen to a few words from one of his prayers and the answer will be obvious to you In his great work on The Trinity Augustine closed the book with a long prayer and the whole of it should be read but I am going to quote just a few lines from this prayer. “set me free, O God, from that multitude of speech which I suffer inwardly in my soul, wretched as it is in Thy sight, and flying for refuge to Thy mercy” Here surely are words that we can identify with as we pray to a God of love and mercy. God for Saint Augustine is not remote and uncaring but rather a God of love. Surely Augustine when he affirmed divine impassibility is affirming that God’s love and grace can never be diminished. He and the Church Fathers were trying by this doctrine the greatness and fullness of God’s love and compassion.
We need the peace of God to reign over our own emotions not so that they are obliterated but rather so that they are sanctified. If that is the case we all need a God whose compassion cannot fail, in other words we need a God who is impassible.