The Mutable, Passible God


According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, God is “without body, parts, or passions, immutable.”

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Immutable, Impassible

As a Baptist, I am supposed to be non-Creedal, and don’t particularly value catechisms. That is, we adhere to Soli Scriptura, the Bible alone (although I believe it is more accurate to say Prima Scriptura), and as such we place little importance on creeds. Still creeds can have value to encapsulate Scripture in ways that are memorable. They also help to connect us to the thread of church history.

But, on the other hand, creeds fail when they provide doctrine that is inconsistent with the Bible, or when they describe a god of the creed developers’ imaginations rather than the “God who is.”

To me, two of the most obvious examples are in this one little part of the Westminster Confession.  It says that God is without Body (regardless of what Mormons may say, this appears to be well-founded Scripturally), without Parts (frankly, this is open to challenge as well… but I won’t focus on it), without passions (impassible) and immutable.

These last two appear to be drawn more from Aristotle and some Islamic philosophers than it draws from the Bible. There are passages from Scripture that talk about his “unchangingness” such as Malachi 3:6, James 1:17, and  Hebrews 6:17. However, it all of these cases the context is ethical in nature: God keeps his promises no matter what. In contrast to this is that the God of the Bible interacts with people, God interacts historically. God’s eschatological actions challenge at least the most extreme views of immutability.

The Bible says that God on occasion changes His mind. What does that mean? I don’t know. Some say it is anthropomorphic language that means little regarding God’s nature. Some others may say that it describes contingent planning rather than actual changing (For example if I decide to talk to ask Joseph a question, and that if he says “A” I will do “X” and if he says “B” I will do “Y” that is not really changing my mind.) Maybe it means that God does indeed change (volitionally, not ethically).

In my mind, however, the big issue is that the Bible is written describing a personal God that changes His mind, and adjusts actions historically. It seems to me that this portrayal of God just might be His act of self-revelation rather than self-concealment.

<Note: Accepting a mutable God does not force one into full Process Theology or Open Theism. The truth is rarely at the extremes anyway.>

More important than the Immutability of God (which almost seems like a historical straw man to knock down every few decades) is the question of the Impassibility of God. While some have suggested that this attribute means that God does not have emotions (emotions being anthropomorphic, like passages that describe God as having eyes, arms, and wings), for most, the attribute means that God is not overwhelmed by His emotions.

As Theopedia.com would say, “not subject to suffering, pain, or the ebb and flow of involuntary passions.”

This appears to me to be heresy. I know it is ill-advised to use such a term lightly. But there are at least four reasons that the impassibility of God appears to be false and bumping up against heresy.

  • Jesus was highly passionate in the Gospels, and there is more than one occasion that He seemed to be overwhelmed by emotions (the Garden of Gethsemane and the Cross are the two most obvious examples). Some might argue that since Jesus did not change His actions due to his emotions, He was not truly overwhelmed. To me, that speaks more of his ETHICAL immutability than His impassibility. If Jesus would be described as not being overwhelmed by emotions, than many of us come pretty close to impassible by the same measure. But if Jesus could be said to be overwhelmed by His emotions, then Trinitarian theology compels us to say that impassibility is a most doubtful attribute of God. The most common emotion Jesus is described to have is that he was compassionate… that itself is a challenge to God being impassible.
  • The Bible describes God as emotional in so many different passages and in so many different ways. God’s Wrath, the Joy of God, His Love. When one ties that with the concept of the Imago Dei, it seems reasonable to think that perhaps our limbic system (our seat of basic emotions and mood) is designed by God as such, in part, as a biochemical analogue to God’s emotional character. If the love is viewed so strongly in the Bible as to lead John to say that “God is love,” one must wonder if our emotions point more to our aspect of divinity rather than dirt.
  • Theodicy is that aspect of theology that wrestles with why there is suffering in the world. There are many theories, but the one that seems most Biblical and satisfying to me (and some others I have seen) is that God suffers with us in our suffering. As such, it seems more theologically sound to describe God as Empathic rather than Impassible.
  • John 3:16. This passage describes God as loving the world so much that He sacrificed His own Son for our benefit. This seems to be the very definition of being overwhelmed by emotion. It is hard to see what behavior would demonstrate being “more overwhelmed” by emotion than this.

Our theology should be based on the Bible, the character of Jesus, and of God’s working in history. We really shouldn’t be looking to Aristotle or or the Quran for insight into the nature of God. Perhaps we can say that God is Ethically Immutable, but not Immutable overall. I think we should see God as Empathic rather than Impassible. And perhaps above all, God is Ineffable. Some day, prayerfully, we will truly know Him, for we will see Him as He truly is.

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