I just finished a Systematic Theology class which had much discussion about the doctrine of God. Much debate surfaced as to whether God’s immutability (his unchanging nature) implied his impassibility (that God is not affected in his emotions by influences outside of his being). The following by JI Packer should be helpful in our definitions: Third, God’s feelings are not beyond his control, as ours often are. Theologians express this by saying that God is impassable. They mean not that he is impassive and unfeeling but that what he feels, like what he does, is a matter of his own deliberate, voluntary choice and is included in the unity of his infinite being. God is never our victim in the sense that we make him suffer where he had not first chosen to suffer. Scriptures expressing the reality of God’s emotions (joy, sorrow, anger, delight, love, hate, etc.) abound, however, and it is a great mistake to forget that God feelsthough in a way of necessity that transcends a finite being’s experience of emotion.
Packer, J. I. Concise Theology : A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1995, c1993. (emphasis added)
I have been wrestling with things since the close of the class and have some questions about the passibility of God in relations to several other attributes of our Lord (namely immutability, eternity, and simplicity)
Issue One - Immutability and Emotions
What does it mean for God to experience emotions? I have been wrestling with how would define emotions, we could start with Scripture and hear words like anger, wrath, joy, happy, grief etc. this is a good starting place. But somehow, in my human constitution I am supposed to understand what these concepts mean. In my experience (as one in the imago dei) I understand quite quickly in my humanity, what is meant by emotions. Now, what are these in me?
- Understanding I - Emotions are simply movements of brain matter/chemistry responding to complex changes in the environment, be it from personal or non-personal things. I don’t think we want to go here although Murphy perhaps would.
- Understanding II - Emotions are states of feeling in the soul that change over time as we interact with truth, God, physical objects, circumstances, events, persons, and other spiritual beings which have a corresponding result in the biochemical state of our brains and other parts of our bodies. In this understanding (as well in Understanding I) emotions would be “finite states” of being. Now I mean finite in the sense of - temporary One’s emotional state can go from “happy” to “Sad” and perhaps be a mixture of many finite states and simultaneous senses of emotion I have especially seen this at various stages of my wife’s pregnancies…
Perhaps more work needs to be done on a theology of emotions when we talk of God’s emotions. I cannot see that any understanding I have of human emotions could apply to an immutable God. In denying impassibility I must assume that circumstances and things (beings) outside of God, must cause Him to move from one emotional state to another, increasing or decreasing in pleasure, anger and the like. It predicates something to God which he currently is not, for instance we bring or add joy to God. I am in no way wanting to deny that God “feels” or has emotions, such would be impossible with the Scriptures before us. I am concerned in saying that God’s emotions change, in the sense the travel from one state to a different state for it seems such dynamism certainly implies change (at least by the only definition I have for dynamic) I do think it possible to hold to immutability and impassibility in describing the phenomena of God’s anger, joy, etc. I will attempt to do so in conclusion
Issue Two - Eternity and Emotions
If God is to traverse emotional states, if he is to become angry, in the sense that at (tb=0 secs) he is not angry and then at (ta=1 sec) he is now angry, it seems that this must happen to God in time for there is a before and after experience which God has. Now, there are those today who are arguing for “God in time” after creation (see God, Time, and Eternity by William Lane Craig…ironic that Grudem uses another of Craig’s earlier works in his chapter arguing for God’s timelessness) it seems that if one goes for passibility he ought also to go for God in Time.
Issue Three - Simplicity (or Unity of Simplicity) and Emotions
Grudem writes “When Scripture speaks about God’s attributes it never singles out one attribute of God as more important than all the rest. There is an assumption that every attribute is completely true of God and is true of all of God’s character. For example, John can say ‘God is light’ (1 John 1:5) and then a little later also that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). There is no suggestion that part of God is light and part of God is love, or that God is partly light and partly love. Nor would we think that God is more light than love or more love than light. Rather it is God himself who is light, and it is God himself who is love.(Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 178, emphasis in original) My question is this Is “Joy” “Happiness” or “Gladness” properly predicated of God? With the above definition, if we do predicate this to God, that he is a “joyful” being, we then must say that God himself is joyful. Then by inference from God being infinite and perfect, we must say that God is infinitely and perfectly joyful, he is not lacking in joy, as it is a perfection. The same would be said of “Wrath” and indeed Grudem (and others) would argue that God is wrathful (necessisarily, this brings up a question for me about what Wrath means in God prior to creation, but that is another theological riddle for us to chew, perhaps Wrath is a hiding of God’s pleasure…but it seems much purer and active than simply a concealing, unless God’s pleasure concealed is so devastating to the soul anyway, I need to think/read further on this riddle). So, if joy is a perfection I do not think I can enhance, or add to, or bring to God that which he already has in infinite perfection And therefore I would have to say simplicity and changing emotions (passibility) in God bring up an incoherence that is left unsolved.
What then of God’s emotions? Shall Anselm die too soon?
Perhaps we can maintain a view of God who does not change in finite emotional states (impassable) but does possess emotions like joy, wrath, anger, sadness, happiness et al. Perhaps God IS joyful (simplicity) and is infinitely so. When I as a human being, worship and praise and submit and obey and do the works of God, the “face” of God’s joy is clearly turned to me, I experience his pleasure and joy and I know that he is pleased with me. Likewise when I all too often sin and forsake the foundation of life, the “Face” of God’s “Wrath” is revealed to me or brought to bear on my soul and I experience the displeasure and wrath of God which then in God’s kindness I am brought to repentance. Also, when God desires to show compassion to his hurting creatures, he shows us the grief of his being at the presence of sin and brokenness.
This view has the promise to do several things:
- It places the Biblical truth of God’s emotions in an expression of God’s volition or his will in other words, when God becomes angry with his people, he reveals to us the face and nature of his wrath. And likewise in his just wisdom, when we live rightly, he chooses to show us his pleasure and joy.
- It seems to give us a rich theology of human emotions that is intrinsically tied to the character of God while explaining the finite states and changes in human emotions. We do not experience all of God’s emotions at once but we experience things after God so to speak, in us that is. We rightly experience guilt in our sin as the face of God’s pleasure is withheld from us and we experience shame.
- There is also much to be said about the emotions of Jesus, for he does possess human emotions and will for all eternity future. The question of the “eternality” of the Incarnation arise somewhere in here. Perhaps human emotions (that change) can be located in the pre-incarnate eternally incarnate logos (that sounds pretty bad though, doesn’t it) but again, I am out of my league here and should remain silent.
Anyway, it helps me to write down things as I think about them. Apologies if my thoughts do not contain the rigor which they ought. Perhaps I like Edwards and Piper too much on the infinite joy of God.