Sunday, December 16, 2012

God without Passions?

The Westminster Confession of Faith states that ‘the only living and true God…is without passions’ (Chapter 2, article I)[1]. Affirmed in a description of God’s being and character, this statement is often overlooked in early expositions of the Confession, usually receiving little biblically supported discussion. Some resources and works dedicated to the confession brush over this particular statement[2], while others simply omit comment altogether. The commentary on this section of the confession usually draws attention to scriptural references on the spiritual nature of God (James 1:17; Mal 3:6; Acts 14:11), none of which, however, address the ‘without passions’ affirmation. Is there any scriptural merit to the statement? The aim here is to review the theological arguments and Biblical evidence, inturn discussing arising implications to how church services may be conducted.

The language of ‘passions’ and the doctrine of impassibility

First, let us regard the word ‘passions’. Muller notes the etymology of the word - Passio, from patior – defined as a ‘suffering or enduring of something – noting that it can refer to an occurrence or a phenomenon or even a disease, thus a strong emphasis on the state as a result of something external to the individual.[3]

Here in lies the overlapping discussion of the doctrine of ‘impassibility’ and the issue of ‘passions’. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions defines impassibility as: “The belief that because God is immutable, unchanging, and unchangeable, he cannot suffer or be affected by what happens in his creation.” Bray notes that the relationship of the words is rooted in the term apathes which may be translated as ‘passionless’ (taken to mean without suffering in practice ) or ‘impassible’ – (meaning without suffering in principle).[4] It is important however to note that discussions of passions in the theological literature extend to experiences not typically associated with suffering, for instance, joy, delight, hatred and even love.

Indeed the language used to describe God in the scriptures often depict him as grieved (Ps 78:40), angry (Deuteronomy 1:37), jealous (Deut 6:15) - but also pleased (1 Kgs 3:10), joyful (Zeph 3:17), and moved by pity (Judg 2:18). How should such statements be regarded then?

Robert Shaw in his exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith explains scripture’s use of emotive language ascribed to God in the same way anthropomorphisms work. He argues that scripture describes God as having body parts, for example hands, face eyes and ears, simply to accommodate to our human frame of reference; ‘In the same manner must we explain the several passions that are ascribed to God, - such as anger, fury, jealousy, revenge, bowels of mercy…’[5] Along similar lines, classical theism treats such biblical statements as anthropopathisms— defined as figurative expressions ascribing human passions to God, such figures of speech are said to accommodate the limitations of human language and understanding. This post hoc qualification aside, however, it is difficult to ascertain what the confession precisely includes or excludes in the word ‘passions’. Upon regarding the complete statement on God (Chapter 2), it seems that whatever ‘passions’ meant to the authors, they are distinguished from; long-suffering, love and mercy amongst other divine attributes; for the statement reads of God: “…most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, … and withal most just and terrible in his judgments; hating all sin;…”. Thus, the writers of the statement were either affirming a distinction between passions and the attributes above, or using language such as ‘hating’ only figuratively.

What of love? The preceding position denying passions being properly attributed to God does not account for the scriptural statement ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16). Whilst love is considered to be attributed to God, Philip R. Johnson argues that human love is closer to ‘passion’, but God’s love, as revealed in the scriptures reflects God’s ‘affection’ which is essentially very different from the human experience; he states: “But if love is stripped of passion, we think, it's a lesser kind of love.”, essentially arguing that love stripped of passion is a higher form of love. It is difficult to perceive of love in such a vacuum. In the words of Henry Scougal, ‘Love is that powerful prevalent passion by which all the faculties and inclinations of the soul are determined…’[6]

Richard Muller in outlining ‘the problem of affections and passions in God’ offers a relatively comprehensive review of the issue of passions. He enlists a division of Polanus which necessitates that the divine attributes are either proper or figurative. It is noted that for the most part in this discussion that affections (or passions)[7] are attributed to God not properly but figuratively. He cites a qualification by Ames that the affections of God such as love, hatred and the like as either designating acts of will, or apply to God only figuratively. What makes affections metaphorical in this view is ‘its apparent variation, temporality or alterability’[8]. It is also argued that passion is also associated with a loss of power or self control, which can not be attributed to God. Muller observes that the language of ‘passions’ and ‘affections’ is inherently associated with the changeableness of human beings. Thus if the transient manifestation of affections is an expression of divine will, then it will reflect an essentially changeless divine will (in line with the immutability of God).

Whether passions or affections; Muller identifies four problems inherent in the use of such language. First, he poses that they have an inherent sense of incompleteness in and of their own, second, he argues that affections or passions indicate a lack or deficiency in the being who has them, thus a sense of incompleteness which can not be attributed to God; third, ‘affections are necessarily accompanied with change and mutability, and forth, some affections when taken without qualifications as metaphors or figurative language reflect a weak God or ‘denote impotence’ as quoted of Owen.[9]

In turn he puts forth that the reformers have followed on from this line of thought, their contribution reemphasising the constancy and consistency of God’s affections in his relationship to the world. He also notes that that the orthodox reformers acknowledge this premise with the qualification that unlike human affections, God’s affections are permanent rather that transient dispositions.[10] Moreover it is understood in this position that the affections are not essential attributes of God but rather ‘ad-extra’ manifestations by which God is known through these effects whilst enabling him to sustain a relationship with his creatures.

It seems that an essential goal of these discussions is the protection of God from the negative connotations attached to passions. Thus, the notion of God with passions is either denied, or heavily qualified, as in Muller’s concluding comments quoting Gill ‘…properly speaking, there are no affections in God,…they (affections) are ascribed to him; as love, pity, hatred, anger &c., from which must be removed everything that is carnal, sensual, or has any degree of imperfection in it’[11] And thus even the love of God is said to have its primary location ‘certainly among the affections of the divine will.’[12]

Affirming the doctrine of impassibility is thus considered to be in line with the Westminster stance of God without ‘passions’; instead, ‘affections’ are ascribed to God (strangely enough, some are even willing to list hatred as one of God’s affections).[13] Johnson cites J. I. Packer’s view of God's affections, that they are never passive and involuntary, but rather always active and deliberate, in Packer’s words: ‘God's experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us, for his are foreknown, willed and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are.’[14] Bray proposes that while God is moved by our suffering, God’s essence is untouched by it[15], insisting that the implications of abandoning the doctrine of impassibility would be catastrophic and would essentially leave us with ‘a God who can be crippled with pain’

Amidst the assertion that much of the biblical language of God is to be regarded in purely metaphorical terms, a due caution is sounded by some. Dabney offers a caution about the danger of brushing aside the meaning of biblical figures of speech. While he acknowledged the widespread use of anthropopathism in Scripture, he does not rid them from their ‘common sense applications’. Consequently, he begs the question: "Is all this so anthropopathic as not even to mean that God's active principles here have an objective? Why not let the Scriptures mean what they so plainly strive to declare?"[16] Erickson adopts a similar view emphasising that it is unreasonable to think of God as emotionless; since he is both transcendent and imminent, his experience of emotion must be somewhat like our experience and somewhat different from it.

What unites and what distinguishes our experience of passions from God's? Suffering often comes upon us as a consequence of straying from God's ways; 'Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I obey your word' (Psa 119:67). What of grief? We can be comforted in grief that God is no starnger to this kind of pain. In the midst of grief for his beloved Israel he declares: 'My heart is changed within me, all my compassion is kindled'. Our anger is often misplaced, God's is righteous and purposeful, indeed ultimately loving.
Passions are regarded by some as belonging to the material. A. Hodge, states in support of the Westminster statement: ‘We deny that the properties of matter, such as bodily parts and passions belong to Him’[17] He further states that ‘We make this denial – a) because there is no evidence that He does posses any such properties; and b) because from the very nature of matter and its affections, it is inconsistent with those infinite and absolute perfections which are of his essence…’ (emphasis added). First, it is assumed that passions are attributed to matter – interestingly however, Hodge does state that ‘in the case of men, spiritual faculties are exercised through bodily organs’[18], a distinction which is notable between God and his creatures. Hodge affirms that such language of passions is characteristic of the Old and not the New Testament and occurs for the most part in highly rhetorical passages of the poetical and prophetical books. The problem with this view is that while anthropomorphic language of body parts is clearly relevant to the physical, one can not say the same of passions which are spiritual in nature. Therefore it is not unreasonable to regard our passions as reflections of our spiritual nature, and thus our similarity to God in this way stems from our being made in his image and likeness.

Systematic theologians today are divided on the issue. Reymond understands the denial of passions as strictly referring to bodily passions, such as hunger and sexual desire. Whilst affirming that God is impassible in the sense that the creature can not inflict pain or suffering upon him that is outside his decreed will; Reymond states that God empathises with human grief and suffering. J I Packer is also cited in Reymond’s discussion – emphasising God’s ability to empathise and exhibit sensitivity towards his creatures. This position however, does not account for the real difference between empathy for another’s experience and experiencing the matter first hand. God is said to experience, not merely empathise with us.

On the other side of the spectrum, some theologians such as Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School, and author of ‘Does God suffer?’ rejects the doctrine of impassibility and concludes that God could not possibly be unmoved by human tragedy. Open theism leaps to the extreme of asserting a God who evolves in response to our change process – in one sense a God moulded by his creatures’ experiences. For instance, Clark Pinnock states "God is not cool and collected but is deeply involved and can be wounded."  He believes the essence of divine love and tenderness is seen in God's "making himself vulnerable within the relationship with us."[19] Must we affirm impassibility to guard against the dangers of open theism?

Grudem is of the opinion that affirming that God is without passions, along with adopting a view of God as impassible is beyond the boundaries of scripture. He regards the support cited for the ‘without passions’ affirmation in Acts 14:15 (when Paul and Barnabas refuse worship from the people at Lystra by saying that they are ‘men of like passions’) as inadequate and taken out of linguistic and situational context.[20] He refers to a few of many scriptural references of God’s passions, further observing that God, just as is shown in scripture, feels and experiences such ‘passions’ and emotions, and that he is the author of passions in his creatures.

The suffering Messiah

The reasoning regarding scriptural references to emotive language ascribed to God as merely metaphorical runs into problems particularly when the person of Jesus is regarded. However, this is strangely absent from much of this debate. The cross is the ultimate picture of suffering, Jesus experienced pain and suffered. Chapter II, article iii of the Confession affirms that the Son is God, and of Christ Chapter VIII, article iv affirms his suffering.

Full of passion, he was visibly angry (for example when he cleared the temple); when witnessing the the mourning Jews at the death of Lazarus, ‘he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ (John 11:33); ‘He was truly despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.’ He suffered loneliness, abandonment and humiliation – very real, personal experiences. More so, God chose to accomplish the work of saving the world through the incarnation – and indeed the death and resurrection of the Son. ‘It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer’, and 'After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light’ (Isa 53:10, 11). If we accept that Jesus was the true revelation of God, (and more so, a true reflection of the Father - John 14:9), then how do we appraise such reflections of grief, sorrow, pain, and suffering so vividly portrayed in Jesus? Must we ascribe these to his humanity alone? Must we assume a difference between the Son’s experience in his divine and human natures to satisfy a portrait of an impassible of God? The scriptural witness does not warrant this distinction, nor the dismissal of Jesus’ passions as mere ‘human’ attributes. These instances do not afford us the understanding that this was merely an attempt to condescend to our human experience. In fact these scriptures are consistent with the portrayals of God in the Old Testament. As Erickson points out, that God has chosen to allow evil, ‘Yet he did this, fully knowing all that would happen, including the suffering that he would bring on himself.’[21]

Implications for worship

The biblical portrait of God full of passion has implications for our worship. In light of our creation in his image - we are able relate to him with our whole being, including our passions. The Bible talks of God as delighting in his people (Zeph 3:17), and in our prayers, praise and worship (Psa 22:3). We are exhorted to sing and praise God in the scriptures - “shout to God with loud songs of joy” - the Psalms contain the most prominent examples, but also in the New Testament as in Ephesians 5:19.

Moreover, the language of the heart and soul is central to how we relate to our God and to each other – "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself." (Luke 10:27). The picture of the new heaven and earth depicts service and worship to God in the same spirit (Rev 22:3).

How are we to pray, privately and in community? Believing that God responds to us, not just by an unaffected act of his will, but rather through affection and delight in relationship, empowers us to lift up our prayers to him in spirit and in truth, knowing that prayers are more than just means to an end but a process of relationship with our Father.

Lastly, to deny that God suffers is contrary in a real sense to the work of the cross. Whenever the last supper is partaken of, we remember the work of God effected through the suffering of the Son. And consequently we affirm that to suffer for his sake is honourable and that we share in all his sufferings (Rom 8:17) as his disciples (John 16:33). In our suffering, we hold on to the knowledge that God did not spare his only Son - if we can empathise with Abraham at the thought of losing Isaac; how can we not acknowledge the suffering of God because of his love for us? It is at the cross that we see God's love and God's suffering.

To affirm the statement that God is without passions would be either to deny much of the revelation of scripture on God’s person, nature and attributes, or at best to strip away their face value and replace it with qualifications and suppositions. In light of our creation in the image and likeness of our God, and as the scriptures portray a God of passions, we are created to experience and relate with passions – it is only natural that our experience in this regard reflects something of our creator. Humans are like him, the reverse is not true although his nature far exceeds its expressions in us. While our experience is marred by sin, God’s is righteous, and is always towards a good end. This very nature allows us to relate to God in prayer, praise and worship which are essentially spiritual. Our God given ability for emotional experience allows us to perceive and relate to God, we feel joy – not surprisingly as our creator feels joy; we grieve, are angered and experience jealousy – for scripture tells us that we bear the image and likeness of our God. Perhaps the statement ‘without passions’ is not well defended in theological literature because, when stripped away from its philosophical presuppositions and qualifications, it does not stand on sound scriptural basis. As B. B. Warfield eloquently stated: “Men tell us that God is, by the very necessity of His nature, incapable of passion, incapable of being moved by inducements from without; that He dwells in holy calm and unchangeable blessedness, untouched by human sufferings or human sorrows for ever,—… Let us bless our God that it is not true. God can feel; God does love. … “But is not this gross anthropomorphism? We are careless of names: it is the truth of God”… “And we decline to yield up the God of the Bible and the God of our hearts to any philosophical abstraction.”[22]

[1] Purpose for which WCF was written: Response to commission by the English parliament in 1643.
[2] For example, Pipa J. (2005)
[3] Muller, Richard A. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics : The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003, 554.
[4] Bray, G. The Doctrine of God. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993.
[5] Shaw, Robert. An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith. (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1992.) 26.
[6] Scougal, Henry. The Life of God in the Soul of Man. London: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1961, 51
[7] At times the distinction between the two terms is brought into the discussion; affections being positive in nature and having an inclination of will, while a passion is negative, and a form of suffering and without a permanent disposition.
[8] Ames, Marrow, I.iv.62, in Muller.
[9] Owen, Vindiciae evangelicae, Works, 110, in Muller.
[10] Quoting Vermigli: ‘it must be considered that that the scripture speaketh of God after the manner of men…’  Calvin is also cited on this point: ‘I know quiet well that God is not subject to human passions’ , further explaining that when God is said to be angered, grieved, wrathful that those instances simply refer to God’s reproval of evil.
[11] Gill, Complete Body of Divinity, I, in Muller, 557.
[12] Muller, 561.
[13] Edwards makes this distinction as such: ‘Affection is a word that, in its ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination; but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more overpowered, and less in its own command. Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1961 reprint), 26-27, in Johnson.
[14] Theism for Our Time," in Peter T. O'Brien and David G. Peterson, God Who Is Rich in Mercy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 16, In Johnson.
[15] John of Damascus is cited as one of the earliest proponents of the doctrine of impassibility.
[16]God's Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy’ in Johnson.
[17] Hodge, A. A. The Confession of Faith : A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding the Westminster Confession. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), 49.
[18] Hodge, 49.
[19] "An Interview with Clark Pinnock," Modern Reformation (Nov-Dec, 1998), 37, in Johnson.
[20] Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, Eng.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, 129.
[21] Erickson, Millard J. God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998, 288.
[22] J. M. Frame. No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2001, 189.
Barth, Karl. "The Humanity of God." In The Faith of the Church. London: Collins, 1961.
Boff, Leonardo and Robert R. Barr. Passion of Christ, Passion of the World : The Facts, Their Interpretation, and Their Meaning Yesterday and Today. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987.
Bray, G. The Doctrine of God. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993.
Erickson, Millard J. God the Father Almighty : A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998.
Frame J. M. No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2001. 
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, Eng.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
Hodge, A. A. The Confession of Faith : A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding the Westminster Confession. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1958.
Johnson, P. R., "God without Mood Swings: Recovering the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility. ", Canon Press.
Muller, Richard A. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics : The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003.
Pipa, Joseph A. The Westminster Confession of Faith Study Book : A Study Guide for Churches. Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005.
Piper, John. The Pleasures of God. Rev. and exp. ed. Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2001.
Religions, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World. Oxford University Press, 2003.
Reymond, Robert L. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.
Scougal, Henry. The Life of God in the Soul of Man. London: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1961.
Shaw, Robert. An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1992.
Smith, Robert. Theology 602 Lecture Notes (The Doctrine of God), Sydney Missionary and Bible College, 2012.
Williamson, G. I. The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes. Philadelphia, Pa.: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co, 1964.

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