God without Passions: A Primer by Samuel Renihan“God does not have the same wisdom, love, and mercy that we have. God has such things according to what he is; in other words, not as qualities which can be removed or added, increased or decreased, but essentially, eternally, and perfectly.”
It’s unfortunate and sad to me that many Christians these days seem to minimize the importance of doctrine, stressing instead the importance of relationship and experience. But who seeks out and develops relationships with people without taking the time to get to know them? What kind of relationship would I have with my husband and children if I didn’t take the time to get to know them and to understand their strengths and weaknesses, and didn’t care to learn what was important to them, what they enjoyed, or how they felt about things? God has graciously condescended to man in revealing himself to us through both his Word and his Son, Jesus Christ, so that we may know “what man is to believe about God and what duty God requires of man” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question #3). As a believer, it’s my duty and should be my joy to learn all I can about God.
As a result of my Christian upbringing and study, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable and grounded in Christian doctrine, but there’s so much more to learn. This year I learned a new theological term and doctrine: the doctrine of Divine Impassibility. This doctrine has been defined as follows: “God does not experience emotional changes either from within or effected by his relationship to creation.” While this is not a new doctrine, it came to the forefront as a result of a controversy that arose in our national association of churches. Pastor Samuel Renihan has developed two helpful books on this subject, both entitled God without Passions. The Reader edition is a compilation of excerpts from writings dating back to the 16th and 17th century that address the topic of God’s attributes of unchangeableness (immutability) and impassibility; it’s good source material and an excellent tool for Bible teachers and pastors. In the Primer, Pastor Renihan has made the information in The Reader more accessible to the average lay person by condensing the material and compiling it into lessons on the subject, including study questions at the end of each chapter.
A false theological view of God known as Open Theism teaches that in order not to violate man’s free will, God chooses to limit His knowledge of man’s choices, and as a result he is always acquiring new knowledge, takes risks, adapts and reacts to the choices people make, and is capable of being surprised and making mistakes. While most Christians would quickly reject this concept of God, many prefer to think of God as an emotional being, one who has “feelings” for his children, and this is the aspect of God that Renihan’s God without Passions addresses.
While some passages in Scripture describe God as if he experiences human emotions, other Scriptures clearly teach that God is not human and does not change. We read verses that state that God regretted, that he relented, or that he was grieved or provoked. The fifteenth chapter of First Samuel provides a perfect example of this. Consider the following two verses:
“[God said], I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not performed My commandments” (I Sam. 15:11).
“The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for He is not a man, that He should have regret” (I Sam. 15:29).
So how do we interpret and handle seemingly contradictory statements such as these? How can we reconcile the idea that God is love with the idea that God does not experience emotion? Does this make God a cold, unfeeling Deity? On the other hand, if God is an emotional being, what does that mean in regards to his stability and trustworthiness? Does what happens in the world or what I do affect how he “feels” and consequently how he responds?
Renihan begins the book by first setting forth some principles of interpreting Scripture (known as hermeneutics). He lays some further ground work by looking at the nature of God, especially in comparison with the nature of man. He points out some key truths about God – what he is and what he is not – that must be kept in mind when considering how God is described and seen as acting in the Bible. Here are some basic truths:
- God is infinite and incomprehensible. Man will never be able to completely understand or explain everything having to do with God.
- God is wholly Other. While everything is part of his creation, as the Creator, he exists outside of and separate from his creation.
- God is a spirit. He does not have a soul or a body like man has, nor does he have the faculties that belong to a body or soul.
- God’s attributes are more than merely descriptions of what he is like; they are perfections of his very being, and his attributes are infinite and unchangeable just as God himself is.
Paragraph One of the Second Chapter of the London Baptist Confession of Faith states it this way:
The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions.
We must be careful not to take what we know and experience as humans and transfer them to God. In fact, if we make God into a likeness of our own imagining, we essentially become idolators. It’s important to make a distinction between what God tells us is true about himself, and how he is described as interacting with his creatures. While the Scriptures may speak of God’s people as being the “apple of his eye” or being kept under the “shelter of his wings,” we realize that the purpose of these passages isn’t to tell us that God has literal eyes or wings. The writer of these passages has chosen to use metaphorical language to convey something about God and his dealings with his people. This literary device is called anthropomorphism, the attributing of human parts or traits to something (or in this case, Someone) that is not human. Likewise, the Scriptures at times use anthropopathic language, assigning to God human emotions for the purpose of conveying a truth about God. But it’s crucial to always keep in mind that God is NOT human and doesn’t have the parts that humans possess.
Because God is what he is, he is simple. God does not have parts. He is not a composite being. You cannot add anything up in God that constitutes his existence. He simply is. That is why you cannot classify God in any category.
In fact, God is not made up of attributes, such as love, wisdom, goodness, and justice. Rather, he is Love, Wisdom, Goodness, Justice. These are not as much his attributes as they are his eternal, unchanging perfections.
Renihan takes a closer look at three specific attributes of God that are often misconstrued as emotions of God: Love, Mercy and Anger. For example, he explains regarding God’s mercy:
We are merciful because we suffer and feel alongside of another person. We enter into their state and we pity them. We are overcome with sympathy or compassion. It is not so with God…We are moved to sympathy because we see something of ourselves in another person. We do not feel mercy for rocks being smashed because, well, who cares? If God is so different from us, couldn’t he say the same? No, because the less God’s mercy is conditioned upon his participation in our nature, the greater he is able to be merciful to all as he wills.
Some would respond to this statement by arguing, “Oh, but rocks are nothing in comparison with humans.” Indeed, we humans are nothing in comparison with God, yet we like to think we are. The fact is, God is not in any way obligated to extend his love, mercy or grace to such as we, and yet he has chosen to do so. That’s what makes it mercy and grace.
I am grateful that God’s love is not an emotion like man’s love. Our love always depends upon the object of our love; it fluctuates based on how that object affects our feelings. On the other hand, God’s love emanates from himself and is dependent upon nothing outside of himself. It is his essence.
Well, what about Jesus, the God-Man? Renihan addresses this matter as well. We sometimes speak of “the passion of Christ.” Jesus has a divine nature, and yet as a human didn’t he experience emotions and, in fact, suffer? As the second person of the Trinity from eternity past, at a specific point in history Jesus permanently took on a second nature, that of a human at his incarnation. He didn’t cease being God, nor did he set aside his divine nature. So, in Christ reside “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures inseparably joined together in one person” (London Baptist Confession of Faith, Ch. 8). In fact, it was crucial and necessary for him to do so, because as a spirit, God could not share in the suffering of man, nor suffer in our place. In fact, the incarnation of Christ testifies to the fact that God cannot suffer or experience emotions like man does, for if he could, it wouldn’t have been necessary for Christ to take on the form of a man.
Renihan finishes his book with some personal applications, reminding us that the doctrine of God is practical, central, and biblical. Theology is important, and the doctrines that we understand and believe will affect the way we live out our Christian life in this world. The more we learn about our God, the more we will desire to worship and serve him. Regarding the specific doctrine of Divine Impassibility, Pastor Renihan explains that “God’s unchanging perfections are the foundation of his promises and the foundation of your perseverance.” To those who have come to God through Jesus Christ, these truths are a source of much comfort and hope.
“I am the Lord; I do not change. Therefore you, O believer, are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6).
This book is so important and valuable that I’ve decided to give one away! Everyone who either Likes or Comments here or on the I’m All Booked Facebook post by December 31 will be entered into a drawing to receive a free copy of God without Passions: a Primer.
- New Book: God without Passions (confessingbaptist.com)
- Divine Impassibility – ARBCA position paper (www.arbca.com)
- Upcoming Book: Confessing the Impassible God (confessingbaptist.com)
- Divine Impassibility and our Suffering God (www.whitehorseinn.org)
- Divine Impassibility and the Passion of Christ (www.reformation21.org)
- The Immutability of God (www.spurgeon.org)