J.I. Packer on Divine Impassibility

According to J.I. Packer, we need to re-think the meaning of divine impassibility (note that this was before the “Open Theism” wars). He writes:

“This conception of God [as impassible] represents no single biblical term, but was introduced into Christian theology in the second century. What was it supposed to mean? The historical answer is: Not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in the face of the creation. Not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief, either. It means simply that god’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us. His are foreknown, willed, and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart form his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are. This understanding was hinted at earlier, but it is spelled out here because it is so important, and so often missed. Let us be clear: A totally impassive God would be a horror, and not the God of Calvary at all. He might belong in Islam; he has no place in Christianity. If, therefore, we can learn to think of the chosenness of God’s grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility, so-called, we will do well.”

J.I. Packer, “What Do You Mean When You Say God?” Christianity Today (Sept 1986): 31 (27-31).

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  • Nathan

    I have always struggled with some of the classic ‘divine attributes’ and their formulations…I won’t start about how frustrated I have been with some of John Piper’s comments about ‘God kills people everyday’ etc…however, one in particular that also troubles me is related to God’s foreknowledge and predestining of everything…the thought that God could be limited by his own foreknowledge..ie, even God can’t change the future cause he’s locked in by what He already knows…I know it’s a little of topic, but I reckon it is still worth thinking about.

  • David J. Houston

    If Packer wants to redefine impassibility in this way then he must accept that God is in time rather than being timeless because an eternal God cannot experience changing emotional states even if he has chosen which states he will experience. That would require a succession of events in the life of God which would necessitate that he experiences the ebb and flow time. However, if Packer wishes to retain the traditional view of God’s transcendence of time, he could say that God experiences a single divine emotion that encompasses his sentiment for the entirety of the song he sings through creation and providence. If we listen to a great symphony we are moved by the music to experience an entire range of emotions but God, as the master composer, feels all of the intricacies of our emotions but he does so infinitely, eternally, simply, and immutably. He is not moved by the music but rather he moves the music and experiences the joy of himself – the source of the grand melody itself. This is traditionally referred to as his blessedness, if I’m not mistaken. Personally, I would be more than a little concerned if God became upset by his creation in the way that I do. And why should he be? He ordained all that comes to pass and his plans are never frustrated!

    • Doesn’t God know what time it is “now”?

  • Dr. Dolezal at http://reformedforum.org/podcasts/ctc237/ pretty well refuted Packer’s innovation, I think. Well worth you time to listen to. Impassibility is still the way to go.

  • John

    I dont suppose you can link the full article? I am very interested in this and it was alluded to previously on another blog but the Ct archives dont go back far enough