God is Impassible and Impassioned: An Updated Framework for Divine Emotion

Review of God is Impassible and Impassioned by Rob Lister

Impassibility is not a common topic of conversation in the pews, but it’s been a debate raging in religion departments and seminaries for quite some time. Rob Lister’s dissertation at Southern Seminary made it into book form as God is Impassible and Impassioned, where his thesis is in the title–God is both impassible and impassioned. Impassibility does not preclude having divine emotions. This book has become a go-to book among evangelicals when considering the question of divine impassibility (a question that admittedly most evangelicals don’t consider very often) and it deserves pride of place when it comes to standard works on the topic.

Lister’s definition of “impassibility” is the touchstone around which the entire book is constructed. This being the case, let me quote him liberally on this point. He writes,

Respecting theology proper, my primary thesis is that, when appropriately understood, a holistic reading of Scripture itself compels the conclusion that proper sense of both impassibility and impassionedness are true of God. To expand a bit, I take it that God is impassible in the sense that he cannot be manipulated, overwhelmed, or surprised into an emotional interaction that he does not desire to have or allow to happen. But this is not at all the same thing as saying that God is devoid of emotion, nor is it the equivalent of saying that he is not affected by his creatures. To the contrary, God is impassioned (i.e., perfectly vibrant in his affections), and he may be affected by his creatures, but as God, he is so in ways that accord rather than conflict with his will to be so affected by those whom, in love, he has made” (p. 36). [Italics author’s]

I. Dealing with the “Hellenization Hypothesis”

Lister critiques how “impassibility” is usually defined. Popularly understood, impassibility means emotionless; that is, God is so transcendent that he is neither affected by his creatures nor emotionally vulnerable with his creatures. Lister challenges this portrayal as a caricature, reviews the literature on impassibility throughout Christian history, and develops an alternative theological model/hermeneutic to understand God’s emotional life.

Both liberal and conservative Christians have imbibed the so-called “hellenization hypothesis”. The idea is that the early church fathers polluted subsequent Christian thought by adopting Greek notions of God (Stoicism, Middle Platonism, Neoplatonism, etc.). Lister argues against this hypothesis on two levels: 1) Hellenistic philosophy itself, and 2) patristic literature.

First, no Hellenistic philosophy espoused “a personal, creator deity marked by absolute emotional detachment from his creation” (p. 61). Lister argues from the primary sources that Hellenistic philosophical schools left room for divine emotion and even affirmed it in a qualified manner.

Second, the patristic literature shows that the early church fathers are generally supportive (at least implicitly) of Lister’s definition of “impassible as invulnerable,” as opposed to “impassible as emotionless.” Lister labels his definition as “qualified impassibility,” which most church fathers ascribed to (again, as far as the primary sources reveal). There are some examples of “extreme-impassibility”, meaning “a much less qualified notion of divine impassibility–one that tilted in a hyper-transcendent direction and thus proved an impediment to accounting for divine involvement with creation” (p. 95). Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria fall under this model. A third model, “extreme-passibility” would be the ancient heresy known as patripassianism, which was a modalistic theology that declared that the Father suffered on the cross. Overall, the church fathers maintained a posture of deference to scriptural authority rather than philosophical abstraction.

Having addressed and discredited the hellenization hypothesis, Lister demonstrates that his understanding of impassibility has a long history in Christian thought and hence is not unprecedented.

II. Impassibility and Impassionedness in History of Christian Thought

Lister proffers short vignettes of famous Christian thinkers as either affirming this “two-pronged” model of impassible and impassioned, or as leaving enough room for such a model to operate. He covers Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Stephen Charnock. Martin Luther, with his radical theology of the cross, is the only notable theologian Lister describes as being a passibilist.

After describing individuals of the Medieval and Reformation eras, Lister addresses modern theologians, which is possibly the most critical part in this historical run-through. In the passibilist tradition, his attention rests on the theologian Jurgen Moltmann, while painting a broader picture of the whole passibilist enterprise. Lister discusses the passibilist view of the incarnation and the cross–Jesus in his divine nature had to be passible in order to truly, authentically experience suffering. In this view, passibilism offers the most convincing theodicy. Suffering is part of the fabric of the cosmos and hence suffering in this life is not a problem, as God himself suffers with us. In addition to incarnation and theodicy, passibilists generally follow a certain hermeneutic that argues for a plain reading of Scripture that takes “divine emotion” texts as literally true.

Lister finally shifts to contemporary impassibilist thought among philosophical theologians (Richard Creel), Roman Catholics (Thomas Weinandy), and evangelicals (affirmers Gerald Bray, Paul Helm; rejecters John Stott, John Feinberg; modifiers John Frame, Millard Erickson).

III. Lister’s Theological Model and Hermeneutic

Lister dedicates the bulk of the book to developing the case for the two-pronged model. I can hardly do justice to his well-reasoned arguments in this review. The sheer breadth of Scriptural texts and divine attributes that Lister considers lends strong credence to his model as an operable lens by which we might understand God’s revealed emotions.

Personally, the best way for me to find mental hooks for all the ideas Lister throws at his readers was by looking at rebuttals to the passibilist thought structure. Regarding the incarnation and the cross, passibilists argue for the necessity that the divine suffered for the cross to have any real meaning, but Lister draws out the logical conundrum of this position. Why did Jesus need to become incarnate if God already experiences suffering? The Son came in the flesh to suffer in the flesh in order to overcome the impassibility natural to the divine nature. Thus God must not naturally be subject to suffering. Lister deals with this question more fully in his final chapter before the conclusion.

Regarding theodicy, Lister accuses passibilists of reasoning from theodicy to theology, not from theology to theodicy. In other words, passibilists first find a philosophically convincing solution to the problem of evil and then adjust their understanding of God to match this solution. Moreover, this theodicy leaves open the problem of soteriology. How can a God subject to suffering save us from suffering? The pastoral application is surely undermined.

Regarding hermeneutics, Lister finds the passibilists as anthropocentric readers of Scripture. The Bible ascribes emotions to God, but we should not thereby assume that these emotions are human-like. God is revealing something about his emotional life, but—using Calvin’s words—is lisping. Though human emotional language is used, it is not univocal. God is both ontologically (in his being) different from us, as well as ethically (in his emotions) different from us.

But all this does not leave us with a God without passion. In fact, God is the most passionate being in the universe. God is full of passion/emotion already in the intra-trinitarian love. Because God’s emotions are not like ours (fickle and tainted with sin), this full emotional life of love and joy cannot be manipulated. He doesn’t need us and therefore cannot be involuntarily affected by us. He is fully content in himself because he is emotionally full, not because he is emotionless.

IV. Why Should We Care?

All this talk of passibility, impassibility, anthropocentric emotions, etc. all sounds more intellectually stimulating than practical, yet  Lister explicitly draws out several applications.

Lister writes, “this model’s promise stems from the comfort and the confidence that it commends to believers awaiting the final outcome of their faith (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:3-9). On the terms of this model, the believer has not only the comfort of knowing that God is with us in all that we face, but also the confidence that God is with us precisely as the conqueror, and not the victim, of suffering, sin, and death” (p. 282). In other words, by seeing how God is both impassible and impassioned, we can appropriately ascribe authentic sympathy to God while maintaining his ability to conquer and save. I actually started reading God is Impassible and Impassioned because I was leading a Bible study on Hebrews and wanted to better understand the passages discussing Jesus sympathizing with our weaknesses. My understanding of impassibility at the time was as the opposite of impassionedness, hence my inability to reconcile Jesus’ sympathy with his invulnerability.

The two-pronged model also is tied to a theology of emotion. It’s popular among evangelicals (particularly Reformed and others who view Pentcostalism and the broader charistmatic movement with suspicion) to denigrate the role of emotions in the Christian life. In fact, “our problem is not ordinarily that we have too much emotion, but that we have too little, or more precisely, we have too weak of an affection for the things that please the Lord. Sanctification involves not only learning more about God, but loving the God we learn about ever more deeply” (p. 283). I think God is Impassible and Impassioned helps us do just that–love God more as we learn more about him.

To be sure, passibilism is alive and well in the academy. As a religion major as an undergraduate, one of my mentors was and is a process theologian. When I first learned what he believed about God, I exclaimed, “You’re an open theist. I thought you guys were all gone?” My professor explained that open theism, or more precisely process theology as a broader school, was alive and well in philosophy and religious studies programs. From the point of view of my own Reformed camp, I was blind to other movements. So I would add this third answer to the “so what” question: thinking on these issues gives us insights into the wider intellectual current beyond our narrowly conceived borders.

I gifted a copy to my friendly process theologian mentor and he’s promised to read it (and, he added, disagree with it). I hope you too will read it.

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