Immutability and Impassibility
Article by Sam Renihan (original source here)
You may have
seen a popular commercial advertising the Snickers candy bar in which grumpy
persons are pacified by eating chocolate, nuts, and caramel. The premise of
this scene is summed up in the words “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” We
can, of course, resonate with this statement. Some people even talk about being
“hangry.” They are angry because they are hungry. We have natural appetites
(inclinations and disinclinations), and our moods change as our appetites are
satisfied or dissatisfied. There truly are times when the difference between
being content and irritable depends on a Snickers bar (or double stuff Oreos).
We know what we are like, but
is God like this? Does God experience emotional change? If we answer this
question based on popular Christian music, and even popular Christian
literature, we would reply that God does experience emotional change. But the
Christian creeds, the Christian tradition of theology proper (the doctrine of
God), and the Protestant and Reformed confessions of faith disagree.
What do the Scriptures teach about
emotions and God, and how can we formulate a responsible and faithful answer?
We will consider four points, focusing on how God describes himself in the
Scriptures, and how God teaches us to interpret his own language regarding
1. The Bible describes God in the language of
human experience and emotion, but denies that those very experiences are in
In 1 Samuel 15:11, God
declares, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from
following me and has not performed my commandments.” Later in 1 Samuel 15:29,
the same passage, this statement is qualified and controlled. “And also the
Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he
should have regret.” Other passages, like Numbers 23:19-20, reinforce the truth
that the difference between God and creatures controls the way we read
creaturely language about God. It says, “God is not man, that he should lie, or
a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do
it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
2. The Bible describes God in a way that makes
it impossible for him to undergo anything or be acted upon.
Take Genesis 1:1 into
consideration. There is a Creator, and there is creation. God did not create
something greater or more powerful than himself, nor did he confine himself
within the time and space of his creation. God is eternal and a se,
of himself, and all things are “from him and through him and to him” (Rom.
11:36). Consequently, God is always the agent, never the patient. God is always
fulfilling his purposes and never changing his mind, as stated in Numbers
Similarly, several of the names of God, especially “I AM THAT I AM,” are self-revelation using the word “to be.” God is that he is. He is perfect absolute independent being, the source of all that exists, the Creator of all things. Nothing can add to God who is I AM. Nothing can subtract from God who is I AM. Neither can God make himself more perfect or reduce his perfection.
God himself declares
his perfect unchanging nature to his people in Malachi 3:6, “For I the LORD do
not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” And we are
told the same in James 1:17, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from
above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or
shadow due to change.”
The truth that the
Bible describes God in the language of human experience and emotion, yet denies
that those experiences are in God, combined with the Scriptures’ description of
the perfection of the being of God, provides a firm and certain conclusion.
3. We must not equate the human language used
to describe God with God himself.
We can no more contain God in our language than you can contain the ocean in a thimble. The finite cannot contain the infinite. Thus, our minds and language can never wrap themselves around God and fully express him. But although we cannot know God fully, we can know him truly. God’s self-revelation may be suited to our creaturely capacities, but it is not false or empty.
Many authors have described God’s self-revelation through creaturely
communication as God lisping to us or stammering with us, as parents or nurses
speak to children. If God spoke to us in a manner that communicated the
infinity of his being and power, we would never understand it. We can’t
understand it. So, God speaks in our language, in creature-language. And as a
result, we can’t think that God has been contained in that language. We can’t
run straight from the creature language to the Creator without protecting that
language or qualifying it, as the Scriptures themselves have taught us.
There are two sides to be balanced here. And we can end up in two
ditches. On the one hand, we can’t reduce God to the creaturely language used
to describe him. God is not like us. But on the other hand, we have to remember
that these passages are still telling us something. God is speaking to us in
our language, and while we can’t equate him with our language, that doesn’t
mean that there’s nothing for us to learn. Quite the opposite.
when Scripture speaks of God repenting, regretting, or relenting, the point of
connection is not between the emotional state of a human that repents and some emotional
state in God, but in the action taken. When someone repents, they stop doing
what they were doing, and they begin to do something else. So also, God created
man, then he destroyed man; God made Saul king, then he removed him; God
threatened judgment on Nineveh, then he removed the sentence of judgment.
You can call that repentance
because of the analogy between God’s action and human actions, without taking
along with it the baggage of human emotional turmoil. When we repent, it’s
because something confronts us, and we are changed. Spiritually speaking, we
turn from sin to righteousness. Generally speaking, we encounter some problem,
we regret a decision, and we redo something or do something else. But God is
eternal and has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, accomplishing all his
holy will. So, God’s repentance is not an undergoing or a happening to God, but
from the creature’s perspective in time it is a reversal of actions, all of
which was decreed by God in eternity. God decreed from all eternity both to
create man, and to destroy him, to make Saul king, and then to remove him, to
threaten Nineveh, and then to deliver it. We see it all play out in time. The
sequence of God’s actions in time leads to a fourth point.
We need to distinguish between our eternal God in himself, and the outworking
of his decree in time and space.
God is not limited by time.
He is eternal. He created time. And everything that God has done, is doing, and
will do in time is the fulfillment or the outworking of his eternal decree.
This means that if we ascribe things like emotions to God, or reactions like
repenting, relenting, regretting, or being provoked to wrath, and if we
understand those as God existing in time and acting in time rather than the
outworking of his eternal and singular decree, we will have collapsed eternity
and time, and collapsed the Creator into a creature. God’s decree is one simple
cause with an unfathomable (to us) multitude of effects, all of which coalesce
in the glory of God through the redemption of the elect in the death and
resurrection of Christ, and the judgment of the unbelieving.
What this all boils down to
is that we speak of God in a way that fits with his infinite being and
perfection. And we speak of creatures in a way that fits their finite being and
imperfection. The Scriptures themselves teach us to do this when we consider what
they say about God, about creatures, and about God described in the language of
creatures. These four considerations prepare us to answer our original question
more specifically. Does God experience emotional change? Is God not God when
he’s hungry? Thankfully, God is not a man.
God is Love, who is good in
and of himself, pouring goodness on his creatures. This means that when God
does good to his creatures, he is loving them. And he is not loving them
because of something good in them that he is perceiving and responding to, but
he is loving them because he is love.
He is doing good because he is good. Love for us is when we perceive some good,
and are drawn toward it, and reciprocate good to it. We must apply love to
creatures and the Creator differently, according to their being. Therefore, God
is love, essentially. We love him, because he first loved us. His love is an
everlasting perfection, not an emotion. And this makes John’s words all the
sweeter when he says in 1 John 4:16, “So we have come to know and to believe
the love that God has for us. God is
love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
Mercy, again must be applied
to creatures in one way, and to God in another. Men are moved to mercy when
they perceive a need in another like them. We are merciful because we suffer
and feel alongside of another person. We enter into their state and we pity
them. We are overcome by sympathy or compassion. We help those to whom we
relate in their suffering.
It is not so with God. God
does not suffer. He cannot undergo or be acted upon. Does that mean he cannot
be merciful? Quite to the contrary. God is the one who helps the helpless even
though there is no connection between his nature and the helpless person. And
because he is free from those kinds of restrictions, he is able to have mercy
on anyone and everyone that he wills.
We are moved to sympathy
because we see something of ourselves in another person. We don’t feel mercy
for rocks being smashed. If God is so different than 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. Romans
10:13 assures us of this truth. “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the
Lord will be saved.”
Do not equate mercy in
mankind with mercy in God. If you do, God cannot have mercy at all. But God is
perfectly merciful. Mercy workers get overwhelmed. They see a lot of suffering
and they sometimes have to stop or take breaks. Ministers in the ministry
experience this. God is not subject to such weakness. He is like an immune
ebola doctor. That’s the God I need, not the doctor who might get sick from me
or with me. God’s mercy is a perfection, not a passion or affection. God’s
mercy is his helping the helpless. And therefore, God is the most merciful
because he helps those that are entirely unlike him, and he helps those that no
one else would help.
So, we can sincerely say with
Jeremiah in Lamentations 3:21-24, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I
have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come
to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is
my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”
This is probably the best
example of the problem of human language. We get angry. Is God perfectly and
eternally and infinitely angry? No. So, why do the Scriptures so often refer to
God as being angry? Remove the passion from anger. When creatures get angry
they cause some punishment or revenge to be poured out on the object of their
In men, our anger leads us to
all kinds of terrible and wicked revenges. But in God, anger describes God’s
perfect and unstoppable justice. God will cause the wicked to be punished. God
will pour out judgment and punishment upon the unrighteous. God will punish
sin. So, you can’t make God angry. God isn’t eternally burning with anger.
Rather we use the term angry to describe God’s immutable justice. And whereas
we get angry and can’t do anything about it, God perfectly brings judgment on
the objects of his wrath.
It’s very difficult to think
about anger without passion. There is righteous anger, but our anger is brought
about by something we perceive to be bad, whether we are right or wrong. God is
angry in the sense that he will cause justice and vengeance to be poured out on
the unrepentant and wicked. His anger is therefore an eternal perfection, not
an emotion as it is in us.
perfections of love, mercy, and justice being free from all passion, not being
emotions, is what theologians refer to as impassibility.
Because God is God, I AM THAT I AM, and because he is the eternal Creator, he
is unchangeable, always accomplishing his purposes, but never being acted upon.
God pours out love, mercy, and justice from the unchanging infinity of his
perfect being. And though the Scriptures describe God in creaturely language,
and though we experience God’s perfections of love, mercy, and justice in temporal
sequences, we cannot conclude from our creaturely perspective that God is
emotional. Rather, as the Scriptures have taught us, what we call emotions are
unchanging essential perfections in God.
So, we can say with the
“Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love
endures forever! Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures
forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His steadfast love endures
forever.’ Let those who fear the LORD say, ‘His steadfast love endures
forever’ (Psalm 118:1-4).