God and His Impassibility

phil-johnsonThe following I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation. And Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, Lord, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? (Exodus 32:10-11).

Two things are perfectly clear from such an account: First, we are not to read this passage and imagine that God is literally subject to fits and temper tantrums. His wrath against sin is surely something more than just a bad mood. We know this passage is not to be interpreted with a wooden literalness.

How can we be so sure? Well, Scripture clearly states that there is no actual variableness in God (cf. James 1:17). He could not have truly and literally been wavering over whether to keep His covenant with Abraham (Deuteronomy 4:31). Moses’ intercession in this incident (Exodus 32:12-14) could not literally have provoked a change of mind in God (Numbers 23:19). In other words, a strictly literal interpretation of the anthropopathism in this passage is an impossibility, for it would impugn either the character of God or the trustworthiness of His Word.

Nonetheless, a second truth emerges just as clearly from this vivid account of God’s righteousness anger. The passage destroys the notion that God is aloof and uninvolved in relationship with His people.

In other words, we can begin to make sense of the doctrine of impassibility only after we concede the utter impossibility of comprehending the mind of God.

The next step is to recognize the biblical use of anthropopathism. The anthropopathisms must then be mined for their meaning. While it is true that these are figures of speech, we must nonetheless acknowledge that such expressions mean something. Specifically, they are reassurances to us that God is not uninvolved and indifferent to His creation.

However, because we recognize them as metaphorical, we must also confess that there is something they do not mean. They do not mean that God is literally subject to mood swings or melancholy, spasms of passion or temper tantrums. And in order to make this very clear, Scripture often stresses the constancy of God’s love, the infiniteness of his mercies, the certainty of His promises, the unchangeableness of His mind, and the lack of any fluctuation in His perfections. “With [God there] is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). This absolute immutability is one of God’s transcendent characteristics, and we must resist the tendency to bring it in line with our finite human understanding.