God’s Impassibility and Feelings
Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM). (original article here)
Question: Does God have feelings?
The Westminster Confession of Faith (2.1 – Of God, and of the Holy Trinity) states:
There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.
So, what should we understand concerning God’s impassibility?
When we read Scripture we see mention of many of God’s emotions such as: (1) anger (Deut 9:22; Psa 7:11; Rom 1:18), (2) compassion (Judges 2:18; Deut 32:36; Psa 135:14), (3) grief (Gen 6:6; Psa 78:40), (4) hate (Psa 5:5; 11:5; Prov 6:16), (5) jealousy (Exod 20:5; 34:14; Josh 24:19), (6) joy (Isa 62:5; Jer 32:41; Zeph 3:17), (7) laughter (Psa 2:4; 37:13; Prov 1:26), and (8) love (Jer 31:3; John 3:16; 1 John 4:8). God has these emotions! So, what could the Westminster divines be talking about when they write ‘without passions’?
The divines mean that God does not exhibit these emotions as mere humans do! He does not have mood swings. All of God’s emotions are rooted in his holy nature and are always expressed sinlessly. They flow from his perfection the way he has perfectly ordained them.
For instance, the Lord’s anger is rooted in his divine justice. His justice is pure, right, and holy. Thus his anger is perfectly righteous and predictable, never capricious (changeable or fickle) or malicious. So, in his anger, God never sins (Jas 1:13).
Here are some helpful quotes:
The schoolmen, and often the philosophical theologians, tell us that there is no feeling in God. This, they say, would imply passivity, or susceptibility of impression from without, which it is assumed is incompatible with the nature of God. . . Here again we have to choose between a mere philosophical speculation and the clear testimony of the Bible, and of our own moral and religious nature. Love of necessity involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, there can be no love. . . . The philosophical objection against ascribing feeling to God, bears, as we have seen, with equal force against the ascription to Him of knowledge or will. If that objection be valid, He becomes to us simply an unknown cause, what men of science call force; that to which all phenomena are to be referred, but of which we know nothing. We must adhere to the truth in its Scriptural form, or we lose it altogether. We must believe that God is love in the sense in which that word comes home to every human heart. (Systematic Theology)
James Petigru Boyce
The immutability thus set forth in the Scriptures and implied in the simplicity and absolute perfection of God is not, however, to be so understood as to deny in him some real ground for the Scripture statements of emotional feeling in the exercise of joy, pity, longsuffering and mercy, or of anger, wrath and avenging justice. We could as well deny some real ground for the attributes of love, justice and truth, which are at the basis of these emotions. (Abstract of Systematic Theology)
Benjamin B. Warfield
We have a God who is capable of self-sacrifice for us…. Now herein is a wonderful thing. Men tell us that God is, by very necessity of His own nature, incapable of passion, incapable of being moved by inducement from without; that he dwells in holy calm and unchangeable blessedness, untouched by human sufferings or human sorrows for ever, – haunting
The lucid interspace of world and world,
Where never creeps a cloud, nor moves a wind,
Nor ever falls the least white star of snow,
Nor ever lowest roll of thunder moans,
Nor sound of human sorrow mounts to mar His sacred, everlasting calm.
Let us bless God that it is not true. God can feel; God does love. We have Scriptural warrant for believing, as it has been perhaps somewhat inadequately but not misleadingly phrased, that moral heroism has a place within the sphere of the divine nature: we have Scriptural warrant for believing that, like the hero of Zurich, God has reached out loving arms and gathered to his own bosom that forest of spears which otherwise had pierced ours. But is not this gross anthropomorphism? We are careless of names: it is the truth of God. And we decline to yield up the God of the Bible and the God of our hearts to any philosophical abstraction. We have and we must have an ethical God; a God whom we can love, in whom we can trust. (Biblical and Theological Studies)
John M. Frame
Although God’s eternal decree does not change, it does ordain change. It ordains a historical series of events, each of which receives God’s evaluation. God evaluates different events in different ways. Those evaluations themselves are fixed in Gods eternal plan. But they are genuine evaluations of the events. It is not wrong to describe them as responses to these events.
Furthermore, we have seen that God is not only transcendent beyond time and space, but also immanent in all times and spaces. From these immanent perspectives, God views each event from within history. As he does, he evaluates each event appropriately, when it happens. Such evaluations are, in the most obvious sense, responses.
Does such responsiveness imply passivity in God? To say so would be highly misleading. God responds (both transcendently and immanently) only to what he has himself ordained. He has chosen to create a world that will often grieve him. So ultimately he is active, rather than passive. Some may want to use the term impassible to indicate that fact. (The Doctrine of God)
K. Scott Oliphint
There can be no question that the relation one has to God will significantly alter ones own disposition and destiny. That much is certainly true. But is it adequate simply to think that when Scripture speaks of God being gracious, on the one hand, and wrathful, on the other, the same disposition in God causes these differences in us? Is God’s anger toward one person an identical disposition as his grace and covenant love toward another? There seems to be no reasons to think so, and it seems clear that Scripture does not speak in these terms; such ideas violate basic linguistic sensibilities.
Rather, when Scripture says that the Lord’s anger was kindled, it really was kindled. Because God is personal, we should expect that he will react in different ways to things that please and displease him. These ascriptions of God in Scripture are not meant simply to tell us more about ourselves, but rather are meant to show us more of who God is, especially as he interacts with his human creatures. They are meant to show us who God is in light of his gracious condescension, generally, and of the gospel, more specifically, as given progressively throughout covenant history. (God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God)
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology (1871-73). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1989.
Boyce, James P. Abstract of Systematic Theology (1887). Hanford, CA: den Dulk Foundation.
Warfield, B.B. Biblical and Theological Studies. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968.
Frame, John M. The Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002.
Oliphant, K. Scott. God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.