Transcendent yet immanent. Knowable yet unknowable. Merciful yet wrathful. These contrasting descriptions are all true equally and at the same time as they describe the nature and character of God as revealed in Scripture. There are many people who have a hard time wrapping their minds around how God can both transcend the human experience as creator, wholly other and holy God, and yet, this same God accommodates Himself to the human experience in Christ incarnate and walks on the very earth He created and among the very creatures He created. These are tension points in Scripture for people trying to make sense of them and yet God and His word do not seem to so much as bat an eye.
Along these lines of tension is the discussion of God’s impassibility. Though mention of the impassibility of God stretches back to the early church fathers there have been very few books specifically dedicated to the topic. Recently, Crossway has published a new book dedicated to the topic titled God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion by Rob Lister. Lister earned his Ph.D. From The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at the Talbot School of Theology. Lister’s goal is to address how it is that Scripture presents God as both unchangeable and yet expresses passions that might imply some kind of change when viewed from the human experience.
The essence of the doctrine of passibility is that God suffers in the divine nature. This can be seen to them most clearly in the incarnation of Christ. The line of thought runs as follows: (1) Jesus was God incarnate, (2) Jesus displayed passion and experienced suffering on the cross, (3) therefore, God is susceptible to passion and suffering. (p. 125-26) Contra this, impassibility is the doctrine that God does not experience suffering in the divine nature. Lister defines being impassible and impassioned as follows:
- Impassibility is the belief that God cannot be manipulated, overwhelmed, or surprised into an emotional interaction that he does not desire to have or allow to happen. (p. 36)
- Impassioned is the belief that God 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)
Again, contra the passibilist’s view of the incarnation, Lister sees the incarnation as the perfect embodiment of the doctrine of impassibility.
The incarnation furnishes us with the supreme example of the dual biblical affirmation of divine self-sufficiency and gracious condescension. Accordingly, we see that the second person of the Trinity had to become incarnate in order to overcome natural divine impassibility (i.e. the impassibility of the divine order), and thereby accomplish the redemptively necessary goal of humanly experiencing suffering and death on behalf of sinners. (p. 37)
Lister makes a strong, detailed and deep case for God being both impassible and yet impassioned. Given the depth of the book I will only be able to touch on some of the more salient features of Lister’s argument.
Lister’s work is extremely well reasoned and thought out. It is exegetically based and driven on solid Biblical, theological and hermeneutical ground. In short, Lister’s argument holds the weight of the freight it intends to carry.
There are several gems to Lister’s argument that are worth briefly pointing out. First, as with any good discussion on a topic like this Lister revisits the primary sources in regards to the understanding of the history of the church on divine impassibility. In chapters two and three Lister’s addresses the Hellenization Hypothesis which seeks to discredit the Patristic notion of divine impassibility on the basis that it borrowed it completely from Greek thought. Recognizing that this claim commits the genetic fallacy Lister points out that merely borrowing language and concepts of contemporary philosophy is in itself not problematic and in fact necessary. Lister rightly points out that “the critical issue, then, is discerning whether biblical authority has been compromised in the attempt to express biblical truth through borrowed terminology.” (p. 61)
Second, as briefly mentioned above, Lister points to the incarnation as the embodiment of the impassibilist’s position. Lister argues that because the divine nature cannot suffer in the way that was necessary to affirm, among other things, the truth of Heb. 4:15, Jesus had to become incarnate in order to accomplish the cross. Christ did not suffer as a man to show us suffering in the divine nature of God but rather God became a man in Christ so that he could suffer. (p. 270) Lister is not saying that the divine nature cannot express emotion but rather, “as one expression of the explicit purpose of the incarnation that Jesus carry out the entirety of his mission – including his obedience, emotion, suffering, and death – as a man in dependence on God……Jesus our elder brother, who as the perfect image of God perfectly displayed for us what godly human passion should look like.” (p. 262) The point on the incarnation is one that Lister makes throughout much of the book.
Closely tied together are the third and fourth points. Third, there is the Creator/creature distinction. The point drawn from this distinction is that though God and man experience the same kinds of emotions they do not in the same way by virtue of the ontological difference between the two. The divine nature is perfect, infinite, transcendent and incorporeal. Man on the other hand is not. This leads to the fourth feature of analogical revelation. It is obne thing to affirm the emotional attributions to God in Scripture as real but it another thing to anchor our understanding of them first in ourselves (who are sinners) rather than the other way around. (p. 187) The mistake that passibilists make is to nearly view God’s emotions and ours as univocal. “We must never mistake relationship or emotional engagement with God for relationship with a peer.” (p. 216) This is further evident in being created in the image of God. “We are God’s analogues and not his ontological peers.” (p. 219) The Creator/creature distinction should keep this from happening.
Fifth, since Lister takes a decidedly Reformed approach (p. 36) to the impassibility of God he holds to God’s exhaustive divine foreknowledge (EDF). His explanation of this is clearly tied to the definition above of divine impassibility.
EDF precludes the possibility that God might ever be “caught off-guard,” thus experiencing an emotional reaction based on the surprise that comes to him from encountering the unforeseen. Additionally, EDF includes the fact that God foreknows not only all that his creatures will do, but also his own emotional (and volitional) responses to his creatures’ actions, before he himself ever experiences those responses. (p. 237-38)
Finally, though not unique to Lister’s approach, it bears pointing out the scope of Lister’s intent in the book. Lister is trying to produce a retroductive model of logical reasoning which “attempts to present a comprehensive theory sufficient to account for all the relevant data.” (p. 174) This approach seeks to hold to a theology that incorporates all the relevant data and thus develop a synthesized conclusion, rather than basing ones entire theology based on one passage of Scripture to the detriment of much else.
God is Impassible and Impassioned is a solid defense of the traditional doctrine of divine impassibility. Lister succeeds in defending the doctrine while also further expanding on some points that are both necessary and natural. That the title includes describing God as impassioned speaks to the balance Lister carries throughout the book. Lister is intent on holding onto the tension both words create because that is where he sees Scripture taking us. Lister’s presentation and critique of the history of this doctrine is fair and shows he has done the hard work of reading the primary sources. Lister addresses not only the most notable proponents of passibilism but also points out those within the conservative evangelical camp such as John Stott and John Feinberg. Though he disagrees with Open Theists, his treatment of them is fair and there is surprisingly no discussion of Greg Boyd who is probably the most conservative of the group though the most vocal and influential.
In regards to the biblical text Lister does not shy away from the hard texts. He ably discusses themes and exegetes texts like God’s jealousy in Deut. 4:23-24 and Deut. 6:13-15, the anger of God in Judges 2:11-15, God’s covenant love in the Psalms and Prophets and the famous repentance/regret/relenting passages like 1 Sam. 15. In the chapter dedicated to exploring the implications of impassibility and the incarnation Lister further deals with various relevant Christological passages such as the passion narrative, 1 Pt. 3:18-4:2 and Heb. 2:9-18 and 4:15. The only thing I would have liked to see more of was on the chapter on the incarnation. Though it ran throughout the book it could have been longer.
In short this book has added to the impassibility discussion and has brought life back into a virtually dormant discussion. This is not a book for the light of heart but I recommend it to theologically informed pastors, students and theologians.
NOTE: I received this book for free from Crossway in exchange for a review. The words and thoughts expressed are my own and I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.
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