Divine Impassibility: The Favorite Whipping Boy of Contemporary Theologians And Laymen Alike!

Of all the attributes of God, I don’t know of one that’s more gratuitously controversial than divine impassibility (with the possible exception of divine simplicity).

What I’ve found among many theologians is that they never define their terms, and this is also seen in popular theological and philosophical debates. This leads to awkward and angry debates where people are talking past each other…even though they actually do agree, conceptually speaking (whether or not they know it). Whether or not you think God exists, it’s important that we are clear with our terms.

So, what does impassibility mean? Because DEPENDING on what ONE MEANS, almost everyone or everyone will/should agree. Hence, there is no “the” doctrine of divine impassibility; that’s a misnomer. 

For starters, impassibility means something like ‘not being able to suffer’ or ‘without passions’. Even this is unfortunate because it seems the term “passions” has evolved over time; perhaps the same has happened with the term ‘impassibility’, but I’m not making a semantic argument about what the term should (prescriptively) mean. What proponents of impassibility (descriptively) mean is that God’s “emotions” are not erratic. ‘Without passion’ here doesn’t mean ‘without “emotion”.’ The reason I’m saying “emotion” in quotes is that things like love in God would obviously not be exactly the same in God as in creatures (because, being immaterial, God wouldn’t have physical sensations). They would be analogous, perhaps even metaphorical or symbolic sometimes, too. 

For this view, God’s emotions wouldn’t go up and down. God wouldn’t be mad at one point in time to X degree and glad at one point to Y degree. This entails that proponents of divine impassibility are NOT saying God is without emotions, full-stop. That is a strawman argument, and creating strawman arguments is irrational

A second—and related view of divine impassibility—says that God isn’t overwhelmed by emotions. God loves and God hates, but God isn’t overcome by emotions or overcome by emotions outside of Himself.

A third view of impassibility says that God can be overcome by suffering or passions/emotions, but only if God chooses to do so. I could keep going with different views. The point is that “the” doctrine of divine impassibility is not as simple as saying that God is without “emotions” or with apathy, which (again) is a caricature. Being apathetic would be impassivity, not impassibility.

And the more fundamental point is that everyone needs to be clear about what they mean by their use of particular terms; that doesn’t just include discussion about divine attributes (e.g. divine immutability, impassibility, simplicity, timelessness, etc.).

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