Monday, February 01, 2016

Confessing the impassible God - II

This is the concluding half of the Foreword to

Confessing the Impassible God (RBAP, Palmdale, California)

edited by 

Ronald S. Baines
Richard C. Barcellos
James P. Butler
Stefan T. Lindblad
James M.  Renihan


We have already noticed the close connection between divine impassibility and divine immutability, that one is an aspect of the other. They are together linked to divine eternity. God is the Creator of all creatures in time, but is not himself in time, but is timeless, “before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). Not being in time he is not liable to change; he does not age, nor is part of his life over,  as parts of all our lives are over. For him time does not pass away. He has no memory, and he “only has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16).  So there is no time in which he changes, changing his mind, experiencing onsets of moods, and so forth.  The divinely-created universe is contingent in the sense that it is dependent on this God, who sustains and governs all that he has made.
Being the Creator, he is not created, and so he is not dependent on anything else. No one or no thing has created the Creator, nor does he simply happen to be. He exists independently, in the purest and most basic sense. “Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel?” (Isa. 40:13). He is pure spirit: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24), and so not constituted out of parts, as the creation is, parts composed of atoms and grains and cells, or a stream of consciousness. That would be an absurd idea in the case of the Creator; for where would these parts come from? And if we could answer that question, how could we avoid the conclusion that these parts, out of which God is composed, whatever they were, were more basic than God himself? No. God is independent, and not composed; he has a simple unity. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord, is one” (Deut. 6:4). And so, God being one simple essence, the Trinity is not a tripartite being, but each member of the Trinity is the wholly indivisible Godhead, not partitioning the one God, but distinguishing it in ways that are basic to the Christian religionthe Father, the Son, and  the Holy Spirit. Ways of thinking that do justice to God’s eternal being run like a golden thread through the confessions of the church, including the Baptist Confession elaborated in Confessing the Impassible God.
Those in the past who confessed this God, and those who now do the same, recognize that such a God is incomprehensible. This term does not mean that talk of such a God is gibberish, incoherent, but that the being of God is so extraordinary that we cannot fully get our minds around it. We cannot comprehend God, but we can apprehend him from what he reveals to us about himself in Scripture. Nevertheless, to think and to talk of God in these ways requires development of the mental discipline that is also a part of the historic religion of Christianity.
So here we have a family of ideassimplicity, independence, necessity, eternity, immutability, impassibilityeach interconnected with the others in our understanding of God’s transcendence. Divine impassibility is not some arbitrary invention,  due to the quirkiness  of  theologians, but it points instead to the intensely mysterious character of God. Understanding even a little of such grandeur taxes our minds, and stretches our thinking, leading us to use language that Scripture itself usesnegative language, to say what God is not, and metaphorical language to portray the ways that God deals with us in creation and redemption, and stretched language to attempt to do justice to God’s supreme eminence.


What is especially noteworthy about this book is the care and respect with which the writers handle this biblical and confessional heritage. This is not a case of ancestor worship, or of mere antiquarianism, but it arises from a renewed appreciation of “historic catholic theology,” as one contributor puts it. It has often been claimed that such theology was the result of the influence of Hellenistic philosophy on the early thinkers of the church, with the consequent smothering of the pure biblical teaching. But the doctrine of divine impassibility is not affirmed as a result of philosophical speculation. Rather as this book shows more than once, the doctrine of God of which his impassibility is an aspect has a firm basis in sound hermeneutical principles and doctrinal exegesis in both the Old and New Testaments. Included in this outlook is the drawing of the distinction between literal language about God, such as that he is the “only wise God,” immutable and so forth, and the metaphorical language according to which God changes, and has passions and bodily states, culminating in his supreme act of accommodation, in which he becomes incarnate as the Christ. Both the words of God and the coming to us of the incarnated Word of God are aspects of God’s work of sovereign grace.
This exegetical tradition arises from a deep conviction that Scripture is one word of God, possessing a theological unity. There are not many, diverse theologies in Scripture. The Creator is not a creature, nor does he have creaturely features. As we have been noting, unlike the gods of classical antiquity he is the origin of all that is in time and space, but is himself not subject to it. A natural question that arises is: But what about the incarnation? Does God not enter time and space at that point? The key to thinking clearly about the incarnation is to bear in mind that in it God became man not by ‘morphing’ into a human being, but by the person of the Logos taking on human nature and so becoming the two-natured Mediator, the God-man, the Savior. For in the incarnation God did not change in his essence, but took on human nature. This also is seriously mysterious. We shall never come near to understanding what happened, least of all if we try to imagine what it was like to be Jesus. As the definition of Chalcedon, formulated in AD 451, put it:

The properties of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one “person” and in one hypostasis. They are not divided or cut into two prosopa, but are together the one and only begotten Logos of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.[1]

The seventeenth-century Particular Baptist confessions adopted the disciplines of thinking about the incarnation developed by the early church.


Finally, the commitment to this pure Christian theism, of which divine impassibility is an aspect, has a practical outworking, a practical theology, issuing in a distinctive piety. To know God is to know this God, and so to know our own creatureliness; to know something of his majesty and grace, and so by reflex to be aware of our own insufficiency, guilt and unrighteousness. This eternal God works out our salvation in space and time in various ways, without in any way diminishing his goodness.  And “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:12-13). Belief leads to action, and distinctive beliefs lead to distinctive actions. As a consequence of who he is, such a God is not at our every beck and call.
On July 10th, 1666, the house of Anne Bradstreet, the wife of a colonial administrator, burned down at night. The fire awoke the family, and all escaped from the building and watched the fire engulfing everything. In the poem that she wrote in memory of this occurrence these words occur:

And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That layd my goods now in the dust,
Yea, so it was, and so ‘twas just.
It was his own: it was not mine;
Far be it that I should repine.[2]

She recognized herself to be in the hands of her eternal God, and believed that what he willed was best. God’s gracious purposes for his people remain unchangeable even if the reasons why he permits difficulties are often not presently disclosed to them.


This book can be said to present an interdisciplinary exposition and so a cumulative defense of divine impassibility and of the doctrine of God of which that is an aspect. Each line of argument strengthens and supports the other. Its foundation in Scripture, and the hermeneutics employed, show the doctrine to be not speculative or abstract but to have its foundation in the varied data of the both Testaments of the Bible. The chapters on history show that divine impassibility is not a recent whimsy or the peculiar invention of a Christian sect, but the historic catholic faith. Those on the confession and the doctrine of God set out its Baptist pedigree, and the connectedness of impassibility with other distinctions made in the doctrine of God, and their overall coherence. Each line of enquiry sensitizes the palate to taste the others. There is a polemical strand throughout the book, contrasting this view with those of Open Theism and aberrant statements from contemporary Calvinists and others. But these arguments are used not to score points but to set forth and make even clearer the positive, historic teaching on divine impassibility, by contrasting it with other currently-held views.
I am honored to have been asked to write this Foreword, and delighted with what I have read. Confessing the Impassible God  is heartily recommended.

[1] John Leith, Creeds of the Churches (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1963), 36.
[2] Anne Bradstreet (c.1612-1672), “Here followes some verses upon the burning of our House,” in Seventeen Century American Poetry, ed. with an Introduction, Notes, and Comments by Harrison T. Meserole (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1968), 35.