Sunday, September 01, 2013

God, both Impassible and Impassioned

We saw in the earlier post that Dr Rob Lister in his newly-published God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion,  adopts a ‘duality model’ of the divine nature and activities. God apart from creation is timelessly eternal, but upon creating the universe he ‘enters’ our universe and becomes temporal, in the same sense as we are, and as a consequence may interact with men and women in time. It was objected that this is seriously at variance with the classical theism of Christian tradition, including the Reformers and Reformed Orthodox and their Confessional positions. (Dr Lister believes that this tradition largely anticipates his own position. I doubt this, but we shall not consider these historical questions at this point, and no promises!) The problem with this proposal is that it leads to a basic hiatus in theism, since it generates a series of contradictions.

In this post I turn attention to the consequences of this duality for ‘A Theology of Divine Emotion’. Note that Dr Lister uses two terms of God, ‘impassible’ and ‘impassioned’. The first refers to God in se, eternal God. In his eternality, God is impassible. He is (or becomes) impassioned in re, according to the author, in the following carefully-qualified sense: God is subject to passion only in the sense that he voluntarily allows himself to have passions. He does not have passion otherwise. He can never be ‘overtaken’ by the onset of a mood or passion. In play here is Bruce Ware’s idea that besides God’s ontological immutability, his necessary immutability, and then that God is immutable in the sense that he resolves to be so. (Bruce A. Ware, ‘An Evangelical Reformulation of the Doctrine of the Immutability of God’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, (1986), God’s Greater Glory, 140f.)

So the second term, ‘impassioned’, refers to God’s activity in time, God in re, his voluntary responsiveness to his creation, and especially to his covenant people. (See the discussion of these very points in Ware, God’s Greater Glory, 134f.)

I agree with Dr Lister that an adequate account of God’s Christian theism must involve both his transcendence and his immanence. Otherwise  either deism or pantheism. So (Lister goes on) ‘divine passion’ must include both these elements, God’s essential impassibility an aspect of his transcendence, and his passionate engagement with his creation, and particularly with his covenant people, an aspect of his immanence. But to achieve this we do not need to go to the lengths of supposing a duality in God with respect to time, or with respect to space.

Some of the case for God’s duality in respect of time is taken by him from an account of his two-fold account of space. God transcends space, but also he enters space (and this expression does not refer to the Incarnation, or not exclusively to the Incarnation, as one might think). Lister says

We may begin this theological reflection [on God’s relation to time] with a glance at another instructive and parallel doctrinal duality, namely, God’s relationship to space. On this point, it is very common for Christian theologians to understand God as both nonspatial in himself and omnipresent within his creation. That is to say, Scripture readers recognize that though God is present (indeed omnipresent) within his creation, this does not diminish the fact that, in himself and apart from creation, God transcends spatial existence and limitation. His intrinsic spacelessness therefore does not preclude his acting within space. It is not within the purview of creation to lock its Creator – who transcends space in himself – out of creation. (227) (At such points he closely follows Bruce Ware, God’s Greater Glory, 134 f.)

So there are divine dualities in respect of time, these dualities having their precedent in God’s relation to space and being modelled on it.

But God does not ‘enter into relationship with the world’ as you and I may enter the room. In entering the room we enter the space of the room, and leave the space outside the room. But I do not see that to give an account of God’s relation with his creation we need to think of him in a similar fashion.  

Greater clarity is needed here, at a central focus of Lister’s discussion. For in discussing God’s relation with time Lister notes the view of William Lane Craig, according to which God is eternal apart from the creation, and then upon the creation, he is temporal. That is, there is a kind of ‘successiveness’ in God and time: eternal ‘until’ the creation, and temporal thereafter. Lister notes the difference between Craig’s view and the ‘duality’ view of Frame and Ware which he follows, as ‘slightly different’,  and goes on to say that he finds this view ‘compelling’ (226-7 footnote 25).  But these two views, the ‘successiveness’ view and the ‘duality’ view are very different.  (I discuss Craig's view at greater length in Chapter 12 of the Second Edition of Eternal God (OUP, 2010))

The second point has to do with a difficulty that Lister has with the classical view, or at least with one understanding of that view. Contrasting my own view with his in a short excursus Lister says,

At the junction of eternality and divine condescension, Helm argues that the accommodated revelation of God in Scripture is given to make to appear as though God were relating to his people in time, when in fact he is not. When addressing the reason for accommodated revelation, Helm himself states that it “is because God wishes people to respond to him that he must represent himself to them as one to whom response is possible, as one who acts in time.’ ….I disagree that the particular purpose  is to make himself appear ‘as one who acts in time’ and ‘as one to whom response is possible’. (The quote are from ‘The Impossibility of Divine Passibility’ in The Power and Weakness of God, ed. Nigel M, de S. Cameron, Edinburgh Rutherford House, 133-34)

Notice the quotation that Lister provides is not a defence of God appearing to be but not being, but of a God who by his eternal decree reveals himself in his creation little by little. He may act in this fashion in order to promote and ensure the response of faith, for example, or to test men and women in other ways. So I go on to say, in the passage cited by Dr Lister, ‘If that dialogue is to be real and not make-believe, then God cannot represent himself as wholly impassible, for then dialogue would be impossible’. (134) It is not make-believe for God to express anger or delight in time, any more than it is when God represents himself as one high and lifted up, wearing a robe whose train filled the temple (Isaiah 6). Each kind of action is one of condescension, in which in order to evoke an appropriate response from his people God represents himself to them as  angry on that occasion or as enthroned on that occasion. Why does God go to these lengths? Part of the answer must be that in these ways he teaches his people about themselves, about their needs and his grace in their lives.

These are the actions of the one eternal, timeless God who as the covenant-partner of his people represents himself first as doing or being one thing, and then another, and then another. His glorious goodness is ‘refracted’ in time according to his purposes for his people and with respect to others.  This involves the ‘little by little’ revealing of his will or purposes to those in time and space mentioned in the last post. In many cases these purposes are in order to test them: as with Abraham, or Moses, or Hezekiah, or Jonah, or Paul. In order to grasp this we need to see that the timeless God may will appearances of himself in timely fashion, in successive changes and responses, now this and then that. So God does not enter time in respect of his essence, nor does he enter the world as one might enter a room, not even in the Incarnation in which he takes to himself a human nature, but his power and grace reach to each corner of his creation as he sees fit, and little by little through time.  Such an arrangement is of course beyond our wit to understand, but it is not manifestly incoherent. More importnat it expresses and coheres with many a Scriptural narrative.

This takes us back to impassibility. God is able to represent himself as angry, or compassionate, or faithful, because in his glorious essence he is not impassive or indifferent in character, but eternally impassioned, and so never overcome with passion. (Here I use the same term as Lister, ‘impassioned’, but to refer to his eternal essence. God is eternally impassible and yet impassioned. Lister himself recognizes these differences in the usage of the term.(161)) With these resources God is able to express first this passionate state and then that passionate state as part of this process of teaching and disciplining his people, drawing out their faith in his promises and strengthening them in so doing.

So I agree with Dr Lister that God is both impassible and impassioned. But on this  understanding these terms do not refer to God’s ‘duality’, however understood, but both together are true of the one eternal, all-glorious God.   He is eternally, in himself, both impassible, not being subject to moods or swings or surges of any kind, and impassioned, fully caring and concerned, and capable fo expressing such 'impassions' in time.

The oddity is that in more than one place Dr Lister reveals sympathy with such an outlook. For example he quotes Ware as stating that ‘the contingent emotions of God are new expressions of what are, in God eternally, fixed emotional properties…’ (225-6) and Frame as stating that ‘God’s eternal decree does not change, it does ordain change. It ordains a historical  series of events….’.(239) But for some reason he does not see (nor perhaps do some others) that these views do not require a ‘duality model’,  but are easily integrated into the classical view.