Is God Impassible or Does He Have Passions?

This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Impassibility and the Passions of God”, running in the Winter Term 2023 (January to March), and convened by Ryan Hurd.

If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.

People sometimes complain, often rightly, that much of scholastic theology is so divorced from the everyday sphere that even if it is correct, it’s basically useless for speaking to normal people.

This is true, sadly, in the case of some today who have somewhat rediscovered scholasticism and are involved in the recovery project sometimes called “Classical Theism.” Frequently, the divine names focused upon are both misunderstood by academics and not ones to be discussed with average people, even—and here I might get into trouble—with average pastors. This is by no means to look down on average people—the Bible, Thomas says, God pitched specifically at average people. Much less is it to demote “average” pastors: in this latter case, it is only to note that most pastors have enough to do to be worried about the complexities of metaphysics, and can and should delegate things, whether to the church secretary who sits in the office or the church theologian who sits in cloisters.

What is more, these divine names—you know the usual suspects: simplicity, infinity, etc.—are subjected to bottomless controversies in such a fashion that “theology” amounts to little more than endless Twitter tinder and Facebook fodder. This appears to further undercut the usefulness of scholastic theology for average Christians who rightly roll their eyes as the Classical and Relational Theists (terminology varies) go at it. Relational Theists are quick to point out that the emperor in fact has no clothes; Classical guys quickly retort and double down. In the main, neither side acknowledges their initial errors or broaches the need for actual precision (real scholasticism never has any arguments anyway; we are simply quiet and do distinctions), and all-told we gain very little of any lasting value.

These kinds of issues and others come to the fore especially in the case of God’s impassibility and passions, both of which are subjected to a unique kind of abuse by both sides. What is impassibility? Correctly (and technically) understood, it is a certain negative name enacting a division (i.e., negative judgment) in human intellect, whose removed predicate is the certain capability (posse) of receiving (pati; recipere; etc.) inasmuch as it is such, whose truth in our judgment is founded ultimately on something in God, something usually said to be his non-subsistent being whereby all therein (wisdom, goodness, etc.) indeed is and indeed is in proportion to that mode of being. Now saying this, that God is not able to receive (e.g. to suffer), involves many threads, and distributes throughout the system of theology in deep and wide ways. But the name is mostly abused today, either for a queer sort of gate-keeping or for spurning flat and basic orthodoxy. On the one hand, nobody gets any theological brownie points by saying the word impassible; but on the other, actually rejecting impassibility bedevils our doctrine of God.

It is startling to me how thoroughly the names of the passions are misunderstood and abused. What are such names? They pertain to what today we would call God’s emotions or feelings—perhaps affections, if you are more influenced by early moderns and the Reformed. Scholastics call them passions (among other things), and it is scholasticism which in many ways is designed to intensify how we say these of God. For this reason, with these names closest to average people, it is here where scholasticism is best employed and here where it is most important for the Church.

In brief, what are passions? All passions or emotions are made of two components: their power and their object. Considering first their power, here we must note clearly that these are called passions only considering their power, which is receptive. They are called passions, indeed, only insofar as they are receptive in their activation, and only so far are these things to be negated of God. When scholastics are quick to negate passions of God, saying impassibility, they are only and exactly considering this receptive component: they are examining emotions, and saying that insofar as they are X, because X involves imperfection, therefore they cannot be said according to their X of God, who does not have imperfection but unending fullness (hence we say he is impassible). X here stands for receptivity.

Here’s the thing: when most everybody (even the majority of scholars) think of emotions (as they call them today), they are almost always not thinking of the underlying power, which is the first thing of scholastic concern; rather, they are thinking of the object of the passions. Whereas impassibility, as a certain negative name, registers only the absence of the receptive power, and has not really even begun to speak about whether we should keep or rid ourselves of emotions according to their respective objects. This negation of impassibility targets something very different from what most people think about; when we point to our emotions and say that God does not have emotions (i.e. does not have passions/is impassible), we are only pointing to their underlying component and dealing with it first-off. We have yet to say anything about the actual component everyone thinks of when they think of emotions, i.e. the object about which a certain emotion is had.

Second then, considering their objects, in theology we again continue and sometimes do another removal for certain passions: God is not afraid, for example. However, and most importantly, we make affirmation for others: God is very sad at our pain, for example. This, again, is considering that second component, isolated in the technicality of theology, and certainly not negated under the name impassibility. These certain passions affirmed of God are, unsurprisingly, all the good emotions you want to say of God, and you had better say of God, and had better not negate: things like, that he delights in us, that he is wounded by our pain, and so on. And as a general rule of thumb, the attributes most average people think that God should have, and the ones they are quite bothered over when rather strange theologians tell them that he doesn’t, God does indeed have. And scholasticism is geared for saying that he has them.

The system of Thomas Aquinas, prince of all scholastics, is maximally designed to say that God has these passions according to their proper objects—and of course, yes, it is also intended to remove certain other “bad emotions” (according to their objects). And yes, his system is also used to maximally say that God is impassible—Thomas is far, far more complex than many people are conscious of or willing to admit. In my upcoming Winter 2023 Davenant Hall course, “Impassibility and the Passions of God”, we will be working on all of these things, and learning how to engage these issues in the technicality of theology. Make no mistake, this course will be difficult—and very much of it is not actually “relevant” as such outside of theology; but what it enables you to say in the everyday sphere, is of extreme relevance and importance for the Church, for average people in their everyday lives. All this does take work and precision, but in the end Thomas offers the better way: it is true to holy Scripture, and equips us, ultimately, to speak to average people (not to mention firstly our own selves), far more than what is on-offer today.

This Dogmatics course will be taught by Ryan Hurd. This course will run from January 9th through March 18th. The syllabus will be available soon. Register here.

Ryan Hurd is a systematic theologian whose area of expertise is doctrine of God, specifically the Trinity. His primary training is in the high medievals and early modern scholastics as well as the 20th century ressourcement movement. He has written a number of articles and regularly does translations of early modern theology sources; but his primary project is writing a systematics of the Trinity. He is currently a doctoral student at Theologische Universiteit Kampen.


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