God “isn’t affected with love, because He is love”

July 9, 2013
Today's edition of "What C.S. Lewis said."

Today’s edition of “What C.S. Lewis Said”

I’ve struggled with a concept for years that C.S. Lewis just helped me figure out. It’s the orthodox (lower case “o,” as in, accepted by all churches at all times and in all places) doctrine of God’s impassibility. It’s not popular these days—at least in the West, although I read that the the Eastern Orthodox tradition has always been more comfortable with it. Who knows?

Anyway, to say that God is impassible is to say that God is unchanging. He isn’t temperamental. He isn’t affected by external events. He isn’t controlled by passions. He is, in a way, without passion. The Latin root of “passion” means to suffer.

This says nothing about the Incarnation. Jesus enjoyed or endured different emotions like any other human, as the Gospels report. He suffered real pain and anguish on the cross—more than anyone, I imagine. This is why we refer to the events leading up to and including the cross as Christ’s “Passion.” God’s impassibility, by contrast, applies to God in eternity.

I’ve had misgivings about the doctrine because, for human beings, being passionate means that we feel something intensely, or believe in it strongly, or love it deeply. If God isn’t passionate, does that mean his love, among other attributes, is less than we imagine. Worse, is he vaguer, more ethereal, less substantial than his Creation?

Quite the opposite, Lewis writes.

[W]e (correctly) deny that God has passions; and with us a love that is not passionate means a love that is something less. But the reason why God has no passions is that passions imply passivity and intermission. The passion of love is something that happens to us, as ‘getting wet’ happens to a body: and God is exempt from that ‘passion’ in the same way that the water is exempt from ‘getting wet’. He cannot be affected with love, because he is love. To imagine that love as something less torrential or less sharp than our own temporary and derivative ‘passion’ is a most disastrous fantasy.[†]

C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 148.

4 Responses to “God “isn’t affected with love, because He is love””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I don’t know about “orthodox,” but I am not sure I can exactly follow a view that God has no “passions,” in the sense of never “changing.” Certainly a “straightforward” reading of various passages would suggest “passions,” regardless of theological or philosphical constructs. “God repented that he made man.” “It repented God that he had selected Saul as king.” God told Moses on more than one occasion that he should step aside and allow God to wipe out the Israelites and let him make a nation from Moses, but after Moses remonstrated, he “changed his mind.” “But the thing that David did displeased the Lord.” God’s anger “burned against Moses” in the burning bush conversation. Look at how the resurrected and ascended Christ spoke to the seven churches in Revelation. Etc.

    My view of God’s “perfection” with respect to God’s “emotions” is that he has precisely the correct emotion at exactly the right intensity and reacts exactly appropriately to each situation as it arises. Do we think that God the Father felt no emotion when his Son was suffering and dying on the cross? I actually read a theologian who suggested such a thing! I simply cannot buy that. It is no “weakness” of God to interact with his creation as that creation responds to him. I just don’t see that. To me if God was “impassible,” THAT would be a “flaw” in his character. We are “made in the image of God” in that regard.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Your objections to impassibility are everyone’s objections to it. I think the doctrine attempts to show that God isn’t temperamental or rash. I don’t know… But I thought Lewis’s way of explaining it made a lot of sense. To be passionate implies “intermission,” because passions must be greater at some times than others. God’s love can’t be like that—and, as I think you agree, even God’s wrath is a product of his love.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I think I tend I agree with you as to “love,” as “God is love.” However, love does manifest itself in different ways at different times (even into hatred, such as for those who reject his grace and willingly harm others made in God’s image), depending on the circumstances it is responding to. This is accompanied by differing emotions which, in my view, do “vary.” The variance, however, is certainly not “temperamental or rash”; it is exactly what is appropriate to the circumstances. I’m reacting against “impassive,” as though God feels no differeing “emotions” at differing times.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Well, yes… If impassibility means impassive, then we ought to reject it. It can’t mean that God is less than humanity when it comes to love, or—as you say—appropriate emotion, and that’s how it’s often interpreted.

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