Posts Tagged ‘impassibility’

Love isn’t less than a feeling

April 8, 2014

This past Sunday, I preached from James 4:1-12. I focused on vv. 4-5 (including James’s words, “You adulteresses!”), and the analogy of our relationship with God that those verses imply: that God is our husband and we are his wife. If that’s true, then, in some sense, God loves us in that intimate and passionate way described in Song of Solomon and Ezekiel 17:7-8. I made reference to the Book of Hosea, in which God tells Hosea to marry an adulterous woman (“a wife of whoredom”) so that he can know how Israel’s unfaithfulness makes God feel.

Similarly, our worldliness, James says, is spiritual adultery: it’s cheating on God. It breaks God’s heart.

That sounds very emotional, doesn’t it? Yet, this is the kind of language that the Bible uses all the time: God is in love with us. God is angry with us. God is jealous for us. God is proud of us. God is disappointed in us. These words express emotions. Love is more than a feeling, of course, but it isn’t less than that. By all means, our feeling of love toward our neighbor ebbs and flows: if we aren’t feeling love toward our neighbor, we love them anyway—through our actions. But this inconstancy is our problem, not God’s!

But this very biblical idea that God experiences emotion—that God is affected by what human beings do—comes into conflict with philosophical-theological ideas about God, specifically God’s immutability (God doesn’t change) and God’s impassibility (God is incapable of being affected by anything outside of himself)Theologians who hold fast to these ideas reject all biblical language about God’s experiencing emotion as mere anthropomorphism: the biblical writers are speaking of God in human terms because that’s the only way we can make sense of him.

I don’t deny the reality that God far transcends our ability to describe him and that the Bible portrays God anthropomorphically at times. But I can’t buy into any philosophical-theological system that rejects so much of what the Bible says. When given a choice between what the Bible says and the tidy logic of a philosophical system, I’ll choose the Bible every time.

There are plenty of Christians who prefer philosophy. Take, for instance, my fellow United Methodist pastor who said the following in a recent blog post (he likes carriage returns):

God isn’t loving; God is LOVE with no potentiality. No room for any addition of anything. No cause, as the FIRST CAUSE, to be affected by anything.

God, for good and for ill, is not affected by us at all.

God just loves. Us. God’s creatures. Gratis. Just as we were created. Gratis. The gift never ceases to be given.

Which begs the question:

How is it possible that God is ‘offended’ by our Sin?

How is God’s mind, disposition or will changed by anything we do or don’t do?

The Bible speaks of God in the masculine, which we all recognize is an anthropomorphism made for communication’s sake.

Is it possible God’s anger, wrath, jealousy is also a necessary anthropomorphism made for very urgent, compelling reasons within the life of God’s People? To narrate their experience of the world and with God?

I understand the above will strike many as overly metaphysical, the oft-repeated if ill-informed indictment that metaphysics represents a Hellenization of the Biblical God. Understanding such a disagreement, I nonetheless assert that mine isn’t a solitary perspective but is one with at least half of Christian history behind it.

Keep in mind: this same pastor supports changing our denomination’s stance on human sexuality, in which case he disagrees with 99.99 percent of Christian history. I’m not sure why he thinks “at least half of Christian history” should carry much weight with anyone!

Also, metaphysics alone—which is what all of us engage in when we talk about a God who transcends time and space—isn’t the problem: it’s metaphysics that relies too heavily on Greek philosophical ideas at the expense of scripture. If it’s true, as he says in his defense, that he’s merely reflecting the theology of Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics, well… I guess that’s what Protestant Reformations are for!

Be that as it may, I can’t reconcile his understanding of God with the Bible, and I’ll bet you can’t either. For one thing, we are made in God’s image. Whatever else that means, it means that we’re like God in many important ways. When God blessed humanity and called us “very good,” that included our ability to experience real emotion (in a self-conscious way that no other creature can). It’s beyond belief to think that we possess something in our humanness that God doesn’t also possess. Wouldn’t that make God less personal than we are?

One theologian I admire, Roger Olson, wrote about this very issue last week. 

I have remained faithful all these years as an evangelical Christian theologian to what I learned in Sunday School and from my pastor and other spiritual mentors of my youth: God is faithful to himself and to us and always keeps his promises and cannot be anything but good, but he is affected by what happens in our world and by our prayers…

To believe that God cannot change or be affected by his creation, he writes, is to ignore or explain away the entire book of Hosea, among other scriptures:

The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.

From Olson’s (and other theologians’) point of view, God is “our superior, faithful covenant partner who voluntarily allows himself to be affected deeply by us (‘changeable faithfulness’).”

So, to put it in theological terms: God, I believe, could have remained fully God without lack or need, without any creation. However, creation out of love (the overflowing of the innertrinitarian love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the most understandable thing because of God’s great love. Just as a married couple want (not need) a child to share their “couple love” with, so God wanted (not needed) a creation and beings created in his own image and likeness with whom to share his/their love. But because God is personal love, the history of creation affects God inwardly and not only outwardly. God’s emotional life is affected by what creatures do because God is love. But through it all God remains who he is and always has been and always will be. God’s relation to creation does not take anything away from God’s being or character or add anything to it—ethically or ontologically. Emotionally, however, creation does affect God. And God experiences new things in relation to creation. But all this is by God’s free choice; not necessity.

I must admit that I tend to think any other view tends to elevate philosophy over the biblical revelation of God and therefore is, in the most important sense, unorthodox.

Amen to that last sentence! We shouldn’t elevate philosophy over the biblical revelation of God. If our philosophy doesn’t gibe with the Bible, our philosophy is wrong.

I’ve shared this in a blog post before, but it pertains to this discussion. C.S. Lewis, with his usual crystal clarity, puts forward an orthodox understanding of God’s “impassibility” as follows:

[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.

One challenge related to prayer: God’s omniscience

March 6, 2013

Foster’s book is a masterpiece on the subject.

In my sermon on Sunday, I said that one obstacle we face in developing the kind of prayer life that Jesus wants us to have is believing that we are doing it wrong—praying incorrectly, praying selfishly. I hope I disabused my congregation of that idea!

Obviously, there are other obstacles that hinder prayer. One is God’s omniscience: the idea that God already knows what we’re going to ask (and what we need), so why bother telling him what he already knows? Once again, Richard Foster handles this objection nicely in his masterful book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.

The most straightforward answer is that God likes to be asked.

We like our children to ask us for things that we already know they need because the very asking enhances and deepens the relationship. P.T. Forsyth notes, “Love loves to be told what it knows already…. It wants to be asked for what it longs to give.”[1]

That sounds good, of course. My wife doesn’t need to say she loves me for me to know that she loves me, but I like hearing it. I tell each of my three kids nearly every day that I love them, although usually they have no reason to think that anything has changed in our relationship since the last time I told them.

There is, however, a theological doctrine at stake in this discussion: God’s impassibility. Over the centuries, many Christian theologians have said (including heavyweights like Augustine) that human beings can do nothing to affect God in any emotional sort of way. God is unchanging, therefore nothing we do has the power to change God. To believe otherwise, they say, is to shrink God down to human-size, to make God in our image.

I cling to the idea of impassibility when I feel as if my sin has “let God down.” No, Brent. You don’t have the power to affect God in that way. Who do you think you are? How powerful do you think you are? Besides, disappointment almost kinda sorta implies that God expected more from me, as if God were surprised at how badly I behaved—and how is that possible for a God who already knows, from all eternity, everything that I (and everyone else in the world) will ever do? God’s impassibility seems to affirm God’s omniscience.

But not so fast… We are made in God’s image, which means that God ought to be at least a little like us. More importantly, Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, certainly wasn’t impassible: He allowed the money-changers in the temple to make him angry. He allowed the death of his friend Lazarus to make him weep.

We could sidestep this objection by saying that in his humanness, Jesus didn’t have omniscience, and so these events were able to surprise him—that outside of time and space, God wouldn’t respond this way.

I’m not so sure… After all, the Bible itself has no trouble depicting God as emotional— just like us, except without sin. It even depicts God being surprised. At what point should our loftiest theology conform to scripture? By the way, one thing I admire about John Goldingay’s excellent Old Testament commentary series, For Everyone, from Westminster John Knox, is that he lets the Bible speak for itself without spackling over the rough patches with neat and tidy theology.

For me, the larger issue is the nature of love itself—God’s own nature. Isn’t love about reciprocity, give-and-take? Can’t we imagine that our loving God—even in his omnipotence and omniscience—freely chooses to limit his power and knowledge in order to have a relationship of give and take? Richard Foster thinks so:

Besides, I am not so sure that God knows everything about our petition. It seems that God has freely chosen to allow the dynamic of the relationship to determine what we will eventually ask. The fact that God is all-knowing—omniscient, as we say—does not preclude his withholding judgment on matters in which the decision depends on the give and take of relationship… For now, be encouraged that God desires authentic dialogue, and that as we speak what is on our hearts, we are sharing real information that God is deeply interested in.[2]

1. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 181.

2. Ibid.