Does God Have Passions?

Due to a move, I have been dramatically downscaling my book collection. I’ve gotten rid of over 2000, and it’s getting much harder. As I sort through books to give away–terrible process I am almost done with–I dip into them. Last night I dipped into God in the Dock and read the essay “Horrid Red Things.” This isn’t the gist of the essay, but in making his argument Lewis wrote this:

But if the same man afterwards received a philosophical education and discovered that God has no body, parts, or passions and therefore neither a right hand no a palace, he would not have felt that the essentials of his belief had been altered. [all emphasis added]

I wish, instead, he had written “that the Father has no…” That God has no “passions” is one of those “doctrines” that has always befuddled me. My command of systematic theology has always been partial and sketchy, and my memory is rusty and worn as to even what I think I once “knew,” but I believe this is predominately Calvinist and part of the idea of impassibility (God’s unchanging (unchangeable even by himself?) nature.)

But why must it be true that God has no passions? Why not perfect (complete) and pure (holy) passions? We allow that God has reason; we believe that humanity’s reason is a reflection of our being made in God’s image, but we argue our reason fell and became corrupted with Adam. Even then we place a high value on reason as a way of seeking and learning about God, though not as much as our Catholic brothers. So, why not fallen passions?

I will return to that, but to get at my “solution,” I want to go back to Lewis’ quote. Lewis also says God has no “body.” It’s absolutely true that the Father and Spirit has (singular intended) no body, but the Son has; and this bit of theology I haven’t forgotten: The Son is God. Most impassibility philosophy treats Biblical passages that talk about God “relenting,” changing his mind, or having passions as anthropomorphic. Some go so far as to argue prayer doesn’t “impact” or “effect” or “alter” God, which, to me, makes a mockery of the plain language of “If a son asks his father for bread will he give him a stone?” Of course, they have fancy ways of explaining it as anthropomorphic language put in terms we can understand.

In the the same essay, Lewis warns of the dangers of anthropomorphizing, saying it was condemned by the early Church, but isn’t the Son himself anthropomorphized God? Didn’t he have passions, or when he drove out the money-changers was his anger a show? An act? When he weeps over the death of his friend, Lazarus, is he really just a Vulcan or robot dramatizing a parable for the benefit of the crowd, showing rather than telling, but not feeling?


If the Son has a body, if the Son has passions, then isn’t it meaningful–though mysterious–to speak of God having passions? Do we diminish the Son to secondary status like the Modalists if we don’t allow the possibility?


Maybe, and I certainly don’t assert his as theological truth because I am very wary of ever doing so (in much the same way Lewis was), but maybe since Jesus is the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3) we Image Bearers couldn’t have been made in any other form or with any other nature because the Incarnate Image existed in the Son from his Begottenness, like potential energy become kinetic in the Incarnation. Lewis, himself, almost gets at this in Perelandra. I don’t have a copy anymore, but an angel (?) tells Ransom that the man and woman on Venus were human because after God took on that form all other sentient creatures had to be made in it, vice the creatures on Mars in Out of the Silent Planet, who were created before humanity, the Fall, and Incarnation.

I think maybe Lewis didn’t see the true eternal implications of the Son’s humanness. Eternity is often confused with everlasting, but it is more. We have everlasting life, starting at a beginning and never ceasing, but eternity flows everlasting in both directions (really neither direction, as its truly outside of Time.) I think Jesus’ humanity had to exist before humanity. Since the theologians love the Greek philosophy so much (more on that below), why not go with Christ as the Platonic Form of Humanity made Incarnate, and yet uncorrupted, in Jesus? I think honest impassibility would have to admit this if it carried its own logic out to its natural conclusion because otherwise in the Incarnation God did change, and change radically!

That was what I read last night. As often happens to me I next randomly read something that reinforces the first. (Actually it usually happens later, and I then go desperately scanning through all the stuff I’m reading in search of the connection muttering: “What was I recently reading that meshes with this? Where is it? Was it a book? An essay? Online? There’s a pattern here…I can almost grasp it.” Or I think: “I wrote a note about that a few weeks ago. Which notebook? Or is it on my phone? Or in a file? Did I use Simplenote? Keep?” Ugh, I drive myself nuts with this!)

This morning I pick up Pinnock and Brow’s Unbounded Love, and open to the chapter “Judgment: Caring Love”, the subsection “Slow to Anger.” I read:

God does not want to be angry, and his wrath only happens when people remain stubbornly impenitent and when they leave God no alternative but to act in judgment. But even then God would much rather do them good, because he is compassionate by nature.

When God’s anger does burn against sinners, the Bible says it last only a moment. His anger passes but his love endures forever. Wrath happens but it does not abide. Because God’s anger is rooted in his love for us, it is actually distasteful to him. It is a tragic necessity, not something God ever delights in. It causes him suffering and means he must suspend his mercy for a time. [emphasis added]

Pinnock seems to clearly believe God has passions. I’ve read parts of several of Pinnock’s works, but I am more familiar with E. P. Sanders. Both of them are early proponents of “The Openness of God” school of theology, which many thinkers I trust are either highly skeptical of, or outright label as heresy, but I don’t see it that way. Neither Pinnock nor Sanders, the best I can tell, question the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, or Parousia. But back to the quote.

“Distasteful to him”? “Causes him suffering”? These, those who hold to a view of impassibility cannot abide. They insist God cannot suffer, but, again, that seems to diminish the Son as fully God, not to mention make the Father heartless, for isn’t heartless what having no passions means? Did the Son, as God, not suffer on the cross, or do we divide the Son’s nature into “parts” and argue only his human self suffered? Did the Father witness the Son’s suffering, and his lament “Why have you forsaken me”, with passionless stoicism?

Lewis suggest what the problem might be, but actually took it in a different direction than I am. Back to his quote: “If the same man afterwards received a philosophical education…” Impassibility has always seemed to me a Greek philosophical idea grafted onto Jerusalem, and onto the New Testament’s Jewish foundation. The passages used to support it are possibly misconstrued by the Greek filter, but I wouldn’t know, really. James says “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” and the author of Hebrews says “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

But isn’t all that really saying that God in his nature and essence is pure (holy) and perfect (complete), not that he doesn’t have passions or modify his plans in light of his creatures sinful corruptions of it? God is light, and in him there is no darkness, so of course he doesn’t “change like shifting shadows” (as the NIV translates it.) There are changes that don’t indicate a change of nature. Movement is one, position another. To change states isn’t to change nature. Think water. When we sleep our nature doesn’t change. Does our nature change when we’re happy? Depressed? Tired? What is our true nature? Imago Dei. That never changes. Not through the Fall; not even in Hell. What is God’s nature? “God is love.” He is an unchanging God moved by love, and when he is moved he moves according to that nature without variation and without shadow.

For God, plans A, B, and C would all be pure and perfect. Any alterations would be just as holy and righteous. It’s actually an anthropomorphization to think of Plan B as a backup plan and Plan C as a fail-safe, and Plan D as a Hail Mary because that’s how we think. God cannot act contrary to his nature, but why must any change to plan A be contrary to that nature? After all, isn’t the cross Plan B? He “though whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made that was made” knew the cross was a consequence of creation, and yet, because his nature is Creator, he created anyway.

This is an issue of utmost seriousness, and I assert none of it as Truth. I pray God illuminate me and correct any error. We will never grasp the fullness of God’s nature even when “we’ve been there ten thousand years,” but by the light I have I think there’s something to it. These reflections are driven by a desire to honor and understand the Son as fully God, but I haven’t yet “received a philosophical education.” Except for two undergraduate philosophy survey courses all my philosophical and theological education is entirely self-taught. Perhaps, like the doctor who treats himself, the teacher who instructs himself has a fool for a student. But then again, maybe Lewis’ “ordinary man” who has yet to be so educated has something to offer, something those who have can no longer perceive.

I don’t think believing God has passions, can suffer, and can change his mind puts my soul in peril, or distorts the honest, ordinary language of Scripture. I suppose it undermines the Calvinists’ election in their thinking, but I’m of the mind that Calvinist self-absorbed introspection in an obsession to discern election is at the roots of modern Western narcissism, but that’s another essay. I’d rather reflect on God than on myself. (Ha! Don’t let me fool you. Paul may have been the “chief of sinners,” but I’m in the running for chief naval-gazer!)

I wish I had the time to make this more clear, but in total it already represents about 4 hours, so it will have to stand. Life beckons.

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