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.

In Essentials

For decades I have heard people use the expression: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I think a common reply to this is that we can never agree as to what is essential and what is non-essential. In fact, most of the time it appears that disagreement about what is essential is the most common source of disunity within the Body, so we debate and debate the particular question at hand.

However, it seems to me as I have been reflecting on this dictum that it channels the discussion into a false framework; well, not so much a false framework as disguising what the problem really is. It would be hard to disagree with this centuries-old formulation, so why so much disunity? I don’t believe it’s because we can’t decide what is essential and what is non-essential; I think it’s precisely because we all agree to an unstated single, core essential I would state as: The only real essential is understanding and obeying the teachings of Jesus Christ in all things.

So, Protestants believe we are saved by faith alone. We believe that is the correct understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ in both proclamation and action regarding salvation. Catholics believe that when James wrote “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” he was expressing a different “correct” understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ regarding the nature of salvation.

Every issue we disagree about from baptism to the ordination of women, from the number of the sacraments to the proper care of the environment, from the exact nature of the inspiration of Scripture to church polity hinges on the desire to correctly understand the teaching of Christ so that we can be obedient to that teaching. Those who believe homosexuals should be allowed to marry believe they are obeying a correct understanding of Jesus’s teachings about love. Those who don’t believe they should be allowed to marry believe they are obeying a correct understanding of Jesus’s teaching about holiness. Those who think communion should be open to non-believers, those who don’t, and on and on.

Because we are united in our unstated agreement that the only real essential is to be obedient to the teaching of the Living Word we can allow no liberty towards one another because how can one be at liberty to disobey the Lord’s teaching? So the fragmentation of the Church continues apace. “Even so, come Lord Jesus.”

On Love and Righteousness

I stumbled across this quote that for me just shows how Christians thinkers, as humans, try to sift the mysteries of God into false hierarchical categories:

“Holiness is pre-eminent in God, for in the actual dealings of God his other attributes are conditioned and limited by his holiness. This is beheld excellently well on Calvary: in Christ’s redeeming work, love makes the atonement, but it is violated holiness that required it. The prime source out of which our salvation issued is God’s violated holiness. His love motivated him to actually accomplish it on our behalf, helpless and weak as we are.”

“In the same way, the eternal punishment of the wicked is irrevocable because of God’s unchangeable holiness. His self-vindication overbears the pleading of love for the sufferers.”

“Holiness shows itself higher than love, in that it conditions love. Hence God’s mercy does not consist in outraging his own law of holiness, laying it aside or even disparaging it. No, it is rather by enduring the penal affliction by which that law of holiness is satisfied.”

Really?† Holiness is pre-eminent in God?† “Holiness shows itself higher than love?”

Please. Love is not an attribute of God because it’s not a modifier.† Holy, righteous, just, merciful, pure, wise, good, sovereign, powerful, glorious, eternal, impartial, etc. are all modifiers, thus attributes or inherent characteristics.† Love is never a modifier.† The Word does not say God is loving.† Well it does (abounding in loving kindness), but it says “God is Love.”† It says “God so loved….”

1 Peter 1:20: “He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”† Jesus was chosen to suffer and die before He created the world, and yet He created it anyway.† If holiness was pre-eminent or higher than love, if it conditioned and limited Love then God would have just destroyed the spoiled pot instead of reshaping it.

Every attribute of God is an attribute of Love because God is Love.†† Theos Agape.

Compare other uses of God and is.

For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God
For the LORD your God is a merciful God
God is giving you.
God is commanding you.
God is with you.
God is my rock.
God is greater than other gods.
God is gracious and compassionate.
God is mighty.
God is exalted in power.
God is our refuge.
God is merciful.
God is righteous.
God is sovereign
God is one.
God is truthful
God is God.
God is glorified.
God is Spirit.
God is light.

Almost all of these take the form of Noun Adjective (modifier).† Some are Noun Noun, but the noun is a figurative expression of a spiritual truth (e.g. God is my rock.† God is our refuge.) as it relates to us.

Here are the ones that don’t describe what I consider to be attributes; rather, they describe God Himself in Himself and they are all Noun Noun:

God is Love
God is Light
God is Spirit
God is One

Oneness isn’t an attribute; it’s not a characteristic; It IS
Spirit isn’t an attribute.† It is a person of the trinity.
Light isn’t an attribute; it’s how He exists, is present.

John is the only one to use this phrase:† Theos light is.† This means: to be, to exist, to happen, to be present.† This is how God is, exist and is present to us.

To me it’s similar to Yahweh.† It is saying God exist as love; God exist as light.† God exist as Spirit; God Exist as One.

They are not characteristics.† God’s love manifest itself to us as attributes like holy, righteous, merciful, just, eternal, sovereign, steadfast, mighty, powerful, but his nature is Love.

Quantum Sovereignty

God is sovereign. Of this I have no doubt. I have no more doubt of it than I have that the Word of God is inerrant, but for me inerrancy is not a very useful word, and neither is sovereignty. Of course God is right, but do I understand His meaning? Of course God is sovereign, but do I truly understand what that means?

I do not question salvation by grace through faith or the authority of Scripture or even Godís sovereignty. Itís just that we are not saved by the doctrine of justification, so we are not saved by the doctrine of sovereignty or predestination or any other teaching. We are saved by the cross, not the doctrine of atonement.

God sovereignty is only one aspect of his nature. Scripture never says God is sovereign in the same wayóthe same grammatical constructionóthat it says ďGod is love.Ē An aspect of Godís nature is his sovereignty, his power. But his nature is love, and divine power is rooted in love.

Godís power is limited by his nature. He has no power to sin, and not just by some semantic twist of words whereby because heís good everything he does is righteous. Doing flows out of being, Godís as well as manís, and as God is, so he does, and he has not the power to do otherwise. Whatís truly amazing about that is that God can not choose not to love.

God owes us nothing, indeed, but he couldnít not love us. He has no more power not to love than I do to turn water into wine. In the reformed tradition they act as if what God does is right because he does it. What God does is right because he has no choice but to be who he is. He canít not love us.

The reformed tradition puts demands on God. ďBecause I understand the Bible this way, God must be that way.Ē I have had people challenge my views with ďif God is not supreme in all things is he worthy to be praised?Ē God is worthy to be praised, period. I will set no condition upon it.

But I believe sin has real power; itís not just perceptual. I believe that the ďlaw of sin and deathĒ is every bit as real as the laws of physics. Sin causes. It has real world consequences apart from our perception. In other words, sin wonít disappear if we just look at it differently. Itís true that sometimes what we perceive as sin isnít. Itís also true, however, that sin really exist. The power of sin and death is every bit as scriptural as sovereignty. Satan and sin have power in this world. Satan is called the ďgod of this world.Ē (1 Corinthians 4:4), and he has power.

Just as God is sovereign over the laws of nature, but does not often interfere with them (at least as far as we can tell), so the law of sin and death also operates as a real force in the natural world. God can and does intercede in nature with miracles, and He also intercedes in the law of sin and death through the redeeming work of His Son and transforming work of His Spirit.

However, just as He does not ďcause each and every leaf to fall to the groundĒ (as Luther asserted) , so He does not cause each sin related event, such as abortion (which would make abortion part of His plan for the aborted child.)[1]

In the classic view of Godís sovereignty there can be no randomness whatsoever. Any randomness could result in an outcome that might lead to God losing control of the world, at least according to this view. That means that in a game of Russian Roulette God determines exactly when the single bullet stops spinning one chamber before the hammer. That means that for every deck of cards that has ever been shuffled, God has determined the order of the cards because many outcomes have rested upon the shuffle the deck of cards and the toss of a coin, outcomes God can not allow to be left to chance if He planned it all out from the beginning, down to the individual leaf.

For a long time, Newtonian mechanics was seen as a perfect explanation for how the universe works. Ultimately it began to break down, or rather, not break down so much as begin to show its incompleteness. Quantum mechanics replaced Newtonian mechanics with a more complete understanding of how the universe works, but it too is still incomplete.

I believe that the Medieval mindset conceived Godís sovereignty in a mechanical way, much like Newtonian physics. I think that it is incomplete, and I think itís time for a shift to a more quantum understanding of Godís sovereignty.

Hereís a syllogism: Everything God wills is Good. Nothing happens outside His will. Therefore, everything is good.

Therefore what is there to be redeemed or restored? It make nonsense of the concept of redemption. Everything that has and will happen has happened or will happen according to His will. (Remember Luther, quoted above, there is no contingency, period.) Where is the need for redemption, for restoration, for re-creation? Itís all good. Itís our faulty perception of ďaccidentsĒ that cause us to think otherwise, right?

We, of all beings, are made in His image. God gave us power, too. Does that mean that in some precious way he truly imbibed us with a degree of sovereignty? John 1:12 tells us this power is for all who believe. He has given us the power to be His children. This means we alone of all creation can also create because we alone are created in His likeness, and we alone are His children.

(Evil can not create. It can only destroy. Just as there can only be heat, and cold is the loss or absence of heat, but it still has a real experiential effect, so evil is the loss or absence of good. Evil is experienced by us a real, like cold, but it is not creative; it is destructive. Thatís why Satan has the power of death but not life.)

The Reformed tradition limits Godís power and sovereignty. He planned it all out and made it happen exactly the way He intended so that not a single leaf falls to the ground without His decision, no randomness, no contingency? God is way more sovereign than that. Yes. Thatís what I said. God is way more sovereign than that.

Why must an event only have meaning if itís part of some plan? Why canít the God of all creation, who created ex nihilo, daily create anew with the corrupted things of this world? Why canít He create meaning from meaninglessness, create purpose from purposelessness, create sense from senselessness?

Rather than something having some purpose because it was part of a plan before the foundation of the world, why couldnít Godís plan be to show His power and glory by taking what we, in our genuine freedom and power, destroyed and re-creating it.

So, I could die a perfectly senseless death tomorrow. I have no hope that I wonít. What I do have is the hope that if I do, God can take my death and give it meaning. God is able to build straight with the ďcrooked timber of humanity.Ē That crookedness is real, and not part of His will or plan, but He can take it and make it something new. For me, this is what it means for Him to be Creator God. His creation wasnít over on the sixth day.

In John 5:17 ” Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’Ē My Father is workingÖ working? What reason? It was all done on the 6th day. There is no contingency. There are no accidents. Itís all part of a plan.

It seems clear to me that after the Fall He went back to work re-creating.

Before the creation of the world there was nothing. God created. After the Fall, dare I say it, there was nihilism. That is Satanís goal, to take the meaning out of creation in the same way making something cold is really taking the heat out of it. Godís power is such that He can create as well out of nihilism as he can out of nothing. That is the redemption of the world, a redemption and restoration out of nihilism.

We donít grasp Godís sovereignty fully because we donít grasp the Fall fully. The Fall was absolute and total. It was an authentic act of freedom by those created in the image of the Creator. It had real consequences, and still does as the law of sin and death is at work, but Creator God can manifest His sovereignty and power by creating life from death.

Quantum sovereignty!

I fear I belabor this point, but imagine this. God is the Potter. Made in His image, His plan was for us to be potters, creating alongside Him, with Him and through Him. He gave us the freedom and power, though, to create on our own. It was necessary if we were to be made in His image. We did, and we botched it, badly. Each of us makes a mess of our earthly vessel, but when we offer it to God He doesnít fix it; He re-creates it as it should have been all along, as if we had never botched it.

Quantum Sovereignty!

God can give us true and real power, freedom and control because it is impossible for us to do anything which He does not have the power to redeem. Itís OK for us to really have the power to do things against His will even if itís not right when we do because He is so sovereign that he can weave His purpose from randomness, accident, sin, error, mistake and disobedience.

One reason our faith is weak is that we image that God does everything (no contingency, no randomness). What if there is nihilism? That too is what is being redeemed. Why is the thought that God has ďmade us little lower than the heavenly being and crowned us with glory and honorĒ so scary. Is it because that would mean we bear eternal responsibility?

The Bible is full of talk of Godís plans, purposes and will as though they are distinct. Why canít he create the structures, both physical and spiritual, whereby His ultimate redemption of the world works as planned without Him dictating which kid dies getting on a school bus?

  1. ď[W]ith God there simply is no contingency, but it is only in our eyes. For not even the leaf of a tree falls to the ground without the will of the Father.Ē Lectures on Romans, Works Vol. 25, p. 373 []