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Two Bearded Preachers

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Oct 23, 2016

Martin W. Bender

The impassibility of God was never taught to me growing up. Even in Bible college and seminary, there was little talk about how an eternal God experiences emotions. It’s a little surprising to me that such an important doctrine for the defense of Classical Theism was largely ignored in my preparation for ministry. Granted, I do not come from a church tradition that places much value in clearly defined theological systems. Now that I am responsible for the care and feeding of a congregation, I take having a consistent theology very seriously. That’s why it’s so important to me that I gain a greater understanding of the current debate surrounding the doctrine of impassibility.

Historical Theology Survey of the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility: The Modern Era by Brandon F. Smith and James M. Renihan

In reviewing the modern era, the authors note that the 18th century maintained most of the doctrinal positions received from their forbearers. Gill, Tennent, and Edwards are all used as examples to prove this point. Shifts begin to take place in the 19th century and following as Enlightenment thought begins impacting the Church. Hodge and Warfield are identified as Princeton thinkers who defended the classical understanding of God during this time, but who had some difficulties with impassibility and developed modifications. In the 20th and 21st centuries, more and more theologians followed in Princeton’s footsteps, eroding the traditional view and opting for positions where God sovereignly governs his emotions.

Many of today’s Reformed thinkers have struggled to reconcile Barthian categories with their confessions. Feinberg, Frame, Packer, and Oliphint are all identified as having altered the traditional understanding of impassibility in favor of frameworks that allow for emotional change in the Godhead. Each of their positions is described briefly and shown to be alternatives to how God’s impassibility is described in several confessional statements.

A Theology of the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility: (I) Impassibility and the Essence and Attributes of God by Charles J. Rennie

Impassibility is an important doctrine because any change in God allows for all his attributes to be diminished. In Classical Theism, God is so profoundly simple change is not even possible for him. God’s infinite nature means there is no limit to his perfection. If there was the possibility for change, the only change possible would be to become less as he is already perfect. This is part of the argument supporting his immutability.

Clark Pinnock, an Open Theist, points out the fundamental flaw with the altered views of impassibility. Any alternative position that rules out divine impassibility as it has been classically defined undermines God’s immutability. Whether described as covenant condescension or God-in-time/God-in-eternity distinction, there is simply no getting past the fact that his attributes are undermined by any occurrence of change, even a shift in emotion.

Thoughts

One of the major problems I see with the theological system I was raised in is that it is inconsistent in what it teaches about God’s relationship with creation. God has always been described to me in classical terms, but his relationship with creation (particularly humanity), seems to make him and his actions contingent. God in no way can be contingent upon creation if his infinity is to be taken seriously. As I read through this book I am reminded of these challenges as they seem to hinge upon one’s understanding of God and his relationship with time. If God is truly timeless, as he seems to be described in scripture, then change is impossible for him. As I work through the implications of this idea books like this one are very helpful in raising issues I have yet to consider.

 

Baines, Ronald S., Richard C. Barcellos, James P. Butler, Stefan T. Lindblad, James M. Renihan eds. Confessing the Impassible God: The Biblical, Classical, & Confessional Doctrine of Divine Impassibility. (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2015).

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