Friday, July 15, 2016

A God without Passions?

Does God have passions? Has the Ancient of Days known the ebb and flow of emotion? Is the Almighty ever hurt, even if only in sympathy with men and women? 
If you’re like most Christians, you answer these questions in the affirmative, and usually without hesitation. But it might surprise you to know that prior to the 20th century the impassibility of God had been the Church’s common and uncontested confession. As the Westminster Assembly famously expressed it:
[God] is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, orpassions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute…[1]
In the modern era, however, a “new orthodoxy”[2] has emerged in which God is not only an emotional deity, but a fellow sufferer with his creatures.[3] The reasons for this recent and sudden shift of opinion are fascinating, and important to consider.[4] But the question I’d like to address here is much simpler: Why have Christians historically affirmed the impassibility of God?
After all, there can be no question that the God of the Bible emotes. He is vividly and variously portrayed as expressing ecstatic delight,[5] burning anger,[6] bitter regret,[7] fiery jealousy,[8] disappointed grief,[9] deep joy,[10] tender compassion,[11] and even acute affliction.[12] He would seem to be anything but a God “without passions”! Perhaps this is no more obvious than in the emotional roller coaster that is the Book of Hosea.
His preaching, more than that of any other prophet, is governed by personal emotions, by love, anger, disappointment, and even by the ambivalence between these opposite sentiments. Since the prophet lends this emotional ardor to the words of God himself – or, to put it better, since Yahweh catches the prophet up into his emotions – in Hosea the divine word receives a glow and a fervor the intensity of which is characteristic of the message of this prophet alone.[13]
So what are we to make of this? The question is difficult to answer for two reasons.
First, there isn’t a simple definition of “impassible.” The term has had a considerable variety of nuances.[14] We’ll address three of them.

Passion as Suffering

The ancient emphasis of impassibility was “on the sovereignty of God, whose being could not be attacked or harmed by any outside power.”[15] As Creator and Lord, he transcends and rules over all “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Who or what could possibly injure, “the Blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light” (1Tim.6:15-16)?
However this was never understood by Christians to imply that God was apathetic or indifferent toward human suffering. Rather, we know that “God enters into manifold relations with man and, as it were, lives their life with them.”[16] The omniscient God is intimately acquainted with the hidden depths of men’s sorrows. Moreover, in his mercy he draws near to the brokenhearted (Isa.57:15). This is to be sharply contrasted with the static and sterile picture of deity drawn from Greek philosophy:
The lucid interspace of world and world,
Where never creeps a cloud, nor moves a wind,
Nor ever falls the least white star of snow,
Nor ever the lowest roll of thunder moans,
Nor sound of human sorrow mounts to mar
His sacred, everlasting calm.
In fact, the paradox of the impassible God who nevertheless enters into our painful world lies at the very heart of the doctrine of the incarnation. If for our sake God willed to suffer in his own person, as it were, then invincible deity must take on frail humanity. In Christ, this is precisely what God did: “the impassible God did not disdain to be passible Man, and the immortal to be subject to the laws of death,”[17] that the Inviolable might mysteriously become victim.

Passion as Desires of the Flesh

Put yourself in the shoes of the early Christians. The pagan mythologies they countered with the gospel were filled with the shameless exploits of gods driven by lust, debauched appetites, envy, and petty pride. The one and only true God, they were eager to clarify, was entirely without passions – that is, sinful[18] or unstable passions that tend toward sin.[19] The Ancient of Days never burned with the inordinate desires of youth. He has never thrown a tantrum, or “flown off the handle” in rage. The all-glorious One has never sulked in self-pity. God, “eternal, immortal, invisible,” (1Tim.1:17) has never run red with shame, or radiated the greenish hue of envy.
As “the Creator, who is blessed forever,” God’s eternal, sublime state throws into sharpest relief the creature’s restless and “dishonorable passions” (Rom.1:25-26).
In this sense, divine impassibility is an important statement regarding the ethical holiness or goodness of God.
Even when not inherently or inevitably sinful, emotions peculiar to our earthly condition – limited, bodily and, at present, fallen[20] – such as fear, surprise, or loneliness, are also obviously not to be literally attributed to the divine nature.
As omniscient, God is never shocked or confused.
As omnipotent, the Almighty has never experienced anxious dread or panic.
As omnipresent, the Lord has never been disoriented or disengaged.
As Trinity, the Godhead has never felt lonesome.
As pure spirit, he has never had “butterflies,” sweaty palms, an adrenaline rush, or wave of sexual arousal.
In other words, divine impassibility is an important statement regarding the ontological holiness or greatness of God.
Having said that, we know that Jesus fully experienced the push and pull of fleshly desire, as “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are.” Because of this, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” (Heb.4:15). Moreover, Jesus knew all our corporeal affections and limitations, because “in him the fullness of deity dwells bodily.” As Jesus approached Golgotha, he felt dread. His mind stung with sharp shock at each lash, as leather cords knotted with rock and bone peeled strips of flesh from his ribcage. Was he disoriented as soldiers relentlessly pummeled him, jeering, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” He suffered shame as they stripped him naked, hung a purple garment about him and crowned him with thorns. It was no doubt with slipping, sweaty palms that he carried the cruel cross. As he hung between heaven and earth, our Lord felt utterly alone. He called out with unimaginable sorrow, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Passion as Emotions

It isn’t clear whether the church of the first millennium rejected, in any sense, “divine emotions.”[21] However, once we move into the medieval period, it appears impassible sometimes carried the sense of “without emotion.”[22] Rightly or wrongly, emotion was often understood as unworthy of God.[23] This sentiment continued into segments of the Protestant Reformation. Along these lines, reformed theologians further developed the interpretative tradition of the church that read the emotionally laden descriptions of God in Scripture non-literally.[24] Speaking of which…
The second reason the above question is difficult to answer is because there’s no small disagreement on how to interpret numerous, biblical passages that attribute emotional behavior and expressions to God.
We know that Scripture often speaks metaphorically of God. It is blessedly true that “God is a rock” … but not literally. In poetic and illustrative language, biblical authors often attribute human forms and features to the Almighty. This is known as anthropomorphism. So we read in the Bible about God’s eyes, ears, mouth, nostrils, arms, hands, fingers, feet, head, hair, and even his flowing robe! But as pure spirit, we know of course that God is “without body or parts.” Rather, these are transparent figures of speech depicting the visible and earthly reign of our invisible and heavenly Father. His arm “outstretched” accomplishes salvation for his people. His feet rest unperturbed on a monarch’s footstool. His mouth speaks life and truth to those with ears to hear. His ears listen to the cries of the poor and vulnerable. His eyes see and consider the hearts and deeds of men. His nostrils flare in wrath.
We know God doesn’t have hands or hair. But does he have a heart? Not the physical organ, of course. But as we popularly use that phrase, can we speak of God’s heart – literally?[25]
In many cases it is clear that emotionally laden descriptions of God are to be read non-literally. Most remarkable perhaps is in 1 Samuel 15, where God announces in verse 11: “I regret that I have made Saul king.” But verse 29 qualifies this statement with the opposite claim: “the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”
So which is it? Does God have regret or doesn’t he? The apparent answer is that the divine “regret” or “repentance” expressed in v.11 (or Gen.6:6, Ex.32:7-14, etc.) cannot be understood as a literal distress over a mistaken course of action, as is in the case of men (v.29), but rather conveys God’s sharp disapproval of the present arrangement in question, which under different circumstances was previously approved.
Having said this … is that all that can be said about divine “regret”? The tendency among theologians has been to interpret such emotional language as non-literal descriptions of divine moral action.[26] In other words, the tradition tends “to dissolve all of the affective connotations into expressions of the divine will.”[27]
But does it do justice to a text like 1Sam.15:11 to simply transpose it into: “God disapproves of this state of affairs, and consequently will act to alter it”? Clearly something is lost in translation. If God’s emoting in Scripture is entirely anthropomorphic,[28] figuratively portraying his moral response to various situations, then the literary device appears to be only so much “emotional fluff” … and, worse, misleading. Why not rather speak directly of God’s will or action?
Having said that, it isn’t easy to parse out categories of knowledge, behavior and affections. It’s impossible to imagine moral judgment apart from any affective aspect. Even the concept of “disapproval” carries an inescapably affective or emotional connotation, doesn’t it? Moreover, God doesn’t simply disapprove of sin. He hates it. To reduce the emotionally charged “God-talk” of the Bible to the effects of divine judgment would greatly diminish its moral force.
Along these lines, Paul Helm defines God’s “feelings” as “his attitudes to what he knows.”[29] Now if God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways not our ways, then of course his “feelings” are not our feelings. Undoubtedly, as Irenaeus wrote, “the Father of all is at a vast distance from those affections and passions which operate among men.” In other words, to refer to divine “feelings” is surely to speak analogically.[30] Helm calls this divine “analogue” to human emotion, “themotion,” for lack of a better word. But whatever we call it, it cannot be doubted that the biblical descriptions of God’s emotional responses reflect something in the divine nature beyond mere knowledge of the facts or a detached assessment of them.[31]
When asked about the “emotional life” within the Godhead, we must speak with reverent caution … and reverent boldness. John Calvin often spoke of God’s “accommodation” to man in revelation, representing “himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us.” We can only know God as he has revealed himself to us. And the incomprehensible God has revealed himself to us in ways we can comprehend. God ineffable has spoken.
But of course the “God who cannot lie” never self-discloses anything untrue. If on the pages of Scripture, God shows us his heart – a passionate response to the world – dare we explain it away? “But is not this gross anthropomorphism,” asks the great theologian, B.B. Warfield. “We are careless of names,” he rebukes, “it is the truth of God.”[32]
In other words, the Bible unabashedly speaks of God’s emotions. So should we.
Moreover, the God “who cannot be seen” has made himself fully known in the Word made flesh (John 1:18). He spoke in parables and dark sayings through the prophets in ages past, but in these last days God has spoken to us in His Son (Heb.1:1-2). When Jesus of Nazareth rejoices over the recovery of lost sinners, or weeps over unrepentant Jerusalem, we see not merely the heart of a good man. We see the heart of our great God.

Conclusion

We conclude that the church of old was faithful to confess the impassibility of God. Why?
Because God is without sinful or unstable desires.
Because God is without body or parts – his passion is spiritual, not glandular.
Because God is sovereign – events don’t “happen” to him, God “happens” to the world.
The saints confess divine impassibility, then, because God is unquestionably good and unimaginably great.
We also confess impassibility because it is critical to the heart of our gospel. It was because the divine nature that took on mortal flesh was impassible that Jesus not only endured our sin and death, but conquered it once and for all.
Finally, we confess impassibility because it is the foundation of God’s steadfast love. God is love; and God is unchanging.
Regarding whether God has emotion or “passion” in any sense, the tradition has been somewhat ambiguous. Nevertheless, the Church has not generally understood impassible to mean passionless.[33] Love is passionate. How much more so everlasting love?[34]
Some have objected that passion, by definition, is a fluctuating affect; that emotions are ever-changing reactions to outside stimuli. Such things can be attributed to humans, of course, but never to “the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
It is wonderfully true that God is unchanging in His character, purpose and promises. However, the impassible, immutable and eternal King not only orders events outside of history, before the foundation of the world (Eph.1:4-10), but views, evaluates and responds to “each event within history.”[35] He interacts. He emotes. He expresses – in real time.
The prophet Hosea spoke plainly of God’s responsive heart – his compassion, his anger, his frustration, his patience, his love. More shockingly, he portrayed the heart of God doing somersaults over his people:
                How can I give you up, O Ephraim? 
How can I hand you over, O Israel?      
                My heart recoils within me; 
my compassion grows warm and tender.
Why this portrait of a changed heart? Is it because God is fickle? On the contrary, it is precisely because he never changes (see Malachi 3:6) – his love never fades or falters:
             I will not execute my burning anger; 
I will not again destroy Ephraim; 
           for I am God and not a man, 
the Holy One in your midst, 
         and I will not come in wrath.
Because our Lord is perfectly impassioned – not as a man whose passions wax and wane – our hope is sure and our joy unshakable. You might even say impassible.
Footnotes
[2] “From the dawn of the Patristic period, Christian theology has held as axiomatic that God is impassible—that is, He does not undergo emotional changes of state, and so cannot suffer. Toward the end of the nineteenth century a sea change began to occur within Christian theology such that at present many, if not most, Christian theologians hold as axiomatic that God is passible.…This theological shift has been so overwhelming, so thorough, and has been achieved with such unquestioned assurance that Ronald Goetz has simply, and in a sense rightly, dubbed it the ‘new orthodoxy’,” Thomas Weinandy.
[3] On this note, it’s amusing to consider Cyril of Alexandria’s statement: “Nobody is so mad as to imagine the all-transcending nature capable of suffering.”
[4] Alister McGrath offers the following reasons for the shift: (1) a general consensus among late 19th and early 20th scholars that certain theological ideas, such as immutability and impassiblity, were essentially Greek (Platonic) ideas that had found their way into Christian theology, (2) the massive atrocities of the 20th century, in response to which “protest atheism created a climate in which it was apologetically necessary to speak of a suffering God,” and (3) the rediscovery of Luther’s writings, in which the reformer propounds on “the God hidden in suffering” at the cross. In addition, McGrath mentions the philosophical influence of process thought (in which God is “a fellow sufferer who understands,” A.N. Whitehead), the influential OT scholarship of Heschel and Fretheim (e.g., The Suffering of God), and modern, psychological approaches to defining “love,” which necessarily involves “a mutual sharing of suffering and feelings.” See Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 249-252. I would add that in our modern (sensate) culture, emotions have become both the touchstone of reality, and its only transcendent aspect.   In his song, Finite = Alright, David Byrne sings, “[all] things have an end, but feeling is infinite.”
[5] Zeph.3:17
[6] Ex.32:10; Isa. 5:25
[7] Gen.6:6; 1Sam.15:11, 35
[8] Deut.4:24; 32:15-22
[9] Ps.78:40; Eph.4:30
[10] Isa.62:5; 65:19
[11] Ps.103:8; Jer.3:12
[12] Isa.63:9
[13] Gerhard Von Rad, The Message of the Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 111 (italics mine).
[14] Rober Duncan Culver gives a great summary: “Impassibility comes into our language as a translation of the Greek word apatheia in the writings of the church Fathers, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Apatheia, despite the obvious etymological connection with “apathy” and “apathetic” in the modern English, started out as meaning ‘the state of an apathes, without pathos or suffering. Among the Greek Fathers pathos or passion was the right word for the suffering of Christ, as it still is. So in theology, to be impassible means primarily to be incapable of suffering. Early theology affirmed that in heaven our resurrected bodies will be apathes in this sense. The word came to be extended to mean incapable of emotion of any kind and beyond that, apathes in important theological discourse meant without sexual desire. As applied to God, incapacity for any emotions sometimes is meant,” Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publishing, 2005), 216-217.
[15] Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 98.
[16] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 59. Similarly, Herman Bavinck writes, “Though unchangeable in himself, God lives the life of his creatures, and is not indifferent to their changing activities.”
[17] Excerpt from The Tome of St. Leo.
[18] “The God of Christians is impassible, free from passions, in the sense that, unlike, Dionysius, he is not prone to debauchery; unlike Apollo, he is not a woman-hunter; unlike Persephone and Aphrodite, he is not engaged in rivalry over the handsome Adonis…In this context [i.e., Justin Martyr’s writings] divine impassibility means that God is above the passions of envy, lust, and all selfish desires. To ascribe these passions to God the creator was to obliterate important distinctions between himself and his fallen creatures,” Paul L. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 49-50.
[19] The fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, writes, “nothing is truly ‘passion’ which does not tend to sin…For we give the name of ‘passion’ only to that which is opposed to the virtuous unimpassioned state, and of this we believe that He Who grants us salvation was at all times devoid…that, at least, which is truly passion, which is a diseased condition of the will, He was not a partaker.” Similarly, Athanasius argued that the impassible Son of God, in taking upon himself our passible nature, redeemed us from our fallen passions, with the result that we are now, in union with Christ, progressively sharing in his divine nature, becoming ourselves ‘impassible’: “human beings, because their own passions have been transferred to the impassible and abolished, are henceforth become impassible and free of them to all eternity.” Likewise, the Second Council of Constantinople affirms that Christ was impassible in the sense of “longings [presumably sexual desire] of the flesh.”
[20] As Gregory of Nyssa continues, “the peculiar attributes of our nature, which, by a kind of customary abuse of terms, are called by the same name of ‘passion,’ – of these we confess the Lord did partake – of birth, nourishment, growth, of sleep and toil, and all those natural dispositions which the soul is wont to experience with regard to bodily inconveniences.” This seems to be the sense that A.A. Hodge interprets the Westminster Confession’s statement on impassibility, rendering it “without bodily parts or passions.”
[21] I would suggest that whereas the earlier fathers are more ambiguous on the question, a trajectory develops among the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers regarding a corporeal definition of emotion/passions that becomes enshrined among theologians in the medieval period. So Tertullian, for instance writes, “[God] can be angry without (being shaken), can be annoyed without coming into peril, can be moved without being overthrown,” Marc.2.16Or again, he writes, “to what purpose does [God] lay down commands if he will not require performance, or prohibit transgressions if he is not to exact penalties, if he is incapable of judgement, a stranger to all emotions of severity and reproof?” Origen even says, “The Father himself is not impassible [though he elsewhere affirms God’s impassibility]. If he is besought he shows pity and compassion; he feels, in some sort, the passion of love, and is exposed to what he cannot be exposed to in respect of his greatness, and for us men he endures the passion of mankind,” Homilies on Ezekiel, 6.6. In his survey of the church fathers, Robert Lister is likely correct to conclude that, with a few exceptions (notably, Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria), “their understanding of a negative term like impassible did not prohibit the application of emotionally laded characteristics to God,” God is Impassible and Impassioned (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 102. Of course, even this is somewhat ambiguous. By the time we get to the Tome of Leo in the 5th century, we read: “To pass by many points – it does not belong to the same nature to weep with feelings of pity over a dead friend [Jesus over Lazarus] and, after the mass of stone had been removed from the grave where he had lain four days, by a voice of command to raise him up to life again.” See fn.22 for more.
[22] Anselm for instance writes, “For when you look upon us, wretched as we are, we feel the effect of your compassion, but you do not feel emotion. So then you are compassionate, because you save the wretched and spare those who sin against you, and yet you are not compassionate because you are not affected by any share in our wretchedness,” Proslogium, 8. With similar logic, Aquinas states that God “loves without passion,” Summa, 1.20.1. Since emotions/passions were generally understood as bodily phenomena (Aquinas for instance defines “passions” in reference to sensible rather than intellectual appetites), they obviously couldn’t be attributed to the incorporeal God. Cf. Cyril of Alexandria’s comment: “We say that he ‘suffered and rose again.’ We do not mean that God the Word suffered in his Deity . . . for the Deity is impassible because it is incorporeal. But the body which had become his own body suffered these things, and therefore he himself is said to have suffered them for us. The impassible [God] was in the body which suffered” (Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed., 1963 p.67).
[23] D.A. Carson offers this critique: “In the final analysis, we have to do with the influence of certain strands of Greek metaphysical thought, strands which insist that emotion is dangerous, treacherous, and often evil. Reason must be set against emotion, and vulnerability is a sign of weakness. One may trace this line from Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” through platonic and neo-platonic writings to the Stoics. The conclusion must be that “God is sensible, omnipotent, compassionate, passionless; for it is better to be these than not to be” (so Anselm in Proslogium, chp.6),” Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility (Atlanta: John Know Press, 1981), 215.
[24] John Calvin writes that God “is beyond all disturbance of mind,” and so “whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not imagine any emotion in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our human experience,” Institutes, 1.17.13. Addressing God’s “regret” in Genesis 6, Calvin writes, “Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains for ever like himself in his celestial and blessed repose… This figure, which represents God as transferring to himself what is peculiar to human nature is called anthropopathia,” Commentary on Genesis, 6.6. Similarly, Stephen Charnock writes that “grief,” literally attributed to God, is inconsistent “with his undefiled blessedness.” Interestingly, the reformers and their heirs speak straightforwardly of God’s blessed or “happy” repose, which of course is affective language.
[25] On the one hand, all language about God must be understood, broadly speaking, as anthropomorphic – that is to say, analogical rather than univocal. There is between the Creator above and the creature below an infinite chasm. As the church has always confessed, God is incomprehensible. On the other hand, since man is made in God’s image, our human language and forms are theomorphic. As Frame writes, “All Scripture is written in human language, not some divine language. God’s revelation is “accommodated” as Calvin liked to say, to human understanding … This is the only kind of revelation there is … All human language is taken from human life. But all human language is also God’s creation, given to us not only to communicate earthly realities, but also to reveal God to us … We should not think of human language as if it were wholly concerned with the creation and therefore has to be twisted, qualified, or taken figuratively in order to refer to God. All human language is anthropomorphic; but more fundamentally it is, like the creation itself, theomorphic,” The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), 367-68. Given, then, the theomorphic character of God’s self-disclosure in special and general revelation, there is an analogy established between the human experience – at least as interpreted in the pages of Scripture – and the divine nature. So the question becomes: if biblical attributions of “bodily parts” to God are non-literal analogues to God’s invisible but active presence in the world, then are biblical attributions of emotion also non-literal analogues? If so, whether literal or non-literal, what are they analogues of? See fn.31.
[26] For instance, Augustine writes, “…by the repentance of God is meant the change of things which lie within His power, unexpected by man; the anger of God is His vengeance upon sin; the pity of God is the goodness of His help; the jealousy of God is that providence whereby He does not allow those who He has in subjection to Himself to love with impunity what He forbids,” Contra adversarium legis et prophetarum 1.20.40. Elsewhere, Augustine (and Calvin) also expresses a subjective account of biblical anthropopathism: “Even though we speak of God changing His mind, of His becoming angry, for example, after being kind to certain people, it is, in reality, these people, not God, who change. They find God changed because they have undergone a change, much as the sunlight seems to change from soft to sharp or from pleasant to painful to the eyes that have been hurt, although, in fact, he light remains precisely as it was before,” De civitate Dei 22.2.
[27] Lister, p.106. He, I think rightly, concludes: “Augustine and many of the other Fathers frequently stopped short of suggesting a sense of how the affective content of those terms did apply to God. Though he employed an analogical hermeneutic, Augustine, along with most of the Fathers, mainly used it to stress the ways in which divine emotion was unlike human emotion. To be sure, pointing out these dissimilarities is crucial, but what remains to be addressed is whether anything positive can be stated about the nature of God’s emotional experience,” fn.158, p.106.
[28] Or, more precisely, anthropopathic.
[29] “The Impossibility of Divine Passibility,” in The Power and Weakness of God: Impassibility and Orthodoxy, ed. Nigel M. de S. Cameron (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 1990), 140.
[30] It’s important to keep in mind that the intellectual and volitional aspects of divine attributions are equally analogical.
[31]And to answer the question posed in fn.25, biblical attributions of emotion can be understood as literal analogues that we may describe as God’s attitude toward what He knows / evaluates.
[32] Excerpt from Warfield’s sermon, “Imitating the Incarnation.” On this note, D.A. Carson writes, “It is no answer to espouse a form of impassibility that denies that God has an emotional life and that insists that all of the biblical evidence to the contrary is nothing more than anthropopathism. The price is too heavy. You may then rest in God’s sovereignty, but you can no longer rejoice in his love. You may rejoice only in a linguistic expression that is an accommodation of some reality of which we cannot conceive, couched in the anthropopathism of love. Give me a break,” The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway Book, 2000), 58-59.
[33] This is Lister’s persuasively argued thesis in the first part of God is Impassible and Impassioned (pp.29-168).
[34]Kevin DeYoung writes, “I can‘t stress this enough. To be impassible is not to be passionless. To be immutable is not to be motionless. God is always active, always dynamic, always relational. In fact, it is because God is so completely full of action that he cannot change. He is love to the maximum at every moment. He cannot change because he cannot possibly be any more loving, or any more just, or any more good. God cares for us, but it is not a care subject to spasms or fluctuations of intensity. His kindness is not capable of being diminished or augmented.”
[35] Frame, Doctrine of God, 610. His argument is worth quoting in full: “Although God’s eternal decree does not change, it does ordain change. It ordains a historical series of events, each of which receives God’s evaluation. God evaluates different events in different ways. Those evaluations themselves are fixed in Gods eternal plan. But they are genuine evaluations of the events. It is not wrong to describe them as responses to these events. Furthermore, we have seen that God is not only transcendent beyond time and space, but also immanent in all times and spaces. From these immanent perspectives, God views each event from within history. As he does, he evaluates each event appropriately, when it happens. Such evaluations are, in the most obvious sense, responses. Does such responsiveness imply passivity in God? To say so would be highly misleading. God responds (both transcendently and immanently) only to what he has himself ordained. He has chosen to create a world that will often grieve him. So ultimately he is active, rather than passive. Some may want to use the term impassible to indicate that fact.”

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Where Angels Fear to Tread

You may not be aware, but in the last month there has been an ongoing, intramural debate among evangelicals regarding the Trinity – more specifically, the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son.  On one side of the debate are those who advocate the doctrine of Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) of the Son.  This view proposes that the Son is eternally subordinate in function or order with respect to the Father, while sharing fully, without any diminution, in the essence or substance of the Father.  This is not to be confused with the ancient heresy of subordinationism, which teaches that the Son is subordinate in being or nature to God the Father. 

On the other side of the debate are those who not only oppose this view - arguing that the Son’s subordination to the Father was entirely confined to his earthly career - but condemn it as dangerously outside the mainstream of orthodox (Nicene) Christianity.  It’s important to keep in mind that not all who reject EFS judge it as unorthodox.

To make matters more complicated, bound up in this brouhaha is the thorny question of gender roles.  How? Many proponents of EFS have used the doctrine as an analogy for gender roles in the church and family, illustrating the complementarian thesis that equality of being or dignity is not incompatible with subordination of role or function.

Now I have been slow to venture into this discussion.  For one, I’m just an everyday, run-of-the-mill pastor.  Two, I’m busy – as most of us are.  Three, to be honest, in matters regarding the Trinity, I am nervous.  As Augustine wrote, “nowhere else is a mistake more dangerous, or the search more laborious” than in the study of the Trinity.  And only fools rush in where angels fear to tread. 

However, having given some time to read and reflect on the issues, I have decided (perhaps foolishly) to tread upon holy ground.  There’s a lot involved in this debate.  But my concern is threefold. 

My first concern is as a preacher.  Can I speak of the Son’s submission or subordination to the Father, not merely in the course of his earthly “humiliation,” but also in his heavenly exaltation and session?  The notion of an eternal, functional subordination of the Son has long been articulated by some of our most revered theologians,[1] enshrined in many of our standard textbooks,[2] and of course echoed in endless podcasts.  Are we no longer permitted to speak this way?  According to some of the louder voices in this debate, the answer is a surprising and resounding, “No!”

My second concern is doctrinal.  I am not primarily concerned about gender roles here, but about our theology of the Trinity.[3]  I acknowledge that the doctrine of EFS is to some degree speculative in attributing an authority/submission frame within the Godhead, particularly as it pertains to the relation between the Father and Son antecedent to the incarnation.  However, it seems plain that this articulation regarding the divine order (or taxis) within the Trinity is fully consonant with historic orthodoxy. Certainly it has been standard within the evangelical tradition for some time.  One wonders with John Stephens why all the friendly fire has been discharged now.  What has provoked this sudden outburst within the ranks?  What is the newly perceived danger?  The only danger I see, as Al Mohler writes, “is that this kind of controversy confuses the church about the real danger of heresy. 

My third concern is pastoral. With many of the opponents of EFS in this debate, I am leery of so-called Social Trinitarianism, in which theological speculations regarding the “interior life” of the Triune God are employed to justify various social and political ideologies - ranging from radically egalitarian to adamantly hierarchal - all in the name of historic, Trinitarian orthodoxy.[4]  For this reason, I am eager to avoid facile analogies drawn between gender and the Trinity.  However, I am equally leery of the opposite danger, which would construe the economic Trinity as so mysterious, so esoteric (especially for us hoi paloi),[5] as to render it irrelevant to our own understanding of what it means to be human – whether in Adam or in Christ.[6]  As a pastor, I must be able to confidently, even if very carefully, bring what the Son has revealed about the Father, Himself and the Holy Spirit to bear on men, women, children, families, and leadership in the local church. 

In light of these concerns, I want to offer a brief re-statement of EFS that has taken some of the critiques and confusions in consideration, and ask whether all of us who claim Nicene orthodoxy – as every Christian should – can affirm it. 

First, let’s all agree that “eternal subordination,” whether qualified by “functional” or not, is confusing.  We need to excise “subordination” from our talk of the relations within the Trinity.  Eternal Submission of the Son?  Or, more generally, Relational Order of the Persons? 

Secondly, in opposition to Bruce Ware, I do not think the rejection of eternal generation is either necessary or advisable.  I see EFS as supplementing our understanding of eternal generation, not supplanting it.[7]  Fred Sanders gives this explanation of eternal generation:

The Sender-Sent relation [between Father and Son] enacts and reveals an eternal relation of fromness.  The Father sent the Son in the fullness of time, by grace, because the Father is the source of the Son in eternity, by nature. This eternal relation of fromness has traditionally been called eternal generation. It can also be called filiation (“sonning”), especially because it needs to be distinguished from the Holy Spirit’s own relation of origin which is revealed in his own sending.

Now I think we can all agree that “authority” and “obedience” are not what constitutes the Father as Father and the Son as Son. Having said that, it isn’t clear that the divine order among the Persons – the primacy of the Father as “the fountainhead of the whole divinity” (Calvin), the “fromness” of the Son, and procession of the Spirit from the Father and Son - has no implications for a relative authority/subordination within the economic Trinity.[8]  In fact, it is conceptually difficult to preclude the notion.  As Sanders elsewhere writes: 

There is, in the relations of origin of the triune God, an irreversible taxis to which the obedience of the incarnate Christ corresponds in human form. It’s an eternal procession that reaches its strangely logical final conclusion in the sending of the Son. As for his submission to the Father, I don’t know what they call it in the happy land of the Trinity, but when it lives among us it is rightly named obedience.

Thirdly, we can all affirm that the sending of the Son - and the authority/submission structure played out within His earthly career for our redemption - though indicative of the order within the Godhead (only the Son could be sent by the Father, and not vice-versa) implies no inferiority in the Son. But going further, we acknowledge that any notion of “obedience” within the economic Trinity must be qualified by the full equality and inseparable operation of the divine Persons as One God. St. Augustine expresses this well:

What we are saying may perhaps be easier to sort out if we put the question this way, crude though it is: in what manner did God send his son? Did he tell him to come, giving him an order he complied with by coming, or did he ask him to, or did he merely suggest it? Well, whichever way it was done, it was certainly done by word. But God’s word is his son. So when the Father sent him by word, what happened was that he was sent by the Father and his Word. Hence it is by the Father and the Son that the Son was sent, because the Son is the Father’s Word (De trin. ii.9, 103).

In other words, when we speak of the Son’s obedience to the Father’s authority in “going,” or of Christ’s submitting Himself, together with all things, to God at the end of the age (1Cor.15:28), we speak analogically.  Our language of authority/submission between the Father and Son may be understood literally, but not univocally. 

Fourthly, and finally, if we are permitted to speak of the Son’s temporary subordination as revealing something about the “happy land of the Trinity” (Sanders elsewhere refers to this “something” as “the imminent Trinitarian analogate”), then may we not describe it (analogically) as the eternal submission/subordination of the Son? Yes, we confess that we here encounter the ineffable realities of the incomprehensible - and face the inevitable limitations of language. But it seems entirely appropriate to attribute, as an aspect of the unutterable divine order or taxis, a distinction among the Persons that we can only comprehend as entailing an authority / submission structure.  

Or must we remain silent regarding the order within the Godhead, beyond the mere enumerating of the Persons?  Has not God given us words in Scripture to understand and articulate the relation between the Father and the Son?  Words like “obedience” and “submission”?  Let us not then be overly timid as theologians and preachers – more timid than the Scriptures themselves regarding our God-talk.  We may (carefully but boldly) speak of “subordination” of roles or relational order within the Godhead without succumbing to subordinationationism-confessing the fully deity and glory of the Son and the Spirit, together with the Father.

I began this post with an Augustine quote, but I didn’t finish it: “In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.”  God has revealed Himself as Trinity, and this discovery is the most profitable of all. 

Glory to the Father, glory to the Son, glory to the Spirit, glory to the Three in One!




[1] E.g., Robert Letham (2004): "The Son's submission to the Father is compatible with his full and unabbreviated deity. Therefore, we may rightly say that the Son submits in eternity to the Father, without in any way breaking his indissoluble oneness with the Father or the Holy Spirit, and without in any way jeopardizing his equality. Being God, he serves the Father. Being God, the Father loves the Son and shares his glory with him (John 17:1-4, 22-24). The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 402.
J. I. Packer (1973): "Part of the revealed mystery of the Godhead is that the three persons stand in a fixed relation to each other....It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first. That is why He declares Himself to be the Son, and the first person to be His Father. Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory, it is natural to Him to play the Son's part, and find all His joy in doing His Father's will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding. Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while He was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven." Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 54-55.
Carl F. H. Henry (1982): "The creeds speak of the subordination, distinction and union of the three persons without implying an inferiority of any; since all three persons have a common divine essence they affirm the Son's subordination to the Father, and the Spirit's subordination to the Father and the Son. This subordination pertains to mode of subsistence and to mode of operations," God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, Texas: Word, 1982), vol. 5, p. 205.
Louis Berkhof (1938): "The only subordination of which we can speak, is a subordination in respect to order and relationship....Generation and procession take place within the Divine Being, and imply a certain subordination as to the manner of personal subsistence, but not subordination as far as the possession of the divine essence is concerned. This ontological Trinity and its inherent order is the metaphysical basis of the economical Trinity." Systematic Theology, 88-89.
A. H. Strong (1907): "...Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation...The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority. The possibility of an order, which yet involves no inequality, may be illustrated by the relation between man and woman. In office man is first and woman is second, but woman's soul is worth as much as man's; see 1 Cor 11:3." Systematic Theology, 342.
Charles Hodge (1871-1873): "The Nicene doctrine includes...the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority....The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation ....The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son, and Spirit...and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal." Systematic Theology, 460-462.
Jonathan Edwards (1740): "1. That there is a subordination of the persons of the Trinity, in their actings with respect to the creature; that one acts from another, and under another, and with a dependence on another, in their actings, and particularly in what they act in the affair of man's redemption. So that the Father in that affair acts as Head of the Trinity, and Son under him, and the Holy Spirit under them both. … 4. Though a subordination of the persons of the Trinity in their actings be not from any proper natural subjection one to another, and so must be conceived of as in some respect established by mutual free agreement...yet this agreement establishing this economy is not to be looked upon as merely arbitrary...But there is a natural decency or fitness in that order and economy that is established. 'Tis fit that the order of the acting of the persons of the Trinity should be agreeable to the order of their subsisting: that as the Father is first in the order of subsisting, so he should be first in the order of acting...therefore the persons of the Trinity all consent to this order, and establish it by agreement, as they all naturally delight in what is in itself fit, suitable and beautiful. Therefore, 5. This order [or] economy of the persons of the Trinity with respect to their actions ad extra is to be conceived of as prior to the covenant of redemption... 6. That the economy of the persons of the Trinity, establishing that order of their acting that is agreeable to the order of their subsisting, is entirely diverse from the covenant of redemption, and prior to it, not only appears from the nature of things, but appears evidently from the Scripture...," 1062. "Economy of the Trinity and Covenant of Redemption," from Jonathan Edwards [1740], The "Miscellanies," 833-1152 (WJE Online Vol. 20), Ed. Amy Plantinga Pauw.
[2] E.g., Geoffrey W. Bromiley’s article, "Eternal Generation," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), reads: "Eternal generation....is the phrase used to denote the inter-Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son as is taught by the Bible. "Generation" makes it plain that there is a divine sonship prior to the incarnation (cf. John 1:18; 1 John 4:9), that there is thus a distinction of persons within the one Godhead (John 5:26), and that between these persons there is a superiority and subordination of order (cf. John 5:19; 8:28). "Eternal" reinforces the fact that the generation is not merely economic (i.e. for the purpose of human salvation as in the incarnation, cf. Luke 1:35), but essential, and that as such it cannot be construed in the categories of natural or human generation. Thus it does not imply a time when the Son was not, as Arianism argued ....Nor does his subordination imply inferiority....the phrase....corresponds to what God has shown us of himself in his own eternal being....It finds creedal expression in the phrases 'begotten of his Father before all worlds'" (Nicene) and "begotten before the worlds" (Athanasian),” 368 (italics mine).  Similarly, Harold O. J. Brown, in his exhaustive study of Christian heresy and orthodoxy, writes: "Nicaea clearly affirmed that the distinction between the Father and the Son is not ontological or substantial, inasmuch as both are God. It did not clearly specify wherein that distinctiveness does lie. Inasmuch as it is not ontological, it must be relational, as the language of the Bible continues to assert even when we have stripped "begetting" of its ontological implications. At this point, in order to distinguish the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit from one another, the language was allowed to carry its economic implications; that is to say, the Persons of the Trinity were seen to differ in the relationship of commissioner and commissioned, the one sending and the one sent (John 3:16, 14:16). Here, finally, the distinction was allowed to rest; the Son, under (sub) the orders of the Father is clearly subordinate in the relationship, although not by nature; the same holds true for the Holy Spirit," Heresies: the Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984), 133 (italics mine). See also the systematic theological works of Robert Reymond, John Frame, Norman Geisler, and Wayne Grudem.
[3] I agree with Craig Keener (an egalitarian advocate of EFS) that there is no necessary connection between EFS and complementarianism.  I would argue that the temporary submission of the Son to the Father is sufficient to grant the complementarian thesis regarding equality of essence and subordination of role.
[4] Stephen Holmes’ comments mocking this modern development are amusing and, it seems to me, spot on: “…we set out on our own to offer a different, and we believed better, doctrine. We returned to the Scriptures, but we chose (with Tertullian’s Praxeas, Noetus of Smyrna, and Samuel Clarke) to focus exclusively on the New Testament texts, instead of listening to the whole of Scripture with Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Daniel Waterland. We thought about God’s relationship with the creation in the economy, but we chose (with the Valentinians, Arius, and Hegel) to believe that the Son must be the mode of mediation of the Father’s presence to creation, instead of following Irenaeus and Athanasius in proposing God’s ability to mediate his own presence. We tried to understand the divine unity, but we chose (with Eunomius and Socinus) to believe that we could reason adequately about the divine essence, instead of following Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin in asserting divine unknowability. We addressed divine simplicity, and chose (with Socinus and John Biddle) to discard it, rather than following Basil and the rest in affirming it as the heart of Trinitarian doctrine. We thought about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but chose (with Sabellius, Arius, and Eunomius) to affirm true personality of each, rather than following Augustine and John of Damascus in believing in one divine personality. We called what we were doing a ‘Trinitarian revival’; future historians might want to ask us why.”
[5] Fred Sanders cautiously draws a comparison of this debate to the English Reformation, citing C.S. Lewis’ words that such theologically refined concepts are “fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure.”  But I am left to wonder where this lands the crucial, ever day theologizing of the church, and just who these “saintly disputants” with “boundless leisure” are. 
[6] As Alastair Roberts writes in his excellent post on the debate, “I believe that God did create male and female in a manner that reflects his Triune life, more particularly as that life is revealed within the economic Trinity.”
[7] On this note, Wayne Grudem writes, “But just what is meant by "eternal generation"? In what they have written, I cannot discover what they mean. To substitute the words "paternity" and "filiation" provides some Latinized terminology but those terms simply mean "existing as a father" and "existing as a son," which tells us nothing more. Quite honestly, I find it impossible to say whether or not I agree with "eternal generation" until someone explains, in ordinary English, what he means by it (not just what it does not mean).”  But the only response to this can be: Good luck!  As Augustine argues in De Trinitate, the eternal generation of the Son is incomprehensible.  Hence, we can really only speak univocally about what EG is not – it is not corporeal, it is not temporal, it is not derivative.  Though the Father is the source and origin of deity, the fount of the Godhead, as the Cappadocian fathers referred to it, the Son’s being is neither dependent nor contingent.  Augustine writes that the Father "begot [the son] in such a way that the life which the Father gave the son by begetting him is co-eternal with the life of the Father who gave it..." (De trin. XV. 47, 432).  I understand this to imply Calvin's doctrine of autotheotes or "self-deity" of the Son. But Grudem, perhaps despite himself, seems in line with the basic significance of EG when he concludes: “If "eternal generation" simply means "an eternal Father-Son relationship," then I am happy to affirm it.”
[8] Robert Culver writes, "The distinctive property of the Son is filiation, from Latin filius, hence being a son.  This indicates a precedence of the Father to the Son in their eternal relation," Systematic Theology (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), 121.  Robert Reymond writes, "We know also that his Sonship implies an order of relational (not essential) subordination to the Father which is doubtless what dictated the divisions of labor in the eternal Covenant of Redemption in that it is unthinkable that the Son would have sent the Father to do his will." A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 336.