Sunday, September 3, 2017

Orthodoxy as Mere Creedalism?

I was surprised to read James K.A. Smith’s recent post at fors clavirga suggesting an apparently amoral criterion for determining Christian orthodoxy.  I was surprised in part because he has so compellingly advocated the necessity of a distinct - and distinctly counter-cultural - “Christian liturgy,” entailing specific spiritual, communal and moral practices for the church.  Smith is of course correct to note:

Historically, the measure of "orthodox" Christianity has been conciliar; that is, orthodoxy was rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the church (Nicea, Chalcedon) which were understood to have distilled the grammar of "right belief" (ortho, doxa) in the Scriptures. 

But he seems to reduce “orthodoxy” to a “mere creedalism” narrowed on the properly theological dimensions of the ancient symbols, and apparently devoid of the common moral vision that pervaded the early church’s catechesis and discipline:

… when people are said to suffer for their "orthodox" beliefs, or when we are told that "orthodox" Christians will be hounded from public life and persecuted in their professions, a closer reading shows that it is not their beliefs in the Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, or Resurrection that occasion these problems, but rather their beliefs about morality, and sexual morality in particular.  There don't seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists, and I've yet to hear of Silicon Valley CEOs being fired because they affirm the Incarnation of the Son or the resurrection of the dead.

There are two problems with Smith’s argument here. The first is the unhelpful analogy of baking cakes for atheists or being fired for one’s eschatology. There is no scandal in atheists getting married.  It is a creation ordinance for all people. And one’s “private opinion” about the afterlife is hardly provocative in our relativistic and secular age. If Smith were to construe a more helpful analogy, he might compare the proverbial cake baker to a deacon board deciding not to rent their facilities to a local chapter of atheists to publicly celebrate their godlessness. 

The church has rarely been persecuted for their theology, strictly speaking, but for the moral, religious and socio-political implications of their theology (e.g., the politically loaded confession of the ancient church, “Jesus is Lord”).  The early Christians were called atheists by their Greco-Roman critics not primarily because they confessed “one God and one Lord” over against the vast pantheons of antiquity, but because they refused to participate - even as a show of good citizenship - in civic festivals honoring local deities (cf. 1Cor.8-10).  These orthodox Christians were not willing to contribute to or actively participate in any moral, social or religious practice that directly contradicted God’s self-revelation in Christ.  A revelation that is both theological and ethical in content. 

On that note, the second problem with Smith’s argument is that he appears to overlook entirely the moral context and content of the ecumenical councils.  He acknowledges that “such [traditional] views of sexual morality and marriage have been the historic teaching of the church,” and that the “weight of Scripture, tradition, and perhaps even ‘natural law’ have sustained these views and beliefs for millennia.” But, he continues,

…it is surely also worth pointing out that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate such standards. If the adjective "orthodox" is untethered from such ecumenical standards, it quickly becomes a cheap epithet we idiosyncratically attach to views and positions in order to write off those we disagree with as "heretics" and unbelievers.  If "orthodox" becomes an adjective that is unhooked from these conciliar canons, then it becomes a word we use to make sacrosanct the things that matter to "us" in order to exclude "them."  And then you can start folding all kinds of things into "orthodoxy" like mode of baptism or pre-tribulation rapture or opposition to the ordination of women--which then entails writing off swaths of Christians who affirm conciliar orthodoxy.
I’m not sure where Smith is going with all this. I am not aware of anyone in evangelicalism un-tethering “orthodoxy” from these ecumenical standards. But surely it is also worth pointing out that the ecumenical councils of the church contained canons promulgating liturgical and ecclesiastical law, on the one hand, and moral injunctions and decrees, on the other. Some of these moral canons addressed sexual and familial matters specifically (e.g., sexual immorality, divorce, remarriage, abortion).[1]  

Of course, as Protestants we do not necessarily embrace all of this varied canon law as binding today.  The liturgical and ritual prescriptions are generally subordinated to “weightier matters of the law,” so to speak. Moreover, all conciliar decrees, through (ministerially) authoritative, are nevertheless subject to the divinely inspired scriptures. Having said that, the councils’ ethical canons are revealing of the church’s moral vision – and its univocal witness concerning sexuality in particular.  Surely this too is an important part of our orthodox heritage. 

Moreover, as Smith himself acknowledges elsewhere, the creeds and confessions of historic Christianity cannot be comprehended in isolation from its liturgical and moral practices:

The orthodox Christian tradition was launched with the Incarnation of God in Christ, the apostolic witness, and the Scriptures. But we inherit that rule of faith in two ways: first, in the creeds and confessions of the church (the articulated, explicit aspects of the faith), and second, in the liturgical heritage that hands down the know-how of the faith—our practices, our disciplines, our liturgical forms. Ideally, there's a feedback loop between those two things. If you had just the creeds and confessions without the practices of Christian worship, you would never get the full inheritance of what the Spirit has passed on to us.

It is clear that moral instruction, together with study of the baptismal creeds and the disciplines of prayer and fasting, were part and parcel of the early church’s catechesis.[2] And it cannot be seriously doubted that this moral instruction concerned itself to no small degree with sexual ethics. 

Similarly, in his critique of Smith’s post, Alastair Roberts observes the necessary biblical context for properly comprehending the historic creeds:

Likewise, the creed doesn’t stand alone, nor do its statements interpret themselves. Terms such as ‘judgment’, ‘Scripture’, ‘holy’, and ‘sins’ aren’t empty terms, permitting us to fill them however we might please. Rather, their content is extensively unpacked in the Scriptures themselves, apart from which the creed cannot have its proper sense. The creed is never intended to function as a de-focusing of unwelcome scriptural teachings so that error can take refuge in vague terminology, nor is it a lowest common denominator.[3]

On this note, as Protestants we are most interested in what Scripture says on the matter.  Though the term “orthodox” isn’t found in any extant documents until the 6th century, its antonym, “heterodox” was in use as early as the first century.  It is a plain echo of the New Testament’s term, “strange teachings” (ἑτεροδιδασκαλεῖν).  Over against such foreign doctrine (διδαχαῖς ξέναις) was the “sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the doctrine that accords with godliness,” (1Tim.6:3).  “Sound doctrine” (ὑγιαινούσῃ διδασκαλίᾳ) isn’t merely creedal or confessional but moral (e.g, Titus 2:1ff.).  In a striking contrast and comparison of the law and the gospel, the apostle Paul writes:
… the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1Tim.1:9-10)
Biblical orthodoxy, then, includes not only the evangelical doctrines of first importance (e.g., 1Cor.15:1-5), but also the moral shape of Christ’s redemption and the life in the Spirit of the age to come.  As Paul exhorted Titus to boldly and tirelessly proclaim:
 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
I know James K.A. Smith understand these things – and no doubt better than I.  So I am left confused as to why he writes as though he does not. 

[1] Multiple councils throughout church history have also explicitly addressed (and condemned) homosexual behavior.  The earliest statement of a council regarding homosexual practices and behavior was issued by the Council of Elvira (305-306).  It excludes from communion the stupratores puerorum (corrupters of boys). Eight years later the Council of Ancyra spoke out against homosexual practices, condemning in Canon 17 all men who “commit [acts of] defilement with animals or males.” Later Councils likewise specifically condemn homosexual acts (e.g., the 16th Council of Toledo, the Council of Naplouse, the Third and the Fifth Lateran Councils).

[2] In fact, though its been overstated that the Ten Commandments didn’t play a central role in Christian catechesis until the 12th century, the evidence rather suggests that the Decalogue was consistently an ancient standard of Christian behavior and discipleship, as can be traced back from Augustine’s numerous sermons on the topic, to Irenaeus’ vigorous defense of their normative status for the church over against the Marcionites.  Christians are instructed in the Apostolic Constitutions (250 AD): “Have before thine eyes the fear of God, and always remember the ten commandments of God --to love the one and only Lord God with all thy strength; to give no heed to idols, or any other beings, as being lifeless gods, or irrational beings or daemons...,” (Didascalia Apostolorum Book II, Section IV).  This appears to have been consistent with the primitive church’s stance toward the Decalogue as well (cf., Matt.19:16-22; Romans 13:8-10; 1Timothy 1:9-10)

[3] Roberts conclusion strikes me as spot on: “When Smith complains about the danger of reducing Christianity to a morality, he is identifying a real problem. However, in denying the place of the creed in teaching us Christian morality, he is failing to practice his orthodoxy as he ought. The creed isn’t a self-contained document presenting the sum total of ‘orthodox’ Christian ethics. Rather, the creed gives us the grammar by which to articulate Christian ethics aright. …The creed is the touchstone of Christian ethics, the document disclosing its true grammar.”

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Singing with the Stars

Psalm 19 is David’s wonderful ode to God’s comprehensive self-revelation.  It begins with a kind of “natural theology,” in which the warrior poet sees the unmistakable handiwork of the Maker in the heavens, and portrays the celestial spheres as continuously singing the sublime praises of God.  The whole universe is, to use John Calvin’s phrase, theatrum gloriae. Under the vast canopy of heaven, we earthbound creatures cannot but hear the resounding hymn (v.4) and feel the warmth of solar breath (v.6). 

Daily the cosmic chorale “pours out speech,” and “their words run to the end of the world.”  Their repertoire apparently isn’t merely instrumental, though “there is no [audible] speech, nor are there [literal] words.”  Their wordless revelation is effervescent with content.  

I wonder whether in our Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, vigilantly listening for possible linguistic modulations in the radio transmission of stars, we’re missing their most obvious message.

Paul uses similarly paradoxical language in expounding his natural theology in the letter to the Romans.  He writes, “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made” (2:20). 

Speechless songs set to dancing all with ears to hear.  Visible creation plainly portrays invisible divinity to all with eyes in their head.  As Calvin wrote, “The faithful, to whom he has given eyes, see sparks of his glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing.”  For, as the reformer writes elsewhere, “there is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world, that is not intended to make men rejoice.”

But David moves from the heavens, from so-called “general revelation,” to the “special revelation” of holy writ in Psalm 19:7-11.  As glorious as galaxies in the endless night are, the law of God enjoys even higher praise:

Righteous altogether
Enduring forever (...unlike the heavens, Mt.5:18)
Giving wisdom to the simple
Reviving the soul
Rejoicing the heart

The instruction of the Lord is prized more than any earthly delight - material or culinary.  For by it, “your servant is warned,” and with it “there is great reward.”  This turns David inward, to self-examination, to wrestle with his own “hidden faults.”  “Who can discern his errors,” he asks God, praying for mercy. “Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!”    

The stars often set us to meditating on ourselves, especially within “the grand scheme of things.”  As David says elsewhere, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”  

But the ancient king’s read on nature is confirmed and clarified through his reading of the law.  Creation’s strange tongue is made abundantly intelligible with the God-given words of scripture, particularly for us dull-witted, suppressers of truth (Rom.2:18).  The music of the spheres isn’t ambiguous, but apart from the moral and spiritual renewal that comes through “hearing the word of God,” we tend to misread and cleverly obfuscate its clear import.  When we do hear the celestial voices, and see that ancient light by which all the world is enlightened, we come to a more honest knowledge of ourselves.  It is simultaneously acutely humbling (Ps.8:3-4) and incredibly exalting (8:5-8).  We glimpse the glory of the elysian image in which we were made, and how far from it we have fallen (Rom.3:23).  

This is why, I think, star gazing can be both sobering and exhilarating. In the cold, shimmering light of blue and bright giants, we are made to feel our diminutive gravitas, which, in the warm light of day had appeared to us so much more substantial.  Yet at the same time, we feel ourselves to share somehow in heaven’s grandeur.  And not merely as the mortal dust of stars – as Carl Sagan was fond of reminding us - but as children of the immortal light that lit them.  

The apostle Paul quotes from the “general revelation” portion of David’s psalm but, oddly enough, in reference to the redemptive task of publishing the “special revelation” of the gospel:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.  But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for 
                      “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, 
and their words to the ends of the world.”

Paul is talking about the charge to herald the gospel to the ends of the earth, but cites David’s words about the songs of the stars. Is he confused?

More literally rendered, the apostle writes, “But I ask: Did they not hear? On the contrary, ‘their voice has gone out to all the earth…’”  It doesn’t appear that Paul is citing Ps.19:4 as a proof-text here.[1]  But then why quote it?  Is it simply a convenient expression to convey the near-universality of the apostolic witness (see Rom.15:18-19)?  A kind of poetic borrowing from the familiar phrases of the Psalter - the same way we exclaim, “from the mouth of babes!” - without regard for the original context?  Perhaps. 

But I wonder if Paul had good reason to select this particular verse … contextual reasons.      

On the one hand, the poets and prophets saw the glory of God presently filling the entirety of creation, as the dread cherubim themselves declare before the heavenly throne (Isaiah 6:3).  Yet this glory was understood as exalted “above the heavens,” (e.g., Ps.8:1; 113:4-6; 148:13), even hidden from the eyes of men (e.g., Ex.33:18ff.). As we sing, “though the darkness hide thee; through the eye of sinful man, thy glory may not see.”  

On the other hand, the poets and prophets foresaw a day when the divine glory would be unveiled, brightly manifest in all the world.  Moses heard God swear, “as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord,” (Num.14:21).  David cried out for this promise: “Let your glory be over all the earth!” (Ps.57:5; 108:4-5; cf. 72:19; 67:1-2).  Isaiah spoke mystically of the latter days, when “the mountain of the house of the Lord will be lifted above the hills, and all the nations will flow to it,” (2:1).  

        They shall not hurt or destroy 
in all my holy mountain; 
        for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea, (11:9).

This paradise on earth dawns with the law of the Lord shining out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (2:2) - as universal as sunshine.  

The prophet Habakkuk saw these days, too.  In his terrifying vision of the Day of the Lord (2:2-3), he declared: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” (2:14).  In that day, “His splendor covered the heavens and the earth was full of his praise,” (3:3).  For then, “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you,” (Ps.22:27).    

Only in these latter days would the knowledge of God cover the earth as the sea.  Only then would the universality of natural revelation be paralleled by the universality of His special revelation.  The choir of the heavens would (finally) be matched by the redeemed choirs on this mortal coil – on earth as it is in heaven!  

And the apostle saw himself – and the apostolic band - as the precipitating agent in this unfolding revelation among the nations:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, (2Cor.4:6).

Their voice has gone out into all the earth, with words to be heard by Jew, Greek and Barbarian.  And through these cracked vessels, the cosmic light that ignites human hearts shines into “this present darkness” with blinding brilliance.  They are fulfilling, in their evangelistic and church-planting ministry, the hope of the prophets and poets of Israel.  That fulfillment continues to unfold today.

The terrestrial choir has begun its singing.  In the one, holy, universal and apostolic church, it not only sings along with heaven’s eternal song, but leads the magnificent ensemble – as deep calls to deep in the thundering waters of divine glory, flooding all the world.  As Calvin wrote:

The whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power, but the Church is the orchestra, as it were—the most conspicuous part of it.

Do you hear the music ringing, the endless song that echoes in our souls?  Belt it out, O church! Let all the world hear, until all the world sings!

[1] Paul uses a contrastive clause here, unlike his typical introductions of scriptural support.  Elsewhere, he uses “for,” (γάρ, e.g., 10:11, 16), or “just as” (καθὼς, e.g., 10:15) or “thus” (οὕτως, e.g., 10:6) to cite a proof text.

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, or passions; 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.


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.
[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.”