Impassibility: Basic Definition, Explanation, & Why it’s Essential [Jim Butler]

Pastor Jim Butler
Pastor Jim Butler

Jim Butler:

The goal with this post is simply to provide a basic definition, explanation, and to highlight why the doctrine is essential. It is crucial to understand that it is the doctrine of impassibility that secures God’s relational character to His creatures; it alone provides the foundation for the confession’s declaration that God is “most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute…most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth…”

Read “A Brief Statement on Divine Impassibility”.

5 Replies to “Impassibility: Basic Definition, Explanation, & Why it’s Essential [Jim Butler]”

  1. I can affirm, with the author above, that God’s affective capacity is unchangeable. That is, he never becomes more or less loving, more or less gracious, more or less angry at sin, and so on. So God’s affections cannot substantively wax or wane.

    Yet it seems to me that God can change the way he relates towards changing states of affairs in time and that God’s changed relationships (ad extra) are expressions of real affections (e.g., love, anger, delight, zeal, compassion, etc.). Hence, God’s affectional posture toward mankind before the Fall was one of delight (Gen 1:31). However, God’s affectional posture toward mankind after the Fall was one of grief (Gen 6:5). While these different affections towards different states of affairs represent no substantial change in God’s intrinsic affective virtue, they do reflect real distinctions. In the words of Morton Smith (who subscribes to the Westminster Standards without exception),

    With the creation of the world [God] sustains new relations to it. With the entrance of sin, the new relations of wrath and displeasure are displayed, whereas in the Gospel God reveals grace and mercy to the sinner. Our best understanding of these apparent changes in God is that they are changes in relations, but are not changes in his nature or purposes. It may be shown that the same attribute of his nature, which on the one hand demands goodness be displayed to the good, demands wrath be shown to the sinner, and in turn pours out mercy on the objects of his grace (Systematic Theology, 1:132-22).

    Cornelius Van Til, late professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, agrees and writes, “We need at this point to be fearlessly anthropomorphic.” By this Van Til does not mean we should deny or explain away change predicated of God. Quite the opposite! In his words,

    We need not fear to say that God’s attitude has changed with respect to mankind. We know well enough that God in himself is changeless. But we hold that we are able to affirm that our words have meaning for no other reason than that we use them analogically (Common Grace and the Gospel (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974), 73.)

    While these writers reject any notion of change predicated of God’s essence or nature, they seem to allow that God may change the way he relates to a world of change. Such change is necessary in order to uphold God’s immutability.

  2. Another thought.

    One of the sentences in the article on impassibility that stands out to me is this one: “It is the doctrine of impassibility that secures God’s relational character to His creatures.”

    That sounds comforting, but is it really true?

    Some philosophical theologians I’ve read argue that the classical view does not secure God’s relational character to his creatures. Ryan Mullins, for example, argues that classical theists in fact deny that God can properly relate to the creature. He cites Boethius who says, “Relation … cannot be predicated at all of God; for substance in him is not really substantial but supersubstantial” (The Trinity Is One God Not Three Gods IV). Then Mullins cites Aquinas who, following Aristotle’s notion of relations, writes,

    Now certain relations are said of God anew: for instance that He is Lord or governor of a thing which begins anew to exist. Wherefore, if a relation were predicated for God as really existing in Him, it would follow that something accrues to God anew, and consequently that He is changed either essentially or accidentally (Summa Contra Gentiles II.12).

    Since Aquinas denies that God can have accidental properties, he argues that the relations ascribed to him (e.g.s., Creator, Lord, Redeemer) “are not really in Him, and yet are predicated of Him, it remains that they are ascribed to Him only to our way of understanding” (Summa Contra Gentiles II.12-14).

    If this is true, thinks Mullins, then “relational predicates do not apply to God at all, but only exist in our minds.” Therefore,

    When [a Christian] sings, “Lord my Creator,” she is intending to actually refer to God. But on the picture that we have from Aquinas, this is not the case. When singing “Lord my Creator,” she is not referring to God. The phrase from the song does not apply to any extramental reality. Instead it is only stating something about the creature.

    See his “In Search of a Timeless God” (PhD Diss.; University of St. Andrews, 2013), 111-18.

    If Mullins is correct, it would seem that we must also interpret phrases like “God’s relational character to His creatures” as anthropomorphisms. God isn’t really or properly our Creator, Lord, and Redeemer. Such are just metaphors that say something about us, but nothing about Him. So when we exhort one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, we’re really not teaching ourselves and others truth about God but truth about ourselves, namely, we’re just singing about our dependence on the Ineffable One.


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