Interview #79 – Phil Johnson w/ Rich Barcellos – Testimony, MacArthur, Impassibility, + more [Audio Podcast]

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson

On episode 79 of our interview podcast we break our rules again and  hand over the interviewee mic. Richard Barcellos interviews Phil Johnson and they get into a wide array of topics.


  • His testimony
  • How he got connected with John MacArthur
  • How he came to believe the Doctrines of Grace?
  • His favorite authors
  • Criticism an politeness
  • The upcoming Shepherd’s Conference on Inerrancy
  • Why is the doctrine of Divine Impassibility important?
  • Van Til on Thomas Aquinas
  • About
  • + more


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9 Replies to “Interview #79 – Phil Johnson w/ Rich Barcellos – Testimony, MacArthur, Impassibility, + more [Audio Podcast]”

  1. As someone who agrees with Phil Johnson’s paper “God Without Mood Swings,” I was looking forward to learn where Phil currently stands on the issue. Unfortunately, though, the interview on this point was disappointing in several respects and, at best, failed to clearly address the two critical questions raised. Namely,…

    Q#1- What is your take on James Dolezal’s article on impassibility?

    Q#2- Would you [Phil] say anything different [than what you said in your original article]?

    Phil decides to respond to these questions in reverse. Unfortunately, he never gets to question #1. That is, he never tells us whether he’s in complete agreement with Dolezal’s paper. With respect to question #2, Phil says something like “I don’t think I would change that article at all.”

    Now that introduces a problem.

    First, in Phil’s original article he describes divine impassibility in terms of God’s having no passive affections and in what some call “voluntarist” language. Namely, that God exercises absolute, sovereign control over his emotions. In Phil’s own words,

    God is the sovereign initiator and instigator of all His own affections—which are never uncontrolled or arbitrary. He cannot be made to emote against His will, but is always the source and author of all His affective dispositions.

    So a proper understanding of impassibility should not lead us to think God is unfeeling. But His “feelings” are never passive. They don’t come and go or change and fluctuate. They are active, sovereignly-directed dispositions rather than passive reactions to external stimuli. They differ in this way from human passions.

    This is precisely the kind of impassibility James Dolezal rejects! (see below)

    Second, and by way of confirmation, Phil identifies his view with that of J. I. Packer. Indeed, Phil approvingly cites Packer two times:

    [The doctrine of impassibility] means, not that God is impassive and unfeeling (a frequent misunderstanding), but that no created beings can inflict pain, suffering and distress on him at their own will. In so far as God enters into suffering and grief (which Scripture’s many anthropopathisms, plus the fact of the cross, show that he does), it is by his own deliberate decision; he is never his creatures’ hapless victim. The Christian mainstream has construed impassibility as meaning not that God is a stranger to joy and delight, but rather that his joy is permanent, clouded by no involuntary pain. (J. I. Packer, “God,” in Sinclair Ferguson and David Wright, eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 277.)

    And again cites Packer approvingly when the latter writes,

    [Impassibility is] not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in face of the creation; not insensitivity and indifference to the distresses of a fallen world; not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief; but simply that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us, for his are foreknown, willed and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are. (“Theism for Our Time,” in Peter T. O’Brien and David G. Peterson, God Who Is Rich in Mercy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 16.)

    According to James Dolezal, “These remarks represent a striking departure from the classical account of impassibility.” Why? Because, according to Dolezal, “[Packer] locates the difference between God’s life and ours in the claim that God foreknows, wills, and chooses the experiences that ‘come upon’ him. That is to say that God’s affections are different from creatures’ because he is perfectly in control of them and has chosen them for himself” (emphasis his; “Still Impassible,” JIRBS (2014): 142.)

    Now it may be that Phil really has changed his position and would agree with Dolezal 100%. However, if that’s the case, then Phil would need to significantly revise his article. That article sets forth a view of impassibility affirmed by many Reformed scholars to today but one which is, according to Dolezal, and some Reformed Baptists like Richard Barcellos, completely incompatible with the language of the Confession.

    I was also disappointed that Phil never directly interacted with Oliphint or Lister, the so-called “revisionists” of impassibility. He referred to Grudem. However, Grudem dismisses impassibility altogether. But neither Oliphint nor Lister dismiss or reject impassibility. That’s a point that needs to be underscored and which some listeners may miss. Unfortunately, Phil never tells us what problems he has with Oliphint or Lister. Yet the interview leaves us with the impression that Phil really disagrees with them.

    As a result, the interview leaves many of us uncertain where Phil currently stands. Not surprisingly, some who find fault with Oliphint and Lister list Phil as an advocate of their view. Yet others, who don’t find fault with Oliphint and Lister (that would include me), affirm Phil’s position as articled in his article “God Without Mood Swings.”

    1. “I don’t think I would change that article at all. It’s a simple approach to the issue, I think. It’s not as technically detailed as you’d have to be today if you were going to answer Scott Oliphint and all of those guys. I think James Dolezal is doing a good job of answering those guys on a more technical level, but my goal was simply to show why this was important.”
      – Phil Johnson

      1. Tom, I listened to the podcast and heard that too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t answer the questions I’ve raised. If Phil carefully read Dolezal’s article, then he would have to change his article since his depiction of impassibility is, according to Dolezal, contrary to the classical view. For that reason, I think the interview *as it stands* is highly misleading and unhelpful, especially since those of us being accused of denying impassibility wholeheartedly agree with Phil’s “simple approach” to the issue.

        1. As you noted above, not Everyone saw what you saw in Phil’s article. I’d hate to have more confusion over his answer here. Since Phil’s answer was buried deep in an audio file, I thought it would be helpful to have it written. You are of course welcome to interpret his answer (and his article) however you wish. I thought both were fairly straightforward.

          1. Tom, my questions about the interview are not as complicated as you seem to think. Let me put them in the form of a logical syllogism.

            Major Premise: James Dolezal explicitly condemns the form of impassibility endorsed by J. I. Packer.

            Minor Premise: Phil Johnson explicitly endorses the form of impassibility endorsed by J. I. Packer.

            Conclusion: James Dolezal and Phil Johnson are not on the same page.

            Now, it may be that Phil Johnson has changed and really would say things differently if he could write the article today. That’s fine. But that’s not what Phil Johnson said in the interview. As you pointed out, he said, “I don’t think I would change that article at all.” So either Phil can’t recall what he wrote or Phil didn’t ready Dolezal carefully. In either case, the interview fails to clarify Phil Johnson’s current position on the matter.

          2. From a similar thread on my FaceBook page:

            Gentlemen: I was out of the office and on the road all day today, and I just got home. I have time tonight only to give short answers to two questions Rich Barcellos originally asked in the above interview. Robert Gonzales said I did not clearly answer one of the questions, and he may have a point. But that omission was unintentional. I got sidetracked in the interview. So here:

            1. No, I have not changed my position.

            2. Yes, I agree with James Dolezal.

            Unless I have totally missed something in Dolezal’s work, those who imagine some great gulf between him and me are seeing something that simply isn’t there. Though we wrote our respective views in vastly different contexts, separated by two decades, both of us are arguing against subtle (and not-so-subtle) attempts to rewrite classic theism as outlined in our Reformed confessional standards. I applaud Dolezal’s work. It’s much more thorough and more carefully nuanced than mine (and in that respect it is a major step forward). He objects to some expressions that I had simply let slide. But I don’t disagree with any fundamental point he makes.

            Specifically, I quoted some statements from J. I. Packer and agreed with the gist of what Packer said: **that God is not indifferent or unfeeling**—and yet His affections (love, anger, hatred, grief, etc.) are not involuntary “emotions”; they are active, deliberate, immutable expressions of the immutable will of an immutable God. In the passage I quoted, Packer clearly assumed the Biblical expressions about God’s love, the Holy Spirit’s grief, divine anger, etc. are “_anthropopathisms_.” (He uses that very word.) These dispositions are (in Packer’s words) “not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside.” Read my article and you’ll see that those were the very points I stressed.

            Doelzal quotes one of the same passages I cited from Packer and takes issue (rightly, I think) with the idea that “God has ‘experiences’ that ‘come upon’ him.” It’s quite true that Packer has used an inelegant and unfortunate expression. I may not be as certain as Dolezal that this reflects a deliberate departure from classic theism on Packer’s part, but if indeed it is Packer’s intention to “[suggest] some sort of progression and change in God’s life,” then Dolezal is absolutely right to object to that notion.

            Second, Dolezal makes a point I did not, and I agree with his point: While it’s important to stress the fact that God “is perfectly in _control_ of [His affections] and has chosen them for himself,” we’re not to imagine that the difference between the divine affections and human emotions consists in that fact alone. The root of the difference lies in God’s pure actuality. Experiences don’t “happen” or “come upon” Him. While I did not expressly make that point in my article, 1) I affirm it; 2) Dolezal is by no means *denying* that God “is perfectly in control of [His affections] and has chosen them for himself; 3) nor is he denying that this is a significant way God’s affections differ from human emotions.

            In short: I agreed with a very specific point Packer made; James Dolezal objects to the implications of Packer’s choice of words. That is hardly a reason to assume that Dolezal and I hold contradictory (or even incompatible positions). He and I have discussed some of these issues at length over several years’ time, and as far as I know have never had a fundamental disagreement.

            To Dustin Battles’ second question: Both Lister and Oliphant seem to have a wish to tinker with and tweak a doctrine that has always enjoyed remarkable consensus among the confessionally Reformed. In my judgment, that revisionist impulse is perfectly suited the spirit of this age but out of harmony with 2 Timothy 1:13-14. It makes me very nervous. On this issue in particular, I can’t silence the echo of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s observation, cited in the final footnote of my article, about pulling threads and unravelling sweaters.

  2. Two more small caveats.

    1) Classical Theism and Greek Thought (methodology)

    Phil makes the point that the theology of Greek philosophy is more akin to Open Theism than to classical theism since the gods of the Greeks were quite emotional and even capriciously so. This observation, however, overlooks that fact that there was a “popular” Greek theology held by the masses and a more “philosophical” Greek theology advocated by the philosophers. For example, Aquinas’ “Unmoved Mover” and Plotinus’ “One” is very, very different from the popular Greek god emotionally capricious Zeus and his cohorts.

    Did the church fathers and medieval theologians utilize the Greek philosophical thought and language uncritically? No. Was their theological method influenced by the methodology of Greek substance metaphysics? Yes. Are there problems with the natural theology advocated by some of the church fathers and medieval scholastics? Yes. Did the Reformers see some of the problems? Some, I think. But maybe not all.

    2) On the use of apophatic or negative theology

    Richard points out that negative or apophatic theology is used by Scripture writers. All sides agree on that point. However, there are three kinds of negative theology as I see it …

    #1- Explicit negations in Scripture: “God cannot lie”

    #2- Deduced negations from Scripture: “God’s will cannot ultimately be thwarted since the Bible affirms his comprehensive sovereignty.”

    #3- Deduced negations from natural theology: “God cannot have emotions because emotions entails movement and movement entails time and time entails change.” (Note: even if we grant that in the case of humans emotional capacity must entail movement which must entail time which must entail some change for the better or the worse, how do we know the same rational or state of affairs would apply to the Creator? Couldn’t it be possible that the Creator experiences all his affections timelessly without any intrinsic change for better or worse?)

    All sides agree with the first two types of apophatic theology. And while some of us don’t necessarily deny all the conclusions derived from the third category, we think some conclusions may go beyond good and necessary deductions from Scripture and we are, therefore, unable to affirm them with dogmatic certainty.

    Finally, it should be noted that the Scripture writers employ cataphatic or positive theology with much greater frequency than apophatic theology. Nor do they clearly give apophatic theology a normative priority over cataphatic.

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