Divine Impassibility: Section 2

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2. Biblical and Exegetical Foundations

At the foundation of the confessional formulation of the DDI are principles of interpretation, which when applied consistently, necessitate the conclusion that God is “without . . . passions” (2LCF 2.1). To these principles we now turn.

  • Hermeneutics

One of the most important hermeneutical principles affirmed by our Confession is the analogy of Scripture as expressed in 2LCF 1.9.

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: And therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold but one) it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.

The Scripture speaks in such a way as to require viewing certain texts literally and others metaphorically or anthropopathically; otherwise we are left with seemingly contradictory propositions respecting the doctrine of God (cf. John 1:18 with Exod. 33:23). Thus the more clear passages, having been interpreted according to their divinely intended sense, serve as the foundation for interpreting the less clear passages.

An example of two texts which inform the DDI will help illustrate this point. When texts that posit divine repentance (e.g., Gen. 6:6-7) are compared with texts that deny the very same thing (e.g., Num. 23:19) the exegete is left with few options. If we are to maintain a right view of scriptural authority and infallibility, we cannot simply take both texts literally. These texts highlight the interpretive challenge in that they cannot be true in the same way, at the same time. [1] The proper method for interpreting these kinds of texts is to give priority to those which speak of God ontologically (e.g., Exod. 3:14; Num. 23:19), what he is eternally or in his essence. Ontological propositions must be given priority, not only because they are more clear and less difficult, but also because what God is in himself precedes what God is like toward us. The latter presupposes and must be interpreted in light of the former.

The 2LCF also recognizes the principle of the analogy of faith: the clear passages of Scripture yield clear theological conclusions. Thus when the 2LCF states that the “true and full sense of any Scripture“ (1.9) must include the theological primacy of clear texts, it recognizes that more than grammatical and lexicographical principles are necessary for rightly dividing the Word of God. One must interpret the texts of Scripture theologically in the context of the entire canon.

What these two principles require is that we compare Scripture with Scripture, but not in a theological vacuum. When biblical texts speak to the doctrine of God, we must understand them in the light of the whole. The Scriptures must be interpreted both exegetically and theologically. Therefore the DDI cannot be divorced from the rest of the doctrine of God, especially his incomprehensibility, immutability, aseity, and simplicity, to which the 2LCF gives rich evidence. The 2LCF rightly points to the interpretive practice of comparing Scripture with Scripture, exegetically and theologically, so as to understand all that it teaches respecting the doctrine of God. This necessitates taking the Scriptures which speak of God in the language of human passions as anthropopathic, since this alone does justice to the unified sense of Scripture.

  • The Old and New Testaments on the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility

It is difficult to interpret what a particular text may be teaching about God without a proper framework drawn from the entire canon. The Scriptures sometimes disclose certain truths about God by using language borrowed from common human experience that portray him as changing. The central issue when interpreting these passages is methodological. Scripture uses the common experiences of men to convey the idea of God’s omniscience, wrath, and judgment. That is, Scripture speaks of the manifestation of God’s infinite nature, though from our perspective it appears as change. In this view, the language of change is understood metaphorically or anthropopathically, rather than in a literal or univocal fashion. This is the best and time-proven method of interpretation. Sample texts from both Testaments will now be examined under four headings: nature of God texts, immutability/impassibility texts, apparent passibilist texts, and the NT theology of the incarnation.

Nature of God texts
Exodus 3:14 says, “And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Moses foresees the Israelites asking him, “What is his name?” Keil and Delitzsch write:

The question, “What is His name?” presupposed that the name expressed the nature and operations of God, and that God would manifest in deeds the nature expressed in His name. God therefore told him His name, or, to speak more correctly, He explained the name ???? , by which He had made Himself known to Abraham at the making of the covenant (Gen 15:7), in this way: ??????? ????? ??????? , “I am that I am,” and designated Himself by this name as the absolute God of the fathers, acting with unfettered liberty and [independence][2] . . . (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:442)

The name reveals the nature and works of God. “I AM” reveals God’s transcendence and simultaneously discloses his immanence, without conceiving his transcendence as a problem that his immanence must overcome. The triune God relates to Israel directly as the eternal, infinite, triune God. Exodus 3 teaches us that God is the great, eternal, self-sufficient, and transcendent God. It also teaches us that this same transcendent God–by virtue of his infinite perfection–is the merciful, gracious, and faithful God of Israel. God’s relationship to his people is based on his eternal, essential existence as “I AM.” It is the aseity of God that is the ground of his immanent relationship with his people. Furthermore, God’s self-declared name reveals God’s unchanging nature. As the “I AM,” God doesn’t become, he is. This name shows “the constancy and certainty of his nature, and will, and word. The sense is, I am the same that ever I was” (Poole, Commentary, Exod. 3:14).

Psalm 90:1-2 declares, “A Prayer of Moses the man of God. Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever You had formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” The psalmist declares both the eternality and immutability of God. He then declares how this eternal and immutable God relates to his creatures (vv. 3ff). God’s closest, most immanent of relationships to his creation are based directly on his eternal, unchangeable nature, such that there is no need to posit a duality in God between his transcendence and immanence.

“No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18). The essence of God cannot be seen and has not been “seen…at any time.” Invisibility is properly predicated of God’s essence and, therefore, what he is eternally. John had events from the book of Exodus in his mind as he wrote the final verses of his prologue. He understands some of the language Moses used as anthropomorphic, depicting divine revelation in human ways of knowing. God does not have a literal face (Exod. 33:20, “You cannot see My face . . .”). God does not have a body; he is invisible (cf. Col. 1:15 and 1 Tim. 6:16).[3]

“God is spirit” (John 4:24). God is uncreated, independent, self-existent, eternal, and simple spirit (e.g., Exod. 3:14; Psalm 90:2). He is a one-of-a-kind “spirit.” He does not and cannot become less or more “spirit” for this is what he is eternally.

Acts 17:29 reads, “Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.” Paul sets forth the supremacy of the Creator in Acts 17:24-26a, evoking the OT (cf. Isa. 42:5). God is not dependent upon creatures (Acts 17:25), he created all things in general and the human race in particular (Acts 17:25-26), and is not contained in men’s temples or represented by their art (Acts 17:24, 29). The Creator/creature distinction is maintained by Paul. The Athenian idolaters should repent and believe on the Lord Jesus (Acts 17:30). “[T]he Divine Nature” is not like that which is created; it is of a different order of being. God is separate, transcendent, not like the creature and therefore, is not subject to the same sort of things that affect man.

Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” “Attributes” describe something about God’s essence. An attribute is not a part of God, for he is not composed of divine things. All of God is all that God is. Divine attributes tell us something about the essence of God and are, therefore, identical with his existence, both eternal and unchanging. Attributes are revelations of God to us, not alterations or a refashioning of God for us. These are called “invisible attributes,” though “clearly seen, being understood through what has been made . . .” “Eternal power” is predicated of God. Power refers to divine omnipotence, exhibited through what God does, limited by his own nature. “Eternal” refers to that which has always existed, not bounded or hedged in by any created entity. The things that have been made had a beginning. There was a time when everything other than God was not. God does not become; he is (e.g., Exod. 3:14; John 1:18; 4:24; 1 John 4:8). Eternal power knows no exhausting; it is revealed without depletion. Creation testifies to the invisible, eternal power of God. God’s nature is “divine.” Nature refers to that which makes up the primary qualities of an object or person. God’s divinity is “clearly seen, being understood through what has been made.” Man knows God inescapably. God does not take upon himself the things predicated of him in Romans 1:20 in order to become Creator. That which had always been (i.e., God) became known (i.e., revealed) to man the creature, without ceasing to be what it always was and ever shall be.

In 1 Timothy 1:17, Paul identifies the object of praise as the incomprehensible one who is “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise.” The eternity of God is one of the attributes unique to him. Employing the way of negation (i.e., apophatic theology), the Apostle asserts that God is “immortal,” that is, incorruptible, immune from decay. Being incorruptible and immune from decay implies immutability, for God “can neither be changed for the better (because he is the best) nor for the worse (because he would cease to be the most perfect)” (Turretin, Institutes, 1:205). God is “invisible.” The Scripture speaks of the invisibility of God relative to the fact that he is spirit (John 4:24). In Exodus 33:18-23, Moses asks to see God’s glory. The God who revealed himself as “Yahweh” to Moses previously in Exodus 3:14 declares in 33:20, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” That God is spirit (John 4:24) underscores, of course, the spirituality of God, which implies his invisibility, the reverse also being true. God is “the only God” (NASB), a statement that highlights his independence and unity, specifically his unity of singularity. The immortality of God is specifically relevant to the DDI as it highlights the separateness of God from his creation and underscores his incorruptibility and imperishability, both of which indicate that he is in fact immutable and therefore impassible.

“God is love” (1 John 4:8). Love is what God is, not what he has or becomes. Love is not a capacity in which God increases or diminishes. God does not have the potential to be loving or the potential to be more or less loving. Therefore, in the technical language of Christian theism, there is no potentiality in God. Since God is what he is, love is necessarily and eternally what he is, fully realized (i.e., actualized) and infinite. He is “most loving” (2LCF 2.1). Affirming impassibility does not reduce divine love to a distant, cold, inert numbness. Divine love is unchanging love that moves and shapes us (it is fully actualized), but is not moved or shaped (by God or us) in order for God to love us. It may be experienced by us in differing degrees, but it does not exist in God in differing degrees. God loves us without increasing or diminishing love in himself.

Immutability/impassibility texts
There are several OT passages that relate directly to the DDI. For example, Numbers 23 continues the narrative of the encounter of Israel with Balak, who has enlisted Balaam to curse Israel. God proclaims to Balak through Balaam:

And Balaam took up his discourse and said, “Rise, Balak, and hear; give ear to me, O son of Zippor: God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? Behold, I received a command to bless: he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it. (Num. 23:18-20)

God’s opening call for Balak’s attention reveals that his most foundational problem was a decidedly corrupt conception of Israel’s God. Through Balaam, God declares that he “is not a man…or a son of man,” calling attention to the Creator/creature distinction. God’s blessing is irreversible because it does not originate in his willingness to bless or in the lack of his willingness to curse. God declares that his act of blessing Israel is grounded in his very essence; because he is God and not a man nor the son of man the blessing is irrevocable. It is not that God will not revoke his blessing; it is that he cannot revoke it. God first sets himself apart from mankind ontologically by way of negation and then expresses the consequences of this foundational theological reality in several ways. God himself makes evident in his Word the necessary distinctions between God and man, the Creator and the creature. God provides for us a way or method of naming himself. “God is not man…nor a son of man” is the fundamental starting point for what follows. Balak’s folly was in thinking there was a level of essential commonality or identity between God and man. God establishes the practice of describing the Creator/creature distinction by the way of negation, i.e., what God is not. As Psalm 50:21 confirms, our sinful tendency is to think God is “altogether like” us. While there are ways that the imago Dei reflects our likeness to God in certain limited respects, this biblical truth does not permit attributing all that is true of the image-bearer to the infinite Creator. The imago Dei also highlights those ways in which God and man are not alike. It is to these dissimilarities that God turns as the direct consequences of his foundational theological declaration that he is not a man.

The clauses which follow this basic negative declaration give greater clarity to the implications or consequences of the Creator/creature distinction revealed by God. The first consequence is that God does not lie. God and mankind bear no similarity here. Nevertheless it is likely that there is more to God’s declaration than simply that he does not lie. What follows God’s assertion that he does not lie nor repent is the avowal that what he has spoken stands; he will make good on his word. Embedded in this further clarification is the awareness that the Creator does not lie because whatever he purposes, whatever he says, must certainly come to pass. It cannot fail: first, because it is ontologically impossible for God to lie (cf. Heb. 6:18) and second, because he will sovereignly and infallibly ensure that it “stands.” The blessing previously pronounced on Israel is as certain as the very being of God. God’s word is inseparably connected to God’s essence; his word cannot fail because he cannot lie. The implications for this respecting the DDI come to center in the parallel construction that God uses to underscore this distinction. God treats the possibility of his telling a lie to be of the same cloth with the possibility of his repenting.

God’s affirmation that he is “not a man…nor a son of man” assures us he does not repent. This Hebrew word is translated as “repent” (KJV, NKJV, NASB,) or as “change his mind” (ESV, NIV, NRSV). Of the slightly more than one hundred uses of this verb in the Hebrew OT, 35 are predicated of God. Some passages mention God’s repentance while others assert he does not repent or change his mind.[4] What are we to make of this data? One issue that warrants care is that, as Butterworth acknowledges, the “classification of the meanings of this root is difficult” (Butterworth, “ (na?am),” NIDOTTE). This confirms that simple lexicography will not supply sufficient materials to iron out all the wrinkles, although it does provide the important starting point. We must remember that the word is negated in the Hebrew text reflecting that God, because he is not a “son of man,” undergoes neither the subjective affect nor the objective effect underscored by “repent.” The core idea here is one of objective change and the subjective human emotional aspects that apply to it, neither of which, according to these two texts, can be properly predicated of God.

The DDI is a subset of at least two foundational theological premises fleshed out by Numbers 23:19. The first is the ontological foundation of the Creator/creature distinction: “God is not a man.” He is unchangeable both subjectively and objectively. He does not change because it is contrary to his essence. He cannot change any more than he can lie. God does not claim volitional reasons but ontological reasons for his own immutability and impassibility. The second foundational premise is that the DDI is necessarily a theological consequence of divine immutability. In other words, divine impassibility is a subset of God’s incommunicable attribute of immutability. If, as Numbers 23:19 insists, God is incapable of change, then he is incapable of repentance in the proper sense. This is the very point of Numbers 23:19. Balak misunderstood both the essence of God as a whole and his immutability.

This text informs us not only that repentance is not a divine attribute, but that it most certainly is a human trait. God is not distinguishing between human repenting and divine repenting. Repentance is not to be found in God; it is contrary to the very essence of God. Conversely, we are to understand that God is confirming that repentance is of the essence of the creature. More specifically, repentance is of the created anthropological realm; repentance belongs properly to man but not properly to God. Therefore all references elsewhere in Scripture that speak of God as repenting must be understood as God reveals them to be in this text–as anthropopathisms.

Commenting on this text, Calvin says there is a “dissimilitude between God and men” (Calvin, Commentaries, 3:211). This compels the conclusion that Numbers 23:19 (and 1 Sam. 15:29) teaches that repentance does not properly belong to God but does belong to man. It is anthropological in nature and so must be treated as such. The predication of repentance to God in passages such as Genesis 6 (see below) are examples of applying terms to him analogically which are proper only to humans, terms which do not properly belong to God. They are equal in nature to terms which apply physical arms (Deut. 32:27) to God. This is the necessary consequence of comparing Scripture with Scripture.

1 Samuel 15 is an important text in a discussion of the DDI if for no other reason than its double declaration that God “regretted” or “repented” (vv. 11 and 35) and its assertion that God does not “repent” (v. 29). In all three cases the Hebrew word is the same as in Numbers 23:19. In fact, the construction in 1 Samuel 15:29, as Klein notes, “is virtually a verbatim quotation from the oracles of Balaam (Num. 23:19) . . .” (Klein, 1 Samuel, WBC, 154). In light of this we will build upon the exegetical and theological foundation of Numbers 23:19.

The affirmation that God “regretted that he had made Saul king” (1 Sam. 15:35) comes at a point in the narrative history where it looks like a major change in the purpose of God is being revealed. He is about to reject Saul judicially, his sons, and his whole tribe (the Benjamites) from the future royal plans for Israel. In this instance, the repentance ascribed to God in verses 11 and 35 stand within the narrative in a similar way to that of Genesis 6 (see the treatment below), describing from a human perspective the major shift in direction God initiates in the light of Saul’s sin and his judgment on that sin.

This underscores an important point often ignored in the handling of this and similar texts by modified passibilists, especially those who wish to translate “repent” as an emotionally-laden term with respect to God. The incursion of sin in the redemptive-historical narrative is front and center to the expressions of God’s repentance in Genesis 6:6-7 and 1 Samuel 15:11 and 35. Nonetheless, what God repents of in these four uses of the term is his own action; if God is emotionally upset, we must assume God is upset with himself for what he has done. Notice carefully Genesis 6:6, “The LORD was sorry that He made man . . . ,” Genesis 6:7, “for I am sorry that I have made man,” 1 Samuel 15:11, “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king . . . ,” and 1 Samuel 15:35, “The LORD regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel.” In each context, there is both the third person narrative expression of God’s regret and the first person confession of God’s regret. By refusing to see these texts as anthropopathic expressions that give context to the revelation of major changes in God’s redemptive dealings with creation (Gen. 6) or Israel’s king (1 Sam. 15:11 and 35), we are left to see them as expressions of God’s emotionally-charged response to his own actions. The consequence of the modified passibilist view is that we must assume the sequence of God’s action, man’s sin, and then God’s emotionally-charged frustration with himself as expressing the main point of the narratives.

How we understand these biblical expressions of God’s repentance, however, necessitates reading them in direct correlation to the revealed truth of who and what God is. Hermeneutics and theology dovetail. Either God is undergoing some sort of emotional turmoil for what he has done, or he is using language that would be expressive of a man’s emotional turmoil at the frustration of his own purposes to articulate a major shift in the narrative’s trajectory. God is about to judge mankind and start over with Noah (Gen. 6) and to judge Saul and start over with David (1 Sam. 15). From a human perspective these are redemptive-historical moments that come as major shifts. But for God, they were part of his redemptive plan, according to his eternal decree. A man might be emotionally conflicted if his purposes were frustrated by the sin of others and he was forced to put an alternative plan in place. To read this of God is to assume that somehow he is frustrated with himself while executing his perfect plan for the eternal redemption of his elect. Given these two options, reading these texts anthropopathically becomes a necessity. To do otherwise is to alter significantly the biblical and theological representation of the being and nature of God.

The irrevocability of God’s declaration of judgment on the kingship and dynasty of Saul (v. 29) is not anchored in God’s will, but in his essence: “because He is not a man.” His word of judgment cannot fail because ontologically he cannot go back on it. To do so would be tantamount to God denying himself. God has not changed but acted in perfect consistency with his own immutable nature and according to his own unchangeable word. To assume that divine repentance in 1 Samuel 15:11 and 35 is proper to God is to assume that he is emotionally conflicted because of honoring his word and removing Saul from the kingship, none of which the text itself teaches.

The narrative descriptions of divine repentance in 1 Samuel 15:11 and 35 frame the judicial rejection of Saul in human terms. From a human perspective, it looks like God changed his mind. But the larger narrative reflects that Saul’s kingship was Israel’s attempt to be like the other nations and constituted a rejection of God’s dominion over them from the start. When Saul failed to obey the Lord, God, in judgment, acted in accordance with his word–he removed the kingship from Saul and moved forward to David. God does not emotionally regret this decision for that would put him in conflict with his own judgment and prophetic word. As this was God’s plan all along, it is impossible to imagine that God is ontologically, volitionally, or emotionally conflicted here. Verse 29 actually confirms God’s solemn declaration of judgment on Saul’s dynasty according to his eternal decree, and the use of anthropopathic language confirms that there is no emotional conflict in God. In other words, he is not passible.

Finally, let us not read some form of numbness in God into the narrative of Saul’s rejection. God’s interaction precludes such a false assessment. He has been extremely patient with Israel and careful to warn and exhort Saul. Furthermore, God is, and has been all along, moving toward the establishment of the Davidic kingship, the precursor to the arrival of the future king who would reign on the throne of David forever (Isa. 9:7; Jer. 33:17; Luke 1:32). God’s eternal design for the monarchy in Israel was moving forward according to his eternal decree and sovereign will. To suppose that God was somehow emotionally conflicted at this point is to misread the text and to misrepresent him.

Malachi writes, “For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6). Malachi 3:6 is parallel in structure, each term of the first clause corresponding to one in the second. “I” corresponds to “you,” “the LORD” to “sons of Jacob,” and “do not change” corresponds to “are not consumed.” The clauses relate to each other as cause and effect. This is shown by the first word of the verse (“for”) and the logical conjunction (“therefore”) that introduces the second clause. It is because the LORD does not change that the sons of Jacob are not consumed. God’s claim of changelessness is not limited by the text. It is not any one attribute in particular to which he refers. God is speaking of his one, simple nature. God himself declares in clear terms his own absolute immutability. He states that his immutable nature is the basis for his dealings with his people. God relates to Israel, not as a response to Israel’s behavior, but in love, according to his unchanging nature.

The NT also addresses divine immutability and the DDI. Acts 14:15 says:

Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them.

The words “same nature” are from the Greek word o'moiopaqei/j, which is literally, “pert. to experiencing similarity in feelings or circumstances, with the same nature tini,, as someone Ac 14:15; Js 5:17” (BDAG). This truth is declared to reject worship being given to man, with the obvious implication that worship is due to God alone. God is “the living God” (Acts 14:15), which is a common OT designation for God, “especially when contrasting him with dead idols (Deut. 5:26; Josh. 3:10; 1 Sam. 17:26; 2 Kings 19:4, 16; Ps. 84:2; Hos. 1:10)” (Marshall, “Acts,” CNTUOT, 588). God is not of the same nature as man. He is of a different order of being; God is the Creator, and man the creature. This distinction reminds us of God’s transcendent perfection, that he is unlike us. God is not subject to passions; man is. God is not changed from without or from within; he remains unchanged and unchanging.

James 1:17 says, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” James amplifies “the Father of lights” with the words “with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” Though that which God created may change, he who created does not. God is essentially and, therefore, eternally immutable. God is not like that which he has created. James argues from the immutability of the divine nature (v. 17) to the immutability of the divine goodness and love toward those who have been “brought forth by the word of truth” (v. 18). God does not pass from one state of existence to another; he is what he is (cf. Exod. 3:14; John 1:18; 4:24; 8:58; 1 John 4:8). He reveals to us more of who he is but that does not change him, though it changes us. Because immutable, God is impassible, neither experiencing change from within or from without, unlike that which he has made.

Apparent passibilist texts
In Genesis 6:1-7, Moses shows his readers God’s view of the deluge. He portrays God as perceiving man’s thorough and incessant wickedness, and therefore as regretting having created him. This regret grieves God to his heart. He then decides that he will “un-create” the world, destroying man and beast, birds and creeping things from the face of the earth. God will act in a manner that is the reverse of his creative acts in Genesis 1.

Genesis 6:6 says that God “was grieved in his heart.” It is readily admitted that “in his heart” is anthropomorphic in that God does not have a physical heart. Since this phrase is anthropomorphic, the natural question arises as to whether the former term (“grieved”) should be understood figuratively. The latter phrase being obviously anthropomorphic, the most natural interpretation of the former term (“grieved”) would be anthropopathic.

The figurative language of this text communicates a truth regarding the infinite God. When the wickedness of man became constant, did God know? Indeed, for we are told that “God saw the wickedness of man.” This is not a new evaluation of man based on his digression further into sin. Rather, it is a statement that the omniscient God knows even the unexpressed thoughts and intentions of our hearts. The sins of man are not neutral to the immutable and most holy God. He who eternally loves righteousness must be eternally disposed to judge evil. Moses depicts the action of God as analogous to a man who un-does all he had begun. The actions God was about to undertake in destroying the world that then was are likened to the actions of a man who had been greatly and unjustly grieved. God reveals this in an anthropopathic manner, not only because it resonates with our own sense of justice, but also for the sake of our instruction. He would teach us that he inviolably and immutably hates our sin, so that we might in like manner hate it and understand how contrary it is to the original created order. As Calvin well noted:

The repentance he is speaking of is to horrify us at ourselves and not to indicate that God is changeable. So it ought to astonish us that God says he repents of having made man and that he is grieved and saddened in his heart for doing so. It is certain, as I have said, that there is no passion in God. . . . It is very certain Moses did not intend to change God’s image and say that he is subject to passion, that he is subject to repentance the way we are, but he wanted to touch us with horror when he said God repents. The term means that God disavows us as his creatures because we are no longer those whom he made and formed. (Calvin, Sermons on Genesis, 563, 564)

Repentance is not attributed to God properly, but according to the manner of men.

In Genesis 22, God tests Abraham, instructing him to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. As Abraham raises the knife to obey God’s command,

the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham. . . . Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (Gen. 22:11-12, emphasis added)

Taken literally, the verse would indicate that God had just learned that Abraham truly feared and trusted him. This is how Open Theists understand this passage. Some in our day hold that this text indicates God is relationally mutable. Others, though similarly, hold that while God is essentially omniscient, he nonetheless has assumed certain covenantal properties for the sake of condescending to us in order to relate to us. The latter two views both reflect a form of relational mutability when it comes to God’s knowledge which must be denied, along with the view of Open Theism. These two views have the same result in terms of how God relates to men. Both Open Theism and the modified view portray God as waiting to see what Abraham will do in order to learn about Abraham. The distinction between these views is that, in Open Theism, the lack of knowledge is inherent in the essence of God; whereas in the modified view, God is essentially omniscient, his lack of knowledge being rooted in the relational mutability or covenantal properties he chooses to take to himself. In Open Theism, God’s ignorance of the future choice of Abraham is natural to God. In the modified view, his ignorance is found only in what he takes to himself of his own sovereign choice. Both views teach that the relationship of God to Abraham is predicated on a God who watches Abraham in order to learn. The modified view presents God as relating to Abraham through relational mutability (in this case, a knowledge that grows or changes). A contemporary proponent of the modified view, K. Scott Oliphint, states that God takes on covenantal properties that are “conducive to his interaction with his creation generally, and specifically with his people” (Oliphint, God with Us, 194-95). One of these covenantal properties, according to Oliphint, is the development of knowledge (Oliphint, God with Us, 194). This implies that the eternal attributes of God (at least some of them) are not, in themselves, conducive to interaction with his creation. This also implies that, in order to relate to men, God must take to himself covenantal properties which are different–even opposite–to what he is ontologically. In the modified view, the best way for God to relate to men is to become different from what he is essentially.

If Genesis 22:11-12 teach that God grows or acquires knowledge in any sense it would contradict the clear teaching of such passages as Psalm 44:21, Proverbs 15:3, Isaiah 40:28, Romans 11:33, Hebrews 4:13, etc. Genesis 22 utilizes a figure of speech to declare that God knows Abraham’s act as an evidence of his faith. Charles Simeon comments on this passage:

THERE are in the Holy Scriptures many expressions, which, if taken in the strictest and most literal sense, would convey to us very erroneous conceptions of the Deity. God is often pleased to speak of himself in terms accommodated to our feeble apprehensions, and properly applicable to man only. For instance: in the passage before us, he speaks as if from Abraham’s conduct he had acquired a knowledge of something which he did not know before: whereas he is omniscient: there is nothing past, present, or future, which is not open before him, and distinctly viewed by him in all its parts. Strictly speaking, he needed not Abraham’s obedience to discover to him the state of Abraham’s mind: he knew that Abraham feared him, before he gave the trial to Abraham: yea, he knew, from all eternity, that Abraham would fear him. But it was for our sakes that he made the discovery of Abraham’s obedience a ground for acknowledging the existence of the hidden principle from which it sprang: for it is in this way that we are to ascertain our own character, and the characters of our fellow-men. (Simeon, Horae Homiliticae, Gen. 22:12)

Calvin similarly states that God is speaking to us “according to our infirmity. Moses simply means that Abraham, by this very act, testified how reverently he feared God” (Calvin, Commentaries, 1:570).

As noted above, some claim that God created properties (i.e., covenantal properties) that he took on prior to the incarnation that will endure into the eternal state. Becoming the covenantal God, it is claimed that the mode of God’s existence has changed for eternity (Oliphint, God with Us, 254-55). That which God took on in time to become the covenantal God is not and cannot be shed by God in the eschaton. This proposal entails that God cannot be transcendent and immanent (in the classical sense) so must become something (prior to the incarnation of the Son) he was not (prior to the creation of all things) in order to reveal himself to or interact with us for eternity. God as condescended and God in himself are two modes of existence or orders of being–one temporal and contingent (i.e., created) and the other eternal and non-contingent (i.e., uncreated). According to this view, God reveals himself in a condescended, covenantal mode of being, a mode of being not co-extensive with who God is prior to creation. According to the confessional view, it is affirmed that God created as he existed from all eternity, and when he reveals himself to us through and subsequent to creation it is the same God revealing himself (2LCF 4.1). No created covenantal properties are needed. God can and does remain who he is but utilizes language suitable to our capacities of knowledge and experience when revealing himself to us.

It is crucial to assert that creation is a distinct order of contingent and temporal being and thus to be distinguished from God, who is self-existent, necessary, eternal, and non-contingent being. Both Testaments affirm a distinction between God and creatures (e.g., Gen. 1:1ff; Num. 23:19; Psalm 19; etc.). Nature had a beginning and exists subsequently contingent upon divine providence (Col. 1:16-17). All things that came into existence did so without the use of previously existing materials (Heb. 11:3). The things that have come into being are obviously not God. God is eternal being; things come into temporal being. God is uncreated, and has life in and of himself eternally (John 5:26), does not lie, change, deny himself, and cannot be added to or subtracted from. Two texts in Acts distinguish between the divine nature and human nature and other created things (cf. Acts 14:15 and 17:29). The Creator is of a different order of being from the creation. This distinction is crucial to maintain.

The DDI asserts that God cannot change from within or from without because of what he is and what he is not. He is God, the Creator; he is not creature. He can and does reveal who he is to creatures, but he does not refashion himself or add attributes, perfections, or covenantal properties to do so. He does not become something he was not in order to reveal who he is; he simply reveals who he is.

The New Testament theology of the incarnation
Some have attempted to argue against the confessional DDI by an appeal to the doctrines of the incarnation and the sufferings of Christ. Failing to maintain the Creator/creature distinction, some ascribe suffering to the divine nature of Christ and even to the Father and Holy Spirit. These are mistakes with mammoth implications.

The doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum (i.e., the communication of idioms) is important in a discussion on the DDI. Muller defines it as follows: “communication of proper qualities; a term used in Christology to describe the way in which the properties, or idiomata, of each nature are communicated to or interchanged in the unity of the person” (Muller, Dictionary, 72). To what is this referring? The Confession gives assistance at this point:

Christ, in the work of mediation, acteth according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture, attributed to the person denominated by the other nature. (2LCF 8.7)

Among the texts cited by the 2LCF is Acts 20:28, which says, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (KJV). Assuming this translation and leaving the textual variant aside, this text contains the communication of idioms doctrine. God is said to have blood. Since God is “without body” (2LCF 2.1), how can this be? The answer is that sometimes the Bible attributes that which is proper to one nature to the person of the Son.

Muller goes on to say, “the two natures are here considered as joined in the person, and the interchange of attributes is understood as taking place at the level of the person and not between the natures” (Muller, Dictionary, 72). This means that, though our Lord suffered according to his human nature, the human nature remained united to the divine nature and was supported and sustained throughout the sufferings. The incarnate Son, according to his divine nature, upheld the incarnate Son, according to his human nature.5 The work of mediation is the work of both the human and divine natures of the Son. In fact, the Son’s work of mediation, according to his divine nature, actually predates the incarnation itself (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4; 1 Pet. 1:10-11) and so could only be the work of his divine nature. The NT necessarily contains the doctrine of the communication of idioms. Though some have not been faithful to this crucial teaching, especially as it relates to the sufferings of our Lord, it is vital to distinguish between what Christ does according to his divine nature and what he does according to his human nature, lest suffering be attributed to the divine. Though the Son of God became flesh (John 1:14), he never ceased being what he always was and ever shall be, “who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (Rom. 9:5). This is the mystery and glory of the incarnation. The Word becoming flesh is not the Word ceasing to be what he always was. The incarnation wrought no change in the Word’s deity. When John says, “And the Word became flesh” in John 1:14, it is understood as the person of the Son assuming the nature of man (cf. Phil. 2:5-8).

What Christ suffered he did so as punishment for human sin due to the justice of God and according to his human nature. Positing divine suffering ends up being a form of theopassianism (i.e., God suffered) or a form of patripassianism (i.e., the Father suffered), both of which were amply discussed and condemned by the early church. The Son suffered according to his human nature. God, as God, cannot suffer. Suffering entails the deprivation or loss of something good. Neither of these can be true of God, as God, without there being change in God, as God. The Lord suffered and died as man, as he lived as man, for us. His sufferings were due to our sin and endured by him according to his human nature alone, though upheld by the divine nature. Each “nature [does] that which is proper to itself” (2LCF 8.7). Any form of divine suffering must be rejected because it fails to uphold the mystery of the hypostatic union and to distinguish between what Christ does according to his human nature and what he does according to his divine nature. Again, it is confessed (and in good Chalcedonian fashion), “Christ, in the work of mediation, acteth according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself” (2LCF 8.7a). Suffering is not proper to the divine nature of Christ, nor the Father, nor the Holy Spirit ad extra or ad intra.

  • Conclusion

The classical and confessional view best explains all the Scriptures. By properly accounting for anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language in the Bible, it allows the clearer passages to interpret the figurative ones. It understands that the eternal God directly governs, guides, and relates to men through his providence. It provides the context for understanding how an unchanging God relates to his creatures, using language accommodated to those creatures. In this view, God is neither compounded, nor disunified, nor self-contradictory. Rather, he is simple, in perfect unity with himself. God is, indeed, “without . . . passions.”


[1] It is important to note that the texts do not make affirmations that need reconciliation; i.e., God is “A” and God is “B.” They actually make opposite affirmations, or better, an affirmation on the one hand and a denial on the other; i.e., God repented and God does not repent; God is “A” and God is “not A.” (back)

[2] The English translation reads “self-dependence.” We have consulted the original German text and German language resources prior to making this change of translation. See the Oxford Duden German Dictionary, s.v., Selbständigkeit (which is the term employed in the original German text).(back)

[3] It can be said that God the Son as mediator has a body but only according to his human nature.(back)

[4] Numerous passages mention God’s repentance (Gen. 6:6, 7; Exod. 32:12, 14; Judg. 2:18; 1 Sam. 15:11, 35; 2 Sam. 24:16; 1 Chr. 21:15; Psalm 90:13; 106:45; 135:14; Jer. 15:6; 18:8, 10; 26:3, 13, 19; 42:10; Ezek. 5:13; Joel 2:13-14; Amos 7:3, 6; Jon. 3:9, 10; 4:2), while others assert that God does not repent or change his mind (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Psalm 110:4; Jer. 4:28; 20:16; Ezek. 24:14; Zech. 8:14).(back)


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