Divine Impassibility: Section 4

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4. Confessional Theology

The first chapter of the 2LCF, Of the Holy Scriptures, provides for us the principium cognoscendi or principle of knowing. “[T]he principium cognoscendi, the principle of knowing or cognitive foundation, is a term applied to Scripture as the noetic or epistemological principium theologiae, without which there could be no true knowledge of God and therefore no theological system . . .” (Muller, Dictionary, 246). The second chapter, Of God and of the Holy Trinity, supplies us with the principium essendi. The principium essendi, the principle of being or essential foundation, is a term applied to God considered as the objective ground of theology without whom there could be neither revelation nor theology. These two chapters provide the foundation for everything contained in the 2LCF. God’s being and essence, in fact, are the foundation for the existence of Scripture itself. Apart from God, there is no revelation. The nature of infallible, inerrant Scripture rests on the eternal, immutable God. Whatever follows in the 2LCF is molded and shaped by these two foundational principles. Immediately following the chapter on God, we encounter teaching about his decree, executed in the works of creation and providence. This is followed by a chapter describing the fall of man (chapter 6 elaborates on the doctrine found in 5:4), and then a lengthy section (chapters 7-20) describing God’s saving purpose, granted to his elect, in and through Jesus Christ. As such, upon the foundation of Scripture and God, the 2LCF unfolds an understanding of God’s works ad extra: creation, providence and redemption. This leads to a section on the liberty God gives to his people and finally to two chapters describing his eschatological purpose. As a whole, the 2LCF is a tightly woven garment—a system of theology based on scriptural exegesis, foundational principles, and mutual dependence.

The doctrine of chapter 2 is presented in three paragraphs. The first might be called “The One True God,” the second “God’s external relations,” and the third “God’s internal relations.” The 2LCF follows the standard order of treatment of Theology Proper. The Baptists were men concerned not with philosophical speculation, but with a demonstration of the teaching of Scripture. The movement from general to specific is important to note. All that is stated in paragraphs 1 and 2 applies to the Godhead in unity. The third paragraph details the doctrine of the Trinity in classic Nicene language. It is a standard articulation of the doctrine of God, based in Scripture and the reflection on Scripture found in the best theologians since the Apostolic era. We should be highly cautious of modifying its doctrine or terminology.

Paragraph 1 deals with the identity of the one true God. God’s self-existence and self-knowledge are presented; God exists in and of himself, he alone knows himself thoroughly. Where the Presbyterians in WCF wrote, “There is but one only, living and true God . . .” the 2LCF beautifully personalizes the statement, making it more intimate, “The Lord our God is but one only living, and true God.” From the outset of the chapter, God is presented as the one true and living God in his relation to his people. The editors of the 2LCF are keenly aware that the God who is “infinite in being and perfection” (2LCF 2.1) does not need to become other than what he is in order to relate to humans; he relates to us as the one true living God. This is a significant observation, setting a climate for the following phrases. When, for example, the paragraph states that God is “without … passions,” the sense of this phrase must be understood in reference to the preceding “The Lord our God.” Though opponents of the confessional DDI seek to characterize it negatively, for our fathers it was in no sense at odds with a genuinely personal God. Likewise, we must notice that our God is said to be infinite in perfection. God lacks nothing, and his perfection knows no bounds. There can be no sense of any kind in which God comes short of this perfection. He is incapable of further perfection, just as he is incapable of diminished perfection.

Divine perfection is foundational to all of the statements in this paragraph, each one being built on the preceding truths and connected to those that follow. God’s oneness is a perfection. If there are two gods, then each relies upon some former cause outside of itself for its existence. However, if God is the one true God, then he is truly perfect. This is asserted in God’s aseity. His subsistence, or manner of existence, is of himself. This perfect independence makes God “a most pure spirit.” Because he is one, there is no multiplicity in him. There are no causes or effects in God. He is all that he is, simply, infinitely, and perfectly. God’s unity, simplicity, actuality, and spirituality necessarily contain further truths. A purely actual, spiritual, perfect, infinite being cannot have passions. A self-existent eternal being is the only truly immortal being.

Paragraph 1 of the 2LCF reflects interconnected development in the doctrine of God, all of which begins with a strong foundation of divine perfection. It is important to understand the interwoven character of these statements so that we can place the phrase “without . . . passions” carefully within its context. We may summarize the design of the paragraph simply. The attributes of God outlined in this paragraph are intended to highlight that God is in his very existence complete and perfect unto himself or, as stated simply by the Confession, “every way infinite.” Even the attributes modified by the superlative “most” teach that God is utterly infinite and independent as the holy, wise, free, and absolute God. We are taught, moreover, that God is “working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory.” His glory consists in and is expressed by the fact that he is “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering,” etc. The phrase “without . . . passions,” therefore, does not contradict or diminish the fact of God’s love, graciousness, mercy, and long-suffering. Taken as a whole, this first paragraph of chapter 2 is a wonderfully balanced, carefully nuanced doctrine of God. He is unlike any of his creatures and glorious in his being. He is loving, gracious, merciful, and long-suffering, he hates sin, and is a pure spirit who has no body, parts, or passions.

The phrase “without body, parts, or passions” is found in a carefully constructed section of the first paragraph. It is preceded by another important addition, the clause “whose Essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself.” This is notable in that it emphasizes the Creator/creature distinction. God alone is able to comprehend his “whatness,” or to state this differently, man cannot comprehend God in his essence. The clause is immediately followed by a series of phrases that presuppose God’s incomprehensibility. God is incomprehensible because, unlike the creature, he is “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions.” Thus, these attributes, even divine impassibility, are incommunicable and set forth the absolute distinction between the Creator and creature. Lest the point be missed, the Baptists inserted an epexegetical statement immediately after the words “without body, parts, or passions.” It reads “who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light, which no man can approach unto.” Once more, emphasis is placed on the uniqueness of God. Unlike his creatures, he alone is immortal by nature. Therefore the framers of the 2LCF clarify the sense of “without…passions” by setting it in the context of God’s incomprehensibility and ontological dissimilarity. In the case of “passions” attributed to God, they cannot and must not be understood as though God were a being like our own; the being of God, unlike the being of the creature, is “without . . . passions.”

This phrase “without body, parts, or passions” is intended to serve further as part of the description of God as a “most pure spirit.” He is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17), not possessing the physical characteristics of his creatures. He is incorporeal, not a composite being, and he has no passions. All of these are aspects of the doctrine of divine simplicity. While most Christians acknowledge that the many texts in Scripture which describe God having physical characteristics (i.e., eyes, hands, heart, etc.) are metaphorical, and are willing to affirm that God is not a composite being, the sense of “passions” as intended by the confessional doctrine is frequently misunderstood or redefined.

There is no doubt as to how the word “passions” is to be understood. Muller says:

An affection is usually favorable or positive, whereas a passion is usually negative. . . . A passion, most strictly, is a form of suffering and would not have the connotation of a permanent disposition. . . . Passions . . . indicate a declension from an original or natural condition that is at variance with the fundamental inclination of the individual–and, therefore, a loss of power or self-control.
. . . Since a passion has its foundation or origin ad extra and its terminus ad intra, it cannot be predicated of God and, in fact, fails to correspond in its dynamic with the way that God knows. An affection or virtue, by way of contrast, has its foundation or source ad intra and terminates ad extra, corresponding with the pattern of operation of the divine communicable attributes and, in particular, with the manner of divine knowing. (Muller, PRRD, 3:553, 54)

“Most strictly“ passions are “usually negative,” insofar as they usually “indicate a declension” or “a loss of power or self-control.” It is easy to see how rage, for instance, could be considered a negative passion or “a form of suffering.” Moreover, a passion may refer to any internal emotional change, positive or negative, that has its cause in something external to itself. More generally, the term passion may refer to any change that has its terminus ad intra. The issue is neither merely whether the change is negative or positive nor whether it is caused from without or within, but whether or not God is in any way capable of inner emotional changes of state.

Creatures experience passions as a response to new external stimuli, but, as Muller points out, God neither acquires new information nor responds to external stimuli. Likewise, creatures may experience passions in a positive sense, as when someone’s joy is perfected. Something is lacking in the creature, and it seeks to complete itself. But God lacks no perfection. If we remember that the statement “without body, parts, or passions” is found in the context of the uniqueness of God, it becomes clear that he neither needs perfecting nor responds to external stimuli. He knows all things and cannot be taken off-guard by any action in the universe he created and rules. Moreover, because of what he is, he is imperfectible. Passions may be ascribed to creatures in their finitude, but cannot be properly predicated of the infinite God. This is not to deny genuine love, mercy, wrath, etc. in God. It is simply to say that these things must be understood in a sense appropriate to the nature of God.

The phrase “without . . . passions” is an important and foundational doctrine in the system of the 2LCF. It functions as part of the doctrine that the immutable God is unique, self-existent, and perfect in every way. It teaches us that he does not have emotions univocal to human emotions, yet it never teaches or even implies that there is no love, grace, mercy, wrath, etc. in the true and living God. In the 2LCF, divine impassibility is founded in the eternal nature of God, and has significant implications for the topics of theology found in the rest of the document.

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