God: when traditional “biblical” clashes with modern “biblical”

One result of looking at older expressions of faith which are not regularly read, like the Church of England’s 39 Articles, is that they can confront you with unfamiliar ideas. I suspect that a very large number of contemporary Christians, conservative and liberal alike, actually have (usually unrecognised) problems with the first article’s traditional doctrine of God.

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Those problems relate especially to the phrase “without body, parts, or passions” (incorporeus, impartibilis, impassibilis). And the most problematic assertion of the trio is “without … passions”, impassibilis, impassible – a word so strange to contemporary ears that MS Word puts a squiggly red line under it.

Many people have no idea that this is the classical doctrine of God. For some, it is treated as proof of the Platonizing tendency of the early church, and thus a move away from the (presumed) “simple faith of Jesus”, or the “Hebrew mentality”. (Hebrew good, Greek bad still seems to be a popular assumption.) For others it is simply ignored in favour of literal interpretations of biblical metaphors of God’s changing his mind, or of his being angry.

For almost all modern people, “God is love” is subconsciously heard as carrying overtones of emotion, of passionate love, and therefore impassibility is held to be unbiblical / heretical / wrong / passé*. (*Delete according to theological taste in condemnatory words.)

The classic tradition this article expresses may be more at odds with contemporary understandings of faith than the obviously controversial ones. It requires considerable weight to be given to the tradition of the church as an interpretative key, and a trust that these ancient ways of reading scripture were actually rightly guided by the Spirit.

The number of verses in the canonical scriptures that suggest passion and change in God far outweighs the single clear verse that appears to affirm divine immutability (a close cousin to impassibility):

[God is]  the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)

Ironically, of course, this supporting metaphor for the whole Greek philosophical superstructure of impassibility and immutability comes in the most Jewish book of the NT.

This article asserts the importance of the tradition for reading scripture. Language about God becoming angry is to be seen as metaphor and analogy. All those many references to God changing his mind are not to be read literally. Whatever else the articles will say about the privileging of scripture over tradition (and they will say a lot) they begin in a different place, with the tradition and not against it.

This offers a challenge, obviously, to any simple claim to perspicuity or literal readings of which the drafters may not have been fully aware. In their day impassibility was hardly challenged, and so the meaning of scriptures concerning God was probably more clear for them than for us. For us it is a more difficult doctrine. Most Bible readers are unaware of it, or that past generations of Christians did not read the language of God’s emotions literally.

In a subsequent post I will explore a few of the issues I think this doctrine of impassibility raises.

(This post is part of a series on the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, on article 1)