Wrestling with our platonic past: impassibility once more

Yesterday I discussed how difficult people find it today to talk of God’s impassibility, as taught in the first of the 39 articles.

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.

By way of my final post on this first article, I want to offer a few angles on this to suggest there are some positive reasons to affirm it. The first is more generally about the tradition of apophatic theology, which is a posh way of saying that it’s easier to make negative statements about what God is not, than positive statements about what/who God is. Sometimes we need the negative statements to remind ourselves how inadequate our positive statements are to the reality we name God.

Impassibility is one aspect of the “God-ness” of God, which traditional doctrine this article so strongly affirms: his perfection in eternity (the positive statements of the article), and his being “not such a one as us” (the negative statements). God is not contingent, not in need of growth, not externally influenced. A failure truly to appreciate God’s transcendence lies behind a great many of the atheist objections to God’s “existence,” which they confuse with the existence of all other things, visible and invisible. By definition God, in this classical tradition, is the one who creates the possibility of things existing. God does not exist in the way the universe or anything in it exists. Perhaps we are too quick to make the Almighty all matey.

I suggest that whatever is involved in speaking of God, all God-talk is of necessity metaphorical or analogical. This is true of language of God’s anger, and it is true also of language of impassibility. (I suspect myself that negative statements are less metaphorical than positive statements.) I think that part of what that means is that impassibility reminds us that all talk of God’s anger is metaphor.

The vast amount of anthropomorphic metaphors in the Bible can’t simply be set aside by the language of impassibility. However, if impassibility is to be questioned by the preponderance of biblical metaphor, do some forms of that questioning risk losing, say, that distinctiveness of God’s God-ness which makes creation, incarnation and salvation acts of love, grace and free will and instead render them as some kind of divine compulsion?

The church’s theology grew in childhood in a framework of middle and neo-Platonism which is barely present in the milk of the Jewish writings on which it was weaned. Our forebears in faith saw deep problems with the language of the scriptures where we do not, and we see problems where they did not. I don’t think we can simply replace their readings with ours, because their readings have shaped the ground where we stand to question. The clash of world-views around impassibility might rather give us pause to reconsider our own cultural constructs of God, even if we end up saying something other than they did.

What is the most important thing impassibility safeguards? I think it is in part that the idea that God is not acted on by others in ways which deflect, deter or defeat God’s purposes. It is because God is transcendentally different that God’s becoming immanently like us in the incarnation is good news. This is the love that doesn’t do mood-swings, that doesn’t give up, that won’t be changed, but is implacable in its determination to seek our good. And if that is what impassibility looks like, don’t we need to keep at least a version of it as a key part of our doctrine of God.

Part of a series on the 39 Articles of Religion