A Statement of the Doctrine
A standard definition of the doctrine of divine impassibility (DDI) asserts that God does not experience emotional changes either from within or effected by his relationship to creation. He is not changed from within or without; he remains unchanged and unchanging both prior to and subsequent to creation. The doctrine of divine impassibility is generally treated under the doctrine of immutability in the standard books on systematic theology. Immutability means that God is without change. The Scripture is clear on the doctrine of immutability (see Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17) and the logic regarding impassibility should be clear: if God is unchangeable, then He is impassible. If God did in fact experience inner emotional changes, He would be mutable. To suggest otherwise would be to affirm that God was less than perfect to begin with: if He changes it is either for the better or for the worse, neither of which is consistent with the biblical data concerning God.
What the Doctrine Does Not Mean
The doctrine of divine impassibility does not mean that God is without affections. The Bible is clear: God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). The Bible consistently teaches that God does relate to His creatures in terms of love, goodness, mercy, kindness, justice and wrath. An affirmation of divine impassibility does not mean a denial of true affections in God. However, these descriptions of God’s character are not to be understood as changing or fluctuating things. For example, the 2 London Confession of Faith of 1677/1689 affirms impassibility (God is “without passions”) and then goes on to describe God as “most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute…most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth…” The affirmation of impassibility does not result in removing affections from God; rather, the affirmation of impassibility upholds the fact that God is most loving because He cannot decrease nor increase; He is love! The doctrine of divine impassibility actually stresses the absolute-ness of affections in God.
Objections to the Doctrine
Some modern authors have challenged the classical doctrine of impassibility. While there are several reasons for this, two of the most persuasive ones seem to be (1) the biblical descriptions of change occurring in God and (2) the fact that Jesus Christ suffered.
In the first place, when Scripture speaks of change occurring in God, these passages do not describe actual inner emotional changes in God, but rather these passages are a means whereby God communicates “in the manner of men” so that He can effectively reveal His unchanging character to man. For instance, when Scripture speaks of God “repenting” (Genesis 6:6; Judges 2:18; 10:16; etc.), these are called anthropopathic statements. An anthropopathism is when the biblical author ascribes human emotion to God. While this may be a new word to many, most Christians are familiar with the word anthropomorphism. An anthropomorphism is used by the biblical authors when they ascribe human characteristics to God; i.e. when the Scripture says God has eyes, or a mighty right arm, or that He comes down to dwell on Mount Sinai (2 Chronicles 16:9; Isaiah 62:8; Exodus 19:20). Such descriptions are accommodations to man that are designed to communicate certain truths to man. In the same way, anthropopathisms are not descriptions of actual change in God, but are a means to communicate something concerning the character of the infinite God to man in language designed to be comprehended by man who is limited by his finite capacities.
Secondly, the sufferings that Jesus Christ went through were real. He was despised and rejected by men, He was betrayed by Judas, delivered into the hands of the Romans, and at the request of the unbelieving Jews, He was crucified. It is important to remember that Jesus Christ was unique: He is one glorious Person with two natures, human and divine. Christianity from the New Testament period on always predicated the suffering of Christ to His human nature. In other words, Christ as God did not suffer and die, but Christ as Man. There are not two Christs, but one Christ who has two natures. To confine the suffering and death of Christ to His humanity protects divine impassibility. Conversely, impassibility protects from the notion of a God who suffers and dies.
In conclusion, there is much more that can be said. The goal with this post is simply to provide a basic definition, explanation, and to highlight why the doctrine is essential. It is crucial to understand that it is the doctrine of impassibility that secures God’s relational character to His creatures; it alone provides the foundation for the confession’s declaration that God is “most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute…most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth…”