CONFESSING THE IMPASSIBLE GOD: The Biblical, Classical, & Confessional

12231648_10208210204476288_1225569603_nDoctrine of Divine Impassibility[1] – A Review of Section One, Chapter 1

It has been my pleasure, and a great aid to learning this most important doctrine of our great and glorious God, to read through this volume over a period of time. Just the Introduction by Paul Helm is worth obtaining the book, but each section of the book builds upon and is foundational to the next section. It is my opinion that this is the most important theological work to come out within the last fifty years – perhaps longer – as this doctrine has been under attack in evangelical and even Reformed circles recently.

The editors, in the Preface, note the importance of the doctrine under consideration:

The book is structured as follows. The Introduction presses home the importance of the doctrine of divine impassibility. Readers will be challenged to recognize that tinkering with divine impassibility as classically understood has implications that always end up compromising other fundamental articles of the Christian faith.[2]

Part 1, which is the prolegomena – the necessary introductory material by which one will understand the terminology and hermeneutical method used throughout the book – consists of chapters which do just that.

Chapter 1 is entitled Analogy and the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility, by Charles J. Rennie. Without this chapter, it would be difficult to understand the confessional and metaphysical language, or the point of using such language, although exactly such language has been used in both older and contemporary works addressing this doctrine. What I said about the Introduction also holds true for this chapter, perhaps even more. If any simply read this chapter while reading, meditating and studying on the various passages in Scripture which speak of God as He is (as to His essence and existence, which are one, or ad intra[3]), and God’s acts in His creation (ad extra[4], referring to the works of God that are not His essence, but the result of His works in creation), they would have a sound platform upon which to understand Theology Proper (the Doctrine of God) as He has deigned to give us this information about Himself and His works in His Word.

To give a brief, further definition of God as He is and God’s acts in Creation, consider that holiness is a referent to God as He is properly within Himself, whereas creation is a reference to that which God did outside of Himself. Although creation is brought about by God, it is not that which is of His essence and existence, as holiness is. Therefore, while God created that which was initially without flaw (although able to change), that which He created did not, nor could, have that unchangeable perfection which is only able to be spoken of as properly belonging to the Creator alone.

The Threefold Way of Knowing God

This is the main purpose of the first chapter, unfolding the manner in which we can reference the Scriptures as God intended for us to know who He is and how He exists (to the extent which any man may), what sort of analogical similarities can be predicated between God and those He created in His image, and what cannot be properly predicated of God that is in the creatures.

The manner of classification of how we can know God from His Scriptures is threefold, and this theological methodology was well known to the early church fathers, the Reformers, and the post Reformed scholastics. These three most important theological methods of hermeneutics are defined briefly as:

  1. The Way of Causation (Latin, via causalitatis)
  2. The Way of Negation (Latin, via negationis)
  3. The Way of Eminence (Latin, via eminentiae)

The way of causation provides the metaphysical foundation for all the similarities between Creator and creature so that knowledge and language of God can be possible. The way of negation accounts for the dissimilarities that arise on account of the distance between the Creator and creature, whereas the way of eminence reminds us that the Creator is always infinitely greater than the creaturely predications that reveal him.[5]

These three ways of addressing and understanding the Doctrine of God are not imposed on Scripture, but rather, derived from Scripture.

To understand these, first we must understand what is intend by metaphysical. [6] Scripture, when it deals with both God and man, deals with that which is not of the physical realm. Hence, when speaking of man, Scripture tells us “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) The word for “being” is the same word translated “soul” in the KJV. In contrast to “spirit,” “soul” has to do  with that which pertains to initial life, thus we read in 1Co 15:45-46: Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual (soul, KJV). Thus, of man, we read these important distinctions from the apostle: However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual.
The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven.
As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly
. (1 Corinthians 15:46-49)

These are metaphysical distinctions. None of us has ever seen, tasted, held, touched or smelled a soul or a spirit. In these most important sections of Scripture, however, we are given to understand that that which has to do with the soul is particularly pertinent to who we are and how we live now, in our present state, while that which has to do with who we are and how we live in the eternal state has to do with our communion with God. To continue as that which was is “being,” or “soul,” has to do with simple existence. Adam was a “soul.” To be constituted a “spirit” has to do with that life which was in our Lord, which He arrived at, ultimately, in glory. There is a distinction, and it is not merely a physical distinction – it is the distinction between life and death, temporal and eternal existence apart from the blessing of the eternal state, and eternal existence as it will be (or will not be) in the eternal state. The former is compared to life outside of our Lord Jesus Christ; the latter is compared to life as given in our Lord Jesus Christ. The former is being as it is without God in eternity, which all mankind shares in common, the latter is being as it is with God in blessedness eternally, which only those comprised in Christ by God’s decree enjoy. Again, these are metaphysical distinctions. That which is life eternal is not now seen, but is hoped for and realized by faith; that which is life now is experienced in emotions given data by our five senses, yet itself is not seen, touched, tasted, smelled or heard – these senses give a meaning to that temporal life, but are not themselves that temporal life. Being, as such, whether in the eternal state or this finite state, for man, is that which can be experienced through the senses, yet never defined through those senses in any manner that is physical, thus we have metaphysical understanding of what being is in this temporal state. How much more is that which is being in the eternal state thus defined by terms which speak of that which we hold by faith, the foundation of that which we hope for?

Romans 8:24-25For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Hebrews 11:1:  Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

In these two Scriptural examples, we have the understanding of that which cannot be experienced (epitomized by “seen” and “what we do not see.” These examples, I submit to you, the reader, are that which may be known of God in the creature, (His creation), which do not fully or explicitly expound to us that which may be known of God as the Creator.

Again, we must emphasize, of the way of causation, “The way of causation provides the metaphysical foundation for all the similarities between Creator and creature so that knowledge and language of God can be possible.”[7]

These similarities are intended to give us a basis, or foundation, with which we can consider God, who created us, without imputing to Him those similarities as if they were to be properly predicated of Him.[8] Thus, we should understand that “This threefold way of knowing God is not a means for speculative and philosophical deductions that explain away the Scripture, but, as will be shown, a biblical pattern of classification that aims at better understanding what the Scripture says about God. It is not a means for undermining the revealed “language of faith,” but rather a threefold means of interpreting that language faithfully.[9] By ‘”the way of eminence’ we attribute eminently to God all of the ‘perfections’ known from creatures—while by the ‘way of negation’ we remove from God the imperfections known from creatures.’” (See footnote 6 above.)

Or, to put in in other terms, that which is seen in the creature is caused by that which is perfect in the Creator. Although we may arrive at knowledge about the Creator from that which is caused by Him, we cannot attribute to Him the exactly parallel nature of those effects He causes in His creatures. God may be known in part by that which He causes, yet He is beyond the effects He brings about in time and space.

This is, by necessity, a complex chapter. Words that deal with metaphysics must be defined, for “…God is spirit (John 4:21),” and dealing with that which is spiritual is dealing with the metaphysical. This has primarily to do with Theology Proper (although other doctrines must also deal with it), and is not principally philosophical. That philosophy has utilized this word (metaphysics) must not deter us in our attempts to understand the spiritual, for the emphasis of this branch of study has always been that which we know exists, but cannot sense through the normal five senses of the human body (and indeed, these senses determine reality through that which is spiritual: i.e., the mind). Indeed, metaphysics in primarily dealing with “first principles,” (see footnote 7 above), so by necessity, God, the transcendent Creator from whom all else not only is created, but depends upon to have continued existence (Acts 17:25-26).

Having read and re-read this chapter, I can only say that it bridges the gap between that which is considered from natural revelation, and that which we learn about in special revelation (Scripture). As such, it is a necessary adjunct to serious students of Theology Proper which proves invaluable. The three ways of knowing God are, of necessity, how we must approach, formulate, and conclude our knowledge of God, for ignoring these key factors leads to a form of Biblicism[10] which does not do justice to the entirety of the genres included within the Scriptural corpus, and often considers various Scriptures which speak to the creaturely side of the equation of Scripture over and above that which deals with The Doctrine of God, to the great detriment of those who follow such formulations.

We have considered some words which speak to the Doctrine of God, and by that, I mean, God as considered against that which He has created. We will now consider a few more.

There have been not a few critics of Classical Theism, these days, who have suggested and written according to the way of considering God according to His acts in Creation contra His self-disclosure of Himself in Scripture. This is a tragic trend, my brethren. God’s self-disclosure of Himself in Scripture necessarily dictates against His being considered in a manner which makes Him to be like us in any manner, yet shows that He is immanently with us in the manner of who He is and how He exists, and we must never confuse these two – the Scripture does not, nor should we.

The mistake of those who wish to make God more “immanent” to us is that they consider His “transcendence” a problem to be overcome. However, that is never the position of Scripture, for God is both transcendent and immanent at one and the same time, and both are based solidly in His special revelation.

To put this as personally as the current day evangelical thinking seems to go towards: Although God is so far above us as to exclude us, in His special revelation, the Scriptures, He has assured us that, according to His unchangeable character, He is not only above us, but with us, and there is no barrier between His transcendence and His immanence but that which we wrongly perceive to be there.

God does not have to relate to us as we relate to one another. He relates to us according to His unchangeable, infinite, eternal self, which is, at the same time, so far above us that we cannot perceive it, but also, at the same time, existing with us, as He has decreed. This is exactly what I AM THAT I AM means.

Those who mistake these things try to relate define the creatures relation to the Creator as if there is some kind of equivalency between that which He created and that which He is – this is a fatal mistake.

This is spoken of, in the first chapter of this section of this most important book, as “univocalism.” Regarding what this word means, consider the following:

Without a univocal core, critics have correctly insisted, there is no way of determining whether the analogies we use for an unknown God are apt. But the New Testament represents Jesus Christ as the univocal core of God.[11]

As the word “univocal” is defined, it intends “only one possible meaning.” Regarding this most foundational and important doctrine upon which all other doctrine rests, let me simply quote our good brother, Pastor Charles Rennie:

In recent days, the doctrine of divine impassibility has undergone intense criticism, particularly as it has been caricatured as a scholastic dogma rooted in metaphysical and philosophical speculation apart from Scripture. “While such a criticism has a certain emotional appeal, it has no footing in reality.” It is without doubt that the church in all ages has used philosophy, but not for the purpose of imposing it upon the Scripture. It was used as a handmaiden in the theological task of more fully understanding the revealed truths of Scripture. Philosophy was not used to establish faith, but as a tool for faith as it seeks understanding. The Scripture itself reveals a certain metaphysic, a kind of Christian philosophy, which calls for believing reflection and Christian rationality.

The classical and confessional doctrine of divine impassibility is not the result of philosophical speculation, but is instead founded upon the revealed Word and formulated in the way of believing reflection. One look at the context in which the Confession mentions impassibility demonstrates that it flows out of the biblical conviction that “The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions . . . who is immutable. (2LCF 2.1) [12]

Therefore, impassibility is intimately related to, and a necessary consequence of, the biblical truths of God’s aseity (Exod. 3:14), infinity (Psalm 147:5), perfection (Job 11:7-10), incomprehensibility (Psalm 145:3), simplicity (Deut. 6:4), spirituality (John 4:24), immutability (Mal. 3:6), and so on. Herman Bavinck notes that “orthodox theology proceeds from these dogmas as its first principles and tries by reasoning to trace their interconnectedness, to penetrate more deeply into the knowledge of revealed truth, and to defend them against all opposition.”[13]

It behooves us to pay attention to the recent attacks on the doctrine of God as it has been formulated throughout the history of the church contra those who would supplant it with various definitions that alter, or even, supplant it. The early church fathers were not ashamed to call such attempts at modification of this foundational doctrine heresy: are we so politically correct now, within orthodoxy, that we are less ardent to condemn such attempts? I think this is a question we, who are of the orthodox Reformed faith, must honestly ask ourselves.

This is more than simply a matter of whether we disagree on various subordinate doctrines (and this writer holds that all doctrines are interrelated in such a manner that there are no subordinate doctrines); rather, this goes to the key doctrine upon which all other doctrines rest and are themselves formulated.

Let me make this as clear as I possibly can: Where the Doctrine of God (Theology Proper) is compromised, all other doctrines which depend upon who God is will also be compromised, despite the best intentions of those who do compromise this foundational doctrine.

The question at hand is “does God suffer,” or more equitably, to our brethren who insist that God reacts and responds to we who are His creatures, “Does God react or respond to our suffering, and is it necessary that He, as who He is, must?”

This is the apparent problem of modern evangelicalisitic writings and teachings (and to an extent, modern theologians within what is considered Reformed orthodoxy), but it is only a problem insofar as they reject that which is apparent is historical orthodox theology. Indeed, there are those who say God must have reactive emotions based on the suffering of our Lord, but to this we must respond,

Does God have passions? When we hear the word passion, we might think of the “passion of Christ,” which refers to the suffering of Christ. To say that God is impassible, or without passions, is to say that God, as God, cannot suffer. But merely to equate passion with a passive, suffering victim, or impassibility with the inability to suffer, would be an understatement[14]

To speak plainly, the answer is not so simple, although a proper study of the Scriptures involved surely make it simpler. To ignore these Scriptures, or to prefer a body of them over and against the other set of them when such contradicts certain methodologies of hermeneutics, is surely most dangerous (See above for hermeneutical methodology – this will also be addressed in reviews of subsequent chapters and sections of the book).

Here, then, is the common and insidious error that some of the best of our current evangelical scholars have fallen prey to:

But this way of wording things [i.e., that God is impassible in the sense that he has no passions, or emotions, that make him vulnerable from the outside or cause him to lose control] guards the most important values in impassibility and still insists that God’s love is real love, of the same genus as the best of love displayed by God’s image-bearers.[15]

This manner of looking at the Doctrine of God may, at first blush, seem innocent, at best, and innocuous, at second glance. After all, is not there a correspondence between the God who created us in His image and we who are created in that image?

However, upon a closer examination, we see our brother Carson has said that God’s love is “of the same genus” as our love, and at this, particularly, alarm bells should sound, for if God’s love is of the same genus as ours, it necessarily follows that God’s essence and existence, however far removed from ours, is “of the same genus.”


What follows in the remainder of chapter 1 states and defines various metaphysical terms. It is important to note that those who posit a modified Doctrine of God accuse those who hold to the Classical, Confessional formulation of that doctrine as overtly philosophical, saying those who do hold to the classical formulation as being influenced by Greek philosophy such as Aristotle and Socrates, but it is even more important to note that such is not the case, and in fact, the reverse is true. When teaching of this foundational doctrine, this chapter shows that philosophy is necessarily a slave in the service of theology. It does not lead the way, but rather is utilized to give understanding of the metaphysical and theological concepts which are necessary to understand that which God has told us about Himself in Scripture. Briefly, then, some terms and definitions the reader will be given to understand are:

  • Accommodation (Latin, accommodatio) – The accommodation, adjustment, or condescension of God in the use of human words and concepts in order to reveal his will to man. This refers to the manner or mode of revelation, not to its quality or the matter revealed. Revelational accommodation or condescension entails no change in God.[16]
  • Taxonomy – the branch of science concerned with the classification of beings according to the whatness or essence of one being relative to other beings.[17]
  • Genus – a kind; sort; class.[18]
  • Univocal – having only one meaning; unambiguous.[19]
  • Predication – To affirm or assert something of the subject of a proposition.
  • Analogical – Logic – a form of reasoning in which one thing is inferred to be similar to another thing in a certain respect, on the basis of the known similarity between the things in other respects.[20]
  • Species – a class of individuals having some common characteristics or qualities; distinct sort or kind. Logic – (a) one of the classes of things included with other classes in a genus. (b) The set of things within one of these classes.[21]
  • Ontology – The study of the nature of being or existence.

These are just a few of the terms the reader will come across in the book which are extremely important to understand, in order to deal with the metaphysical nature of Theology Proper. At times, two terms will be utilized together, such as analogical predication, which the glossary of CIG defines as “The affirmation of a similarity between two different things. While the predication does not imply an identical sense for both things, neither are they unrelated; there is a similar sense proportionate to the mode of each being.” Without understanding these definitions and concepts, the reader will not be able to comprehend the unfolding of the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility as it unfold in this first and subsequent chapters of this book.

Since this is just a review of this first chapter in the first section of the book which deals with Theological and Hermeneutical Prolegomena (introductory), it is not the purpose of this article to give a complete breakdown of the chapter. Rather, we have sought to give some key concepts and sparingly set forth the manner in which the chapter unfolds, in part, in order to whet the appetite, as it were, of those reading this article.

Again, it our contention that this is “the most important theological work to come out within the last fifty years – perhaps longer.” I cannot more heartily recommend the book to all who desire to have the comforts of the unchangeable God of all comfort brought so strongly home to them.

SDG – Bill H.

[1] Confessing The Impassible God: The Biblical, Classical, & Confessional Doctrine of Divine Impassibility (hereafter CIG), edited by Ronald S. Baines,

Richard C. Barcellos. James P. Butler, Stefan T. Lindblad, James M. Renihan

[2] CIG, Preface, the editors, pg. 29

[3] The internal works of God which are eternal and immutable. The internal works of God are further defined as either essential or personal – Glossary, pg. 439, CIG

[4] The external works of God or the divine activities of creation, providence, and redemption – Glossary, pg. 439, CIG

[5] Analogy and the Threefold Way of Knowing God, subsection, Chapter 1, pg. 67 – CIG – Chuck Rennie – emphasis mine.

[6]The branch of philosophy that treats of first principles, includes ontologyand cosmology, and is intimately connected with epistemology. (dictionary dot com, definition #1)

[7] CIG, Chapter 1, page 67, ibid

[8] The way of causationunderstands that a cause can be known in some manner from its effectsBy theway of eminencewe attribute eminently to God all of theperfectionsknown from creatureswhile by theway of negation we remove from God the imperfections known from creatures.”- As cited in CIG, pgs. 67-68 – from Mueller, PRRD (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (4 vols.) – Muller, PRRD, 3:166. The last part of Muller’s statement is a quotation of Turretin

[9] CIG, chap. 1, pgs. 67-68

[10] We intend, by “Biblicism,” a strict and wooden adherence to the historical-grammatical method of Scripture interpretation which ignores the allegorical elements of Scripture, as well as a method which interprets Scripture according to a predetermined framework which sets various and certain presuppositions above the holistic interpretation of Scripture. This is a holdover from what Dr. Richard Barcellos calls “the endarkenment” period of humanistic Scripture interpretation which came about in the 18th century, but which came to prominence in Biblical interpretation particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries among those who reject historical theology and systematic theology which were, and are, grounded in a holistic approach to hermeneutics which considers the absolutely necessary hermeneutical principals known as The Analogy of the Faith and The Analogy of Scripture (for definitions of, see below)

[11] Horton, Covenant and Eschatology, 97. Dr. Horton has pointed out, through personal correspondence, that he intentionally omitted any reference to Christ as the univocal core in his more recent work, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[12] 2nd LCF, chapter 2.1, as quoted in CIG, chapter 1 – quotes enclosed are from Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, pgs. 607-610

[13] CIG, chapter one, pg. 48 – the quote from Bavinck is included, referenced from his Reformed Dogmatics, 1:145.

[14] CIG, chapter one, pg. 47

[15] D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, pg. 61, as cited in CIG, pg. 61

[16] Unless otherwise noted, these definitions are taken from the Glossary of Technical Terms

and Theological Phrases, which itself “is highly dependent upon the definitions found in Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms. Readers are encouraged to own and use this essential reference work.”

[17] CIG, chap. 1, pg. 60

[18] Genus – Definition 3, –  “’s main, proprietary source is the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, which is continually updated by our team of experienced lexicographers and supplemented with trusted, established sources including American Heritage and Harper Collins to support a range of language needs.” – from the About page on


[20] Analogical –, definition 5

[21] Species –, definitions 1 & 2

One thought on “CONFESSING THE IMPASSIBLE GOD: The Biblical, Classical, & Confessional

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