Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of the Incarnation

The Incarnation is more mysterious than revisionist theologians imagine

The past two centuries have witnessed the rise of what can be called “relational theism,” which can be defined as an umbrella term for a number of different doctrines of God ranging from theistic personalism to open theism to dynamic panentheism. They can be ranged on a spectrum from relatively conservative to extremely radical, but they all have one major characteristic that differentiates them from the classical theism of the orthodox Christian tradition and that is that they all teach that God in himself is affected and thus changed by creatures. This is a denial of Divine immutability and it often begins with a denial of Divine impassibility. 

What is Impassibility?

Divine impassibility means that God does not have emotions as we do. When we speak of God’s love or God’s mercy, we technically are speaking of affections that reflect a perfection in God that we see reflected imperfectly in us. We speak of a human attribute that partially and imperfectly describes an aspect of God’s nature. All of God’s attributes are really one with God’s nature because God is simple and not made up of parts. We use different terms to describe multiple attributes because God, viewed from a finite perspective by creatures in space and time like us, is hard to describe in any one word. We use many words – immutable, eternal, self-existent, love, holy, etc. – to describe in finite language as much as we can express of the infinite being of God. We are not saying nothing because our language, which God has revealed, is capable of expressing truth about God. But we are also not speaking univocally as if God’s love was exactly the same as creaturely love. We are in the middle in that we speak analogously; we are able to say something true about God with the understanding that everything we say has to be qualified by other things that can be said about God. It is our finite perspective and our finite minds that ultimately make us dependent on revelation.

Scripture reveals God as the Creator and thus as the First Cause of all that is not God. God is Pure Act and his nature as Pure Act is what makes it possible for him to be the First Cause. Only an unactualized actualizer, who contained no potentiality, could be the First Cause. This is because if he was mixture of potentiality and actuality (as all creatures are) then he himself would require a cause in order for his potentiality to be actualized. But he does not require a cause because of his unique, perfect, fully actualized being. Existence is part of his essence, whereas existence and essence can be separated in creatures. Since God is Pure Act, he is unchanging in his being and therefore immutable and impassible. 

Here is where many revisionist theologians depart from historic, Christian orthodoxy. They deny that God is impassible, which means that God is not immutable, which means that God changes. The ripple effect is massive and the consequences are extremely serious for the doctrine of God. 

Why Deny Impassibility?

But why deny impassibility? The reasoning often revolves around the idea that God must have emotions like us or else he is a basically like a stone, that is, an unmoving thing that is not even alive. This assertion should be met with incredulity. Is this really so? God must either be just like us or else not even alive? Are those really the only options? This is, of course, a false dilemma and has been recognized as such from the early centuries of the church. God is alive in a higher sense than creatures are. For God to be fully actual means that God is alive in a superlative sense, that is, in a way compared to which we are only sort of alive!

This unique concept of the Divine life is the context in which we understand Jesus’s statement: “I am the Life” (John 14:6). Jesus also says: “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). For the Father to have life in himself is what we mean by Divine aseity; his existence is part of his essence. And for the Son to have life in himself is a clear claim to deity – in fact it is a claim to be one in being (homoousios) with the Father. It is the kind of biblical teaching the the Nicene Creed expresses in fidelity to revelation. 

So, the fact that God cannot be affected and changed by the creature does not mean that God is dead; rather, it means that the Divine life is the source of all creaturely life. It means that God is fully actual – perfect – and that to think of him as changing is to denigrate his deity. If he changed, he could be changing for the better (implying that he was less good before) or he could be changing for the worse (implying that he is getting worse as time goes on). It is hard to decide which option is less worthy of God! Both have historically been rejected by the central tradition of the Church.

Is Impassibility Consistent with the Incarnation?

But wait, someone objects, what about the Incarnation? Many modern theologians reason as follows. The Incarnation reveals God to us and surely one of the most significant things it reveals is that God loved us enough to suffer and die for us, which obviously involves change. Therefore, they conclude, the Incarnation reveals to us that God is not immutable and impassible after all, but rather mutable and passible. He died, didn’t he? So, he changed, didn’t he? What do we make of such an argument?

The idea that the purpose of the Incarnation is to reveal what has always been true of God is simply not what the Bible teaches and it is not what Chalcedonian Christology teaches. While it is true that God’s actions in history in the Incarnation do reveal much about God, it is false to suppose that everything that is true about the incarnate Jesus Christ can simply be read back onto the eternal Triune God. Why not? Because the whole purpose of the Incarnation was to make it possible for God to do something that he could not have done apart from the Incarnation, namely, to die in our place on the cross bearing our sin and guilt so we could have our sins atoned for and not perish in judgment (Phil. 2:5-11). The Incarnation is for the purpose of redemptive suffering and this is what the impassible God had to do in order to be able to suffer.

In the Incarnation the eternal Logos, (the Son, the second person of the Trinity), assumed a human nature into union with himself by means of the miracle of the miraculous conception, which is attested by the virgin birth. The human nature, Chalcedon insists, was a complete human nature consisting of body and soul. But in assuming this human nature into union with the Divine nature, there was no mixing of the two in such a way as to make a third thing. Instead, the two natures are united in one person in what we call the hypostatic union. In the hypostatic union, the one person – Jesus the Messiah – remains fully divine and becomes fully human so that he is able to act through both natures. This means that the incarnate Lord sometimes acts with divine power as in his miracles (including his resurrection) and it also means that the incarnate Lord sometimes acts as a human being as in his growing weary (and in dying on the cross). Any action performed by the one incarnate Lord Jesus Christ is fully his action, but some of those actions are done through his human nature and some are done through his divine nature. The two natures remain unconfused throughout the Incarnation. 

This is the mystery of the Incarnation – that the one Lord Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, fully human and fully divine. The Definition of Chalcedon says that he is: “of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood.” The greatest part of the mystery, as Paul says in Philippians 2 that that “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). 

A Mystery is a Paradox, Not a Contradiction

The sense of awe and mystery is captured beautifully by the second stanza of Charles Wesley’s great hymn, “And Can It Be”: 

Tis mystery all! the immortal dies:
who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
to sound the depths of love divine.
'Tis mercy all! let earth adore;
let angel minds inquire no more.

Wesley captures the heart of the mystery poetically in a paradox, “the immortal dies.” The task of Christology is to explain how we should articulate and preach this doctrine in such a way as to show that it is not a contradiction, but a paradox. But it is not the task of Christology to pry into the mystery and rationalize it away.

The Incarnation does not tell us that God has always been changing along with us as history goes on, as modern relational theism holds. It does not tell us that God has always been feeling our pain as Jesus did in his passion and that we creatures cause him pain. God is not a creature like us who changes and is affected by others. What the Incarnation tells us is that the one, simple, eternal, immutable, self-existent, perfect, fully actual, First Cause of the universe – the one who creates out of nothing by his Word – has taken on flesh and come among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Isaiah’s incredible words have come true: “Our Redeemer - the LORD of hosts is his name - is the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 43:14). We should not try to reduce the mystery by saying that what we see in the Incarnation is simply God changing as he has always been changing all along without having assumed a human nature into union with himself. The Incarnation represents something much greater than a revelation of that sort; it represents something new in the history of the cosmos; “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). 

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” - William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5

Orthodox Christology is a much greater mystery than modern theologians have ever dreamed of or imagined. It is beautiful, awe-inspiring and humbling. And its wonder is nowhere more acute than when we remember that the one who “was made sin for us” is the impassible God! 

Chalcedon explains what we believe; it does not even try to explain how it happened. The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is not something human beings made up; our theories about it come in response to the fact that it happened. It was not more widely anticipated precisely because it seems so hard to believe. Yet, now that it has happened and we have heard it proclaimed in the preaching of the Gospel, our response is to believe it in faith. Contemplating this holy mystery is how theology should spend its time; our task is not to think up ways to make it rationally comprehensible by saying that it just shows us what God has always been like. Modern relational theology is all very logical and comprehensible. But that comprehensibility comes at the heavy price of rationalizing away the mystery of the transcendent Creator. We worship a God who is beyond our comprehension and any God who could be comprehended would not be worthy of worship.