The Passibility of God: A Response to Doug Chaplin

Doug Chaplin recently wrote a post in which he responded to my post on “The Passibility of God.” In his post Doug defends the traditional view of God, the view that the God of the Bible is a God “without body, parts, or passions.” Doug is quoting “The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.” The Thirty-Nine Articles, which were established in 1563, define the doctrines of the Anglican Church.

Doug also kind of chastised me for quoting Matthew Henry. Probably Doug did not see my sarcasm when I quoted Matthew Henry. Matthew Henry was a Calvinist and his Calvinism is seen throughout his commentary. My point was: if a Calvinist can believe in the passibility of God, then anyone can.

Although Doug and many other people who reject the passibility of God refuse to admit it, the passibility of God is based on biblical revelation. If the God of the Old Testament revealed himself in Jesus Christ, then the God of the Bible is a God who suffers and has emotions. In his book, The Humanity of God, Karl Barth said that the human characteristics of God are enthroned in heaven.

The passibility of God is true to biblical revelation, not to theological dogmas based on Greek philosophy. Those who desire to understand how Greek philosophy has affected our understanding of God should read Emil Brunner’s view on the attributes of God. Biblical teaching reveals God to be a personal God, a God who enters into a genuine relationship with the people of Israel. By establishing a covenant relationship with Israel, God gave the people real freedom to make decisions, even when those decisions could contradict what God intended for them.

In creation we see God as the Creator, a God who makes human beings in his own image. God gives genuine freedom to human beings to make real decisions, either to obey God or to go against his will. In this process of give and take, God chose to act in response to human choices. When humans obeyed God, he blessed them. When humans disobeyed, God acted as a righteous judge to bring his divine justice upon those who rebelled against his authority.

A good example of God’s dealing with human beings is found in the story of the flood. When God saw how evil human beings had become on the earth and that their actions were continually evil, “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:6 NIV). God’s pain was real, not imaginary.

This assessment of the human condition and the response of God is very revealing. While every inclination of the human heart was evil all the time, God’s heart was broken, filled with pain. God was grieving for his creation, distressed because the bearers of his image had departed from the ideal he had established for them at creation.

The word for “grieving,” niham is used in the Hebrew Bible to describe both human and divine pain. The rebellious attitude of Israel in the wilderness caused much pain and agony to God’s heart: “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert! They tested God again and again, and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 78:40-41).

The word niham is also used to reflect changes in God. The word is generally translated “repent”: “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not” (Jonah 3:10 KJV).

More often, though, the word is translated as “regretting” or “changing one’s mind.”

“I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king” (1 Samuel 15:11 NKJ).

“The LORD was sorry that he had made humans on the earth, and he was heartbroken” (Genesis 6:6 GWN).

These different translations of the word niham express God’s disappointment with human beings and his consternation that they had failed to achieve his purpose for them. The word niham also anticipates the suffering of God that was to be the result of the judgment he was bringing upon the world because of their rebellion.

Another passage that reflects the pain and suffering of God as a result of Israel’s sins and rebellion is found in Exodus 32-34 when Israel violated the demands of the covenant by fashioning a golden calf to worship while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the law from God.

God’s reaction to the apostasy of the people reflects another aspect of the nature of God. After calling Moses’ attention to what the people had done, Yahweh said to Moses: “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Exodus 32:10).

God’s disappointment with Israel was real. He had entered into a relationship with them so that the nation would accomplish God’s work in the world. Israel had become God’s special people, separated from the other nations to model a different type of life in the world.

The proper understanding of God’s words to Moses indicate that God was planning to bring a severe judgment against the people. However, God’s words also indicate that God expected Moses to intervene and pray on behalf of Israel. Thus, God wants to be left alone so that he can execute the punishment on his rebellious people.

But, Moses does not leave God alone. To the contrary, Moses spoke boldly, defending the people and asking for divine mercy for Israel. This dialogue between God and Moses demonstrates how seriously God values the relationship he had established with his people.

When it came to the future of Israel, God was not the only one who had a say in the matter. Moses argued with God and in a forceful way presented several reasons why God should not destroy the people.

Moses’ arguments on behalf of Israel moved God to change his mind about the punishment he had decreed to bring upon Israel: “And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14 NRSV) or as the RSV translated: “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.”

God’s changing his mind is not a mere human way of describing what happened to God. To the contrary, the text speaks of a divine reversal taken because of Moses’ intervention on behalf of Israel. In the Hebrew Bible, God never “repents” of sins. The word “repent” reflects God’s decision to change his mind and reverse a decision made to bring judgment upon the people.

The word niham is translated “repent” thirty-eight times in the Bible. Most of the places where the word is translated “repentance,” it refers to God’s repentance, not human repentance. When the Bible says that God changes his mind or repents, it indicates that God’s decision about judgment is not set in cement. God is open to a change in human conduct. When people change their ways or repent, that change also brings a change in how God will deal with them.

An example of this is found in God’s words to Jeremiah. In the fourth year of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, God told Jeremiah to write down the words that he had proclaimed against Israel and Judah and read them in the temple as the people came to worship (Jeremiah 36:1-7). The Lord told Jeremiah:

“Perhaps, when the house of Judah hears all the evil I have in mind to do to them, they will turn back each from his evil way, so that I may forgive their wickedness and their sin” (Jeremiah 36:3 NAB).

And Jeremiah spoke to Baruch:

“Perhaps they will lay their supplication before the LORD and will all turn back from their evil way; for great is the fury of anger with which the LORD has threatened this people” (Jeremiah 36:7 NAB).

Twice the word “perhaps” is used in the same context. The use of the word “perhaps” by God and Jeremiah indicates that neither God nor Jeremiah knew how the reading of the scrolls would affect the people.

The shape of Judah’s future was based on how the people would react to the reading of the scrolls. God’s judgment upon Judah was coming, and it was coming rapidly. However, if the people would repent, God would change his mind and not bring the judgment. God had already said as much before: “Perhaps they will listen and turn back, each from his evil way, so that I may repent of the evil I have planned to inflict upon them for their evil deeds” (Jeremiah 26:3 NAB).

These few examples (there are many more) are sufficient to show that the passibility of God is biblical and rooted in biblical revelation. All that people know about God is derived from biblical revelation and what we learn from biblical revelation is that the God of the Bible reveals himself as a personal being who chose to enter into a personal relationship with human beings, a relationship in which God makes himself vulnerable for the sake of the relationship.

If a Calvinist like Matthew Henry can accept the passibility of God, then there must be something in the nature of God that defies the traditional view of God, one that is based, not on biblical revelation, but on the Greek idea of the Absolute.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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8 Responses to The Passibility of God: A Response to Doug Chaplin

  1. craigbenno1 says:

    In talking about the nature of God – we need to think about the Fruit of the Spirit…Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,goodness, faithfulness,gentleness and self control.If they are the fruit of the Holy Spirit working in our life…by default this is God's nature and therefore God truly has passion.

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  2. Doug Chaplin says:

    Thank you for the interaction, Claude. I have tried to outline some of my responses over on my blog in more detail than I could fit in a comment here.

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  3. Nelson Moore says:

    Professor Mariottini,You cite Emil Brunner as a good source on the attributes of God. Can you recommend one of his works where he covers this?

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  4. Andy says:

    I wonder if part of the issue is tied to what we mean by impassibility. In his article, "The Early Church Fathers on Hellenism and Impassibility,"* John Sanders notes that from "the second through fourth centuries there was no standard definition of divine 'impassibility.'"We bring a very specific set of parameters to the discussion when we speak of impassibility. Our fully crystallized definition was not available to the Early Church Fathers, who where immersed in the process of defining the philosophical concept. And, of course, they were dealing with the cultural baggage of a society that recognized a slew of Greek/Roman gods whose emotional instability was, quite literally, of mythical proportions. Just as Augustine’s opinions on freewill was shaped (and changed) over time as a result of his conflict with Pelagius, the Early Church Father’s views (and intentionally crafted statements) may have been shaped in response to conflict with polytheism.Perhaps Chaplin’s conclusions about the “classical” nature of a doctrine of immutability are based more on today’s view of the world than it is on a truly classical perspective. *http://www.opentheism.info/pdf/sanders/early_church_impassibility.pdf

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  5. Craig,

    There is no question that God has passion. I believe this is seen throughout the Bible.

    Claude Mariottini

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  6. Doug,

    Your post gave me the opportunity to open a dialogue on an issue that has been of much interest to my readers and mu students.I read your post and let a comment there.

    Claude Mariottini

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  7. Nelson,

    Brunner's discussion of the divine attributes is found in the first volume of his Dogmatics called "The Christian Doctrine of God." Read the chapter on the divine attributes.If you have problem locating this book, let me know and I will try to help you.

    Claude Mariottini

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  8. Andy,

    Doug's view of divine impassibility is based on “The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England,” a document written in 1563.In am quite sure that the document reflects the theological views of the writers and the issues they were facing in their days. As Sanders said in his article, many views about God have been redefined in light of broader theological discussion.

    Claude Mariottini

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