Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The value of divine impassibility

I believe in divine impassibility. More than that, I believe in a particularly strong form of the doctrine of divine impassibility -- I don't believe God is causally affected by anything that happens in the world, and he doesn't literally react to anything that goes on on Earth.

To the minds of some persons, this sounds like a doctrinal dead-end for the spiritual life. What good is it in believing a God you can't have back-and-forth with? More than that, what good is a God who stands aloof, and who is not adversely affected by the evils and sufferings of his people on earth? Wouldn't such a God be a monster?

Not at all. These kinds of objections are naive and uninformed. Actually, a strong doctrine of divine impassibility is actually an eminently powerful motivator for the spiritual life of a reflective Christian with an interest in the doctrines of classical Christian philosophy.

In the first place, a strong doctrine of divine impassibility such as this one makes the central and crucial insights of the Christian religion all the more steadfast and stable. I've posted on numerous occasions, drawing from texts both Old Testament and New, that God's fundamental disposition towards the world is benevolent, loving, and a good one, even when his creation turns drastically and resolutely against him -- an insight which Christian tradition in the post-scriptural era has preserved, such as Athanasius in De Incarnatione, 6. If God is impassible in this strong sense, then nothing at all in the world or outside of it can change that fact.

Knowing this, that God is immutably "on your side," that he immutably loves you and desires your salvation and that nothing at all that you or anyone else could do can change this -- this sort of insight is spiritually empowering. It gives the sinner confidence to approach God and to ask forgiveness (which God is happy to give) in spite of whatever may have been done. And if God unconditionally and immutably desires that I be transformed to his likeness, then I can always and everywhere come to him seeking power to resist temptation to sin.

More than that, I can be assured of the inevitability of justice. The God who promises that the guilty will not go off scot-free so long as they do not repent is immutably and unchangeably dedicated to bringing about justice. Even better, however, precisely because he is immutably and unchangeably benevolent, for the creation, his punishment will never completely destroy but always save, however long it may take. Thus I may confidently pray and seek justice and restoration, knowing that God is impassibly dedicated to the same.

Far from undermining Christian commitments or theology, the essentially Greek philosophical insight of the immutability of God helps to strengthen and empower Christian convictions. I think it is a welcome addition to our philosophically informed doctrine of God. Yes, there is now a bit of mystery in understanding how our prayer is effective and how it relates to God who is immutable, but a bit of the ol' mysterious never did anyone any harm. On the other hand, it seems to me the spiritual benefits of divine impassibility, especially this particularly strong form I affirm, are weighty and significant.