What is the doctrine of the impassibility vs. passibility of God?

To be “passible” is to be “capable of feeling, especially suffering” or to be “susceptible to emotion.” When theologians speak of God’s “passibility” versus His “impassibility,” they are referring to His freedom to respond emotionally versus a perceived lack of empathy for His creatures.

The doctrine of the passibility of God has to do with the theology of the “suffering” of God. Does God suffer? Can He truly feel emotional pain? Some theologians see the impassibility of God as one of His attributes, right up there with His immutability, omniscience, or eternality. They see God as “apathetic” in the sense that He exists above human emotion and remains untouched by it. Others see God’s passibility as one of His essential attributes—they insist that God does indeed suffer with us.

Both sides of the issue face the danger of pushing things too far. When the doctrine of divine impassibility is pushed to an extreme, the result is deism, which views God as cold, distant, and impassive—a God who deigns not to interact with humanity. Conversely, when the doctrine of divine passibility is taken to an extreme, the result is open theism, which views God as not knowing the future and being as surprised as we are by each turn of events.

Arguing for the doctrine of God’s impassibility is the fact of God’s immutability (His unchanging nature). The reasoning is that, if God “suffers” in response to a source of pain, then has He not changed? Those who argue for impassibility do not deny that God has emotions; rather, they affirm that God’s emotions are voluntary and purposeful, not knee-jerk reactions to events on earth. Also, according to promoters of God’s impassibility, God’s absolute power and sovereignty argue against His suffering: someone who suffers must be subject to the circumstance that causes the suffering; therefore, God cannot suffer, since He is not subject to anything.

However, arguing for the doctrine of God’s passibility are many Scripture passages that seem to indicate that God does respond emotionally to events on earth. It’s impossible to read much of Scripture without realizing that God feels compassion for His people (Isaiah 14:1); that He feels wrath against sin (Psalm 38:3); and that He is pained by the rejection of His love and grace (Luke 19:41–42). Jesus, who is “the exact representation” of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3), wept at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35).

Jesus, who showed us the Father (John 14:8–10), often showed that He was passible. We see passibility in the description of Him as our Great High Priest who is able to “empathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). The prophets predicted Jesus to be “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3).

Likewise, God’s children must enter into the suffering of each other. Paul wrote from prison for the church to “remember my chains” (Colossians 4:18). The author of Hebrews tells the church to “continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” It is this suffering with those who suffer that truly defines passibility. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). As God’s people share each other’s sorrow, they reflect the passibility of God.

Those who argue for the passibility of God point out that it is God’s eternal, divine sympathy that leads Him to be involved in His creation and to voluntarily allow His heart to be touched by the suffering of His people. God is transcendent, yes, but He is not aloof. Biblical statements such as “God is love” (1 John 4:8) reveal a passionate God who listens to our cries for help (Psalm 69:33), shows compassion (Mark 6:34), and knows our suffering firsthand (Hebrews 2:18).

The doctrine of the passibility of God does not teach that God is fickle, has mood swings, or cannot control His responses. God is never the victim of circumstance. The doctrine of passibility does teach that God is emotionally invested in His creation; He is involved because He cares.

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This subject is a matter of personal opinion and belief. Each reader is at liberty to think as they choose. Each must make their own judgment. We merely state that whether this subjective material is right or wrong it has been and will be a source of real spiritual help and edification to many who thirst and hunger after the deep things of GOD.

7 thoughts on “What is the doctrine of the impassibility vs. passibility of God?

  1. This is a really good articulation of God’s impassibility, as in I think you are pretty much correct. This is almost exactly what I tell people when I explain this issue. But I think it’s a relatively unique position. In my experience Christians who defend impassibility actually do not mean what you articulated about God’s choosing to suffer or not. That’s the way I think it should be understood, I think you did a great job explaining that. But what I usually see isn’t what I think is properly understood as impassibility but actually divine apathy. It seems to often be a consistent part of “classical Theism.” The reason for this in the Eastern Church seems to be located in the theology of Chalcedon ultimately articulated by St Maximus, and I think the point for them is understanding the incarnation as making it possible for God to suffer vis a vis the hypostatic union. And I think Eastern theology really benefits us because here because it highlights the true nature of passibility, essentially humans are at the mercy of their emotions, we receive our emotions. And to most Christians throughout history it seems to me that they said the divine nature was the opposite of this (which I think must mean God chooses his emotions) and that made the incarnation even more remarkable and merciful. But I don’t think you lose that if you don’t define impassibility as apathy. It just shows exactly what Jesus gained in his human nature and that was lack of emotional control. In any case this was a very good post.

    Actually I just realized that I think part of the issue for traditional Christians is that they associate the passions with the body and that actually makes no sense because pain is a mental state not a physical one so based on that alone it would be highly likely that God could suffer! That makes the tendency to anthropomorphize the passages in the Tanakh about God suffering or changing his mind seem quite absurd.

    Great post. I think about this stuff all time.

    Liked by 1 person

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