The last two hundred years have seen a revolution (and not a happy one) in how God is understood. The God of the classical creeds and confessions—impassible and immutable—has been replaced by a God who changes in relation to his creation, dynamic and reciprocal in how he relates to his creatures. There are numerous reasons for this change—the abandonment of the metaphysics upon which classical theism drew, the centrality of the notion of suffering in a post-Auschwitz world, and the contemporary predilection for the therapeutic. None of these should be dismissed as trivial, but over recent years, the changes which modern theology has introduced to the doctrine of God are unnecessary, wrongheaded and pastorally disastrous. What the Bible teaches—and what we need—is a God who transcends the flux of this world, who is impassioned in his impassible and immutable engagement with this fallen world. And few have made the case for this in a more compelling fashion than theologian, Thomas Weinandy, whose works have demonstrated that the classical doctrine of God is biblical, resilient, and vital for a healthy conception of the Christian life. To help us better understand the significance of this, Carl Trueman spoke with the Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Weinandy, professor of history and doctrine at Oxford University and author of several books to explain the theological and pastoral implications of God’s unchanging and unchangeable nature.
I have done so first of all because God’s immutability and impassibility are often misconceived. Secondly, I believe they are essential for upholding a biblical understanding of God and so in accord with the Christian theological tradition. Let me explain.
Often the concepts of divine immutability and impassibility are thought to mean that God is lifeless, inert, un-dynamic, apathetic, and unfeeling, etc. Of course no one wants a god like that and, moreover, it is not in accord the biblical God who is full of life, very dynamic, and loves and cares for his people and the world. Such an understanding of these divine attributes is false.
God revealed himself to Moses as He Who Is—”I Am Who Am”. He is the fullness of being and life; the one who truly IS. No creature exists in a manner like God. Because God is the fullness of being and life, he cannot become more living or more full of life, or more fully who he is. He cannot become more good, more loving, more compassionate, or more forgiving—he is perfect in every way. Thus, when we say that God is immutable and unchanging, what we are attributing to God is the unchanging perfection of who God is as the fullness of life and the fullness of goodness, life and love. If God could change, it would mean that he could become more full of life, or more full of goodness, etc.—or he could become worse, less godlike—God forbid! So to say that God is immutable is to say that he is the perfect unchanging act of being or life, the perfect unchanging act of goodness, the perfect unchanging act of love. One cannot conceive of a God more dynamic, more full of life, or more full of love than such an unchanging God.
Similarly, to say that God is impassive—that he does not undergo emotional changes of state; that is, he is joyful and then becomes sad, is angry and then becomes forgiving, is at peace and then suffers, is, again, to attribute to God the fullness of perfection. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, does speak of God’s differing emotional states. He is happy with Israel, but they the people sin, and so God becomes angry; they repent and so God forgives them in his mercy and compassion. However, it is precisely because God loves perfectly and unchangeably that all of these various “changes” are attributed to him. However, he does not change, it is Israel who changes. God loves unchangingly. So, when the people are faithful, God’s love is experienced as his joy. When they sin, God’s love is experienced as anger and rebuke. When they repent, God’s unchanging love is experienced as his mercy and compassion. Again, as the Israelites change, they experience God is a different manner, but God himself does not change from one emotional state to the next, for he loves perfectly and unchangeably. To deny that God is impassible is to deny of him his perfect all-passionate love. (Of course all the above applies to the Trinity, but we do not have the space to delve into that here!)
The council fathers at Nicea (325 AD) took as a given (as did the whole church, even the heretic Arius), that God is immutable for the very reasons I gave above. One of the reasons that Arius denied that Jesus was truly God was that he thought that if the Word became flesh, he would change in so becoming and, since God cannot change, the Word or Son of God could not be God, but by necessity had to be a creature. However, since the church always believed that the Son of God was God as the Father is God, he could not change in becoming man. If he did change, then, it would not be truly God who became man, as Arius himself claimed. So, for the sake of ensuring that it was truly God who truly became man, Nicea upheld the immutability of the Son in becoming man. In becoming man, the Son had to remain perfectly God in the fullness of his perfection as God with all of the attributes that he divinely possesses—perfect unchanging goodness, love and mercy, etc.
What must be grasped is that when the apostle John declared in his gospel that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” he is using the verb ‘become’ in a singular manner. Never before it been used in such a manner, and it never will be again. Normally, “become” demands that the one who “becomes” changes in the “becoming.” That is not the case with the mystery of the Incarnation—to say that the Word became flesh does not mean that the Word changed into flesh like the caterpillar changing into a butterfly wherein the caterpillar ceases to be and the butterfly comes to be. Rather, in the Incarnation, the Word/Son, remaining who he is in the fullness of his divinity, comes to exist in a new manner. What is changed is not the divine Son or Word, but the manner of his existence; that is, he comes to be or comes to exist as man. He never before existed as man and now he does. Thus, the divine Word, in the fullness of who he is as God, now actually exists as man, in the fullness of what it means to be human. So the Son of God, with the fullness of his perfect divine love, goodness, mercy, forgiveness and compassion, expresses that fullness in, with and through his humanity. To see the human loving acts of Jesus is to behold the perfect unchanging divine love of the Father’s Son. The perfection of the Son’s divinity is manifested in the perfection of his humanity. To behold the cross is to behold the divine Son’s perfect sacrificial love enacted as man. The Incarnation is a marvelous and awe-inspiring mystery and to deny the perfect immutable and unchanging love of the divine Son is to evacuate the mystery of its grandeur and salvific value.
Since the latter part of the 19th-century and most of the 20th, many if not most Christian theologians professed that God is mutable and passible. They did so for reasons like Auschwitz—how could God not suffer with those who innocently suffer? This is often a pastoral inclination when confronted with so much suffering in our world.
So, those who believe that God is mutable and passible solve this pastoral problem by saying that God suffers within his very own divinity and so suffers with those who suffer. Such a view, however, is a false and deceptive remedy. If God suffers as we suffer, then he is within the same evil environment as we are and so he too needs to be saved from the evil that causes suffering.
What needs to be remembered is that the term “compassion”—to “suffer with”—when applied to God is different than when it is applied to human beings. When someone we love is sick and dying, we, in compassion, suffer with them. We are filled with empathy as we share in their suffering. However, if we could, in our compassion, rectify the situation, if we could heal the sick person and keep them from dying, we would. That would be real expression of compassion. While God does not suffer in the sense that he is deprived of some good because we are deprived of some good, such as health or life itself, he is compassionate in a stronger sense of the word. He is compassionate because he can rectify the evil situation that causes the suffering. This is true empathy. He ultimately expresses his compassion by sending his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that all might have eternal life in him.
While the Son of God as God does not suffer, in coming to exist as man, he can suffer as we suffer. The immutable and impassible Son of God actually does suffer as man, for that is the manner in which he now exists. To behold the suffering of Jesus is to behold the human suffering of the Son of God. All of our suffering is ultimately the result of sin. God created the world and our first parents as good, but sin brought evil and death into the world and so brought the suffering that results from such sin. Thus, by assuming the fallen nature of Adam—by coming to exist in the weakness of human flesh—the Son of God saved us, not by suffering as God, but transforming our human suffering into an act of perfect love to his Father for the forgiveness of our sin and so freeing us from the eternal suffering of our damnation. It was the human suffering of the divine Son that is salvific and not some form of divine suffering. In his compassion he freed us from the source of all evil, sin, and from evil’s triumph—death. In rising gloriously from the dead, he obtained for us eternal life, the incorruptible life of his own risen humanity. Jesus is the new Adam and all who through faith and baptism in his name assume, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, his risen humanity. Sin and death and the suffering that accrue to them no longer have authority over us. This is the compassion of the most Holy Trinity, not that they suffer, but that they, in their perfect unchanging love, have freed us from suffering and lifted us up into their perfect divine life—a life of perfect unchanging goodness and love.
This true and authentic Gospel is the pastoral response to suffering and evil in the world, not the false and anemic gospel of a passible and suffering God. Besides my books, Does God Change: The Word’s “Becoming” in the Incarnation and Does God Suffer?, I also attempt to elaborate on all of the above in my latest book, Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels. I am working on John’s Gospel at the present.
Besides my books mentioned above, I would also add my little book, Jesus the Christ, which provides an overview of the historical development within the church’s understanding of the Trinity, the Incarnation and Redemption. I would also suggest Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, edited by J.F. Keating and Thomas Joseph White; The Unchanging God of Love by Michael Dodds; and The Suffering of the Impassible God, by Paul Gavrilyuk.
Thomas Weinandy is a member of the Capuchin Franciscan Order. He has a doctorate in Historical Theology and taught at the University of Oxford, England. He is presently a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College.