Over at FPR, Her Mogesty asked me about my angle on impassibility. Since I was already wearing out my welcome over there, I thought I’d take a quick stab at it here.
Impassibility is one of lesser known words in a long list of fancy words theologians use to bore us when talking about God. As a Mormon, I don’t run into it much unless I’m reading about the apostasy and the influence of Greek philosophy on early Christian thought. Even so, it’s not a bad word to know, so read on.
As with anything in theology, there is more than one idea about what impassibility really means. The part everyone agrees on is that impassibility refers to God’s lack of passions (yes, the very same ones referred to in Westminster Confession of Faith where it says God is “without body, parts, or passions“). These “passions” refer to emotions in general, or sometimes more narrowly to suffering. It is often expressed that God lives in perpetual bliss and never experiences disappointment, sorrow, or suffering.
Even more broadly than that, impassibility can mean that God is never passive in any way–that he is always “pure act.” The earliest and most influential Christian thinkers (like Philo, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas) were heavily influenced by Aristotelian absolutism, and this is a good example of that influence. Aristotle viewed God as the “unmoved mover,” the beginning of the causal chain (Aristotle did not believe in infinite regress, so there had to be something at the beginning. As Aquinas would say: “it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God”). God started all motion but remained unmoved himself. If something were to exert a force back on God, that would entail that God had changed, so for Aristotle, God had to remain completely unmoved and unmovable (i.e. impassible).
In his overview of the concepts of perfection in the “absolutist tradition” of Christian thought (which he describes as coming from such thinkers as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin), Blake Ostler described impassibility this way:
Nothing outside of God affects him in any manner–God is thus impassible or without any feelings or passions. God is not causally acted on by anything exterior to himself. He is not affected by anything in the world. He can”t know anything that happens in the world by having it act on his senses as humans do, for he has no senses and nothing acts upon him. Humans don”t affect God in any way. God cannot be compassionate or have co-passions with us. Thomas [Aquinas] maintained nevertheless that God loves persons in the sense that he wills good for persons and love is just to will the good of a person. Still, God is not pained by our sorrows and does not have anything added to him by our happiness. (Exploring Mormon Thought Vol 1 pg. 39)
In this short essay, Phillip R. Johnson argues that what I have described above is a caricature of the true view of classic theism. “In truth,” he says, “mainstream classic theism has always denied that God is cold and remote from his creation” (emphasis in original). Johnson admits, however, that many theologians in the classical theism tradition agree with the caricature (see footnote 14 and text leading up to it), and that he has a thick stack of emails from Calvinists insisting that he is out to lunch and the “caricature” is actually a perfectly accurate description of impassibility (see footnote 15).
Of course, those who find themselves in a position of having written impassibility into their creeds will be motivated to salvage the term and have it mean something palatable. Mormons, who generally make a sport out of talking about how screwed up the creeds are, just reject impassibility outright. Truman Madsen, in a tweak on Aristotle, liked to talk about God as the “most moved Mover”, and attributed that same view to B.H. Roberts.
In an interesting turn of events, the Open Theism crowd (Sanders, Pinnock, Rice, et al.) find themselves beating the same drum Mormonism has been beating for the better part of 180 years. A few years ago, Clark Pinnock wrote a book and called it Most Moved Mover (hmm, sounds familiar).
To make matters even more intersting, Pinnock has become aware of the similarities between the so-called “openness movement” and Mormon theology. The Farms review of his book (seriously, don’t miss clicking on that and reading it), reports that David Paulsen received a “cordial letter” from Pinnock which opens the door for cooperative work between openness thinkers and Latter-day Saints. In his letter, Pinnock wondered if open theists and Mormons are “co-belligerents as it were in the struggle against pagan influences in classical theism.” Impassibility is just one illustration of the fact that this question should be answered in the affirmative. It has been a few years since that letter was written and I’d love to know if anything materialized from that exchange.
 Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980], pg 93.