Impassibility (and the Open Theism connection)

November 9, 2006    By: Jacob J @ 11:59 pm   Category: Theology

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.[1]

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.

[1] Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980], pg 93.


  1. Just read the link to the FARMS revue. Could hardly put it down…or…click off of it. Do you think its accurate that a 16 year old latter-day saint knows more true theology than many trained theologians?

    Comment by Hal H. — November 16, 2006 @ 6:30 pm

  2. Paulsen discussed a paper at a recent BYU Philosophy conference (see here for an abstract). I heard the discussion but don’t have my notes handy and don’t remember enough off-hand to give a meaningful summary (unfortunately the abstract isn’t too informative; he did say he was submitting the article to Faith and Reason).

    Comment by Robert C. — November 16, 2006 @ 8:51 pm

  3. Hal,

    That is an intersting question. From my experience, most 16 year olds from any religion know more about God than many trained theologians. The shift from thinking of God as a person to thinking of him as a list of attributes is one of the crimes of classical theology. To be fair, though, I think the Latter-day Saints have not been careful enough in making sure our definition of God still allows him to be a genuine person. I found on my mission that lay people from all religions tend to ignore the theologies of their creeds in favor of a more personal conception of God. Thankfully.


    Thanks for the link. The availability of that sort of conference is one thing I miss from living in Utah.

    Comment by Jacob — November 16, 2006 @ 9:33 pm

  4. Arguing against impassibility immediately brought to mind the many discussions here about agency and God’s foreknowledge. I see much potential in the cooperative work you mentioned–if something hasn’t materialized yet it definitely needs to.

    Comment by Téa — November 17, 2006 @ 3:41 pm

  5. Tea,

    I agree. It is interesting to me how all these things tie together. Obviously the open theism crowd is known for their denial of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge more than their denial of impassibility. Denying God’s exhaustive foreknowlegde is touchier for Mormons than denying his impassibility simply because lots of Mormon’s believe God has exhaustive foreknowledge. But, if God has exhaustive foreknowledge, then as a logical consequence, he has most of the objectional aspects of impassiblity anyway. How in the world can God answer my prayer about whether or not I should marry Susie when he already knows as a matter of fact that I do marry her? He could tell me if I will marry her, but how would he tell me if I should marry her. Suppose he knows that I do marry her and I end up miserable. It seems a bit perverse to think he foresees my miserable marriage and thus tells me that I shouldn’t marry Susie, knowing full well that I do, in fact, marry her. The whole idea of interacting with us in a genuine way is stiffled by the concept of exhaustive foreknowledge.

    Comment by Jacob — November 18, 2006 @ 3:32 pm

  6. The dilemma between God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and our agency appears obvious and is well expressed in your comment above. However, I wonder if it is just because we are finite beings. I can’t help but think that when the veil is removed we will ‘get it’ and all of our consternating about this delemma will seem silly to us. But until then let’s consternate away!

    Comment by Hal H. — November 20, 2006 @ 1:24 pm

  7. The following “Book Description” from should be of interest to most:

    >>The Suffering of the Impassible God provides a major reconsideration of the notion of divine impassibility in patristic thought. The question whether, in what sense, and under what circumstances suffering may be ascribed to God runs as a golden thread through such major controversies as Docetism, Patripassianism, Arianism, and Nestorianism. It is commonly claimed that in these debates patristic theology fell prey to the assumption of Hellenistic philosophy about the impassibility of God and departed from the allegedly biblical view, according to which God is passible. As a result, patristic theology is presented as claiming that only the human nature of Christ suffered, while the divine nature remained unaffected. Paul L. Gavrilyuk argues that this standard view misrepresents the tradition. In contrast, he construes the development of patristic thought as a series of dialectical turning points taken to safeguard the paradox of God’s voluntary suffering in the flesh. For the Fathers the attribute of divine impassibility functioned in a restricted sense as an apophatic qualifier of all divine emotions and as an indicator of God’s full and undiminished divinity. The Fathers at the same time admitted qualified divine passibility of the Son of God within the framework of the Incarnation. Gavrilyuk shows that the Docetic, Arian, and Nestorian alternatives represent different attempts at dissolving the paradox of the Incarnation. These three alternatives are alike in that they start with the presupposition of God’s unrestricted impassibility: the Docetic view proposes to give up the reality of Christ’s human experiences; the Arian position sacrifices Christ’s undiminished divinity; while the Nestorian alternative isolates the experiences and sufferings of Christ’s humanity from his Godhead. In contrast to these alternatives, the mind of the Church succeeded in keeping God’s transcendence and undiminished divinity in tension with God’s intimate involvement in human suffering. It is precisely because God’s divinity and transcendence are never lost in suffering that the Incarnation becomes a genuine act of divine compassion, capable of transforming and healing the human condition.>>


    Comment by David Waltz — December 6, 2006 @ 2:17 pm