Some Reflections on “Divine Impassibility and the Uninfluenced Love of God”

April 7th, 2017 by

On Wednesday March 8th the Analytic Theology Seminar had the pleasure of hosting Ryan Mullins, the Director of Communications and Research Fellow at the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology at the University of St. Andrews. Mullins endured an unbearably long flight across the pond, yet he managed to deliver a stimulating paper that generated much discussion during the second portion of our seminar. In his paper, titled, “Divine Impassibility and the Uninfluenced Love of God,” Mullins made a case for a passible God. He argued that even while granting impassibilists their favored definition of love as benevolence + union, this definition pushes the impassibilist towards a passibilist God. In order to make a case for this thesis he engaged in several moves.

The first move he made was to articulate the doctrine of divine impassibility in a charitable manner. He noted that there are three common themes that make up the core of this doctrine: 1) God cannot suffer, 2) God cannot be moved, nor acted upon, by anything ad extra to the divine nature, and 3) God lacks passions. This last core component of the doctrine draws most of Mullins’s attention. He was primarily concerned with how impassibilists treat “love.” William Shedd, for instance, concludes that God lacks passions, yet God has the emotion of love. Mullins then made his way through various historical examples to explain how impassibilists attempted to attribute love to an impassible God. His survey of how this has been done historically lead him to modify the third core theme of the doctrine to “it is metaphysically impossible for God to have an emotion that is irrational, immoral, or that disrupts His perfect happiness.”

Another move Mullins made in building up his argument was to examine how definitions of love differ between passibilists and impassibilists. Passibilists for instance emphasize definitions of love where the lover is responsive and empathetic toward the beloved. This in turn leads to notions of love in which God suffers with his beloved. Impassibilists on the other hand deny definitions of love in which lovers are required to be responsive and empathetic to the beloved. Because there is a fundamental difference between passibilist and impassilist definitions of love, there has been a stalemate in discussions about impassibility and divine love. Mullins believes that the stalemate can be broken by granting impassibilists their preferred account of love.

So what is the “impassibilist” account of love? Mullins noted this account of love involves two desires: 1) a desire to will the good for the beloved and 2) a desire to union with the beloved. This definition, he argued, also leads to a passibilist God. How so? Well, it is because union (according to Eleonore Stump) requires two things: personal presence and mutual closeness. Furthermore, significant personal presence requires joint or shared attention, which comes in degrees. And mutual closeness requires openness of mind, which also comes in degrees. The highest degrees of mutual closeness involve an openness of mind in which the lover has a high degree of empathy and emotional intelligence, allowing the lover to experience the beloved’s experiences in the world.

Building on Linda Zagzebski’s on the (possibly) divine attribute “omnisubjectivity,” the property of grasping with perfect accuracy and completeness the first-person perspective of every conscious being, Mullins argued that if God possesses this attribute, then God possess perfect empathy. If God has perfect empathy, then he has fulfilled the highest level requirements of mutual closeness. Prima facie, This would seem like a great thing for the impassibilist; however it’s not. This is because empathy requires that one feel the emotions of others. Even if God doesn’t actually feel the emotions of others, but only has a copy of those emotions, God himself is having a copy of those emotions. Thus, an omnisubjective God cannot be an impassible God. Pointing out this entailment is Mullins’s most important move. It seems as though the union requirement for divine love is incomplete without omnisubjectivity, but omni-subjectivity leads to a denial of impassibility.

In what follows I want to offer some reflections on Mullins’s argument from the perspective of someone who would like to hold to divine impassibility. The divine impassibilist has a few options for what she might do in light of Mullins’s argument. The first option (mind you, this is the least probable option), is to agree that Mullins’s argument is overwhelmingly convincing and give up impassibility. I can’t see many impassibilists doing this. A second option for the impassibilist is to give up the benevolence + union definition of love. However this sort of definition of love seems so deeply rooted in theological tradition that I have a hard time seeing many impassibilists simply doing away with this longstanding definition. A third and more probable option, one which I favor, is to deny omnisubjectivity as part of omniscience. A rough definition of divine omniscience might be something like “knowing everything which is possible to be known, given God’s nature.” Perhaps, it is not possible to have someone else’s first person perspective, which, as we have seen, is a requirement of omnisubjectivity. A fourth option is to accept Mullins’s thesis that the union part of benevolence + union definition requires empathy, but suggest another way besides omnisubjectivity to meet that requirement. One might suggest that the empathy necessary for union is experienced by Christ. Maybe Christ experiences the full range of emotional states necessary for him to be able to empathize with the emotional states of all human persons. One might object that its not possible for Christ to empathize with me in certain situations; after all, Christ was never unfriended by a crush on Facebook. A truly empathetic God would need to know what its like to be rejected by a crush on Facebook. Maybe, but probably not. I think Christ could empathize with one’s feeling of being rejected by a crush on Facebook, without actually being rejected by a crush on Facebook because he himself experienced rejection, albeit in a different way, namely being rejected on the cross. In this scenario Christ may have the experience of the type of emotions undergone by the Facebook user, without having the particular token of experience had by this person. This fourth option seems promising to me, especially because it takes seriously passages like Hebrews 4:15, which says that “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses.” This options also has much to commend itself even from a pastoral perspective. It reminds me of a passage from H.R. Mackintosh’s short book, The Person of Jesus Christ. Here Mackintosh, touching on a similar theme, says:

With this certainty in our heart, we can enter the room of the tortured invalid, or the mother mourning her dead child; we can sit by their side and say: There is love for all, for you, in God above and what proves it is Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death; Do not cease to grieve; in grief there is no sin; but also do not believe that even grief is unknown to God your Father. This cup of pain you are drinking now, he also drank, in all our afflictions he was afflicted…. God is no remote Deity, watching from afar a stricken world; he is a Presence and Redeemer in our midst. (Mackintosh, 1912)

Even though this fourth option has its strengths, it also has its problems. There is still the problem of explaining how Christ’s fully human emotional life relates to his divine nature, and, more generally, how Christ’s human nature relates to his divine nature. That, however, is a bigger problem than I am able to deal with here. What’s more, it’s a problem that both passibilists and impassibilist face the burden of resolving.

Christopher Woznicki is a PhD student in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He received a MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a BA in Philosophy from UCLA. Christopher has written several journal and encyclopedia articles on Jonathan Edwards.

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