Reviewed by Jesse Scheuman
Does God suffer? Does God experience emotion? These questions are complex and relate to intra-Trinitarian relations, Christology, God’s foreknowledge and more. Rob Lister explores all these areas and answers that God is both impassible (does not suffer) and impassioned. God is impassible in that “he cannot be manipulated, overwhelmed, or surprised into an emotional interaction that he does not desire to have or allow to happen” (36). God is impassioned in that “he may be affected by his creatures, but as God, he is so in ways that accord rather than conflict with his will to be so affected by those whom, in love, he has made” (36). Lister’s book has two parts: historical theology (chs. 2–6) and his own position (chs. 7–10).
Lister’s main contention in part one is to establish that the majority of church history has affirmed the kind of qualified divine impassibility position that he holds. In chapter 2 he shows that the church fathers did not develop the doctrine of divine impassibility simply by borrowing indiscriminately from Greek philosophy. First, Greek philosophy was variegated, so one has to establish first which philosophy may have influenced the church fathers: stoicism, middle platonism, or neoplatonism. Furthermore, he argues, “The Fathers insisted on a personal deity, framed and defended the doctrine of the Trinity, contended for the importance of God’s ex nihilo creation, proclaimed an incarnation of the Logos, and affirmed the goodness of matter—all of which ran counter to the prevailing secular philosophical assumptions” (62). Hellenism was certainly an influence, but it was not as uniform or pervasive as many think.
In chapter 3 Lister surveys the Patristic theologians and groups them into three models: qualified-impassibility, extreme-impassibility, and extreme-passibility. By far the most common model was a qualified-impassibility position. In chapter 4 he surveys several key medieval and reformation theologians and repeatedly points out the common qualified-impassibility position.
Chapter 5 addresses the widespread rejection of divine impassibility in modern theology. Lister summarizes and offers brief responses to four main objections to impassibility: (1) Jesus was God incarnate, who suffered on the cross; therefore, God suffers. (2) As an answer to the problem of evil, we see that God joins us in our suffering. (3) Passibility reflects a simple, face value reading of Scripture. (4) An authentic loving relationship with God necessitates that God responds to us and is vulnerable to suffering.
Lister concludes part one on historical theology by assessing contemporary impassibilist theologians in chapter 6, and he self-identifies his work as a development of the classical mainstream model that has always affirmed divine impassibility and divine passion.
In the second part of the book, Lister makes his own case that God is both impassible and impassioned. This dual nature of God stems from the fact that God is transcendent and immanent (172). Impassible describes God as transcendent, and impassioned described God as immanent. Chapter 7 traces divine impassibility throughout salvation history and closes with an all-important discussion on the analogical nature of divine self-disclosure. Because we are made in the image of God, “the order of being (the ontology of the matter) moves from the Creator, as the point of origin, to the creature, as the reflection or image. So, then, it is God who, in fact, is most perfectly passionate, and we the creatures … reflect that passion in a creaturely manner” (186). But we are fallen and do not reflect God’s passion perfectly, so we ought to beware of projecting the limits of our fallen nature back onto God when Scripture says that he has regret or changes his mind, for example.
In chapter 8 Lister argues that God as impassible correlates with other texts on divine invulnerability such as transcendence, self-sufficiency, omniscience, sovereignty, and immutability; and God as impassioned correlates with texts on divine emotion such as immanence, intra-Trinitarian love, jealousy, anger, steadfast love, joy, regret, affliction, and desire. He concludes that God as impassible and impassioned go together because “while God is sinlessly, passionately, and voluntarily responsive in the economy of redemption, he is never ultimately passive, in the sense of being involuntarily forced into an emotional experience that he does not intend to have” (216). Or, as he says elsewhere, “God’s emotions are never wrung from him involuntarily” (260).
In chapter 9 Lister expands upon his two-pronged doctrine of divine impassibility by showing how it is strengthened by other corollary doctrines. First, he appeals to the Creator/creature distinction, that there is an ontological distance between God and us made in his image, and there is an ethical distance because of the Fall. Second, he shows that “the doctrines of divine self-sufficiency and voluntary condescension help further expound the nature of God’s transcendence and immanence” (223). Third, he addresses God’s relationship to time and argues that just as God is “both non spatial in himself and omnipresent within his creation” (227), God is both timeless and within time. So we should affirm that “though his knowledge of [his plan of redemption] is eternal, his unfolding experience of it occurs in the temporally progressive covenantal context” (230). Therefore, Lister argues that God is responsive in salvation history, but never passive. Fourth, he argues that God has two different ways of willing: “God’s decreed will (i.e., secret will) and God’s preceptive will (i.e., revealed will)” (234).
Lister closes his book by applying his model in chapter 10 to the incarnation and crucifixion. His thesis is, “The second person of the Trinity had to become incarnate in order to overcome natural divine impassibility (i.e., the impassibility of the divine nature) and thereby accomplish the redemptively necessary goal of humanly experiencing suffering and death on behalf of sinners” (261). He analyzes the Gospel accounts of Gethsemane and the cry of dereliction, Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 3:18–4:2; and Hebrews 2:9–18. He closes by considering whether Jesus’ human nature alone suffered or whether his divine nature suffered as well. But this, he says, is the wrong question, because “natures (whether human or divine) are not capable of action in the abstract.” Instead, we should say, “The person of the Son experienced suffering and death humanly” (274).
If you have read this whole summary and are interested in the topic of God is Impassible and Impassioned, it almost could go without saying that I highly recommend you purchase the book and read it. It is a revised version of his PhD dissertation, so it is written in an appropriately thorough and technical manner, but Lister has done a masterful job of writing clearly, defining his terms, and organizing the material in an intuitive manner. He has made his work remarkably accessible for just about any theologically-informed layperson.
I highly recommend God is Impassible and Impassioned, not simply for its thorough, insightful, and clear content, but also because the topic of whether God suffers is part of a web of so many fascinating theological questions that Lister addresses. These questions concern the topics of intra-Trinitarian relations, the immanent and economic Trinities, Jesus’ divine and human natures, God’s relationship to time, the nature of analogical revelation, God’s sovereignty and human free will, the problem of evil, and the essence of genuine, loving relationships. Lister is a sure guide. God is Impassible and Impassioned is intellectually stimulating and spiritually edifying.
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God Is Impassible And Impassioned