Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Divine Impassibility Under Attack: Does God have Passions? (Part 2)

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on March 12, 2014 at 1:11 am


A Friendly Rejoinder

What follows is intended to be a brief and incomplete critique of Gonzales’ reframing of the classical and confessional view of impassibility. There are certain assumptions that someone must have if they are to adopt Gonzales’ view. That is not to say that either Gonzales or those who sympathize with him claim to hold to all of these assumptions. Nevertheless, whether intended or not, the following must be assumed in order to adopt his view.

1.   Gonzales would have us assume that God acquires new relationships as a result of creation.

Prior to stating his thesis, Gonzales rightly affirms that God’s “immutability precludes any ontological change”, and that “what God wills decretively is immutable”, and that “God is ethically immutable”, and finally “that God is perfect and constant in his emotional or affective capacity.” Although the language of the last affirmation is ambiguous and bears a greater resemblance to Barth’s divine constancy than to the classical language of impassibility, Gonzales’ desire to uphold these truths is to be commended. However, it is impossible to see how he manages to do this in light of his thesis that God decrees His own change “in terms of his relationships with his creatures”, which he unashamedly calls “relational mutability.”

Surely, we must affirm the distinction between God’s hidden and revealed will. The Scripture will sometimes depict (if you will) a “relational mutability” according to God’s revealed will in response to His creatures. For example, God pronounced judgment upon Nineveh, only to relent from that judgment in response to their repentance. However, His relenting does not reveal a change in God, but reveals God’s hidden and immutable will to effect a change in the Ninevites. And while I would prefer to believe that this is what Gonzales intends by the unfortunate phrase “relational mutability”, he insists that he is speaking about more than a revealed change in God’s temporal actions. He is not concerned with the manifold actions of God in which God discriminately bestows His immutable and infinite love upon His creatures, but rather the degree to which that love is felt in the heart of God. He is speaking about a decreed emotive and relational change in God in relation to his creatures.

It is difficult to see how such a relational change would not effect an ontological change in God, who does not possess love or goodness as an accidental property as we do, but is love. How does One who is love change from one emotional state to the next in relation to us without changing what He is in relation to Himself? Moreover, what would it mean for God to undergo change “in terms of his relationships with his creatures”? Are we prepared to say that God acquires new relationships as a result of creation? Such a conclusion would require both God and creature to belong to the same order, thereby undermining God’s absoluteness and aseity.

When we speak of the relationship of a father and son, we are describing two mutually dependent parties that belong to the same order. It is on this basis that the formation of the relationship effects a change in both parties. But God and creation are neither mutually dependent nor belong to the same order. As Michael Dodds points out, such relationships are customarily called “mixed relationships” when the nature of the relationship is

real in one term but of idea only in the other. This occurs when the two extremes do not belong to the same order. For instance, the relationship between human knowledge and the object known is real with respect to knowledge, since it arises from and truly depends on that object. But the object, as a reality existing in nature outside the intentional order, does not depend in any way on the knower and has no real relation to knowledge. Our knowledge depends on the object, but the object in no way depends on our knowledge. Its relation to knowledge is therefore in idea only, insofar as the intellect apprehends it as the term of the relationship of knowledge. (The Unchanging Love of God, 165-166)

The relation of Creator and creature is a “mixed relation”. Therefore, we must maintain with the older theologians that God acquires no new relation to us, although He has freely related us to Himself. Having life and being in Himself, He does not depend upon creation, and yet He has most intimately related us to Himself as the cause of our creation and the very source of our being (esse). Put differently, creation does not effect a new relation in God, but rather God effects a change in creation. Thus Charnock says,

There was a new relation acquired by the creature, as, when, a man sins, he hath another relation to God than he had before,––he hath relation to God, as a criminal to a Judge; but there is no change in God, but in the malefactor. The being of men makes no more change in God than the sins of men. As a tree is now on our right hand, and by our turning about it is on our left hand, sometimes before us, sometimes behind us, according to our motion near it or about it, and the turning of the body; there is no change in the tree, which remains firm and fixed in the earth, but the change is wholly in the posture of the body, whereby the tree may be said to be before us, or behind us or on the right hand or on the left hand. God gained no new relation. (Existence and Attributes, 1.339)

God effects change, but is Himself unchanged. To suggest that God acquires new relations as a result of creation and providence requires the assumption that God and man belong to the same order, thereby threatening the aseity and absoluteness of God. Perhaps this assumption explains best why Gonzales is so comfortable attributing anthropopathic language properly to God.

2.   Gonzales would have us assume that it is possible for God to decree his own mutability.

Rejecting Open Theism, and attempting to guard the sovereignty of God, Gonzales affirms that “God’s emotions or affections are not caused from without (i.e., passive)”, but rather “from within (i.e., active)”. His desire is to affirm the emotivity of God, but not in such a way that suggests that He is a passive victim whose emotions are caused from something outside Himself. Alternatively, Gonzales would have us believe that God freely and sovereignly decrees His own emotional mutability.

In addition to the resemblance to what is known as voluntarism, Gonzales has not escaped characterizing God as a passive victim. Instead of a God who is passively acted upon from without, he has framed a God who is passively acted upon from within. Rather than the God of the Scripture who is, and must be, pure actuality (actus purus), his God is sovereignly actualizing His own passive potentiality, undergoing emotional change (cf. Aquinas’ third definition above). In decreeing His own mutability, He is made passive in relation to His own decree, thereby undermining both his immutability and the divine perfections (i.e., actus purus).

3.   Gonzales would have us assume that because God is impassible He must be passible.

Gonzales is equally concerned to guard God’s transcendence, although it is unclear what he means by this term. At one point he reduces it to “God’s supreme authority”, and on another occasion to “God’s immutability and eternality”. Furthermore, his discussion regarding God’s relation to time and history, or the relationship of God’s transcendence to His immanence, is equally unclear. At one moment he seems to suggest the very thing he previously denied, that the various passages which predicate an emotional undergoing in God refer, rather, to God’s infinite, immutable, simple, and eternal affections refracted in his temporal actions. But throughout he has insisted that these passages refer to more than God’s actions, leaving the reader uncertain as to what exactly he is suggesting. Is the issue merely epistemological, or is it ontological, as if to provide a description of God responsively experiencing His emotions in time and history?

Part of the confusion stems from a misconstrued understanding of the older Reformed view of God’s relation to time. He writes, “Older theologians spoke of God’s relationship to space as both outside (immensity) and also throughout (omnipresent), but they tended to speak of God’s relationship to time only in terms of his being outside of time (atemporal).” He is correct on the first account, but fails to apply the same observation to the latter. Richard Muller observes that,

This pattern of relationality appears consistently throughout the Reformed doctrine of God . . . What has often not been noted in discussions of the doctrine of divine attributes is not only that the pattern of argument explicitly reflects a sense of absolute and relative attributes but also that this pattern is frequently achieved by pairings of attributes. Thus, God is said to be both immense and omnipresent, both infinite and eternal . . . . Not that these pairs indicate different attributes but rather the same attribute considered first ad intra and second ad extra.

Thus, Muller concludes,

[This] provides a view of the consistent foundation in God for all of his relations to the world order and points toward the relational attribute in each pairing. Thus, the God who is immense in and of himself is omnipresent in relation to the world; the God who is infinite in and of himself is eternal in relation to the world. The parallel between the pairs is also important here: eternity is not an attribute that takes God out of relation to the temporal order, as it has often been interpreted in the twentieth century. Eternity is, by definition, a relational attribute that identifies God as in full relation to all time, just as omnipresence identifies God as in full relation to all places. (“God: Absolute & Relative, Necessary, Free, & Contingent”, in Always Reformed, 58-59)

Because God is infinite in Himself, he is eternal in relation to the world. God’s eternality is not something that hinders “but defines the nature of the divine relationality” (Muller, 60). In other words, the God who is transcendent (e.g., infinite) is the very God who is immanent (e.g., eternal), that is, transcendently present and active within the world. It is baffling then when Gonzales concludes that “God really responds emotively to events that transpire within history. One might say that God is ‘impassible’ from the perspective of his transcendence and ‘passible’ from the perspective of his immanence.” Gonzales would have us believe that because God is impassible He must be passible. Surely, God is infinite and therefore eternal, that is, radically free to be active and present within time as one who is transcendently infinite. The latter necessarily follows from the former. But it is difficult to see how this would lead us to say that because God is impassible in Himself, He must also be passible in relation to the world. The latter does not necessarily follow from, but rather contradicts, the former. Moreover, it is difficult to know what this would even mean. It assumes some sort of dualism in God, leaving us wondering which God is God, or at the very least, implying that the God who is is not the same God who is with us.

4.   Gonzales would have us assume that we can describe what God is.

What does it mean that God’s compassion grew (Hos 11:8)? Whereas the older theologians would proceed to explain what it does not mean, Gonzales attempts to “provide a compelling positive model of divine affections.” In other words, they emphasized what God is not, whereas Gonzales seeks to describe what God is. Furthermore, he accuses the older theologians of “equivocation” because they stopped short of describing what God is, and, by his estimation, explained away the literal reading of the text. What Gonzales calls equivocation and finds so utterly insufficient, the church has commonly identified as negative theology (via negativa).

It is thought that the via negativa is the result of a prior commitment to Aristotelian metaphysics and an idolatrous reading of the Scripture through the lens of the Reformed tradition. But nothing could be further from the truth. Gonzales would do well to acknowledge that no one comes to the Scripture entirely neutral. Those of us who believe that the Reformed tradition, as it is summarized in our Confession, is a faithful summary of what the Scripture teaches, find great help in our interpreting the Scripture by said tradition. Conversely, none of us would advocate reading the Scripture through the lens of Pelagius, or Arminius, or the individualistic spirit of the age. Moreover, none of us escape the influences of philosophy upon our theological discourse about God. We may not prefer Aquinas, but we cannot reject his metaphysics without replacing it with another. As Michael Horton once said, “The most dangerous theologians are those who pretend to avoid metaphysical/logical/philosophical categories.”

Notwithstanding the influences of philosophy and tradition, these are not the driving force behind the via negativa. Negative theology, presupposes, above all, the biblical conviction that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, who is Being in Himself without genus or species (Exod 3:14; Jn 1:18). Therefore, he transcends our ability to define what He is. Everything from above comes from below; we come to know God, the first cause, by His created effects (Rom 1:20), but these effects belong to a different order and genus. Thus, even our language and concepts about God come from below, as He reveals Himself to us according to a creaturely knowledge of reality. Thus, God is always more than the revelation of Himself, even as the cause is always greater than the effect. Roger Hutchinson observes,

As God is known only of himself, so we must only learn of him, what he is. As for man, he knoweth no more what God is, than the unreasonable beasts know what man is; yea, and so much less, as there is more difference between God and man, than between man and beast. (The Image of God, 16)

Therefore negative theology begins with the scriptural presupposition that God is essentially incomprehensible, unsearchable (Rom 11:33), indescribable (2 Cor 9:15), inaccessible (1 Tim 6:16), all of which are predicated in a doxological context. In other words, the goal of the via negativa is not to solve the mystery of God, but to apprehend the mystery and respond in doxology. Therefore, the negative theologian will come to the biblical text, not with idolatrous philosophical or traditional biases, but with deep seated scriptural convictions, so that “whatever is said of God should always be understood by way of [His] preeminence, so that anything implying imperfection is removed” (Aquinas). This axiom led the older theologians to the judgment that certain predications of God were improper when considered in the context of the divine perfections and other biblical truths about God.

Such an approach to the Scripture does not explain away the text, much less the mystery, but rather seeks to know the mystery of God communicated in the text. The via negativa takes seriously God’s transcendence and seeks to provide necessary corrections and cautions to our affirmative theology. And in doing so, it takes these texts, as well as our finite limitations, seriously. In saying what a passage cannot mean, we gain a more accurate and affirmative theological understanding of what it does mean. Of course this is not to undermine our language of faith, for it is the only language we have, which is why Calvin and others can explain a text via negativa, and then turn around and use the very same language affirmatively in their discourse. Negative theology does not undermine the language of faith, but rather clarifies the meaning of that language when predicated of a God who does not belong to the same order.

While negative theology is often depicted as philosophically speculative, it is in actuality very modest concerning what it believes it is capable of predicating about God (Ecc 5:2). Ironically, the “something close to biblicism” which Gonzales advocates is dangerously and carelessly speculative. His almost purely positive approach rests upon the assumption that we can describe what God is. Against all protest, it has to be pointed out that such an approach presupposes that somewhere along the line we may speak of God univocally, so that not only is man in some way like God, but God is also in some way like man. Yet Aquinas would retort,

Although it may be admitted that creatures are in some sort like God, it must nowise be admitted that God is like creatures. . . For, we say that a statue is like a man, but not conversely; so also a creature can be spoken of as in some sort like God, but not that God is like a creature. (Summa Theologica, I.a. q.4 a.3)

Perhaps unwittingly, Gonzales adopts a kind of “perfect being theology,” but not in the sense which Aquinas or the Reformed Scholastics spoke of God’s perfections. Applying the via eminentia without adequate regard to the via negativa, his God is like man, just more perfect. Perhaps that is an overstatement, but what’s clear is that Gonzales thinks he knows, and therefore can describe, what God is.


Like a tapestry, our Confession is a beautifully woven interconnected system of doctrine. If we begin to pull on one thread, the tapestry may begin to unravel. Of course, not every statement in the Confession is of equal significance. For example, when we interview applicants for church membership and they communicate doctrinal disagreement with the Confession, the question naturally arises, “Which part of the Confession?” Some threads are more integral to the whole, and when pulled, threaten to distort the object of our faith and undermine the foundation of our hope.

Let us not lose sight of what is at stake here. We are talking about chapter 2 in our Confession, Of God and of the Holy Trinity. We are dealing with a view of impassibility that threatens to undermine God’s absoluteness, aseity, immutability, eternity, transcendence, and the divine perfections, to say nothing of the many Christological and soteriological implications. We are dealing with the orthodox understanding of the Church throughout the ages regarding the doctrine of God, which ought to make every one of us wary of Gonzales’ relatively novel amphibological reframing of that doctrine.

Such a low view of our Confession and our theological tradition is typical of the broader evangelical world, as was seen in James MacDonald’s defense of T.D. Jakes’ view of the Trinity in 2011. MacDonald replied to criticism with “something close to biblicism”, saying, “I do not trace my beliefs to creedal statements that seek clarity on things the Bible clouds with mystery. I do not require T.D. Jakes or anyone else to define the details of Trinitarianism the way that I might.” Perhaps MacDonald would agree with Gonzales that his critics are unreasonable traditionalists and hyper-confessionalists that isolate themselves from the broader Christian community (i.e., the T.D. Jakes of the world). The irony, however, is that such a lack of regard for the historic creeds and confessions causes the Gonzales’ of this world to isolate themselves, historically and theologically, from the broader Christian tradition.

Divine Impassibility Under Attack: Does God have Passions? (Part 1)

Chuck Rennie
Sycamore Baptist Church
East Moline, IL
  1. Is this the final post in your series?

  2. Brother, I read your article, and I quite frankly I was shocked- you write as though Dr. Gonzales is alone in his beliefs and that he hasn’t already answered all the allegations you posit. See his latest blog on the issue here:

    And, I’m especially shocked at your contention that “Gonzales would have us assume that we can describe what God is” is a bad thing. Actually, aren’t you in essence doing the same thing when you say God does NOT have real (though different than human) emotions? And, doesn’t Luke 10:22 say, “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” Sure, we cannot know everything there is to know about God, but He has revealed Himself to us! Actually, when you look at God’s self-revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai, all those things are positive.

    And, far from making God passive and weak, I believe God’s self-disclosure to us of His love, care, displeasure, wrath, rejoicing, etc. actually gives strength to how we view Him. Yes, I know, these things are measured by tangible actions. But these things are more than actions. If our human love is to imitate God’s love for His children, and Christ’s love for us, and we are to love one another fervently from the heart, then doesn’t it follow that God loves us fervently from the heart? Yes, I know, everlastingly, and in a way in which we can’t. But the text must mean SOMETHING!

  3. The original intent of the writers of the confession must be taken into account to determine the meaning of the confession. Is there any evidence that the writers and signers of the 1689 differed from the writers and signers of the WCF or Savoy concerning the meaning of the phrase “body, parts , or passions” ?

  4. Dear Chuck and Stefan,

    I’d like to personally thank you both for interacting with my article(s) on divine impassibility and offering criticism. Listening to your criticisms is humbling, and God knows how much more I need to be humbled! Moreover, your criticisms are helpful in that they make me more sensitive to your concerns and help me to refine my own position.

    I don’t have the time or the desire to offer a full point-by-point response here. I would, however, like to make a few brief clarifications regarding your portrayal of my position. If anyone would like further clarification they can read my articles in full (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) and/or email me:

    On the Nature of God’s Relational Changes

    Chuck commends me for affirming God’s ontological, decretive, moral, and affective immutability. But he can’t see how such an affirmation is compossible with the notion of God changing “in terms of his relationships with his creatures.”

    It seems to me that both Chuck and Stefan are reading my statement as implying an intrinsic change in God, whereas what I’m actually referring to is an extrinsic change. That is, God changes the way he relates with his creatures. If you brothers prefer to use the Latin phrase ad extra to denote these extrinsic changes, that’s fine with me. In any case, I want to make it clear for the readers that my position does not entail any intrinsic or essential change in the Godhead. These two affirmations may seem incoherent to Chuck, but I fail to see the inconsistency.

    For example, when God is said to “change his mind” about King Saul, the change predicated of God in 1 Samuel 15:11 is extrinsic and relational, but not the less real. And that extrinsic change on God’s part actually serves to accentuate God’s intrinsic moral immutability, viz., God is faithful and his threats are not empty. In the words of Kevin DeYoung,
    God is sorry in this passage because Saul has changed, but this does not mean God has changed. The change in God is a response to a change in someone else. In fact, God’s “change” is a manifestation of his unchanging character. God’s passion for the glory of his name, his passion for righteousness and justice never change. But when the external world changes, God’s relationship to that world also changes. So when Saul’s behavior changed, God, immutable in nature and purpose, chose to respond to Saul in a different way in order to be true to himself. God changed his mind in order to not change his mind (Emphasis added; from his “Tis Mystery All, the Immortal Dies.”).
    I elaborate on this kind of “relational change” more here.

    On the Affections Behind God’s Relational Changes

    I believe God’s operations ad extra serve to reveal different aspects of God’s character and affections ad intra. So, for instance, when God consigned Judas Iscariot to hell, his extrinsic relationship to Judah changed. God withdrew his common grace and poured out his unmitigated judgment. These space-time relational changes actually reveal different facets of God’s unchanging character and affections. The kindness God extended to Judas, while the latter was in the land of the living, served to reveal God’s forbearance, mercy, and goodwill. Indeed, according to Paul, God’s kindness toward Judas (and other reprobates) serves to highlight a saving disposition within God even toward the non-elect (see my article The Saving Design of God’s Common Grace).

    But God’s consigning Judas to hell, which signifies a new extrinsic relationship, expresses another affective side of God (so to speak), namely, his aversion toward sin and zeal for justice. So while God’s intrinsic affections (e.g., compassion and wrath) never undergo any addition or loss due to God’s changing relations ad extra, they are distinguishable. That is, God’s graciousness toward sinners (beneficence) is not identical to his aversion toward sin (hatred). Furthermore, these affections vary in expression or manifestation relative to to the varying states of affairs in the world.

    For this reason, I am not comfortable with the ways Paul Helm describes creation, incarnation, and reconciliation. The Scripture writers insist that we view these events as God acting in time. That is, there was a time when creation was not, there was a time when the incarnation was not, there was a time when I was not yet reconciled to God, nor God reconciled to me.  Yet Helm insists that we affirm the reverse. Creation never had a beginning. The Son of God has always been incarnate. There never was for me a real transition from being under God’s wrath to being under God’s grace. Instead, according to Helm, the only change is a subjective change inside my mind. In this case, Jesus’ death doesn’t really affect God (i.e., as in pacifying his wrath); it just affects me (i.e., as in enabling me to see that God has loved me all along). All this sounds very much like a form of “eternal justification” to me.

    Perhaps Helm feels he can step into God’s “timeless” shoes and imagine what the world would look like from God’s “celestial reference point.” Such thoughts are too high for me. I prefer to view God’s activity in the world as it is described in Scripture. God walked in the Garden, he appeared to Abraham, he heard the cries of the Israelites in bondage, he met with Moses, he parted the Red Sea, he grew angry at Israel, he filled the Temple with his glory, and he took the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men in the fullness of time.

    This is not to suggest God is bound by space-time. But he clearly portrays himself as acting and responding within the matrix of human history. Moreover, as Marie points out, the Scriptures do no not just tell us what God is not. They provide us with positive descriptions of who God is, what He is like, and what he requires of us because. The Bible is suited for such a revelation because God created human language to serve as an adequate vehicle for his revelatory self-disclosure.

    Hence, when Charles Hodge insists, “We must believe that God is love in the sense in which that word comes home to every human heart” (Systematic Theology, 1:429), he’s basing that assertion not on a commitment to “ontological univocism” (i.e., the notion that God belongs in the same ontological category as humans) but on the assumption that biblical language is sufficient to tell us what God is like:
    In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:10-12 ESV).
    Such texts assume some kind of analogy between divine affections and human affections. The prophets and apostles certainly seemed to assume as much. Indeed, how often do we find them pausing in mid-sentence in order to inform their audience that what they just said about God, viz., that he feels compassion, isn’t really true?

    On Whether God Acquires New Relationships as a Result of Creation

    Chuck argues that my view requires God to acquire new relationships as a result of creation. Then he remarks, “To suggest that God acquires new relations as a result of creation and providence requires the assumption that God and man belong to the same order, thereby threatening the aseity and absoluteness of God.”

    This is a curious assertion, and I’m not exactly sure what to make of it. To begin with, I should state that if my views are inconsistent, I’m grateful that God overrules my inconsistencies. I remain fully committed to the Creator/creature distinction. What’s more, I unhesitatingly affirm God’s aseity (i.e., self-existence and independence) and his absoluteness (i.e., perfection). I believe these truths about God not because I’ve reasoned my way to them apophatically (by way of negation) from nature but because God himself has revealed them to me in Scripture.

    But I’m not sure how it’s inconsistent to affirm God’s independence and perfection, on the one hand, and to affirm, on the other hand, that God really assumed once and permanently a human body in time. The human body of the Second Person seems not to be an intrinsic attribute of the Godhead. It seems, rather, to be a contingent or covenantal property, as Michael Horton and K. Scott Oliphint suggest. Such a property does not result in a mixture or confusing of the Creature/creature categories. It does, nonetheless, suggest a mode in which the two categories actually relate in space-time.

    What is true about the incarnation, which is God’s supreme covenant self-disclosure, seems true of (or analogous to) the pre-incarnate historical disclosures of the self-contained Godhead via “the Angel of Yahweh.” As Geerhardus Vos remarks,
    If, as above suggested, the Angel-conception points back to an inner distinction within the Godhead, so as to make the Angel a prefiguration of the incarnate Christ, then plainly the Person appearing in the revelation was uncreated, because God. On the other hand, if by Angel we designate the form of manifestation of which this Person availed Himself, then the Angel was created. It is the same in the case of Christ: the divine Person in Christ is uncreated, for Deity and being created are mutually exclusive. Nevertheless as to His human nature Jesus was created. The only difference in this respect between Him and the Angel is that under the Old Testament the created form was ephemeral, whereas through the incarnation it has become eternal (Biblical Theology, 75-76).
    On Divine Simplicity and Divine Affections

    It also seems to me that Chuck and Stefan see my view as incompossible with the strong form of divine simplicity articulated by Aquinas and many of the early Reformed theologians.

    On the one hand, I can affirm that “God is love” and that “divine love” is not an extrinsic property or quality to which God is correlative. Rather, I would say that God himself epitomizes love, is the ultimate source of love, and, therefore, defines love. Similarly, God is truth, God is just, God is holy, God is all-powerful, God is all-wise, etc. These are not different parts of God. They each describe God en toto from different perspectives. Moreover, in being one of these attributes God never ceases to be the others. All of God’s attributes are co-extensive and mutually entailing.

    Nevertheless, one aspect of the stronger kind of simplicity Aquinas advocates is the notion that there are no real distinctions between God’s attributes, as, for example, between God’s love and his wrath or between God’s knowledge and his power. Supposedly, we as creatures can only think of God in terms of distinctions (e.g., power, goodness, truth, knowledge, etc.). But there really are no real extramental distinctions in God. Thus, God’s attributes really turn out to be “conceptually distinct.” Of course, I’m aware that Aquinas attempts to give the attributes some extramental foundation and describes them as “virtually distinct.” But this seems like a distinction without a difference to me. Charles Hodge apparently shares my impression:
    To say, as the schoolmen, and so many Protestant theologians, ancient and modern, were accustomed to say, that the divine attributes differ only in name, or in our conceptions, or in their effects, is to destroy all true knowledge of God…. Theologians, to avoid the blank ignorance of God which must follow from the extreme view of the simplicity of his essence, which requires us to assume that the divine attributes differ only in our conceptions, or as expressing the diverse affects of the activity of God, made a distinction between the ratio rationantis and the ratio raionatae. That is, the reasoning as determining, and the reason as determined. The attributes, they say, differ not re, but ratione; not in our subjective reason only; but there is in God a reason why we think of Him as possessing these diverse perfections…. If this be understood to mean that the divine perfections are really what the Bible declares them to be; that God truly thinks, feels, and acts; that He is truly wise, just, and good; that He is truly omnipotent, and voluntary, acting or not acting, as He sees fit; that He can hear and answer prayer; it may be admitted. But we are not to give up the conviction that God is really in Himself what He reveals Himself to be, to satisfy any metaphysical speculations as to the difference between essence and attribute in an Infinite Being” (Systematic Theology, 1:370, 73-74).
    With respect to God as “pure act” or fully actualized: I affirm that God is incapable of “becoming” more or less God. Moreover, I affirm that none of God’s decrees shall fall short of actualization. But, if I understand the DDS of Aquinas correctly, God’s essence is identical with his will. And God’s real will is identical with God the Willer, God’s willing, and that which God wills. This would seem to delimit God’s will to what God decrees. In that case, God’s preceptive or revealed will doesn’t necessarily teach us about God’s dispositions or inclinations. God commanded Adam not to eat the fruit but, according to this way of thinking, God did not in any real sense desire Adam to refrain from eating. After all, it is argued, God can only desire what he decrees since God can only desire what he actualizes.

    However, the data of Scripture seem to imply that God could have done otherwise than to (1) create this world, (2) permit the fall, and (3) choose to save sinners. Indeed, the very notion of “grace” implies God was free to do otherwise. Do not these non-actualized states of affairs suggested non-actualized potency in God? The strong version of the doctrine of divine simplicity would seem to require that we deny God any freedom to do anything whatsoever other than to (1) create this world, (2) permit the fall, and (3) choose to save sinner. Even Dr Dolezal, who defends Aquinas’ view, concedes he cannot harmonize God’s freedom and the strong version the DDS. It is here Dolezal plays the mystery card. But what he sees as mystery, I see as incoherent. In my view, the strong DDS carries its own reductio.

    What’s more, the Bible asserts in various places that God is favorably disposed toward certain states of affairs that he chooses not to actuate (Deut 5:29). In plainer language, God is said to desire the repentance of those whose repentance he doesn’t bring to realization (Rom 2:4). Of course, this is not to suggest God’s will is frustrated. It is to suggest, however, that God’s will cannot be limited to his decree. For reasons known to himself and hidden to us, God chooses not to actualize every state of affairs he might deem good and desirable in itself. (For more on how the scholastic view of absolute simplicity and its notion of actus purus conflicts with the free and well-meant offer, see Robert Dabney’s essay “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy.”)

    Finally, the classical doctrine of divine simplicity relies heavily a substance metaphysic employed by Aquinas to tell us what God is by way of affirming what God supposedly cannot be (the so-called via negativa). There are examples of this in Scripture, viz., God cannot deny himself, he cannot lie, and so on. Yet Aquinas’ use of the via negativa is not predicated on clearly revealed biblical data but on rational reflection upon general revelation apart from Scripture. In a word, Aquinas’s version of divine simplicity is built on natural theology, not on biblical/systematic theology.

    It will not do to appeal to Exodus 3:14 where God says, “I AM WHO I AM.” One might infer God’s self-existence and aseity from that divine self-disclosure (though I see good contextual reasons for understanding this name primarily as a revelation of God as “Covenant-Keeper”). But the text cannot support the entire metaphysical structure of the Thomist doctrine of divine simplicity. Not surprisingly, most defenders of Aquinas’s DDS concede that the biblical data is underdetermined. Nowhere does an OT prophet declare, “Thus saith the Lord, all my attributes are identical.” Nowhere does a NT apostle write, “This is a mystery, God is pure act.”

    Natural theology is not adequate to give us a true covenantal knowledge of God. Both before the fall and after the fall, God revealed himself to man not only through general revelation (outward and inward) but also by means of special revelation. The supreme expression of God’s special covenant revelation is the Word made flesh who makes known to us the Father (John 1:14-18; 14:6-9; 17:3). Thus, rather than developing a doctrine of simplicity that virtually ignores the Trinity and the Incarnation, I suggest that we as Reformed believers take sola scriptura seriously and build our theology proper on the foundational truths of the Trinity and the Incarnation. In this respect, I would commend Dr K. Scott Oliphint’s Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology, and his more recent God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Reformed Forum interviews Dr Oliphint on the thesis of the latter volume here.)

    On the Use of “Guilt by Association” Arguments 

    In one of the comments under Part 1, Stefan faults Nick Alford for listing Reformed authors who don’t swallow the classical view of divine impassibility hook, line, and sinker, and whose views correspond in many (perhaps not all) ways to the view of impassibility I advocate in my articles. Just to name a few, Nick dropped names like Charles Hodge, J. P. Boyce, R. L. Dabney, B. B. Warfield, J. I. Packer, Greg Nichols, Sam Waldron, Brian Borgman, Michael Horton, and K. Scott Oliphint. I cite these and others here.

    To that Stefan replies, “What I find rather interesting about your list of luminaries is that all of them are from the post-Enlightenment era. You cite not one theologian from the confessional era. That alone should give you pause as to the pedigree of the views you champion.”

    Later, in Part 2, Chuck compares my view of the relationship of Scripture and theological tradition to that of James McDonald’s defense of T. D. Jakes’ view of the Trinity. Supposedly, I share McDonald’s lack of regard for the historic creeds and confessions.

    I find this species of “guilt-by-association” argument unhelpful.

    First, all of us live in the post-Enlightenment era. Are we to assume an extreme form of “cessationism” in which the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination ceased at Geneva and Westminster Abby? And if Hodge, Dabney, Warfield, Horton, Waldron, and others are inexorably jinxed by post-Enlightenment era thinking, how shall the rest of us escape–even those of us who are confessional?

    Second, I could as easily argue that the early church fathers, medieval scholastics, and early Reformers (maybe to a lesser degree) were unduly influenced by Greek philosophy and the humanism of the Renaissance. I could also suggest that the Puritans lived in the era of Rationalism and discount their views on that basis. But such arguments are often examples of the “genetic fallacy” in that they suppose that if a system of thought contains some bad elements, then the whole well and everyone who drinks from it is polluted. By the way, the converse is true. Simply because the 16th and 17th century Reformed-Puritan tradition is usually right about most things, it does not follow that said tradition is always right about everything. That too is a genetic fallacy.

    Third, it might be possible that post-Enlightenment theologians like Hodge, Dabney, Warfield, Waldron, Horton, and others who found it necessary to disagree ever-so-slightly with the “schoolmen” did so not because of a commitment to the autonomous thinking of Enlightenment philosophy but because of a higher commitment to the biblical data. Of course, we may debate whether they are reading the biblical material rightly. But dismissing their views simply because they’re situated in post-Enlightenment history is a non sequitur.

    Fourth, shortly after the “Elephant Room 2” I published my disapproval of McDonald’s and Driscoll’s tacit endorsement of T. D. Jakes (click here). So I think it’s a little unfair to compare me with McDonald. Moreover, I think I have a pretty significant respect for ecclesiastical tradition, especially the Reformed tradition. That’s one reason I serve at Reformed Baptist Seminary and subscribe to the 2LCF (see our doctrinal statement here). So I’m not a biblicist. But I’m not ashamed to describe my understanding of sola scriptura as “something close to biblicism.” If anyone is curious to know what I mean click here.

    Accordingly, I think it best to avoid such fallacious arguments and to base our arguments rather on the careful exegesis of Scripture. After all, one cardinal and inviolable axiom of Reformed-Confessional Christianity is the following …
    The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and by which must be examined all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, and doctrines of men and private spirits can be no other than the Holy Scripture, delivered by the Spirit. And in the sentence of Scripture we are to rest, for it is in Scripture, delivered by the Spirit, that our faith is finally resolved (2LCF 1.10).
    Concluding Remarks

    I’m happy that Chuck in responding to Nick Alford assured him that this is a debate between brothers. Accusing one another of positing a different God than the One revealed in Scripture can potentially lead readers to suspect we are accusing one another of promoting soul-damning heresy. It’s very unlikely that any of us can claim our writing or preaching about God is totally free from error. This is not to suggest that we take any misstatements about or misrepresentations of God lightly–even the little ones. (May God have mercy on us!) But I think there’s a difference between, say, the errors of Pantheism, Panentheism, Deism, Process Theology, or Open Theism, on the one hand, and the kind of distinctions we’re debating here, on the other hand. In fact, I believe our differences are intramural, that is, such that occur within the broader Reformed tradition.

    Once again, thank you Chuck and Stefan for challenging my thinking on this topic. I plan to continue studying the issue and praying for more light. Moreover, I’ll be at the General Assembly in April if you’d care to discuss this topic further.

    Grace and peace to you.

    [P.S. please excuse any typos or misspellings as it’s late and I’m tired.]

  5. What does it mean that we were once children of wrath?

  6. Hello Mariep,

    Thank you for you questions. First, I am sorry that you were shocked, and I’m sure you won’t be the only one. But that is precisely why I chose to interact with Gonzales’ view. For too long he has touted his view as the biblical Reformed and confessional view of impassibility, and undoubtedly, hearing no other living voices, many have been led astray in this regard. I am also aware of his most recent posts, with which I have interacted with in my post. I realize that he purports to answer the allegations I have posited, but I have found his explanations deficient. Notwithstanding his intention to do so, I do not believe that his view has escaped these several necessary and unfavorable implications. It is one thing to say that he affirms God’s absoluteness, aseity, immutability, eternity, transcendence, and the divine perfections, but it is another thing for His view to demonstrate what he says. I am also aware that some other contemporaries hold similar views (for the most part he only cites theologians of more recent date), though I seriously question whether most of them would articulate themselves in precisely the same manner as he does (e.g., “relational mutability”). However, naming a few good men neither makes his view confessional, Reformed, or biblical. My stated goal was narrow and modest, to interact with the more foundational elements of Gonzales’s view.

    Secondly, with regard to your question about the via negativa, I also would share your concern that the text must mean something. Indeed it does. God has revealed himself to man, preeminently in his Word, but the question is with regard to the nature of that revelation. I have in mind here the so-called threefold way of knowing God, causation, negation, and eminence. In a very inadequate summary, we might say that we know God, the infinite first cause, through the finite effects of his creative power (i.e., causation). However, God and man are not of the same genus, and God transcends all genera, and both exist according to a different mode of being (Creator-creature distinction). Therefore, revelation concerning God is conveyed to us according to language which derives its meaning from the creature’s finite mode of being. When we therefore interpret language concerning the nature and essence of God, we must remove (i.e., negation) that which is peculiar to the mode of creaturely existence (which amounts to more than mere corporeality). God is being and has life in himself, but we live, move, and have our being in him. He IS love, but our mode of being is to have and feel love in various degrees. We may “positively” affirm these things of God, indeed we must, but they are principally negative affirmations. What is it to Be love? It is to not Have love in the same mode and manner in which we have love. What does it mean when God tells Moses at Mount Sinai, “I AM WHO I AM”? Surely it means something and reveals to us something metaphysical about God. It is surely a positive statement, but the only way in which we can unpack it and understand it is by way of negation. All we know as creatures is what it is like to be changing and becoming, but God IS. All we know is what it is like to live, move, and have our being in God, but he is life in himself. When Moses went atop the mountain, “the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was” (Exod 20:21). He drew near the darkness and came to know God, but what he discovered was a God shrouded in mystery. When the Lord revealed himself more fully to Moses, he revealed his hindquarters, not his face.

    William Ames (Marrow, book 1, ch.4) is representative of our tradition when he argues (from Scripture):
    3. As he has revealed himself to us, he is known from the back, so to speak, not from the face. Exod. 33:23, You shall see may back parts; but my face cannot be seen. He is seen darkly, not clearly, so far as we and our ways are concerned. 1 Cor 13:12, Through a glass, darkly, after a fashion.
    4. Since the things which pertain to God must be explained in a human way, a manner of speaking called anthropopathy, is frequently used.
    5. And because they are explained in our way for human comprehension, many things are spoken of God according to our own conceiving rather than according to his real nature.
    6. We cannot know him otherwise as we live now, nor do we need to know him otherwise to live well. Exod. 33:19, 20.

    It is not that we cannot know God, but rather that we cannot grasp what God is in himself, but only what he is not and how other things are related to him.

    Lastly, there is the way of eminence, because all effects fall short of God’s power. Therefore, all perfections ascribed to God must be understood according to the way of eminence. Thus God is love (understood according to his mode of being), and infinitely and unchangeably so. Therefore, the via negativa tells us that his love cannot change, for according to his peculiar mode of being, God IS love, which would require a change in his essence. Moreover, the via eminentia tells us that his love cannot change or grow, because it is infinite in perfection. What can give more strength to how we view him than this!

    The following quote with regard to Zanchi’s theological method summarizes well what I am advocating.

    “Like Aquinas, Zanchi bases the analogical meaning of divine names on the real order of causality of the creature to God. For both of them the background is pseudo-Dionysius’ threefold way of knowing God, that is, by way of causality, of negation, and of eminence. The via casualitatis is the reason why words that signify a perfection can be predicated of God. But it is not separated from the other two, the via negationis and the via eminentiae. We know God, Zanchi says, ‘by way of negation so that all that is said about creatures as perfect and good, is negated of God. Not that all perfections of all things are not in God, but that they are in him more excellent and even in the most perfect way.’ The three ways form a unity: the ways of negation and of eminence qualify intrinsically what is said affirmatively of God through the way of causality” (Harm Goris, “Thomism in Zanchi’s Doctrine of God,” in Reformation and Scholasticism, 128-129).

    Thank you for your questions. I hope this was helpful.


  7. […] March 3, 2013: Divine Impassibility Under Attack: Does God have Passions? (Part 2) [20 min. […]

  8. Dr. Gonzales, Do you believe you are confessing the confession as originally intended by the writers of the confession in regards to the statement that God is without passions? Is it not demanded of someone that an exception to the confession be taken lest we find ourselves with a living confession ? Actually these questions are for anybody that confesses the 2LBC.

  9. Brother Chuck, thanks for your interaction! I agree with you that what Moses saw on the Mount was something less that God’s very being (His “face”). And I know you are seeking to guard the truth of Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” We shouldn’t say anything about the nature of God unless He’s revealed it to us (the regulative principle of God?)

    But, as I’ve been taught, even “God’s backside” was His goodness manifested in the Word proclaimed-

    Exodus 34
    5 Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. 6 And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, 7 keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.

    As Dr. Gonzales said in his previous comment, “I believe these truths about God not because I’ve reasoned my way to them apophatically (by way of negation) from nature but because God himself has revealed them to me in Scripture.”

    You wrote that, “We may ‘positively’ affirm these things of God, indeed we must, but
    they are principally negative affirmations,” Where do you get this idea? What about “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”- 2 Cor. 4:6? That doesn’t appear like a negative affirmation to me- I read throughout the Gospels who our Heavenly Father *is* more than who He *is not* (same for the Spirit and Christ Jesus Himself).

    I also found this statement confusing, “It is not that we cannot know God, but rather that we cannot grasp what God is in himself, but only what he is not and how other things are related to him.” Shouldn’t we say instead that we can only know what God has revealed to us by self-revelation? Knowing “what God is not” is only part of “knowing God” according to Scripture. Or how else can we know that God is a Unity in Trinity. and the Trinity in Unity without positively affirming that God is One and yet negatively affirming that the Father is not the Son is not the Spirit? If you deny the negative affirmations, you get modalism, and if you deny the positive affirmation you get tritheism.

    Lastly, you wrote, “Therefore, the via negativa tells us that his love cannot change, for according to his peculiar mode of being, God IS love, which would require a change in his essence. Moreover, the via eminentia tells us that his love cannot change or grow, because it is infinite in perfection. What can give more strength to how we view him than this!”

    And yet what should we do with the passages that speak of God’s love (or benevolence, if you prefer) toward even the non-elect? What about the passages about God being pleased or displeased with His children? Or us once being children of wrath just as the rest before our conversion? I thought the illustration in Dr. Gonzales’ latest blog post was very helpful. What does it mean for the day of grace to be over? Doesn’t this show a “relational mutability” in God? And, what exactly do you do with the language of a text like Hosea 11? Yes, it’s been abused by others, but, as you said to me, you too believe it means something.

    Thanks again!

  10. Charles Hodge:
    “Love in us includes complacency and delight in its object, with the desire of possession and communion. The schoolmen, and often the philosophical theologians, tell us that there is no feeling in God. This, they say, would imply passivity, or susceptibility of impression from without, which it is assumed is incompatible with the nature of God…. Here again we have to choose between a mere philosophical speculation and the clear testimony of the Bible, and of our own moral and religious nature. Love of necessity involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, there can be no love”- Systematic Theology (Reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 1:428-29.

    R. L. Dabney:
    “Some seem so afraid of recognizing in God any susceptibility of a passive nature that they virtual set Scripture aside, and paint a God whose whole activities of intelligence and will are so exclusively from himself that even the relation of objective occasion to him is made unreal, and no other is allowed than a species of coincidence or preëstablished harmony. They are chary [i.e., cautious] of conceding (what the Bible seems so plainly to say) that God is angry because men sin; and would go no farther than to admit that somehow he is angry when men sin, yet, because absolutely independent, angry only of himself”- “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” in vol. 1 of Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (Reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1982), 292. (though it is acknowledged that Dabney elsewhere said he didn’t want to call them emotions).

    B. B. Warfield:
    “We have a God who is capable of self-sacrifice for us…. Now herein is a wonderful thing. Men tell us that God is, by very necessity of His own nature, incapable of passion, incapable of being moved by inducement from without; that he dwells in holy calm and unchangeable blessedness, untouched by human sufferings or human sorrows for ever,–haunting

    The lucid interspace of world and world,
    Where never creeps a cloud, nor moves a wind,
    Nor ever falls the least white star of snow,
    Nor ever lowest roll of thunder moans,
    Nor sound of human sorrow mounts to mar
    His sacred, everlasting calm.

    Let us bless God that it is not true. God can feel; God does love. We have Scriptural warrant for believing, as it has been perhaps somewhat inadequately but not misleadingly phrased, that moral heroism has a place within the sphere of the divine nature: we have Scriptural warrant for believing that, like the hero of Zurich, God has reached out loving arms and gathered to his own bosom that forest of spears which otherwise had pierced ours. But is not this gross anthropomorphism? We are careless of names: it is the truth of God. And we decline to yield up the God of the Bible and the God of our hearts to any philosophical abstraction. We have and we must have an ethical God; a God whom we can love, in whom we can trust”- “Imitating the Incarnation,” in The Person and Work of Christ, ed. Samuel Craig (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950), 570-71.

    cited by Dr. Gonzales here:

  11. Hello Marie,
    I hope that you will accept my apology at the very outset for a rather short response.
    It appears to me that you have confused “negative theology” with negative statements and/or something opposed to revelation. Moreover, mystery is not something we shout as we throw up our hands after we have said all that we think we can say about God. Mystery is the very thing we are engaging the moment we begin to speak about God (or as we engage the Scripture speaking about God). I commend your interest and I would wholeheartedly recommend to you Gregory Rocca’s “Speaking the Incomprehensible” on this particular subject.

    Regarding Hosea 11, I would interpret it the same way that the vast majority of our tradition has interpreted it, including our beloved Puritan forefathers who took the biblical text seriously. In fact Hosea 11 is a wonderful example as it provides a helpful and necessary reminder; v.9, “For I am God, and not man, the Holy One (i.e, the transcendent, wholly other) in your midst.” Here, I would wholeheartedly recommend Jeremiah Burroughs’ commentary on Hosea. He writes,

    “But you will say, ‘Why does God express himself thus?’ To this Calvin answers, ‘He accommodates himself to our weakness. God, who disdained not to take man’s nature upon him, disdained not to personate a man who, being much wronged, is reasoning in himself what to do; his heart is full of pity, his bowels yearn, and he would fain find a way for mercy; and when provocation of execution comes into his mind, it is as a dagger to his heart: Oh, how shall I do this? God personates such a man, and saith, ‘How shall I do it?’ and mercy and justice are introduced to plead the case, both against and for Ephraim.”

    To which I might tersely add that this passage points us ultimately, not to the inner emotional response in the being of God, but the reality that His justice must be answered. If he is going to save his “sons” then he must do so in a way that answers to his justice. And so great is his mercy that (and this is where the passage ultimately points) He sent His Son into the world to satisfy his justice, that he might save us. Cf. 1 Jn 4:8-10.

    The “Westminster Annotations” also comment,

    “Here God takes upon him the person and passions of a man, complying with our weak capacities. Not that there is any doubting at all, or changing at all in him” (Hosea 11:8).

    One more thing I might note regarding how we interpret these passages, though it is more general than Hosea 11, is the need to see Christ (God in the flesh, as a man, according to his human nature). Thomas Goodwin puts it in this way,

    “I confess I have often wondered at that expression there used, ‘He took the seed of Abraham, that he might be made a merciful high priest,’ Heb. ii., which at the first reading sounded as if God had been made more merciful by taking our nature. But this solved the wonder, that this assumption added a new way of God’s being merciful, by means of which it may now be said, for the comfort and relief of our faith, that God is truly and really merciful, as a man. . . . Hence, therefore, amongst other ends of assuming man’s nature, this fell in before God as one, that God might thereby become loving and merciful unto men, as one man is to another. And so, that what before was but improperly spoken, and by way of metaphor and similitude, in the Old Testament, . . . might now be truly attributed unto him in reality; that God might be for ever said to be compassionate as a man, and to be touched with a feeling of our infirmities as a man” (Thomas Goodwin, 4.138-139).

    I hope this helps,


  12. Dear Dr. Gonzales,

    I am glad that you responded. However, if I could speak frankly, the mere addition of many more words does not remove the inherent contradictions that you have already propounded on your blog, where you have frequently taken away with your left hand what you have affirmed with your right hand. If you wish to clarify your position and further the dialogue, it may be helpful if you were openly to retract the conflicting conclusions and thereby remove the several contradictions. Otherwise it is impossible to know whether I should now interact with your right hand or your left hand, making any further dialogue unfruitful and potentially endless.

    Secondly, I acknowledge that you are free to hold to your view and deny the accusation that there are inherent contradictions. You are free to hold it, but not without controversy. All I ask is that you would do so honestly and own it as something other than what is intended in our Confession of Faith. Richard D.’s question above is an important one. Your view is something different than those who wrote the Westminster, Savoy, and the 1689. Listen to our own baptist forefathers as they speak on this issue:

    Hercules Collins:
    Benjamin Keach:
    Edward Drapes:

    John Norton (not a PB, but read by PB´s)

    Thirdly, and this may ruffle some feathers, but try interacting with Thomas Aquinas and more recent scholarship regarding his doctrine of God, and not the version you have received from anti-scholastic post-enlightenment scholarship. You may be surprised to learn something different, and God willing, even something helpful.

    With the best of intentions,

  13. Brother Chuck,

    Apology accepted, though I’m not sure it’s something for which you need to apologize. I know that this medium isn’t the best- but I have gained more of an understanding of your point of view (though I still don’t agree).

    You said, “It appears to me that you have confused ‘negative theology’ with negative statements and/or something opposed to revelation.” I wondered if you might ask that- I should have spent a sentence or two giving my understanding of it. I never intended to say that “negative theology” was negative in a bad way. I also never intended to say it was something opposed to revelation. My point was that I see both negative and positive theology in the Bible. As I pointed out in the doctrine of the Trinity, we need both- we see that there is but one God, and that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, and yet we also see that the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Spirit, nor is the Spirit the Father.

    I found this quote from a Presbyterian brother (Lane Keister), with which I agree:

    “Most people are probably looking at the title of this post and thinking, “huh?’ But let me explain the terms. Kataphatic theology is positive theology, describing what and who God is. Apophatic theology is negative theology; it describes who and what God is not. This is another difference between East and West in the doctrine of the Trinity. Kataphatic theology is the way that the West uses; apophatic theology is the method of the East. There are inherent pluses and minuses to both ways of thinking. Kataphatic theology assumes that we can know something about God as He truly is. Especially it assumes that the revelation of the Bible describes God truly as He is. However, the danger is an arrogance that we can know God fully, and find out everything there is to know about Him. Apophatic theology assumes much more mystery about God. Oftentimes, it assumes that we cannot know God as He truly is. The danger here is complete agnosticism about God, that we cannot know anything truly about God. It should be noted that the best practitioners of each kind of theology recognize the shortcomings and attempt to alleviate the dangers. Personally, I see nothing inherently wrong with either approach. However, I strongly side with the West in that I firmly believe that the God of the Bible is God as He truly is, though the Bible does not exhaustively describe Him. The Bible gives us truth about who God really is, though we cannot exhaustively know Him. We can therefore know Him truly, though never completely. In this sense then, I believe that the dangers of apophatic theology are more dangerous than the dangers of kataphatic theology. But it is helpful in theology to describe both the truth as it is, and also the falsehood as it is. it is oftentimes helpful to know what God is not, but always with a view to better describing who He is. I think this is the path of wisdom, as long as we recognize that there is a remainder in theology which we can never fully comprehend. We must be humble in our pursuit of the knowledge of God.”

    As for Hosea 11, I still am not convinced that the emotion God describes are just merely anthropomorphisms. They certainly don’t describe God as being cold and aloof…

    “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not.”- Lamentations 3:22
    “Remember, O Lord, Your tender mercies and Your lovingkindnesses, For they are from of old.”- Psalm 25:6
    “Do not withhold Your tender mercies from me, O Lord; Let Your lovingkindness and Your truth continually preserve me.” Psalm 40:11
    “Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions.” Psalm 51:1
    “Hear me, O Lord, for Your lovingkindness is good; Turn to me according to the multitude of Your tender mercies.”- Psalm 69:16
    “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies?” Psalm 77:9

  14. Dear Richard D. and Chuck,

    Richard made a good point and asked a good question. I agree with Chuck that it’s an important one. I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to get around to answering you. Too many irons in the fire!

    Above Richard underscores (as does Chuck) the importance of taking into account the original intent of the meaning of the Confession. Then Richard asks whether there is any evidence that the authors and signers of the 2LBC understood the phrase “God is … without body, parts, or passions” differently than those who framed and subscribed to the WCF or Savoy.

    First, I’m not aware of any difference in intention between our Particular Baptist forefathers and their Puritan contemporaries. All three employ the same language, and it seems likely they intended the same basic ideas.

    Second, the real crux, I think, is (1) what did the original framers and signers of our Confession intend? And (2) how much of their original intention must we agree with for our subscription to qualify as “full subscription”?

    Allow me to address each of these questions in order.

    1. What is the original intention behind the phrase “God is without body, parts, and passions”? 

    After exegeting the proof texts, consulting commentaries on the Confession (including Reformed systematic theologies), and reading Reformed and Puritan writers on the topic, here’s how I might summarize my findings (so far):

    (1) As the term “passion” may derive from the Latin patior, which means “to suffer” (see Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:554), it is possible the Puritans intended to deny that the divine nature could undergo any physiological or psychological suffering. Of course, the Reformed and Puritans writers would have affirmed that the Second Person of the Trinity suffered in his human nature (Acts 1:3; Heb 2:18; 1 Pet 2:21; 3:18).

    (2) Moreover, as a Spirit (Deut 4:15-16; John 4:24; 1 Tim 1:14) God cannot undergo the physiological affects we associate with human passions, affections, or emotions. According to A. A. Hodge, for example, God as Spirit possesses “the attributes of intelligence, feeling and will” as “active properties.” However, “we deny,” says Hodge, “that the properties of matter, such as bodily parts and passions belong to him” (Commentary on the Confession of Faith, 73-74). Similarly, Robert Shaw remarks, “The Confession affirms that God is a pure Spirit, according to the Scriptures, and in opposition to an ancient sect of heretics, who … held that God has bodily parts and a human form” (An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 26).

    (3) There seems to be uniform agreement that the Confession denies a univocity between God’s affective or emotional capacity and human affective or emotional capacity. Acts 14:11, 15 is a key text. In context, Paul and Barnabas dissuade the crowds in Lystra from venerating them as “gods” (14:11) since they were mere mortals, that is, “men of like passions” (14:15, KJV). The English phrase translates a Greek word ὁμοιοπαθής, which denotes “experiencing similarity in feelings or circumstances” (BDAG, s.v.). Most modern translations render it “the same nature” (NKJ, NAS, ESV, CSB; NET) or “human like you” (NIV).

    (4) Although the Reformed and Puritan writers deny that God can have human-like passions since the latter are not only physiological but also often unpredictable, irrational, vacillating, unprincipled, and so on, they seem to agree that God has something analogous to affective or emotional capacity. Benjamin Keach puts it this way,

    “Here we must note the difference of human affections, for some are attributed to God, as being truly in him, yet not in that imperfect manner or way of accident, as they are in man, but far more purely and eminently, and that essentially and substantially too. And so all words which express human affections, are first to be separated from all imperfections, and then understood of God” (Tropologia, 48).

    Keach goes on to describe joy as an affection “properly” (strictly) applied to God. On the other hand, sorrow, grief, and repentance are “improperly” (metaphorically) ascribed to God (Ibid., 49-50). So far, Keach agrees with Aquinas that the positive affections of delight and joy may properly belong to God, but not the negative affections of sorrow, grief, or repentance (see Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, 89-90). However, Keach appears to differ with Aquinas when it comes to anger, revenge, and hatred:

    “[These], when attributed to God, are by some referred to this head [i.e., as anthropopathic metaphors]. Where we are to note, that these words are not ascribed to God by way anthropopathy, for God most truly, properly, and for infinite reasons, is justly angry with sinners, takes vengeance on them, or afflicts them, Jer. ix.9, Nahum i. 2, &c. He truly hates sinners and hypocrites, Psal. v. vi., Isa i. 14, &c., …, yet there is an Anthropopathy in certain words and phrases by which these affections are wont to be expressed. Thus breath or to breathe, do sometimes note the anger of God, by a metaphor taken from men, who in the vehement commotion of anger, do draw their breath more strongly than ordinary, Exod. xv. 8; Job iv. 9; Isa. xxx. 28; Ezek. xxi. 31, &c” (Tropologia, 50; Aquinas seems to deny God can have hatred. SCG, I, 96.1-2).

    Keach goes on to argue that “zeal or jealousy is ascribed to God do denote his most ardent love to believers, and his care of their safety joined with an indignation against their enemies” (Ibid.).

    (5) While the Reformed and Puritan writers seemed to agree that human passions or affections can only apply to God by way of analogy, anthropopathy, or metaphor, it’s not clear (at least to me) that they unanimously agreed on which emotions ascribed to God are so “properly” (strictly) and which “improperly” (figuratively). Sometimes they appear to equivocate as does Richard Muller when he describes their views. (I highlight the prima facie equivocations here, but I acknowledge that I may be misreading them.)

    (6) It also seems to be the case that the Reformed and Puritan theologians would have denied that God’s affections or emotions are in any sense passive, as is often the case with human passions or emotions. This is also related to the Latin term patior, which not only denotes suffering but also being susceptible to impression from without. (See Robert Letham’s The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context, 160.) God’s omniscience and sovereignty would preclude the notion of passive affections. Hence, God cannot be “surprised,” “taken off-guard,” “left vulnerable,” “frustrated,” and so on. The editors of The Modern English Study Version of the Westminster Confession may have had this reading of the Confession in view when they render the clause as follows: “[God] is a most pure spirit, invisible, with neither body, parts, nor passive properties.”

    (7) Finally, it is also possible (perhaps even likely) that most (if not all) the framers and signers of the Confession would have linked the phrase “without body, parts, and passions” to certain philosophical and metaphysical notions about God’s nature. Many scholars have noted that classical theists like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas borrowed from Greek philosophy a “substance metaphysic.” These Christian theologians adapted and employed it in their natural theology. Such a metaphysic seeks to answer ultimate questions like, “What is the ultimate Cause of all that exists?” and “What must this ultimate Cause be like?” To make a long story short the ultimate Cause-Mover-Composer (which for the Greeks was “the One” but for the Christians “God”) must be absolutely simple, timeless, and immutable (in the strongest senses). Accordingly, an absolutely simple God cannot have passions or affections or emotions because he cannot be composed of potency and act–he must be “pure act.” Moreover, an absolutely timeless God cannot have passions or affections or emotions because he doesn’t have “time” to undergo such. Furthermore, an absolutely immutable God cannot experience passions or affections or emotions because that would require some kind of change and any change predicated to God, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, is impossible within the framework of this metaphysic. For a fuller explication of these ideas, see James Dolezal’s God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Pickwick, 2011) and his recently published article “Still Impassible: Confessing God without Passions,” Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies (2014): 125-51.

    That leads to the next question:

    (2) How much of the original intention of the Confession’s framers and signers must we agree with for our subscription to qualify as “full subscription”? 

    I believe the Confession is a full and accurate summary of the Christian faith, but I don’t believe it is infallible or perfect. Hence, I believe in a form of full subscription (1) that takes the entire Confession as its starting point, (2) that expects substantial (in the sense of ample or considerate) agreement, and (3) that allows for minor (non-substantial) exceptions that do not undermine a major Article of doctrine, the system of Reformed truth, or the Baptist distinctives in the Confession. I believe this is the form of full subscription that Reformed Baptist churches I’ve been a member or pastor of have practiced. This has also been the form of full subscription practiced by ARBCA. Their policy paper on dealing with exceptions states it this way:

    “Any exceptions to terminology or phrases must be stated by the applying church to the sponsoring church before application to ARBCA. No exception may undermine the integrity of the doctrine in any Article, or the integrated system of the historic Reformed Faith in the confession, or any of our Baptist distinctives defined in the Confession.”

    This form of subscription stands between system subscription (which is looser) and historical subscription (which is tighter).

    Pertinent to the question above is the definition of “historical subscription.” In his address to the 1998 General Assembly, Dr Renihan commended full subscription and distinguished it from historical subscription. The latter, according to Renihan, holds “a confession must always be understood in terms of the intent of its framers.” This does not mean that the original intent is unimportant. But Renihan does not think it is necessarily determinative.

    The example he offers concerns the differences between classical apologetics and presuppositional apologetics. Some would argue that the Reformers and Puritans in general favored a form of classical apologetics, which carries with it a certain philosophy of “facts” and certain assumptions concerning natural theology. On the other hand, presuppositional apologetics–at least the versions developed by Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark–operate with somewhat different epistemological assumptions and are (generally) more critical of natural theology.

    If it could be proven that the Confession’s authors predominantly favored the epistemological framework of classical apologetics and if such an epistemological framework resided beneath their language in Chapter 1, are we, therefore, obliged to adopt the entire philosophical framework of classical apologetics in order to satisfy full subscription? Renihan says, No. Here’s now he put it in a recent Audio Podcast on the Confessing Baptist website (September 3, 2013):

    “[The historical subscription view] would require us to be committed to the whole philosophical background of any Confession of Faith. And I don’t know that that’s the best thing for us to do in terms of subscription. So my category of historical subscription is not to say we can treat it as we want to and ignore the context. No, I think the context is absolutely necessary in terms of the doctrines, but not necessarily in terms of the philosophical background (To access the podcast, click here. Renihan’s definition occurs between 44:48 and 47:05).

    I think Dr Renihan’s definition of historical subscription and his distinction of it from full subscription is extremely relevant to this debate. I think all parties could agree on the first six points under the meaning of impassibility above. Moreover, all parties would affirm with the Confession that God is simple, eternal, and immutable.

    However, scholars agree that the “absolute versions” of divine simplicity, timelessness, and immutability are underdetermined when it comes to the Scriptural data. In layman’s talk, there’s no clear Scriptural support. Of course, the Bible plainly teaches God’s independence and uniqueness (Deut 6:4; Job 35:4-8; Acts 17:24-25). It also asserts that God is eternal without beginning or end (Psa 90:1-4; Isa 57:15). And it clearly affirms that God is unchangeable with respect to his essential being, moral character, and eternal decree (Mal 3:6; James 1:17). But nowhere does the Bible explicitly or implicitly teach that God’s oneness is more fundamental than his threeness or that we may not in any sense predicate non-actualized potency of God. Nowhere does it explain the precise nature of time or God’s relation to time. Certainly, God transcends time, but does that necessarily mean he cannot act in time? How, then, do we account for the Incarnation? What’s more, nowhere do the Scriptures clearly affirm directly or by way of good and necessary inference the kind of absolute metaphysical unchangeableness required by the Aristotelian-Thomist philosophical and metaphysical system.

    This is not to say that everything Aristotle or Aquinas taught is false. No doubt, Aristotle enjoyed much common grace and was able to infer many helpful ideas from the light of nature. Without question Thomas Aquinas made helpful contributions to the doctrine of God. And it may be the case that our Reformed and Puritan forefathers incorporated some of the language and insights from these two giants into the Confession.

    But is it really the case that every Reformed Baptist church must adopt all the philosophical and metaphysical underpinnings that may lurk behind the language of the Confession? If the notions are clearly biblical, the answer is yes. But if the notions are debatable, I think not. If Reformed stalwarts like Charles Hodge, Robert Dabney, and B. B. Warfield can have reservations about some of the views of the “schoolmen” regarding the more philosophical dimensions of God’s impassibility, might not we? Otherwise, we are no longer requiring full subscription. We are, instead, demanding the kind of historical subscription Dr Renihan describes and claims is not the position of ARBCA.

    Perhaps an analogy may help.

    It is not only vitally important Who we worship but also How we worship Him. The latter point is underscored in the Confession’s chapter on worship and the Sabbath, where it sets forth the regulative principle of worship. A majority of the churches in ARBCA believed this chapter to be of such great importance that they commissioned the Theology Committee to write a Position Paper on the topic. Some on that committee were historical theologians and were well aware of the original intent of the Confession’s framers and signers. However, despite the abundance of evidence that the Puritans would have denounced the use of musical instruments in worship (with the exception of Richard Baxter), the Theology Committee of ARBCA disregarded the original intent of the Westminster Assembly (and I suspect our PB forefathers) and condoned the use of musical instruments and even special music (e.g., choirs) in its Position Paper on the RPW. What’s more, they even recommend certain post-Enlightenment Reformed authors in their select bibliography!

    Summing It Up

    Richard and Chuck, I apologize for the rather lengthy answer to your simple question. But I think the issue of original intention and confession subscription are more complex than some may realize or concede. Original intent is vitally important for understanding what the framers meant. But ascertaining original intent does not absolutely or necessarily determine whether the entire philosophical framework from which the Puritans drew their concepts and language or the practical implementation of their doctrines is or should binding on us today.

    I affirm that God is without body, parts, or passions. And I agree with much of the original intent behind those ideas–particularly, that which the Scriptures explicitly teach or that which by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from the Scriptures. But I am uncertain about some of the more speculative and philosophical notions that are sometimes connected to these ideas.

    What about the sufficiency of Scripture? Doesn’t the requiring of an unqualified agreement with more speculative aspects of doctrines that derive from natural theology rather than biblical or systematic theology undermine the sufficiency of Scripture? Moreover, isn’t it a violation of the Regulative Principle to require faith in what is not clearly taught in Scripture? I’m not talking about faith in what is incomprehensible. The Trinity, the Incarnation, God’s Sovereignty, and many other truths in Scripture are incomprehensible and call for our faith regardless of whether or not we fully comprehend them.

    However, God’s precise relation to time (including the very nature of time itself) is not clearly taught in Scripture and is hotly debated by Christian philosophers and theologians today. So I am sympathetic with Louis Berkhof when he remarks, “The relation of eternity to time constitutes one of the most difficult problems in philosophy and theology, perhaps incapable of solution in our present condition” (Systematic Theology, 60). I think the same is true with respect to some aspects of absolute divine simplicity. It’s hard to square certain facets of that doctrine with the Trinity, divine freedom, and the well-meant offer of the gospel.

    So might there not be room for some level of disagreement at point (7) above? I would hope so. I’m not suggesting that other Reformed Baptist pastors or churches share all of my reservations about the more speculative and philosophical ideas that characterize Aquinas’ substance metaphysic and its application to God. I’m only asking that I not be forced to confess ex animo an entire philosophical system not derived from Scripture but from natural theology. My abstention from subscribing to the full-blown substance metaphysic is not a denial of God’s simplicity, eternity, or immutability. It is simply a confession of those doctrines in forms more closely tied to the data of Scripture. Some may call them “weaker” forms of the doctrines, but I don’t think they are any weaker than the Scriptural bedrock on which they rest.

    Thank you both for your patience and goodwill.

    Sincerely yours,
    Bob Gonzales

  15. Dr. Gonzales,
    Would not the acceptance or rejection of concepts like pure actuality and no potentiality have a rather substantial effect on one’s bearing as he develops his concept of God and thus what the confession says in all of 2LBC 2:1-3

    Richard D.

  16. Richard D.,

    The simple answer is “no.” The philosophical notion of “pure actuality” is not needed to uphold God’s aseity, immutability, eternity, simplicity, etc. Scripture alone is sufficient to uphold those doctrines.

  17. Richard,

    Here’s a question for you …

    According to our Confession, “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant” (7.1).

    Is the “covenant condescension” referred to here absolutely essential or necessary to God’s nature? That is, did God ultimately have the freedom not to condescend covenantally?

    If you say that God absolutely had to condescend, that such covenantal condescension is of the very unchanging essence of God, then you undermine the doctrine of God’s aseity and independence. If, on the other hand, you say that God was “free to do otherwise,” which is what the word “voluntarily” implies, then you affirm some kind of non-actualized potentiality in God.

    It’s my commitment to God’s independence and freedom that makes me hesitant to adopt the full-blown version of “pure act.” Of course, I do agree with the notion that God doesn’t become more God or less God by condescending. But it seems to me that in condescending to create and to redeem (which he didn’t have to do), God is assuming covenantal “properties” or relations that are not absolute but relative attributes. Hence, as I noted in one of my responses above, when the Second Person of the Trinity assumed a human nature, he assumed a property not intrinsic or essential to deity.

  18. BG: Here’s a question for you …
    According to our Confession, “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant” (7.1).

    Is the “covenant condescension” referred to here absolutely essential or necessary to God’s nature? That is, did God ultimately have the freedom not to condescend covenantally?

    RB: As to the first question, I would answer no. As to the second question, I would answer yes. Here’s why. The voluntary condescension here is referring to that which pertains to attaining “the reward of life” (i.e., the revelation of the covenant of works). So it is not necessary to God’s nature and He was free not to so condescend.

    BG: If you say that God absolutely had to condescend, that such covenantal condescension is of the very unchanging essence of God, then you undermine the doctrine of God’s aseity and independence.

    RB: See my comments above.

    BG: If, on the other hand, you say that God was “free to do otherwise,” which is what the word “voluntarily” implies, then you affirm some kind of non-actualized potentiality in God.

    RB: I think the word “voluntary” brings us to the will of God, which is ad extra, not to the essence of God. This is God in operation, in execution.

    BG: It’s my commitment to God’s independence and freedom that makes me hesitant to adopt the full-blown version of “pure act.”

    RB: I think pure act refers to the fact that it is of the essence of God to be who He is eternally, and in no sense, in Himself, incomplete, or becoming what He has not always been and ever shall be. He is always in the state of full realization.

    BG: Of course, I do agree with the notion that God doesn’t become more God or less God by condescending. But it seems to me that in condescending to create and to redeem (which he didn’t have to do), God is assuming covenantal “properties” or relations that are not absolute but relative attributes.

    RB: I think there is another way to look at this. I think it better not to call God’s relations with that which He makes the assumption of relative attributes. I could be wrong, but I think the term attributes, when referring to God, refers to things we designate or predicate about God’s essence, which is eternal.

    BG: Hence, as I noted in one of my responses above, when the Second Person of the Trinity assumed a human nature, he assumed a property not intrinsic or essential to deity.

    RB: Though this is true (depending upon what one means by “property”), it is also true that in the assumption of human nature, there was no change/alteration wrought upon or within the divine nature making it proper to say the divine nature assumed a relative attribute or attributes. God, in Himself, assumes no new attributes. He simply is eternally what He is.

  19. A response to my friend Richard Barcellos

    Rich, the subtle distinctions you make above may be necessary in a Thomist universe. But I wonder whether they actually reflect the true state of affairs (i.e., the real world). Perhaps, as one writer suggests, the Thomist system is …

    very much like self-re-enforcing Wittgensteinian linguistic games, rich in self-referential coherence and definitional or stipulative necessity, while void of argumentation or an authoritative jurisdiction beyond themselves. What makes them so compelling, I suspect, is not that they are likely to be actually descriptive of an actual state of affairs, but that they are so invitingly tidy and practical.

    I said in my earlier post above, If, on the other hand, one says that God was “free to do otherwise,” which is what the word “voluntarily” implies, then one affirms some kind of non-actualized potentiality in God. But Rich responds, “I think the word ‘voluntary’ brings us to the will of God, which is ad extra, not to the essence of God. This is God in operation, in execution.”

    But I fail to see how invoking a distinction between “God in operation” and “God in essence” rescues you. Why? God’s will is identical to his essence. Moreover, God’s will comprehends the Willer, the act of willing, and the thing willed. Hence, it still seems to follow that God could have done otherwise (i.e., not have condescended). And in that case, there is non-actualized potency in God’s will which, according to Thomas, is identical to his essence.

    Then Rich says, “I think there is another way to look at this. I think it better not to call God’s relations with that which He makes the assumption of relative attributes. I could be wrong, but I think the term attributes, when referring to God, refers to things we designate or predicate about God’s essence, which is eternal.”

    But the Reformed, including John Owen, made the distinction between absolute and relative attributes. The latter involved attributes that entailed God’s relations with the world. Such attributes are tied to God’s essence inasmuch as they describe the relation of God’s essence to the world he created. And, as I’ve said repeatedly, the Divine Person, God the Son, assumed a human nature which is not essential to the divine nature. Of course, the potency to assume a human nature did reside in the Godhead. But the Godhead could have done otherwise and would have remained perfectly God.

    The same is true with respect to God’s being Creator and Sovereign King. Within the essence of God there is the potency for God’s to be the world’s creator and sovereign kind. But if God could have done otherwise, if he truly is Independent and Free, he didn’t have to create the world and rule as its king. Such freedom to do otherwise is the nemesis for the absolute divine simplicity of Thomism.

    Now I suspect Rich will want to object and insist that Creatorship and Suzerainty belong to the very essence of God and are, therefore, essential attributes, i.e., God could not be God without them. Of course, that seems to make the world necessary to God. And then we slide toward Panentheism.

    But, since God is absolutely timeless and motionless, Rich is forced to affirm that fully actualized Creator and Redeemer are of the very unchanging essence of God. So there was not time when the creation was not (i.e., no real creatio ex nihilo). There was no time when the Second Person wasn’t Incarnate (i.e., the virgin conception not real but an accommodation to our finite perspective), and there was no time when the consummate New Heavens and New Earth were not. This makes God dependent on the world. Even a Thomist-sympathizer like Katherin Rogers concedes this point:

    From God’s perspective, if His essence is His eternal and immutable act in this the actual and only really possible world then He could not fail to have any of His attributes  and still be Himself. They are all equally necessary. That means that we are forced to conclude that creatures do have some effect on God’s very essence. This seems shocking since a major motivation for insisting on simplicity is the absolute aseity of God. And now we have apparently arrived at the conclusion that He is dependent on creatures! (Perfect Being Theology, 37)

    Yet, I’m sure Rich can pull more subtle distinctions out of the Thomist hat. Meanwhile, Wittgenstein is smiling.

    More Problems with Thomist Simplicity

    Then again, if I were a Thomist simplest, I should avoid speaking of any distinctions at all in the Godhead at all. For example, Aquinas argues that any one of the three persons of the Trinity could have become Incarnate. In his words,

    “Therefore the Divine power could have united human nature to the Person of the Father or of the Holy Ghost, as It united it to the Person of the Son. And hence we must say that the Father or the Holy Ghost could have assumed flesh even as the Son” (ST III, Q3).

    Because Thomas is so committed to divine simplicity (derived from natural theology) as holding priority over the divine Tri-Unity (derived from special revelation), he must try to suppress the real “extramental” distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The one is more fundamental to the three. The three, for Thomas, are practically “accidental” though I know he doesn’t like that term.

    Even so, it would seem Thomas has another problem on this hands. For if the Father could have become Incarnate, but decreed otherwise, we have non-actualized potency in the Godhead. The same would seem true for the Spirit. Truth is, the divine simplicity of Thomism doesn’t cohere well with the Trinity. For our tradition says,

    There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties (WLC, Q9).

    But Thomists don’t like to speak of God having “properties.” More importantly, the Thomist doesn’t like to speak of God having any real distinctions. His essence is identical to his existence. His love identical to his omnipotence. His immensity identical to his wrath. And so on. The distinctions only exist in our minds.

    But as the Larger Catechism rightly affirms, the Scriptures teach a divine “triplicity.” And the properties of the Father are not identical to the properties of the Son. Nor are the properties of the Spirit identical to those of the Father and the Son. Nor are the Son’s properties precisely identical with those of the Father and the Spirit. And these distinctions are very real. Moreover, God’s “threeness” is no less essential and fundamental than God’s “oneness.” For this reason, I’m sympathetic with the concerns of Christopher Hughes when he remarks,

    In Aquinas’ philosophical theology we find two imcompossible Gods. The first is the altogether simple God of Quaestrio 3–a God identical with His (intrinsic) attributes, essence, and existence. The second iix the triune and incarnate God of Christianity. Since at most one of these Gods is actual, we might think reconstructing Aquinas’ philosophical theological would involve choosing between two possibilia–the altogether simple God of Aquinas’ natural theology, and the Christian one (On a Complex Theory of a Simple God, 169; Note that Robert Letham appears to agree with Hughes’ criticisms of Thomas. See Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, 236-37).

    FWIW, Hughes opts for the Christian God, as should we. I find it interesting that there’s no real distinction between the simple God of Aquinas and Allah of Islam.

    In any case, I think many of the speculative arguments and subtle distinctions of scholastic natural theology often end up wasting our time (at best) or distorting our exegesis and biblical theology (at worst). We do well to heed the caution of C. H. Spurgeon:

    The old schoolmen did a world of mischief by their incessant discussion of subjects of no practical importance; and our churches suffer much from petty wars over abstruse points and unimportant questions. After everything has been said that can be said, neither party is any the wiser, and therefore the discussion no more promotes knowledge than love, and it is foolish to sow in so barren a field. Questions upon points wherein Scripture is silent; upon mysteries which belong to God alone; upon prophecies of doubtful interpretation; and upon mere modes of observing human ceremonials, are all foolish, and wise men avoid them. Our business is neither to ask nor answer foolish questions, but to avoid them altogether; and if we observe the apostle’s precept (Titus 3:8) to be careful to maintain good works, we shall find ourselves far too much occupied with profitable business to take much interest in unworthy, contentious, and needless strivings.

    Rich and others, the interchange has been thought provoking. But now I must be off to more profitable business!


  20. BG, quoting RB: Then Rich says, “I think there is another way to look at this. I think it better not to call God’s relations with that which He makes the assumption of relative attributes. I could be wrong, but I think the term attributes, when referring to God, refers to things we designate or predicate about God’s essence, which is eternal.”

    BG replies to RB: But the Reformed, including John Owen, made the distinction between absolute and relative attributes. The latter involved attributes that entailed God’s relations with the world. Such attributes are tied to God’s essence inasmuch as they describe the relation of God’s essence to the world he created.

    RB replies: I am aware of the distinction mentioned above. But I am not aware that Owen or other Reformed theologians in his day argued that God assumed relative attributes and that these assumed relative attributes are something He did not have without creation. It seems to me that if God assumes relative attributes, if He takes “on attributes…that he did not have, without creation” (Oliphint, God with Us, 110), then that which He takes on is not co-extensive with that which He did not take on (i.e., the attributes one would predicate of Him apart from creation, assuming the assumed relative attributes view). If this is so, if God assumes relative attributes, then His assumed relative attributes are not eternal attributes (they are temporal) and that which is not eternal is created (i.e., temporal) and, therefore, creature. This would make the object of our worship both the eternal and the temporal, the uncreated and the created, the creator and the creature. It is the word “assumed” that I think is problematic. If we changed “assumed” to “revealed,” we might write less and agree more.

  21. “His eternity may be defined as that perfection of God whereby He is elevated above all temporal limits and all succession of moments, and possesses the whole of His existence in one indivisible present.” Berkhof, ST, 60,

  22. For any who might be reading, fyi, I have many hats but no Thomistic hats. In fact, the little I have read of Thomas was over 20 years ago and I do not even remember what the subject was. If I did have a Thomistic hat, I would reply to Bob’s statement, “More importantly, the Thomist doesn’t like to speak of God having any real distinctions” with this Thomistic rabbit:

    “The attributing of anything to another involves the attribution likewise of whatever is contained in it . . . The idea of relation, however, necessarily means regard of one to another, according as one is relatively opposed to another. So as in God there is a real relation, there must also be a real opposition. The very nature of relative opposition includes distinction. Hence, there must be real distinction in God, not, indeed, according to that which is absolute – namely, essence, wherein there is supreme unity and simplicity – but according to that which is relative” (Summa Theologiae I.28.3).

    But the discussion, at least my portion of it, is not about Thomas, it is about the God who has revealed Himself to us via Scripture (and creation/providence) and our confession of who He is. I do not think there are any building blocks with God. He is the I am. In other words, I do not think it correct to assert that he takes on attributes. He simply (no pun intended) reveals Himself to us, accommodating that revelation to our creaturely ways. He is, as our Confession asserts, “infinite in being and perfection” and since He is so (not becomes so), any addition (or subtraction) is impossible because adding to (or subtracting from) that which is “infinite in being and perfection” would either mean that that which was “infinite in being and perfection” is no longer so (which I don’t think anyone reading this wants to say) or there are two infinites in being and perfection, infinite #1 and infinite #2 (i.e., infinite #1 added to or subtracted from). God is eternal so all of God’s attributes are eternal.

  23. To my dear brother Rich,

    Friend, I have linked your views to Thomas Aquinas because the author of the article we’re commenting does and because Dr Dolezal’s article, which you just published, does. In other words, it seems to be the working conviction of many Reformed guys like you that classic Reformed theology basically followed Aquinas on the issues of divine simplicity, eternity, immutability, and impassibility. Isn’t that the case?

    Now when it really comes down to it, I’d like to think that you and I agree much more than we disagree. Perhaps at times we’re talking past each other. It seems at times like an endless ping pong game in which we’re trying to see who gets in the last word.

    Well, I confess that I feel the itch to keep on “clarifying” my position. But this will be my last volley here. I love you and am more than willing to interact with you privately by phone or email. I mean that. Personally, I see our differences as minor–perhaps even differences of “emphasis.” Maybe you don’t see it that way. But in any case, I want to do my best to understand what you’re saying and to agree where I think the Bible gives me warrant. So this will be my last try.

    On God’s Perfect and Unchangeable Essence

    Above, you are concerned that we not “add” attributes to God’s essence. To do so, you think, would suggest God is in the process of becoming something more.

    I say, “Amen.” I share your concern and conviction that God is absolutely God and can become no more or no less God. Period. Hence, I affirm from the heart that …

    “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth” (WSC Q4).

    As I understand it, this means …

    (1) The essential attributes identified above neither wax nor wane, increase or diminish, ebb or flow, and so on.

    (2) The divine attributes above are not independent properties on which God’s being depends; rather, God is those attributes.

    (3) All the attributes above are not parts of God; rather, they are co-extensive and mutually entailing. Can’t have one without the others. Each is co-dependent on and co-functional with the others.

    So I affirm with you that God is fully and absolutely God. I would even argue that the use of the honorific plural Elohim suggests as much: He is the very epitome of Deity.

    However …

    On God-the-Son’s Assumption of a Human Nature

    I also affirm from the heart that “in the fullness of time” …

    “The Word BECAME (ἐγένετο) flesh and took up residence among us” (emphasis added; John 1:14 CSB).

    Or, as the apostle Paul puts it …

    The Second Person of the Trinity who “existed in the form of God … emptied Himself by ASSUMING (λαβών) the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men” (emphasis added; Phil 2:6-7 CSB).

    For this reason …

    (1) I am a little nonplussed why you object to me or to Dr Oliphint saying that the Second Person of the Son “assumed” a human nature but insist that we must use the word “reveal.”

    Why, Rich? Is there a biblical reason why we have to exchange biblical vocabulary for something else? Interestingly, John Calvin, who affirmed the notion of divine “timelessness,” wasn’t so semantically penurious. Commenting on Philippians 2:7, he writes,

    “In fine, the Image of God shone forth in Christ in such a manner that He was nevertheless abased in outward appearance and brought to nothing in the estimation of men; for He bore the form of a servant, and had ASSUMED our nature” (emphasis added; Calvin’s NT Commentaries, 11:249).

    (2) Perhaps you will respond by insisting it was the divine PERSON and not the divine NATURE that assumed a human nature.

    Again, I say, “Amen.” That sounds like Chalcedon to me. And that’s just the point Dr Oliphint is making in his book God With Us (for a fair review on Reformation21, click here). According to Oliphint is is not the eternal EIMI (“I AM”) but rather the eternal EIKON (“IMAGE”) that assumes the human nature. For those who care for a good summary of Oliphint’s Christological approach to theology proper, read this.

    (3) But, you may ask, how can the eternal Second Person assume a human nature without “adding” or “subtracting” from the essence of the eternal EIMI?

    Now it seems to me that you want to solve the problem by appealing to the notion of “timelessness,” which you believe gives you the warrant to “reinterpret” the biblical language to say something other than what it says.

    So we can no longer confess with John and Paul that Word BECAME flesh or ASSUMED a human nature. Now we have to say with that part of tradition derived from natural theology that the God the Son really didn’t become or assume but simply REVEALED himself through a human nature that he’s apparently had from all eternity.

    On my part, I don’t find any text or teaching in Scripture that compels me to make that move. The Bible plainly teaches that God has neither beginning nor end and that he in some sense transcends space-time as we know it (Psalm 90:1-5), but the Bible does not elaborate beyond that point. Aquinas might. But the Scripture writers don’t. So I’m not necessarily filing a “no” vote; I’m abstaining.

    On Confessing Mystery

    In other words, to answer the question above, “How can the Second Person “assume” (to use the Scripture’s own language) a human nature without causing any essential change in the BEING of the GODHEAD?” I say, I DON’T KNOW.

    I do know that the Word’s becoming Flesh adds or subtracts nothing from the divine nature. I’m 100% committed to that. But I confess that don’t know how. Hence, I am forced to bow before mystery. Do I have biblical warrant for playing the mystery card at this point? I think so. Why?

    “The hidden things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29 CSB).

    To me, much of this whole debate revolves around this vital question:


    Perhaps you think it’s necessary to confess everything about a doctrine …

    #1 – That is explicitly revealed in Scripture,

    #2 – That is by good and necessary inference deduced from Scripture,


    #3 – That is enshrined in ecclesiastical tradition.

    I agree with #1 and #2. If the Bible says it, it’s so. Moreover, if the Bible “necessarily contains it,” it’s so. That is, we MUST believe everything the Scriptures reveal to us about “who God is” and about “what He requires of us.” That is precisely why I affirm God’s aseity, immutability, eternality, impassibility, etc.

    However, while I believe one MAY have warrant to believe certain ecclesiastical dogma (#3) derived from philosophical speculation on the nature of “things” and how God might or must be different from these “things,” I do not believe I am compelled or that I must compel my sheep to confess such philosophical speculations.


    (1) The secret things belong to God.

    If, as the tradition says, God can only talk to us in accommodated language because that’s the only way we as finite spatial-temporal beings can understand and think of him, then let’s stick with the accommodated language! Let’s not try to make up non-accommodated language that gives us “secret knowledge” into the mysteries of the Godhead. That sounds a little gnostic to me. I know that’s not your intent nor the intent of our worthy forefathers. But I just don’t see the need to go beyond Scripture in speculating about what God is “in himself.”

    (2) The Scriptures are fully sufficient. 

    Everything we need to know God covenantally, that is, theology for life and godliness is revealed in the Bible. Hence, I don’t believe I or the sheep I shepherd have to be initiated into the substance metaphysics of Aquinas in order to really know God and serve him. If some of my brothers find that substance metaphysic helpful and reassuring to their faith, I say, Great! Use it.  But here is my simple plea — and I’ll end on this note:

    Please, please, please, my dear brother Rich (and others), don’t require me or my church to believe more than what’s clearly revealed in the Bible.

    When even the staunch supporters of the Absolute Divine Simplicity or Divine Atemporality concede that the biblical data is “underdetermined” (i.e., there’s no incontrovertible biblical support) and that at best the doctrines have to be deduced not from Scripture but from other “ecclesiastical dogmata” (i.e., tradition), we should stop short of insisting on these notions as if they were the very core of biblical teaching.

    By all means let theologians study them and write books about them and even commend them for our consideration. But the moment we place them on a level with Scripture itself and require God’s people to render implicit faith to the magisterium we call “the tradition,” we are making a subtle shift toward Romanism and away from the Reformation conviction of sola Scriptura.  I absolutely do NOT believe that is your intent or the intent of any other contributors to this discussion. But that is my concern nonetheless.

    Brother (and brothers), this is my last comment here. My sincere hope is that at the very least I’ve helped some understand where I’m coming from.

    May the Lord richly bless you all in the grace and knowledge of our God and Savior!

    In the bonds of Christ,
    Bob Gonzales

  24. Your comment that his doctrine “bears a greater resemblance to Barth’s divine constancy than to the classical language of impassibility” is a great insight since I know of one well-known professor who espouses this view and thinks highly of Barth.

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