The God of love (2): Impassibility and the possibility of a loving creator

(Read part 1.)

We have been looking at the question of whether God is impassible—whether God is ever the object of other people’s actions or only ever the subject of his own—whether he moves others but is never moved by them. As I suggested last time, this often raises the question for people of whether God has emotions—whether God is moved by what happens to us, good or bad. As it seems to us fairly obvious that God has to have emotions to be able to love, the notion that God is impassible is a prime contender for the ‘Most Unbiblical Abstract Philosophizing Award’. We just know that emotions are everything.


But it is odd. I would argue that our reaction to God’s impassibility is the exact opposite of the believers who lived during the first couple of centuries. One of the biggest challenges Christians faced then was a constellation of heresies that are generally called ‘Gnosticism’ by modern scholars.

Usually these heresies are considered to be expressions of Greek philosophical thought infecting a Christian doctrine of God. They share the idea that being physical isn’t good—that being a material object and living in a universe of material objects cuts us off from true goodness and the true God. These heresies also generally suggested that the world came into existence either by the actions of an evil self-seeking lower power (or ‘god’) or by an accident from a self-seeking lower power. Hence, the demands that this power makes on human beings in the Bible—to serve him and pursue his glory, to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the like—are self-aggrandising expressions of evil self-seeking. Redemption is an act of the true God who has nothing to do with creation. Law and gospel are absolute enemies—one evil, the other good. Being saved means being turned into something not human, because our humanness is the reason for our sinfulness. It was a sophisticated, if at times surreally inverted, reading of Christian doctrines that was a serious threat to the gospel for centuries.

A good God

In response to this challenge, a teacher named Irenaeus wrote a multi-book work called Against Heresies. One of the key things he put forward in response to this philosophical jibber-jabber was the conviction that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—the one who made heaven and earth—is impassible. And because God is impassible, God only ever acts for the benefit of other people—his creatures. That is, the thing that we think is some philosophical cuckoo in the nest was, for the early church, one of the key conceptual tools for expounding the knowledge of God in the face of bad philosophical ideas. Impassibility was the response to philosophically derived heresy, not its cause.

At stake in Gnosticism’s plethora of views were several interrelated issues. Gnosticism disconnected the true God from creation. In so doing, it made creation not good; it was either evil or an accident so sub-par that it was just one step from being evil. Gnosticism also made God’s commands (not least his requirement that humanity worship and serve him) an expression of a massive semi-divine ego. What was needed in response was a way to uphold the integrity of the world that has been made, to reintegrate creation and redemption, and to show that God was good, not selfish, when he created the world and commanded humanity to glorify him. The key in Irenaeus’s response was the impassibility of God.

In Against Heresies book 4 chapter 14, Irenaeus states,

In the beginning, therefore, did God form Adam, not as if He stood in need of man, but that He might have [some one] upon whom to confer His benefits. For not alone antecedently to Adam, but also before all creation, the Word glorified His Father, remaining in Him; and was Himself glorified by the Father, as He did Himself declare, “Father, glorify Thou Me with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers translation)

Why did God create humanity? Not because God had any need for humanity; God did not even need to be glorified. For all eternity, the Father glorified the word and the word glorified the Father—a reciprocal glorification by two infinite, omnipotent, eternal persons. Such a glorification is without limit—infinite in its extent. As such, it cannot be increased by the glorification offered by any finite creature (or any grouping of finite creatures). God is eternally glorified to an unlimited degree for eternal ages before humanity is ever made. We cannot add anything meaningful to that, which means that God did not make us to get something from us or make us for what he got out of our existence.

God’s impassibility means that God did not create for selfish reasons. Creating the world and not creating the world: neither adds or takes away from God. Take the problem of buying presents for the wealthy relative (“What do you give the person who has everything?”), multiply that by infinity and you have a small sense of how it works for God. God gains nothing by acting, and loses nothing by not acting. He already is infinitely glorified by his own Son. What could be added to that or taken away from it? God cannot be affected by creatures—not because he is emotionally deprived, but because he is everything already to an unbounded degree.

Why then did God make us? Irenaeus hones in on the key: So that “He might have [some one] upon whom to confer His benefits”. God made us so he could be generous to us—so that he could give us everything that would be good for us. Not selfishness, but love, goodness and generosity stand behind our existence and the existence of the universe.

Unlike the platonic philosopher (or the scientist speculating beyond their competency), the universe isn’t just a ‘given’—a brute fact that ‘just is’; there is a reason why there is something rather than nothing. And unlike the Gnostic, the reason isn’t a bad one; it isn’t a succession of cosmic accidents, or a malevolent act by a petty cosmic despot. God made us so that he would have someone to whom he could be good—someone to whom he could give things—someone he could bless and bless and then bless some more. Creation is not just an expression of God’s power; it is also a signpost that says, “God is good”. How good is he? He’s so good, he made the universe just so he’d have something to be good to. That’s more than good; that’s a goodness that overflows and establishes a universe that is itself good.

Centuries later, Athanasius stood on Irenaeus’s shoulders and put it this way in his Incarnation of the Word:

For God is good, or rather is the source of goodness; and the good is not envious of anything. Therefore, envying nothing its existence, he made the universe from nothing through his own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. (Incarnation of the Word, 3)

God isn’t just good; he is the one from whom all goodness that we experience comes from. He isn’t just good; he good-ifies the world (there’s some terrible English in the service of good theology). He is the reason why good is good at all; he’s meta-good, or super-good, or ultra-good. Goodness in the world is an overflow from the superabundant goodness that is God. God has no envy, and so therefore begrudged nothing its existence. Therefore his creation of the world was an expression of unstinting, wholehearted, generosity. Every bit of creation is good; together, it is very good. And that’s no surprise because it was the product of such overflowing goodness.

Behind such a notion of creation stand passages like 1 Corinthians 4:7 (“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”) and James 1:17(“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change”). Everything good and perfect has be given to us by God. He is the source of everything that is good and worth having. And he is unchanging in that goodness—the Father of lights—a never-ending source of good and perfect gifts. He always gives; we always receive. We never give to God, and he never receives from us. The relationship is one direction only—from the ever good creator and Father of lights, to the creatures he made so he could confer all his benefits upon us.

The consequence of a good God

Three great things come from this notion of God creating the world impassibly.

Firstly, this biblical notion of creation stops creation from being a necessity: we don’t simply exist as some brute fact that has no rhyme or reason to it; there is a reason why there is something rather than nothing. God didn’t have to make us because he either lacked something or had to express his underlying nature; God had a choice—a real, genuine choice. We exist because God wanted us to exist, not because his hand was forced. Creation is a personal act, not an impersonal necessity.

Secondly, this biblical notion of creation also stops creation from being arbitrary—as though God made us, but it was more or less a flip of the coin. God willed our existence, but it was little more than an exercise in power; creating isn’t grounded in anything to do with who God eternally is. To all such hopeless views, a biblical notion of creation says a strong, “No!” God didn’t just create; he had a reason for creating. Our existence serves a purpose; it has meaning. Irrespective of what we do, our existence alone is meaningful. Creation has a purpose.

Finally, this biblical notion of creation also stops creation being a cosmic act of selfishness. God did not make us because he needed us or anything we could give him. God’s creatures cannot add to or take away from their creator. This means that creation is a profoundly selfless act. God’s love for creatures who did not even exist yet called them into existence while they had no existence at all. God’s goodness to us is the cause of the universe.

When it comes to the Bible’s teaching on God’s work as creator, impassibility is far from being incompatible with a God of love. Rather, impassibility makes a biblical notion of God’s love to us in creation possible. God made us for our sake, not his, and he made us out of a real choice, not an arbitrary one—a choice grounded in his own loving and good nature. God made us and got nothing out of that act. He is, in his dealing with this world, utterly other-centred, precisely because he is impassible.

This is what enables us to confess, in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”

(Read part 3)

2 thoughts on “The God of love (2): Impassibility and the possibility of a loving creator

  1. Also made a comment to your third post, but thought I had something to add here, too:

    “We exist because God wanted us to exist, not because his hand was forced. Creation is a personal act, not an impersonal necessity.”



    “God’s creatures cannot add to or take away from their creator.”

    I wouldn’t be so sure.  You might want to consider the role of the Holy Spirit, who is that “divine spark” in all of us.

    Think about it! smile

  2. That’s an interesting perspective on the issue Scott Doty.  I’m not sure that, even having thought about it, I can quite grasp how the role of the Holy Spirit might mean that we can add or take away from God.

    I would argue that the Holy Spirit’s role is to unite us to Christ, and in that union with Christ we are given every blessing that the Father poured on his incarnate Son. 

    That is, the Holy Spirit’s role is, to use the language of the creed, ‘for us and our salvation’ just as the Son’s role in being born of the virgin Mary, suffering under Pontius Pilate, dying and rising again was ‘for us and our salvation’.

    The Holy Spirit’s role is not, as I understand the Bible’s teaching, to give us a handle on God so that we can add to God or take away from God and so have some small measure of power over God.  Rather, the role of the Holy Spirit is to give God a saving handle on us – uniting us with his Son.  So I think the Holy Spirit’s role is consistent with what I’ve said about creation and the Law.

    I’m also a bit uncomfortable about calling the Holy Spirit ‘a divine spark’ – I think he is a divine Person as fully God as the Father and the Son, but that discussion might move us a long way off the original topic.

    I appreciate the comment though, despite what seems to be some key points of difference – as you say, this is something where we need to think about it and, as you didn’t say but I’m sure would agree, need to look to God to unfold the truth to us.

Comments are closed.