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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Does God have Passions?

Please share your thoughts and insights on this . . .

I've recently read through (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Heidelberg Catechism, and have now started on the Westminster Confession of Faith. In chapter two of the WCF, it states that God is "without body, parts, or passions." I agree with the first two, but I'm not sure what is meant by "passions." Certainly our God has no sinful passions, but doesn't the very idea of His jealousy, anger, wrath, etc. imply a kind of divine passion for good? My understanding of the Hebrew term CHESED (mercy) is that it derives from a word meaning "to have an ardent desire," indicating that God's passion is to do mercy. The sum of John Piper's work would seem to point toward the idea that God has a passion to make His glory known.

So, am I misunderstanding the WCF? Am I interpreting "passions" wrongly? What does it mean to affirm that God is without passions, and why is it important? Do you believe God has holy passions? What were the Westminster divines getting at?

UPDATE: Tony Hayling sent a link to this article, which explains the probable meaning of the terminology used by the authors of the Westminster Confession. The article is very short, but quite good.


  1. A wonderful question. If you think of God as an entity that has human qualities, passion would certanly describe the emotional connection that God has with us. If you think of God as a power or energy, then a human characteristic is inappropriate. Electicity has power and force, but no passion. We have a relationship with electricity and it demands respect and instills intrigue. Jesus the son of God, and we brothers and sisiters in Christ; all have a passion.

  2. I would certainly say God has passions.

    The WCF choice of word may not be what we think of as passions.

  3. Kimberly - Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I agree that we can wrongly think of God in impersonal terms, and forget that there is a very real emotional aspect to His personality. I don't think Scripture is just being "anthropomorphic" or "anthropopathic" every time it describes God's emotions. It is describing His real Personality. Electricity is a great counter-illustration.

    Ma - I agree, the writers of the WCF probably had something else in mind than we would normally think of in our day and age.

    In thinking through this a little further, with help from Kimberly and Ma, I've begun to wonder if the WCF isn't referring to "bodily passions," i.e. the passions that arise organically through the soul's connection with a physical body (hunger, thirst, comfort, pleasure, etc.). God, being a Spirit, does not have such temporary and bodily desires. He never gets cold or hot, for example. His emotions and desires spring rather from His Own eternal Being, which is not "bodily" at all. So it would seem the WCF is denying God has bodily passions, not denying He has any passions at all. In the Incarnation, Christ had a human body, but that is another issue altogether. It simply shows that God can condescend from His Spiritual and non-bodily Essence to experience our full humanity (yet without sin). It doesn't mean God by His own nature has a body.

    My brain just couldn't get past that phrase without further examination. Thanks for your help!


  4. Derek

    I recommend you read this article, which will explain what the WCF divines most likely meant by God without passions (ie the doctrine of impassibility).

    Basically, it means that God is not moved by anything from outside of Himself - but the writer of the article offers a much more comprehensive explanation.


  5. Tony,

    I was waiting for you to chime in! Great article, by the way, and it's short enough to read quickly (but deep enough to read six times and still wonder if you got it). According to the article, I'm a little off track with the "bodily" part, but not so far off with the divine emotions. It explains impassibility better than any other treatment I've seen, though it leaves the whole matter a bit paradoxical. Perfect.

    Thanks for the link.


  6. D.A. Carson spends quite a bit of time on that very subject in "The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God." Here are a couple of excerpts to whet your appetite:

    Many Christian traditions affirm the impassibility of God. The Westminster Confession of Faith asserts that God is “without
    . . . passions.” If this is taken to mean that God is emotionless, it is profoundly unbiblical and should be repudiated.

    We might provocatively ask: If God is utterly sovereign, and if he is utterly all-knowing, what space is left for emotions as we think of them? The divine oracles that picture God in pain or joy or love surely seem a little out of place, do they not, when this God knows the end from the beginning, cannot be surprised, and remains in charge of the whole thing anyway? From such a perspective, is it not obvious that the doctrine of
    the love of God is difficult?

    It is no answer to espouse a form of impassibility that denies that God has an emotional life and that insists that all of the biblical evidence to the contrary is nothing more than anthropopathism. The price is too heavy. You may then rest in God’s sovereignty, but you can no longer rejoice in his love. You may rejoice only in a linguistic expression that is an accommodation of some reality of which we cannot conceive, couched in the anthropopathism of love. Give me a break. Paul did not pray that his readers might be able to grasp the height and depth and length and breadth of an anthropopathism and know this anthropopathism that surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:14-21).

    The whole thing is an excellent and, as you would expect from Carson, a carefully reasoned and highly nuanced discussion of God's love.

  7. Barry,

    I have been looking forward to reading that book for some time now. Your excerpt might succeed in moving me to action.


  8. Man, I'd have to say I don't agree with any of the 3, that "God is without body, parts, or passions." I very much believe He has a Body, many parts, and passions. And all three are Holy, obviously since they are from God. :) Great discussion though! Peace be with you!

  9. Hope,

    Hi, thanks for commenting.

    To clarify what is meant by the terms we are using . . .

    Without Body = an affirmation of God's spirituality and omnipresence. If He is a Spirit, and He is everywhere, then He must not be confined to a body. This is not deny that our Lord Jesus Christ took a human body in His incarnation, and continues even now to appear in heaven in His resurrection body. But when we refer to Christ, saying "God became a man," the "God" we are talking about is One who has no bodily limitation, no physicality. Otherwise, Jesus would not have incarnated, He would merely have "traded" one body for another.

    Without Parts = an affirmation of God's simplicity, His pure ONE-ness. This is not to deny that this One God reveals Himself as a Trinity of three distinct Persons. The Three are One, and that is probably the greatest paradox ever - and an eternal one.

    Without Passions - the discussion above has touched on some of what this means. It is primarily an affirmation that God is consistent, not emotionally unstable, and that the "feelings" He has are eternal and unchanging. Also, it is a way of saying He is not vulnerable to being harmed against His will by any of His creatures (this is what is meant by the term, "impassible").

    Of course, in a certain sense we would say God does indeed have a "Body" (the Church), and He does have "parts" in the way He reveals Himself (but this is because He is speaking to fallen creatures who can't understand perfect oneness - He has to break it down for us), and He certainly has "passions" in the sense of a strong desire and love for all that is good and right and true. But I think the Westminster Confession highlights aspects of God's nature that are generally not emphasized nowadays, and ought to be. Today's Christians are far less reverent and have a less exalted, God-worthy theology because these things are rarely thought on. In our own minds, we've brought God down to our level, shrunk Him to our own size, and made Him less terrifying and wonderful and exalted and mysterious than He really is. I hope you won't fall into that trap, just as I endeavor to avoid it myself.


  10. A currently popular television talk show host grew up attending traditional Christian churches, holding to fundamental Biblical teaching and preaching. She recently explained her rejection of these beliefs by referring to something, at the age of 28, she heard preached in church: The God of the Bible is a jealous God. This struck her as very strange. How could God, Who is all-powerful, and Who owns everything, be jealous of human beings? What a tragic misunderstanding, and what a shallow view of Scripture.

    Oh, God is jealous, alright.

    "God is jealous, and the LORD revengeth; the LORD revengeth, and is furious; the LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies." Nahum 1:2

    But He is not jealous of what people have or what they are able to do. He is jealous because of the love He has for his Own people. We might say He is jealous over His people, not of His people – the way a loving and faithful husband would be jealous over anything that would tend to steal his wife’s affection away from him.

    God loves His people very much. And although we would rather hear about the love of God, we must not ignore the fact that God reserves wrath for the enemies of His people. Even though God is love (I John 4:8), He also hates (Psalm 11:5).

    Recently, my wife and I visited California. On the flight I was reading Nahum Chapter 1, and looking down at the tops of the clouds, which the Bible calls “the dust of his feet,” and I got to thinking about some of the ways the Lord shows His righteous anger, and His power over His creation.

    "The LORD is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the LORD hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet." Nahum 1:3 (tornadoes, hurricanes, and storms)

    "He rebuketh the sea, and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers: Bashan languisheth, and Carmel, and the flower of Lebanon languisheth." Nahum 1:4 (droughts)

    "The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein."
    Nahum 1:5 (earthquakes, mudslides, and forest fires)

    "Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him."
    Nahum 1:6 (volcanoes, avalanches)

    "But with an overrunning flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof, and darkness shall pursue his enemies." Nahum 1:8 (floods)

    Most people, when asked to quickly name the opposite of “love,” will blurt out, “hate.” But this is incorrect. The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference. And our loving and just and jealous God is anything but indifferent.


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