Book Review of Samuel Renihan, God Without Passions: a Primer
During the last year I have written a number of times on the doctrine of divine impassibility. This is the doctrine that God, being immutable, does not experience emotional fluctuation as do we. The Scriptures speak of God’s anger burning or of his compassion rising up, but this is analogous to it speaking of his arm or his ear: it is a communication to us of truths about God in human terms which we will understand. Still, God is not a man, and we must not think of him as having “ups” and “downs.”
My interest in this topic of course reflects the conversation which has taken place among Reformed Baptists, particularly within ARBCA, about the nature of God. However, it is a matter of great importance to all Christians. If we think of God wrongly (which almost always means imagining him as being one of us!), then we will neither serve nor worship him as we ought.
In the course of two years’ discussion, I have heard it said with increasing frequency that the doctrine of impassibility is simply too complex to be stated, affirmed, believed, and taught in the churches. In part this is because the very word “impassibility” is alien; in part it is because the subject itself has been forgotten over the years. The recovery of the doctrine has required careful investigation of old theological and philosophical language, as well as a careful examination of our biblical exegesis at many points.
I, however, have questioned whether the concept is actually as difficult to grasp as some have pretended. After the ARBCA General Assembly in April, when I gave a report to my church, I was approached by an older woman, new to our church and without any experience of Reformed theology, who wanted a simple statement of what the issue of impassibility is all about. “Well,” I answered, “the question is: does God experience any emotional change due to his interaction with us?” “Of course not!” she snapped. “He’s God!”
So much for the supposed incomprehensibility of this subject. Now we have a new book to point to which could have been written precisely to address the question of whether or not the doctrine of divine impassibility can be simply taught. It is the second product of Pastor Samuel Renihan’s pen on the question before us. Earlier this year I reviewed God Without Passions: a Reader, which is a summary of the teaching of Reformed and Particular Baptist thought on the question of impassibility during the 16th and 17th centuries. That book was provided as a backdrop to the confessional statement that God is “without body, parts, or passions,” and was intended for pastors and theologians to see how the understanding of impassibility was interlinked with a broader understanding of the nature and character of God. God Without Passions: a Primer, on the other hand, is written with a broader audience in view. The intent is to give a basic introduction to a subject which, while intrinsically complicated, is nonetheless very explainable.
This book has four main advantages for anyone who has struggled to comprehend the longer and more technical writings which have been available on this subject. First, this volume is far shorter in scope. Impassibility is part of a larger field of study known as “classical theism,” which is simply shorthand for the ancient understanding of God which was worked out in detail in the system of the scholastics and which was embraced and endorsed by the Reformers. This has meant that it is possible while writing about impassibility to add in a host of other new words (such as “aseity”) or words with deceptively familiar appearance (such as “simplicity”). Renihan has avoided this, producing a book of just over one hundred (short) pages, easily digestible. Further, he has taken the time to define clearly the unfamiliar terms which do arise, sometimes skipping them altogether to put concepts in more accessible language. Along with this, he has included many helpful illustrations, both his own and those drawn from earlier writers. And finally, this book pays particular attention to the practicality of the doctrine of impassibility.
Over the last two years I have become convinced that two deficiencies in our theological thinking are hindering us: a failure to understand the manner in which the incomprehensible God nevertheless reveals himself to us, and a failure to truly appreciate the miracle of the incarnation of Christ. Renihan addresses each of these stumbling blocks, giving a chapter to each (out of a total of only five chapters).
If we oversimplify the doctrine of God’s self-revelation, we will misinterpret him. To merely say, “We don’t see God, but he tells us what he looks like,” is incomplete. God is not just unseen, he is invisible. For him to describe his appearance to us would be to tell us his character in terms accommodated to our physical existence. Similarly, God is not just greater than us, he is incomprehensible. We cannot then merely say “God explains himself,” for that is impossible, but instead we need to understand that God tells us his character in terms accommodated to our finite existence. Renihan lays out in chapter 3 some of the ways in which this is done.
Secondly, we oversimplify if we assume that whatever we see in Jesus must be true of God. It is true both that Jesus is God and that he is the revelation of God, but the real miracle of the incarnation is that while Jesus is very God, he is also very man. Scripture reveals as much to us of the humanity of Christ as it does of his deity, so that he is not only the revelation of God, but also of man as he was meant to be. If we assume that the sufferings of Jesus tell us that God suffers, we will inevitably miss what the Bible is telling us about the immutability of God. Again, Renihan spends all of chapter 4 discussing the implications of the incarnation for our understanding of God.
What is that “broader audience” who will benefit from this book? In the first place, the lay-person who has heard about impassibility – or any who wish to have a deeper understanding of the God of Scripture – but who may not feel up for the intricate reasoning and archaic language of the “Reformed Scholastics,” such as Francis Turretin, or their Baptist counterparts, such as John Gill, now have an excellent starting point. A “primer” is intended in just this fashion: it is a very basic introduction to a complex subject, and one which will allow you to see the great devotional value in confessing an impassible God.
Furthermore, pastors who have struggled with the necessity of teaching this doctrine will benefit from this book. While it may not be the most thorough book you have read on the subject, it just might prove to be the most practical. The final chapter is entitled “Personal Applications and Pastoral Applications.” Of the latter, we will close with these: “1. Without any doubt or deviation, God will punish the wicked and vindicate the righteous.” “2. Without any doubt or deviation, God will justify all those who trust in Jesus Christ.” “3. Without any doubt or deviation, God will keep his promises.” In other words, there is neither doubt nor deviation in the immutable and impassible God, which fact establishes the certainty of his justice, of his mercy, and of his covenant faithfulness. If you wish to preach such a God with far less doubt or deviation of your own, you do well to embrace the changeless and impassible God revealed in Scripture.
Pastor Tom Chantry blogs at CHANTRY NOTES.