Guest: Dr. Steve Duby | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Duby about the doctrine of God’s impassibility.
Topics of conversation include:
- The importance of asking the question, “Does God have emotions?”
- How to understand passages in Scripture where it appears God changes his mind
- How the doctrine of impassibility affects our understanding of the person of Christ
- How to handle this topic pastorally
- Resources that are helpful in thinking through this issue
Dr. Steve Duby serves as associate professor of Theology at Phoenix Seminary. He holds a PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of St. Andrews, and is the author of several books, including Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (T&T Clark, 2015), God In Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology (IVP Academic, 2019), and Jesus and the God of Classical Theism (Baker Academic, 2022). He is also currently writing a commentary on Habukkuk as part of the International Theological Commentary series.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:20):
Today we’re going to talk about a question whose answer will seem very obvious on the face of it to many listeners. But upon deeper reflection, I hope to challenge this assumption. The question is this—does God have emotions? The answer would seem to be yes. Think about such passages as that speak of God’s jealousy, his anger, his love, and his mercy. Consider just Psalm 145:8-9, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.” However, God often distinguishes himself from the capricious gods of the ancient world, who are governed by their emotions. And it is abundantly clear that God is not a man that he should change, and so often the emotions signal a change. Several important questions are in order. What do we mean by emotions?
Brian Arnold (01:12):
And are emotions the same things as the passions? Well, here to help us understand this question, we have with us Dr. Steve Duby. Dr. Duby is associate professor of Theology with us at Phoenix Seminary. He’s also the author of God in Himself, Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account, and most recently, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism: Biblical Christology In Light of the Doctrine of God. Which I must say to you, listener, just received the Book of the Year from Christianity Today in the Academic Theology category. So we’re really proud of Steve and his work. He’s also writing a commentary right now on Habakkuk for the International Theological Commentary series. Dr. Duby specializes in the doctrine of God, and we’re fortunate to have him with us today to talk about this question. Dr. Duby, welcome to the podcast.
Steve Duby (01:56):
Thank you for having me.
Brian Arnold (01:58):
So, as you know, we ask our guests a big question. Today that is—does God have emotion? So, first things first. Why even ask this question?
Steve Duby (02:10):
Well, I think it’s important to keep in mind a few things that we encounter in the Bible. First of all, we do see passages where there are words like wrath, anger, compassion, and so forth that are applied to God. And so we want to carefully understand what those passages are getting at. And then we also do encounter passages where God is above change, or above being subject to the passions and weaknesses that we human beings have. So I think the question really comes down to having a coherent understanding of the Bible’s description of God. That’s how I would boil it down.
Brian Arnold (02:47):
Well, let’s define some of these terms that we’re going to be using. Things like emotion, and passion, and affection. How would you maybe differentiate these three terms?
Steve Duby (02:58):
I think it’s possible to talk about all three of them in a way where they are roughly synonymous with each other. And they’ve been used for different purposes at different periods in Christian thought. So if we take the term passion, for example—passion is a matter of being affected in a certain way by something. And that can sometimes be applied to being affected in a good way, as if I wasn’t fully satisfied, but then I acquired something good, and now I am satisfied, I’m happy. But usually earlier authors would say, in the strictest sense, passion has more to do with being affected in a bad way. So I have encountered something, I’ve become connected to something that’s bad, that has an impact on me where I no longer have my own wellbeing, and I need something to be fixed. And you could talk about affections in a similar way. These are ways in which someone is affected, either for something good or for something bad. Emotions would certainly be the more popular term, I think, in our culture today. And I’m willing to grant that we could get into some refined distinctions as to how that word usage might differ. But I’m also okay with thinking of that as being roughly synonymous with passion or affection in this discussion.
Brian Arnold (04:25):
And maybe another word that we need to talk about, kind of the technical theological word for what we’re discussing today is impassability. So describe and define that doctrine for us.
Steve Duby (04:37):
Yeah. Divine impassability is the teaching that God is not subject to passions, in the sense that he is not subject to being affected in such a way that he is harmed or damaged by something, or deprived of his well-being. And you can also apply it to the side of good things as well. So you can say—God never has to acquire something in order to finally be fulfilled, or in order to finally be satisfied. I think that sometimes people get nervous about the term impassibility, because they think it takes something away from God, as if he can’t really enjoy good things anymore, or as if he cannot truly despise bad things. And so I would want to say—look, we need to be clear. What we are removing from God, when we describe him in this way, is the idea that he might be affected in such a way that he’s damaged, or he’s deprived of his well-being.
Steve Duby (05:32):
We creatures, even though we sin, we do evil things, we can never, strictly speaking, bring harm to God, or damage God, or deprive him of his own wellbeing. And then when it comes to what we might call good emotions, what we’re saying is—God is already fully satisfied in himself. He never has to pass from being not okay to finally being fulfilled, or finally being okay. But we’re not denying God’s enjoyment of good things. So we can talk about impassibility, and yet at the same time recognize God truly does despise evil things, and God truly does enjoy the good things in his creation.
Brian Arnold (06:10):
Yeah. Let’s just even camp out here for a minute, because I think we’re kind of at the essence of what we’re discussing. If—just to make sure I’m hearing you right—so if anything could be added to God that would bring him greater happiness, then there was something lacking in God. And God, by definition, could not be lacking in something. Is that what you would say?
Steve Duby (06:34):
Yeah, I think that’s a significant part of the line of thinking. And it’s important to remember that when we see…when we talk about the good things that are in creation, God is happy about them. But strictly speaking, those things are good, only insofar as they reflect the goodness that God already had in himself. So when he creates the world, he enjoys the good things in it. But it’s not as if he is finally getting something that’s absolutely brand new, that he was not yet in possession of, or not able to enjoy. So the good things in creation matter to God. It’s just that they don’t make him better than he already was.
Brian Arnold (07:16):
Or—the bad things that matter to God don’t harm his character. Don’t harm him.
Steve Duby (07:22):
Exactly. Yeah, he truly despises sin, and he wills to punish sin. When people don’t repent, we’re just saying that, strictly speaking, our sin doesn’t cause damage to God or deprive him of his well-being.
Brian Arnold (07:36):
Okay. So let’s go to a Scriptural example, if we may. So Genesis six, the world is in total decline and chaos and full of sin of every kind of degree and magnitude. And God repents, <laugh> of creating man, and he’s going to destroy them all. How would you understand that from a view of impassibility? Because it seems…I could see somebody making the argument—from a text like that—that God is deeply wounded by the sinfulness of man. He is actually almost changing his mind about creating them in the first place, and wants to extinguish mankind. So what do you do with a passage like that?
Steve Duby (08:18):
The same passage also talks about God grieving over the state of humankind. So that’s significant as well. I think that there are multiple ways to approach a passage like that. There are some Bible readers, Bible scholars, that would say—look, I’m only going to look at this one passage on its own. And if I let the rest of the biblical canon shape my understanding of this, I’m somehow not doing justice to that individual passage. I don’t see biblical interpretation in that way. I think we need to let what the biblical canon teaches us across the board affect how we read individual passages, so that we read them in a more coherent way, in a way that honors the fullness of God’s revelation. So I would be willing to look at Genesis six and say—okay, I know of some other passages, and Brian, maybe we could talk about those things in Acts or Hebrews, where I am not led to think that God is subject to passions in the way that we are.
Steve Duby (09:16):
I’m willing to bear those texts in mind, and start to think—okay, perhaps I’m not meant to read this text literally. Perhaps it’s communicating something metaphorically. It’s interesting, though, that sometimes in the world of biblical studies people don’t like that approach, because they think a metaphor is somehow a poor way of communicating, or it somehow takes away the force of the passage. And I would say no, actually, metaphors communicate powerfully to human beings. So if I’m thinking across the whole canon of Scripture, and thinking—okay, I don’t think that, strictly speaking, God can be damaged or deprived of his own wellbeing. What might this passage still be teaching me? Well, a historic line of thought in the Christian faith—one which I find to be compelling—is that this sort of talk, it doesn’t have to do with God undergoing literal passions, literal ways of being affected, in which he’s damaged.
Steve Duby (10:11):
It teaches us something about God’s actions in that moment. So in the case of God repenting in Genesis six, the point is that God acts as a repentant human being would act. That is to say, he does something different here as a repentant human being—having once done one thing, would now begin to do something else. So what is it that’s new in this passage, then? Well, it’s the fact that God is no longer going to permit sin to grow on the earth. He’s about to bring the flood and perform a new action. So historically, exegetes have read passages like that in this way, where this is not about God being harmed, damaged, or anything like that. It’s about God undertaking a new action. And furthermore, it helps us…the metaphor here helps us understand just how drastic this is. My goodness, it is so drastic, and the condition of the earth is so bad, it needs to be communicated in terms of a metaphor about God repenting and grieving—that teaches us something, not only about God performing a new action, but about the heinousness of human sin as well.
Brian Arnold (11:20):
I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. Because I’ve heard some theologians explain it as in…it’s like, God’s always responsive the same way. He doesn’t admit change to himself, but if it’s dealing with sin, he’s always dealing with it in terms of wrath and justice. If it’s something that reflects the fruit of the Spirit, he’s responding in love and grace. Is that a way to describe it? Is that God is not changing? His disposition is always this way towards this action?
Steve Duby (11:52):
Yeah. I think that’s a helpful element to bring into the discussion. Yeah. God always looks on sin, despising it, willing to punish sin when people don’t repent. He is always glad, or rejoicing in godliness. I think the one thing that we might add is just that it’s still true that God does perform different outward actions. So we do have to account for something new happening. I think we just have to say, strictly speaking, that doesn’t change the perfection or the attributes of God himself. It just has to do with what God produces outwardly. That’s probably how I would handle that.
Brian Arnold (12:29):
Yeah. I think that’s a…I think it’s a fine way to handle that, Dr. Duby. That sounds good. <laugh>
Steve Duby (12:35):
I’m glad you approve.
Brian Arnold (12:37):
Absolutely. So how, then, do we…I want to kind of come back to the original question—does God have emotions, almost on the face of it? If we read a passage with, like, love and wrath and compassion and mercy—those are emotions. So God is emotional in that sense, but just not in the sense that he is changing in his emotions? Or that he is harmed? Or that he is somehow gaining in what was lacking? Would you still consider or call those emotions, or would you want to shy away from that?
Steve Duby (13:09):
I think if someone just asks me point blank—does God have emotions, yes or no? I would begin by trying to make some distinctions. What do you mean by emotion? What is it about the word emotion that you think is fitting here? And I would be willing to say—in one respect, I see your point. If someone is saying God has emotions, because God enjoys what is good and despises what is bad. But strictly speaking, if the word emotion involves that passage from either being okay to no longer being okay and being damaged, or that passage from being unfulfilled to finally being fulfilled and having one’s own well-being, then I would say—no, we don’t want to apply that language to God. Unless we’re willing to clarify—there’s a metaphorical component to this description, where we’re using these words in an unusual way in God’s case.
Steve Duby (14:06):
So like any theology professor, I suppose, I’m going to want to step in and try to offer some distinctions before offering a simplistic yes or no answer to the question. I would normally try, then, to encourage people to shy away from speaking about God literally having passions or emotions for different reasons. People in the Christian tradition have been a bit more comfortable with the word affections. Maybe that’s one that’s a little bit more straightforwardly salvageable in this case. But I think, really, I’d want to move past just the question about the one word and get to the content of what we need to think through.
Brian Arnold (14:46):
And Dubs, I love how you begin that. If somebody asked me point blank, yes or no, I would write a 400 page book <laugh> describing my answer.
Steve Duby (14:58):
Yes. I suppose, if I can circle back, I’m going to say—no, he doesn’t have emotions. But then I’m going to say—the thing that you think you need to still preserve about the word emotion, I still think we can preserve that. Even as we talk about God being impassible. Because he does enjoy the good and hate the bad, or despise the bad.
Brian Arnold (15:16):
Well you just wrote a marvelous work on Jesus and the God of Classical Theism. How does this doctrine of impassibility—that God is not suffering the emotions—to the person of Christ?
Steve Duby (15:32):
Well, I think it’s important to keep in mind that when we talk about the person of Christ, we’re thinking about a person who has two natures. So he has a divine nature, as well as a human nature. In his divine nature that he shares with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, he is above suffering. He is above passions, or being subjected to the loss of wellbeing. But then he does have a true human nature. And when he was born and lived on earth, he was living in his human nature, in a state of being vulnerable to the weaknesses that we have as human beings. Vulnerable to suffering, both in his body and in his soul, as he experienced bad things in his life. So on the one hand, as God, he is not vulnerable to passions. But in his humanity, he certainly did undergo passions.
Steve Duby (16:24):
And as Hebrews two talks about, that equips him to be our merciful high priest. So we can rejoice in him being invincible, on the one hand, and also, at the same time, being subject to our lowly weaknesses. Although we might add, now that he has undergone the resurrection and been glorified, he is above human suffering as well. And perhaps that sounds funny to us, but he does, on the one hand, remember the suffering that he went through, and he remembers that as he intercedes for us in heaven. And, on the other hand, it’s actually good news that he’s now above even human suffering, because he is where we are headed. Where God will wipe away every tear, and will end our mourning, which is something that’s part of our Christian hope.
Brian Arnold (17:08):
Exactly. Yeah, that doesn’t sound funny to us, it sounds hopeful. It sounds glorious. So I can remember, I don’t know, 15 years ago or so, open theism was a big deal. Where there’s a question of—does God know the future? And if God knows the future and bad things are still happening, then that makes God liable in some way. I could see somebody making a very similar discussion here, is that we want a God who suffers the emotions, so that he can really, truly, fully understand us, get us, in the ways that we want that to be true. So how do you handle this pastorally, to somebody who says—that makes God sound a little bit more remote, the way you’re describing an impassible God. So how would you respond?
Steve Duby (17:57):
Yeah, well, I think it’s okay to say—when a person is ready to have the heavier theological discussion—I think it’s okay to say God is very distinct from us. He’s radically distinct from us. And it is true, and also good news, that God is not subject to losing his own fullness, or his own wellbeing. That’s helpful for us to bear in mind, because this is the one that we need to get us out of our bad situation. It’s not a good thing if our deliverer, if our rescuer, is stuck in the very same situation that we are stuck in, because he himself would need a rescuer. Now, I think at the same time, it’s appropriate to clarify—that doesn’t mean God is somehow mechanical. He still does despise the bad things that happen, and it’s not as if he evaluated them as neutral.
Steve Duby (18:55):
He truly despises them, and he wills to get rid of them in his new creation. I would also add—when we think about the value of having someone who can relate to our human situation, that is still also what we have through the incarnation of God the Son, as I said before. Even though he’s above passion or the loss of well-being in his divinity, he still was truly subject to passions and undergoing damaging things in his human life, in both body and soul. So I always say—I think we have the best of both worlds here, with a God who is above those things and truly able to rescue us. And, at the same time, one who has taken on human flesh and can fully relate to our weaknesses, and passions, and all of that. And I think that both sides of that are necessary for all the pastoral comfort that we want to bring to someone who needs to know that they will eventually get out of a miserable situation. But at the same time, they’re interested in knowing Christ the high priest, who can sympathize with us. So I like to say—it’s the best of both worlds.
Brian Arnold (20:04):
I think that’s a great response. I think that’s exactly what people who are even suffering need to hear—is that we don’t have a capricious God who just changes, but we have a Jesus who’s incarnate, who understands, because he suffered likewise. You alluded to Hebrews two earlier. I’d like to read verses 17 and 18 for encouragement. “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” And we have that, the one side of the best of all worlds there, of Christ incarnate for us, suffering temptation, but without sin, in our stead. And because of that, we can be saved, because we have the God man. So I appreciate your work on this topic. It’s obviously a big topic, a heavy topic, requires a lot of thought and reflection. In addition to your work, which has been really helpful, I think, for people to understand this question—what else have you found to be a helpful resource that you’d point our listeners to?
Steve Duby (21:13):
Oh my goodness. On impassibility in particular?
Brian Arnold (21:15):
Steve Duby (21:18):
Divine Impassability. Well, if someone wants to go deep, Thomas Weinandy’s book Does God Suffer? would be one place to go. You’ve put me on the spot, so you’re going to have to determine how long you want the podcast to run.
Brian Arnold (21:34):
We’ve got a couple minutes. <laugh> Or books that you would just say—absolutely stay away from. If you’ve got the guts to just name names, I say let ‘er roll.
Steve Duby (21:43):
Oh my goodness. Well, one never knows where this will end up on the internet. So I guess…let me just say this. I think it would be a mistake to focus a lot on perspectives that are really dealing with this at the simplistic level, where someone says—obviously Jesus suffers, therefore divine impassibility is wrong. No. We need to think through the fact that he suffers as human. That doesn’t automatically entail that he suffers in his divinity. There are people that I think read the Old Testament passages with God repenting and grieving and so forth, simplistically. And I I really think we need works that go across the disciplines, where someone can read Old Testament texts carefully, but then also take forward the best insights of the Christian tradition, from Church Fathers and medieval and Reformation thinkers as well. So I think working with the Bible, but also with the insights of the Christian tradition is really key here.
Brian Arnold (22:41):
Are there any particular theologians from the past that you’d recommend on this question?
Steve Duby (22:48):
Augustine does some some helpful things on the passions in the City of God. I have found Aquinas’s book Summa Contra Gentiles. It was actually a work of theology and apologetics, Book One of that, around chapter 89-90, and in that area. If someone really wants to dive in, I think that’s very helpful. Also, Petrus Van Mastricht, whose work Theoretical Practical Theology is rolling out in English, it’s being translated gradually into English. His treatment of God’s will, and the affections of God’s will, I have found to be very helpful as well. Which…that’s a deep book, but I think it’s one that should be accessible to a careful reader.
Brian Arnold (23:32):
And I love that you’re sending people back into the tradition. Christians have thought about this for millennia. It’s important. If we want to know who God is, both in himself—as you have helped us through several books—but also knowing him as he’s relating to us in the person of Christ, it’s important to keep both those pieces in mind, if we really want to know who God is. And take hard passages—I appreciate what you did earlier with Genesis six, of saying—we don’t have to just stay right here. We need to think about the whole canon of Scripture. How is God revealing himself to us? And in some of those even clearer places, helping us now go back to Genesis six and read it in a way that shows even greater grandeur of who God is for us, even in those hard places of Scripture.
Brian Arnold (24:20):
So, Dr. Duby, thank you for your labor in working hard to help theologians, and pastors, and people in the church really grapple with who God is, because I believe in knowing him, we love him more. So thank you for that, and for the discussion today.
Steve Duby (24:34):
Thanks for having me.
Outro 1 (24:36):
Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.
Outro 2 (25:18):
Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about an exciting event we’re hosting on the campus of Phoenix Seminary this spring, our first annual Sacred Truths Conference on February 24th and 25th. Our featured speakers will be Fred Sanders, Steve Duby, Bobby Jamieson, and myself. Our theme will focus on the core of Christianity—who is Christ, as one person with two natures, both human and divine. So I hope you’ll join us, and invite anyone you know who’s interested in learning more about Christian doctrine. Click the link in the show notes, or learn more and register at sacredtruths.events.