Divine Impassibility

“Tenderheartedness”: The Hebrew Term רחם (rḥm) and Its Significance for the Doctrine of God

The Hebrew verb רחם (rḥm) is used over 40 times in the Old Testament and is translated in the Authorized Version as “compassion,” “pity,” or “mercy.” In its basic sense, רחם may mean (1) to feel affectionate love based upon a relational bond, or (2) to show kindness to the inferior or needy. The English term “mercy” best translates the second meaning, whereas the term “compassion” brings out the affective element in the first meaning. The underlying relational bond is underscored by those passages which associate רחם with “covenant” [בְּרִית; bərît] and “covenant love” [חֶסֶד; ḥesed] (Isa. 54:8, 10; Lam. 3:32). Below we highlight the main components in the idea of רחם and apply our observations to theology proper.

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“God’s Fatherly Pity”: C.H. Spurgeon vs the Schoolmen on Divine Impassibility

C. H. Spurgeon, “God’s Fatherly Pity,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 28 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1882), 157–158. Headings in the post below are mine.

Like as a father pitieth his children,
so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. (Psalm 103:13)

In the former part of this psalm the Psalmist sang of God’s deeds of love, his gifts, his benefits, and his acts of kindness; but here he goes deeper into the divine motive, and hence he finds sweeter incentives to devout gratitude. There is a fulness of consolation in the fact that the heart of God is towards his people. He not only dispenses blessings—so does the sun, so do the clouds, so do the fruitful fields—but he takes a warm interest in our welfare, and has a feeling towards us of kindly, gentle affection, and that of such intensity that one of the highest forms of earthly love is here used as a figure to set forth the tender mercy of our God towards us.

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God Never Sweats it: Impassibility

"So what exactly is meant by passions? What are affections, or emotions for that matter? And why have Christians throughout the ages been so adamant that God does not have passions? We’ll define some terms in a moment, but it’s good to say upfront that what’s being protected in the doctrine of Divine Impassibility is any creatureliness or finitude within the Godhead." - Ref21

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Does God Have Emotions?

The classical doctrine of God has fallen on hard times in some evangelical circles. In this article, I’m specifically thinking of the doctrine of impassibility.1 The Westminster Confession of Faith says God is without “passions.”2 Robert Reymond explains that doesn’t mean God is an immobile stone; he surely empathizes with human grief and suffering. But, Reymond cautions, the WCF does mean that humans can’t cause God any pain, anguish “or any sort of distress upon him against his will.”3

This is the classical position. Augustus Strong believed texts that suggest divine passibility were anthropomorphisms.4 So did Calvin.5 Berkhof noted that God’s “volitions remain forever the same,” which suggest He cannot be swayed or moved.6 A more recent theologian, Rolland McCune, observed that “any view which implies God does in fact suffer and is emotionally involved with creatures or that He undergoes constitutional/emotional change by these outside, created influences would contradict God’s immutability.”7

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