God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion by Rob Lister
The thesis by many modern theologians that God cannot truly love his people if he cannot suffer in his divine nature is taken to be an inarguable assumption by many today. The attack on those who wish to see God as impassible coincides with a wrong-headed assumption that to be unchanging is to be void of any real emotions. Yet, this is exactly the point that Rob Lister in his new book entitled God is Impassible and Impassioned seeks to counter head on. To begin, Lister understands ‘that God is impassible in the sense that he cannot be manipulated, overwhelmed, or surprised into an emotional interaction that he does not desire to have or allow to happen.’ Furthermore, ‘God is impassioned (i.e. perfectly vibrant in his affections) , and he may be affected by his creatures, but as God, he is so in ways that accord rather than conflict with his will to be so affected by those whom, in love, he has made’ (36). In essence, God cannot be caught off guard like the jack in the box toy for children, nor does he garner feeling and emotions that are contrary to his character.
Working through the common Hellenization Hypothesis, Lister goes onto state that the main references to Philo, Stoicism and Plotinus do not clearly yield a pathway to belief in a God who is unchangeable and passionless. Lister writes, “In none of these philosophical systems, however, is there an espousal of a personal, creator deity marked by absolute emotional detachment from his creation” (61). Furthermore, borrowing Greek concepts and thought forms doesn’t necessarily mean that all early theologians left biblical authority behind. After surveying the thought of Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Justin Martyr and others, Lister mentions that although there is development in thought early on, the early church fathers were clear to uphold both a God who is not caught offguard by his creation but one who enters into relationship with them through emotions. Some of the key points Lister makes is that “ the representatives of the qualified impassibility model are committed to the importance of the Creator/creature distinction.” Lister writes further down, “they affirmed a meaningful category of divine emotion, though qualified analogously “ (102). Why does this matter? For one, the Creator/creature distinction is important because it lends credence to the powerful work of God in creation over his creation and secondly, it marks a balance between God’s transcendence and his immanence. Furthermore, by seeing divine emotion through analogy, the Fathers sought to discard the notion that human emotional categories translate to divine categories of emotion in a one to one correspondence. Rather, we understand divine emotions through the biblical texts and then seek to draw analogies to humans from that starting point.
In his discussion of Jurgen Moltmann’s work on The Crucified God, Lister makes a point that we should not miss by writing, “..it is every bit as problematic to abstract, isolate, and therefore misinterpret an event from the economy of redemption – even if that event is the cross – by reading it as the totality of the divine reality, as Moltmann has done. This kind of reading fails to acknowledge that Scripture presents us with a package including both the narration of key redemptive historical events and the interpretation of those events” (245). Moltmann wants to assert the main point of the cross to be God identifying with the suffering of his people through his own suffering, therefore, bringing a sense of solidarity to his people. As you can see, there is no hint of the death of Jesus for the purpose of saving sinners, redeeming the lost, taking the sin upon his shoulders and giving us his righteousness. Where I think Lister could have gone further in his discussion is to bring up the redemptive historical events and their interpretation in connection with seeing the grand story of Scripture. Moltmann fails to see the hope of Israel, the longing of a people for a coming King, and the way in which the Creator God intervenes in the life of his creation. Lister’s reminder of the distinction between Creator/creature and transcendence/immanence gives way to a more biblical and holistic understanding of the coming of Jesus, while not falling into a collapse of the event being the totality of meaning . Consequently, what happens in Moltmann’s thought is that God’s suffering on the cross in his being is an ontological necessity that must take place for his love to be real for others.
Lister in the rest of the book lays the groundwork for a theology of an unchanging impassioned God. The end of the book is a foray into understanding the passions of God in the sense of his emotions. Lister does a good job at balancing the perfection of God with the emotions of God. Using Edwards, Piper and others at his disposal, Lister paints a picture of God that is both biblically faithful and theologically sound. I hope this book finds its way into the hands of many readers.
Thanks to Crossway for the review copy of this book in exchange for review.