Saturday, 13 December 2014

God is Impassible and Impassioned, by Rob Lister




Rob Lister, God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion, 2013 Crossway


This is a deeply disappointing book. One might have hoped that Rob Lister would have offered a contemporary defence of the much neglected doctrine of divine impassibility, but instead he redefines impassibility beyond recognition.

Lister attempts to persuade us in this book that when Christians historically affirmed that when Christians affirmed, as with the 39 Articles and the Westminster Confessions that "God is without passions," they didn't actually mean that and that God really does have passions.

Lister's position is that God is not subject to emotional affects that are involuntarily or unexpectedly wrung from him by his creatures.

The idea of God choosing to enter emotional states voluntary seems a very problematic one. It implies a clear duality in God. On the one hand, we have the essential God who is unaffected by His creation and then we have the emotional affected God that he chooses to become. Not only does this seem to damage God's eteranal unchangeable nature, but it also makes it impossible to affirm the doctrine of divine simplicity. Rather shockingly, he makes not the slightest mention of divine simplicity in the book. Are we supposed to assume that this doctrine is not important? Or does Lister think that nobody believes in divine simplicity any more?

Lister makes the case for his position being the historic and orthodox view and endeavours to find support for it among the Patristics, the Medieval theologians and the Reformers. He finds a few odd quotations in which a few divines say something similar to his views, but on the whole he has to force their words into his mould. He handles the evidence rather misleadingly, for instance using Athanasius and the Cappadocians discussion of the incarnation as evidence that they held to some sort of qualified divine passibility. However, the issue of divine impassibility lies not in the incarnation, but in the essential attributes of the Godhead.

The author becomes particularly troubled when he gets into the Medieval era. It seems clear that Saint Anselm affirmed an absolute divine impassibility and Lister is quite embarrassed by this. He tries to offer a rather strained interpretation of Anselm. He encounters in Saint Thomas Aquinas a similar resistance to his redefinition of impassibility. I am quite sure that Aquinas would be horrified by the idea of God choosing to feel emotion. Part of the difficulty is Lister's unwillingness to examine the definition of emotion as a philosophical category. For Aquinas, every term had to be rigorously defined, where Lister leaves the concept of what emotion is rather vague.

Lister rightly rejects the model of divine suffering offered by modern theologians, such as Moltmann. Yet he does not provide a strong critique to the widespread rejection of impassibility among Evangelical theologians. He lists a number of Evangelical critics of impassibility, John Feinberg, John Frame and Millard Erickson. He argues that the model of impassibility these theologians reject is not the true one that he advocates. We might wonder whether they have really so misunderstood the doctrine of impassibility as Lister seems to think.

The author argues at first that his views are largely in line with those of Paul Helm, though Helm has recently offered some very robust criticisms of Lister's views. He later expresses disagreement with Paul Helm over the issues of divine responsiveness, with Helm denying that God is in any way affected by His creations and Lister affirming a volutary divine response to creatures. It seems to me that Lister's emphasis on God's response being voluntary risks absolutizing God's will at the expense of His nature, thus landing us in Voluntarist territory.

Lister's disagreement with Helm comes down to the different ways in which these two theologians handle divine atemporality. Helm, standing with the classic tradition, insists on an absolute atemporality. Lister follows Bruce Ware in arguing that while God is outside time, he is just as fundamentally engaged in time. We end up with yet another dualism between God's eternal essence and His assumed interaction with creation. It is this dualism that has attracted Helm's recent criticisms.

I don't see this book as an encouraging sign of the state of conservative Evangelical theology. It is a good example of the weakness of the 'New Calvinism,' the 'Young, Restless and Reformed' movement. Like the New Calvinists in general, Lister wants to affirm the classical Reformed understanding of God, yet his modern commitment to the 'Passionate God' of modern Evangelicalism leads him to compromise the integrity of that Reformed tradition. It is difficult to enjoy the emotion-driven fervour of contemporary worship music while affirming a God who is 'without passions.'

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