“One statement here has given rise to many questions. God is said to be ‘without body, parts, or passions.’ The meaning of ‘passions’ is not entirely clear.”
So says Robert Letham about the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) in his 2009 book The Westminster Assembly: Reading its Theology in Historical Context. Is it true that “the meaning of ‘passions’ is not entirely clear”?
This is an important question because it is not just the WCF that says God is without passions, but also our own (1689 2nd London Baptist) Confession and all other Reformed Confessions (not to mention this statement is just a part of Classic Theism).
How can this question be answered? Enter:
This new reader goes to the sources (what better way!?) to answer this important question and clearly show what was meant by confessing that God is without passions.
As the purpose is described in the introduction:
“The primary purpose of the material presented below is to familiarize the reader with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English language sources pertinent to the doctrine of divine impassibility, particularly for those who confess with the Reformed confessions that God is ‘without body, parts, or passions.’“
To do this the editor summons the writings of:
- four authors from the Reformation (1523-1565) [who themselves summon the church fathers]
- 20 authors from Early Orthodoxy (1565-1640)
- 26 authors from High Orthodoxy (1640-1700)
- seven Particular Baptist authors
- three Philosophical Works
- and eight Confessions spanning 1552-1677
Wow! All those works (60+). Sounds a little daunting?
Fear not! Before you dive into all those works the editor, Sam Renihan, explains how he setup the Reader and gives instructions that will guide you through this seemingly daunting reader and doctrine (of Divine Impassibility). Like Gandalf equipping, explaining, and even guiding Bilbo through parts of his journey, Sam helpfully gives you helpful interpretive tools and walks you through some of the difficulties in definitions and diction that may arise by travelling this path. (For a taste of this let me recommend the recent interview I conducted with him.)
Furthermore, all those works may make you think that it is a huge book, but as you dive in you discover that the majority of the works are no more than one or two pages (some just a paragraph or two). The book chimes in at 230 pages, including the Appendix.
At this point comes my only complaint about the book. Sam sought to keep all original spelling, punctuation, and italicization from the sources he transcribed (some exceptions which he explains in the Intro). Overall this is great. However, this means that you may come upon words or Latin which you will be reading for the first time or words that have alternative spellings than what you and I may be use to (e.g. fiftie instead of fifty, Godlie instead of Godly, etc.) This is really very minor as it is easy to figure out what the words mean in context and the alternative spellings just took me a second or two to figure out their modern equivalents. Furthermore, most of the time Latin is used the authors also put their English equivalence. My minor complaint shouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading this, as it really is very very minor and a you read that problem goes away and the book becomes easier and easier to read.
So it isn’t as scary as it seems but why should I read it?
Pastor Tom Chantry has already explained why this is an important work for ARBCA and other Reformed Pastors and churches. So let me explain how it was so very helpful to me and may be helpful to you.
- It’s Clarifying – Clearly explains what the doctrine of Divine Impassibility is, even in catechetical format at times
- It Answers Objections – Interacts with the rebuttals to the doctrine that would most likely come into the mind of the average Bible reader, answering many questions that are still being asked today
- It’s Catholic – Shows the unity of Christian thought on this doctrine throughout church history
- It’s Exegetical – You can see how some of authors came to their conclusions by exegeting various scriptures from the BIble
- It’s Doxological – I could write a series of post on this point. Let me just say that this book dives deep in one area of Theology Proper (that is, the teaching about God) and in doing so you are learning more and more about our glorious God. I hope I squelched any fear you had in picking this up to read, but let me now dangle a carrot in front of you and encourage you to read this for your own joy, for your own growth in grace, for an opportunity for your mind to join your whole being in the worship of God.
As you read this book I hope that you will come away with a greater understanding of what it means when the Bible says that God is holy, God is love, God is _____ etc. The more and more you go through this book the more you will be humbled at your creatureliness, seeing how fickle and fragile your passions are, how they need redeeming, and how holy and perfect all God is and does is!
- It Matters – You may be thinking, “Boy, this sounds like it is something for philosophers and theologians, wouldn’t Joel Olsteen’s newest best seller help me out more?”. Nay, nay nay nay nay times 1,000! The doctrine of Divine Impassibility is an integral part of theology. As I was reading through this book I was surprised to find how many other issues it touched upon. The promised of God, the Incarnation, who God is, etc.
Since reading the book it has been like when I first became a Calvinist. You remember, now as you read through your Bible you began to see the sovereignty of God everywhere! Within the past couple weeks I am noticing more and more how this issue relates to so much more than I initially thought, and I am seeing it everywhere. For example, I’ve been going through Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary‘s Doctrine of the Word class [watch it online] and in the intro Dr. Sam Waldron talks about how God’s unchangeable character and how His eternal, unchanging, purposes are related to His revelation, His Word. Reading an upcoming article in JIRBS 2015 I also saw how it was related to other important doctrines (but that isn’t out yet so I won’t go into details.) 🙂
While it may be true that in our day and age many, themselves, may not be clear on what God without passions means, this book clearly shows that the authors of the historic Reformed confessions, and theologians throughout church history, did in fact know and understand what they meant when they said God is without passions. One may agree or disagree with them, but I don’t see how they can say that it was unclear in writings of old.
May we take up and read and ourselves know this glorious doctrine which strips away what God is not to shows us more and more of what He is in all His glorious perfections.