A Response to Donald Lowe’s, “A Brief Critique of ARBCA’s Position Paper: Concerning the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility”

Further discussion on the doctrine of divine impassibility as presented in the position paper of The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America

The economic statements of Scripture certainly help us as Christians to fill out our understanding of the ontological statements about God, but the ontological statements that God makes about himself must of necessity have interpretive priority or else the economic statements are meaningless. It is because human reason valued the economic statements above the ontological statements that the Socinian errors arose in the 16th and 17th centuries.

 

This is a response and critique of an article by Rev. Donald Lowe carried on The Aquila Report on January 24, 2019, “A Brief Critique of ARBCA’s Position Paper: Concerning the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility.”  It is my contention that the article’s thesis falls well outside the bounds of historic orthodox teaching with regard to the doctrine of divine impassibility. It also makes some statements on the matter of the two natures of Christ and other doctrines within Theology Proper that I believe are outside the bounds of confessional Reformed orthodoxy.

Mr. Lowe states that:

The purpose of this critique is not to affirm or deny either the classical view or the modified view. Rather, the purpose is to critique the arguments in the position paper used to defend the classical view. It is intended to edify and sharpen those on both sides of the issue such that they can better understand and articulate a biblical view of the doctrine of divine impassibility.

I appreciate Mr. Lowe’s desire to edify and sharpen those on both sides of the issue. His desire notwithstanding, the actual outcome of his particular line of reasoning is anything but neutral. If one accepts the assertions made by Mr. Lowe in his critique, it would be impossible for one to hold the Reformed confessional view of divine impassibility.

The approach taken by Mr. Lowe is to critique some of the affirmations made in The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA) position paper. At the end of his critique, he states his conclusions. In my response, I will interact with his critique primarily through his conclusions. In doing so, I hope to keep from becoming bogged down in the minutiae of each argument within the critique.

A Tertium Quid

In his first conclusion, Mr. Lowe asserts that,

The position paper argues in affirmation #17 that an emotional change in God would necessarily be for better or worse, and thus compromise God’s perfection. However, in considering emotional change in God, it excludes the possibility of emotional change that would be neither for the better or the worse. Thus, affirmation #17 does not logically prove that God cannot have an emotional change.

In this conclusion drawn by Mr. Lowe, he is referring back to a tertium quid, a third way that he posited in his critique. He writes,

The position paper says that if God experienced emotional changes, it would have to be for 1) the better, or 2) the worse, which are both unacceptable options. But to prove that God does not experience emotional changes, the argument depends on these being the only two possible options.

In logic, there is a fallacy called the “false dilemma.” In this fallacy, only a few options are presented when actually the number of possibilities is greater than that. What is missing in this scenario is the possibility that God experienced emotional changes that were for 3) neither better nor worse. If 3) is a viable option, then the position paper is presenting a false dilemma.

That is the question, is it not? Is this third way, i.e., that God experiences emotional changes that are for neither better nor worse, a viable option? In James 1:17 we read that in God there is “no variation or shadow due to change. (ESV) James says nothing about better or worse. He simply asserts that in God there is no change. There is no tertium quid when it comes to divine immutability. God is either mutable or immutable. Even if the third option was viable, there would still be change in God. If God is immutable, then God does not change. In his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Richard Muller writes, under the entry immutabilitas, “God is free from all mutation of being, attributes, place, or will, and from all physical and ethical change.”[1]

We must ask the question, “What would be the purpose of an emotional change that is neither for the better or worse?” Even if this were possible, it is nonetheless change. The first entry for the word change in the Oxford English Dictionary is to make or become different. Do we really want a God who becomes different? What would be the determining factor in God becoming different? If such a determining factor existed, would not that factor then be higher than God? Certainly, with God, the only perfect being, there cannot be anything that would necessitate him to become different, nor anything that would compel us to want him to be different.

The idea that there can be emotional changes in God that are neither for the better or worse denies the pure actuality of God and posits potentiality and becoming in the divine being. The idea of becoming necessitates a cause for such change.  In his work, Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck writes that “the idea of becoming predicated of the divine being is of no help in theology . . . . Becoming presupposes a cause, for there is no becoming without a cause. But being in an absolute sense no longer permits the inquiry concerning a cause. Absolute being is because it is. The idea of God itself implies immutability. Neither increase nor diminution is conceivable with respect to God. He cannot change for better or worse, for he is the absolute, the complete, the true being. Becoming is an attribute of creatures, a form of change in space and time.” He goes on to say that “contrary to both deism and pantheism, the God who is cannot change, for every change would diminish his being.”[2]

To hypothesize that God can have emotional changes without a change in his being takes us one step beyond even the confessional assertion that God “is without passions.” The Confession (both 2LCF and the WCF) also says that God is without body or parts. Historic orthodoxy has always held that God is spirit, that he does not have a body and that God is a simple being, i.e., the doctrine of divine simplicity. He is not made up of parts. To argue that God can have emotional changes without changes in his being denies the doctrine of divine simplicity. In such a scenario, God would indeed have separate parts. He would have being and he would have changing emotions. This is precisely what Mr. Lowe is implying with respect to Turretin’s quote of Augustine,

However, it is important to note that, in context, neither Turretin nor Augustine are specifically addressing emotional change, or asserting that an emotional change in God would be for the better or for the worse, as the position paper asserts. They are simply saying God cannot be changed for the better or for the worse, which is something that both classical and modified views of divine impassibility agree on.

It is true that there are some modified passiblists who affirm emotional changes in God while simultaneously rejecting the notion that such changes are for the better or the worse or in any way diminish the being of God, and for that much we may be thankful. But saying that it is so does not make it so. In order for this to be so, as Mr. Lowe’s reasoning above implies, we would have to confess that God is composed of being and the other “stuff” that constitutes his emotional changes of state. Would not these emotional changes of state be just that, changing states of being, i.e., being delighted, being grieved, and so forth? Change is change, and any kind of change in God is denied by the position paper and has been unequivocally rejected by historic orthodoxy.

The Two Natures of Christ

Perhaps most troubling with regard to the assertion that God can experience emotional changes that are neither for the better nor for the worse is the appeal that Mr. Lowe makes to the two natures of the incarnate Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. His statements have about them a faint odor of Eutychianism. Eutychianism, which was condemned at the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451, taught that Christ had a human nature but that it was unlike the rest of humanity. Eutyches taught that the human nature of Christ was overcome by the divine nature. He believed that the divine and human natures of Christ had united and blended in such a manner that although Jesus was of one substance with the Father, he was not of one substance with man.[3] In other words, while Jesus may have been very God, he was not very man.

Mr. Lowe treads dangerously close to this view in his statements with regard to Jesus. He writes,

To be sure, Jesus’ humanity and his divinity do not share all the same properties. Thus, Jesus’ changing emotions in his humanity does not necessarily mean that he has changing emotions in his divinity. However, both his human nature and his divine nature share the property of perfection. The confessions describe Jesus’ two natures as “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures … were inseparably joined together in one person.”

Jesus was perfect in both his divinity and humanity. So, if Jesus’ human affections are “infinite in perfection,” and he underwent emotional changes, we can ask this question: would Jesus’ emotional changes be for 1) the better, or 2) the worse?

If indeed Jesus’ human affections are as Mr. Lowe asserts, “infinite in perfection,” and if, as the author of Hebrews states in 2:17, Jesus was “made like his brothers in every respect,” i.e., he is very man, does that then mean that the affections of the glorified saints in heaven are also infinite in perfection? The human affections of Jesus are not infinite. They are finite and measurable states of being and most certainly mutable. Jesus was not infinite man. Men are not infinite. He was very man! If he was not like us in every respect, then he cannot be our Great High Priest.  Furthermore, Luke tells us in 2:52 that Jesus “increased in wisdom.” How can one who is infinite in wisdom increase in wisdom? In Matthew 24:36, Jesus declared that “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” Jesus declared himself to be without knowledge of that day and hour. He is obviously speaking according to his human nature and about his human nature. Do we have here an oxymoron, infinite ignorance?

Mr. Lowe has engaged in the logical error of equivocation when he quotes from the confessions which describe Jesus’ two natures as “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures … inseparably joined together in one person.” Mr. Lowe is using the term “perfect” in the sense of “free from any flaw or defect in condition or quality, the second use listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, or to use his term, “infinite in perfection.” However, the first use of the word “perfect” in the OED is “having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics.” A study of the Reformed confessions shows that this is the way in which the framers of the confessions used the word. Jesus had a nature that possessed all the desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics of both humanity and deity; his divine affections were infinite, and his human affections were finite, the one perfectly divine and the other perfectly human.

It seems that Mr. Lowe has some serious confusion with regard to the two natures of Christ in one person. He comes dangerously close at this juncture to the view of Eutyches that the human nature of Christ was overcome by the divine nature. Thankfully, he does not fall completely into the error as noted by his statement that Jesus’ humanity and divinity do not share all the same properties. That being the case, however, why does he then try to argue from the human emotions of Jesus to the divine being? His reassurances aside, I fear that his manner of reasoning leads to the monophysite heresy, i.e., that the Lord Jesus Christ had only one nature, either a divine nature or a synthesis of the divine and human natures.

The Priority of Ontology or Economy

The second conclusion that Mr. Lowe draws is that:

The position paper also presents a hermeneutical principle in affirmation #3 that says that passages that speak of God’s being and essence should take priority because they are less difficult and ambiguous. I have been unable to find any historical precedence for this hermeneutical principle. A closer look at passages regarding love and impassibility show that ontological propositions are not always clear, and can be prone to misunderstanding. Those passages should not take priority simply by virtue of being ontological.

It is in this conclusion that I find the second most troubling aspect of this critique. Mr. Lowe’s hermeneutic bears some of the same characteristics as the hermeneutic of Socinianism. Socinianism is known for its many heresies, e.g., its rejection of the Trinity, rejection of the pre-existence of Christ prior to His incarnation, rejection of the doctrine of original sin, rejection of the propitiatory atonement, and the belief that God was not omniscient, knowing only what was necessary truth and not knowing contingent truth. (This is the forerunner of open theism. Interestingly, Clark Pinnock and Nicholas Wolterstorff both agree that key to the view of open theism is the complete jettisoning of the classical doctrine of God’s impassibility.[4])

I doubt seriously if Mr. Lowe holds these views. What is significant, however, is how the Socinians arrived at their views. They did so by prioritizing the economic, i.e., what God does, over the ontic, i.e., who God is. This is the approach, or something similar to it, which Mr. Lowe advocates in his critique.

Though we learn of God in his ad extra works, we cannot properly interpret those ad extra works without a clear biblical statement of who God is ad intra. We cannot properly account for the external works of God without a theology of the One who works prior to giving us an account of those works. If we do not have a solid sense of Theology Proper, how can we make sense of statements like “the arm of the Lord,” or “the Spirit of the Lord was hovering,” or that the heavens are the work of God’s fingers?[5] Now, I doubt seriously that Mr. Lowe takes those statements as literal, because he knows that God is spirit. How does he know this? He knows it by the clear statement of Jesus that “God is spirit.” So even while he criticizes the position paper for claiming that ontology precedes economics in the interpretive process, he himself presumably uses the same procedure when it comes to the anthropomorphic statements of Scripture.

On the other hand, some of the proponents of modern Socinianism, the Open Theists, have taken Mr. Lowe’s hermeneutical critique to its logical conclusion and have begun to affirm with the Mormons that God possibly does have a body.[6] Maybe it isn’t quite like ours, but a body nonetheless. Many of those who object to ontology preceding economy do so because they do not want to label as anthropopathisms those statements in Scripture that appear to say that God experiences emotional changes in some way, i.e. repents, was grieved, etc. However, when it comes to statements that refer to God as having physical features, i.e. the eyes of the Lord, the arm of the Lord, etc., they have no problem referring to those statements as anthropomorphisms.  Yes, ontology must precede economy. If it doesn’t in the anthropopathic statements, then it doesn’t in the anthropomorphic statements.

An example of this is found in D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Carson, denying the confessional Reformed doctrine of divine impassibility, writes,

You may then rest in God’s sovereignty, but you can no longer rejoice in his love. You may rejoice only in a linguistic expression that is an accommodation of some reality of which we cannot conceive, couched in the anthropopathism of love. Give me a break. Paul did not pray that his readers might be able to grasp the height and depth and length and breadth of an anthropopathism and know this anthropopathism that surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:14–21).[7] 

In yet another work, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, Carson writes,

The methodological problem with the argument for divine impassibility is that it selects certain texts of Scripture, namely those that insist on God’s sovereignty and changelessness, constructs a theological grid on the basis of those selected texts, and then uses this grid to filter out all other texts, in particular those that speak of God’s emotions.[8]

Is this not a two-edged sword? Could we not simply use Dr. Carson’s own words and change the categories around so that we say, “The methodological problem with the argument against divine impassibility is that it selects certain texts of Scripture, namely those that insist on God’s emotions, constructs a theological grid on the basis of those selected texts, and then uses this grid to filter out all other texts, in particular those that speak of God’s sovereignty and changelessness?” The problem is that Dr. Carson gives priority to economy while divine impassibilists, historically and within confessional Reformed thought, give priority to ontology.

Mr. Lowe argues that the authors of the position paper never cite any sources that state a hermeneutical principle that says ontology precedes economy. Yet Mr. Lowe never cites any sources to the contrary either. He simply cites his view to the contrary. What is one then to do? Perhaps one of the most helpful approaches would be to read the primary sources, the early church fathers themselves and the Reformed orthodox of the 17th century. Doing so, in my opinion, would solidify the assertion of the position paper that the early church fathers certainly stressed ontology over economy.[9]

In this vein, Mr. Lowe resorts to the hackneyed criticism that the early church fathers built their interpretations on the analogy of faith and Greek philosophy and metaphysics. He makes this claim particularly with regard to the doctrine of divine impassibility. He claims (improperly, in my opinion) that according to Mark Sheridan,

The patristic tradition used both Scripture and Greek philosophy to understand the nature of God, an (sic) in particular used Greek philosophy when it came to the doctrine of impassibility.

 As we will see, the church fathers did use the best of Greek philosophy as a handmaiden, but only as it was conformable to the analogy of Holy Scripture. Sadly, I fear that in this criticism, Mr. Lowe indeed gives away his view on divine impassibility and it is not within the bounds of either historic orthodoxy or Reformed confessional orthodoxy.

“Greek  philosophy” has become the useful bogeyman in far too many Christian debates. It has become the ad hominem tool that one uses when he cannot win an argument on the merits of the argument itself. Craig A. Carter, in his recent book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition, has shown that the early church fathers indeed used the philosophy of Plato when it was helpful. He writes, “Whereas the fathers found a kinship with the Platonists on a number of points and considered them the best of the Greek philosophers, the Enlightenment thinkers rejected the Platonists and embraced first the Atomists and the Epicureans (in the eighteenth century) and later the Stoics and the Skeptics (in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). The result was a crisis within Western intellectual thought.”[10] Carter calls our attention to the fact that Platonism aided Augustine in his conversion to Christianity. He notes that in Book 8 of The City of God Augustine discusses the history of Greek philosophy, points out what is superior about the Platonists, and then levels some serious critiques against the Platonists. The patristic tradition indeed used what was helpful in Platonic philosophy, that which was in accord with biblical revelation, but never adopted it wholesale. It was always to be subjected to Scripture.

Unfortunately, those who criticize the early church fathers for their use of certain aspects of Greek philosophy do not realize that they themselves are subject to certain Greek philosophies that permeate Western culture to this day. They do not realize how much Enlightenment thinking has affected our culture. Enlightenment thought was a partaker of the Epicurean philosophies that exalted reason over revelation. Whether we realize it or not, most of us have been influenced by Enlightenment thought much more than we want to admit.

Those who criticize the patristic tradition are like those who criticize the use of Thomas Aquinas, never realizing that the Reformers and the Great Puritans never hesitated to quote Aquinas and use his thoughts when they were in accord with biblical revelation, though there were many issues with which they also differed with him. The statement that the church fathers “in particular used Greek philosophy when it came to the doctrine of impassibility” is nothing more than an ad hominem argument and certainly does not tell the full story.

I would argue that Mr. Lowe himself falls prey, perhaps unknowingly, to the Epicurean philosophy that characterized the Enlightenment in exalting reason over revelation.[11] In his use of the ontological statement that God is love, he calls that statement “ambiguous as to what it means.” Really? In an attempt to prove that the statement “God is love” is ambiguous, Mr. Lowe refers us to the question by Rob Bell in his book Love Wins in which Bell asks the question, “Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?” Mr. Lowe then states:

The problem is that the ontological statement about love is vague and not very well-defined, and thus prone to misuse and distortion. Other Scripture passages on God’s love are necessary to put proper borders on our understanding of God as love.

One of the other Scripture passages to which he points us is Romans 5:8 which he asserts “puts meat on the ontological statement of God’s love. God demonstrated his love by sending his son Jesus to die for his people. It is neither difficult nor ambiguous.” However, Mr. Lowe does not escape the problem. Could not one state that Romans 5:8 is ambiguous? Some have argued that God could not be a loving father because putting your son to death is the ultimate form of child abuse. The problem is not that the ontological statement “God is love” is ambiguous. The problem is that people such as Rob Bell choose to emphasize one aspect of God’s being to the exclusion of others that are equally clear in Scripture and consequently end up twisting Scripture to fit their own sinful way of thinking. As Romans 1:18 declares, they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness”(NJKV).

It is only because the human mind is fallen that any statement of Scripture seems ambiguous. Mr. Lowe quotes 1 John 4:8, the ontological statement about God ad intra, i.e., “God is love.” Then in 1 John 4:9, we read the economic statement, “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him” (NKJV). This is the work of God ad extra. Verse 9 is parallel to Romans 5:8 which Mr. Lowe quotes as the statement that puts meat on the ontological statement of God’s love. However, it is critical to note that the ontological statement precedes the statement of economy. If we do not know who God is we are only left to guess as to the meaning of what God does. God does not become love because he sent his only begotten Son into the world. God sent His only begotten Son into the world because He is love. God manifested what was already in existence.

Could this be why we see those same errors rearing their ugly heads in the 21st century? May the God of Truth spare us from such heretical errors.

Fred L. Pugh is Pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Olmsted Township, Ohio.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Paperback  Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995), 148.

[2] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 2:158.

[3] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 3:736-737.

[4] Clark H. Pinnock, The Most Moved Mover (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 77.

[5] I am indebted to Dr. Richard Barcellos for his insights on this issue. http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2018/06/understanding-theology-proper.php

[6] BYU Studies Quarterly, Vol. 48, Issue 2, Article 4, Page 3, Open and Relational Theology An Evangelical in Dialogue with a Latter-day Saint.

[7] D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), 59.

[8] D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2006), 165.

[9] This issue is discussed in much greater detail in the book, Confessing the Impassible God, chapters 1 & 2, available from Reformed Baptist Academic Press.

[10] Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), Preface.

[11] I recommend chapter 3 of Craig Carter’s book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition, for a fuller discussion of this issue.