Is Impassibility Really Biblical?

Why impassibility is far more biblical than some think.

Those who argue that impassibility is an unbiblical doctrine have been quick to point out the absence of an explicit proof text. Nevertheless, as this article will argue in the brief space below, divine impassibility emerges as a necessary implication of other divine attributes that are expressly set down in Holy Scripture.

 

Is impassibility biblical? Although it is becoming more and more common to hear this question raised in a context that assumes a negative response, we must insist with so great a cloud of witnesses that it is indeed biblical.[1] It matters, of course, what we assume is necessary for something to be considered biblical. A doctrine in general, or a divine attribute in particular, may be considered biblical if it is either explicitly set forth in the Bible, for which a proof text might be produced, or it is implicitly, though necessarily, contained in that which is expressly set forth. Those who argue that impassibility is an unbiblical doctrine have been quick to point out the absence of an explicit proof text. Nevertheless, as this article will argue in the brief space below, divine impassibility emerges as a necessary implication of other divine attributes that are expressly set down in Holy Scripture.[2]

Methodological Assumptions

In the interest of objectivity, we are taught to interpret the Bible as we would any other book, i.e., by allowing our interpretation to be determined by the author’s original intentions. This is designed to prevent us from “reading into” the text ideas and implications that would have been foreign to the mind of the author, given his culture, context, and audience. This is good practice; of course, insofar as we remember that the Bible is not like any other book, and the human author is not the only author that one needs to consider (2 Pet. 1:20-21).

It would be fair to say that neither Moses nor Paul were aware of all the practical and theological (even philosophical) implications of what they wrote, but the same cannot be said of the Lord, who knows and intends every logical and necessary implication of His word. Jesus affirmed this conclusion when he argued that the resurrection is a necessary implication drawn from a text like Exodus 3, and without presuming that it was present in the mind of Moses he faults the Sadducees, who rejected the resurrection, for not rationally discerning all the necessary implications of the biblical text (Mark 12:18-27). The Lord knows and intends every necessary implication of His word, so that that which is implied is no less biblical than that which is explicitly stated.

The Name of God

There are a number of divine attributes and biblical passages which could serve as a point of departure, but there are perhaps none so fecund as the revelation of the name of God in Exodus 3:14. The chapter begins with Moses being summoned into the divine presence manifest in the burning bush and his being commissioned to lead Israel out of Egypt. Moses responds with two questions: who am I (v.11) and who are you (v.13)? Both of these questions have ontological significance (i.e., they are questions that pertain to what God and man are respectively) and are best answered conjointly. Our present interest, however, is most especially with his second question. Moses anticipates that the Israelites may be a little skeptical. Surely, they will want to know who this God is that has sent Moses and what He is relative to the gods of Egypt who have seemingly held them in bondage for nearly 400 years. So Moses asks, “What is your name?” to which He simply replies with the present tense verb to be, without any direct object, “I AM WHO I AM.”

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