Sunday, 28 February 2016

God Without Passions: A Primer, by Samuel Renihan

Samuel Renihan, God Without Passions A Primer: A Practical and Pastoral Study of Divine Impassibility, 2015 Reformed Baptist Academic Press

I was once having a picnic with some Evangelical friends from my old church. A lady whose husband had been a church planter and pastor at one time sat down on my picnic blanket. She was amused that I insisted on everybody sitting on my blanket taking off their shoes or flip flops (It was lovely soft wool- I didn't want it getting ruined or dirtied). Anyway, she was a deep thinking lady and I got talking to her about the doctrine of God's impassibility. She seemed uncomfortable with the idea. I explained that if God does not change, then He cannot experience emotion. She said "Perhaps then we need to define emotion not as we experience it but as something that God experiences unchangeably?" I replied "Yes, but then you are defining emotion as something other than emotion."

The doctrine of Divine Impassibility is not going to be popular in our sentimental age, when Christians want a God who is cuddly and not too different from us. This seems to be the case in the Reformed camp too, especially the Reformed Baptists, who are influenced by the sentiments and currents of popular Evangelicalism. The Calvinists took a strong stand in the controversy over Open Theism, yet in rejecting that historical and doctrinal aberration, many of them, such as John Frame and John Feinberg did not wholeheartedly embrace all the doctrines of Classic Theism. There has been some resistance to the doctrine of Divine Impassibility among Calvinists, despite its presence in the Westminster and London Baptist confessions (not to mention its Patristic foundations). A while ago, I wrote a review of God is Impassible and Impassioned, by Rob Lister. Lister attempted to offer a modern defence of the doctrine of Impassibility, but he ended up re-defining the doctrine to say that actually God does have passions, He just manages to keep them under control. Renihan's short introduction to the doctrine of Divine Impassibility is therefore a much needed book.

Renihan argues that when interpreting Scripture, we need to prioritise what the Bible says about God's being over what it says about His actions. The Bible affirms God's unchangebleness, therefore statements about God that imply change, whether statements about 'divine repentance' or changes of emotional state must be interpreted very carefully. Our author argues that emotional affections imply both change and dependence, therefore they cannot be applied to God. He makes the important connection between this doctrine and that of Divine Simplicity.

Drawing out the pastoral implications of Divine Impassibility, he argues that this doctrine will enable us to have a much greater confidence in God, in His character, his faithfulness and the power of His saving work in Christ. I hope that plenty of Evangelicals will read this book. I think Catholics would benefit from it too, as they may also be lacking in awareness of this aspect of their theology.

One interesting point: Renihan makes reference to the twenty-one Coptic Christians who were murdered by ISIS. He says they are 'at home with the Lord Jesus.' Does he not then regard those men as idolators who believed a Gospel of works-righteousness and therefore in hell? I have noticed that a lot of Evangelicals, particularly Calvinists, will readily declare that Catholics and Orthodox are not true Christians and then when they hear about Catholics and Orthodox being persecuted by Muslims, they switch to regarding them as true Christians.

I am grateful that this Reformed Baptist theologian has made a Biblical case for the vital doctrine of Divine Impassibility. However, I am not sure that the Biblical data he presents is exegetically watertight. If it were not for the strong witness of tradition for this doctrine, would theologians really find this doctrine in the Bible? It was the tension between the theological importance of classic theism and its lack of definitive Biblical support that made me see the importance of tradition, and thus consider the claims of the Catholic Church. Maybe seeing the beauty of classic theism will awake other Evangelicals to the Patristic and Medieval tradition.

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