Crossway, 2013. (Available in Australia at Koorong)
Covering a topic like this will get at least two immediate reactions: Impassa-what? Perhaps most folks will not even know what the term and the concept is all about. The other response, for those who are theologically informed souls, is to recognise what a massive, complex and multi-layered debate this is.
Just agreeing to basic terminology and a common understanding of what is meant by this is difficult to achieve. So it is a real theological minefield, and one that requires a lot of careful elaboration and discussion to properly represent.
Briefly, the concept of divine impassibility has to do with the idea that God is insusceptible “to involuntary manipulation (emotional or otherwise)”. But this is not to say that God is without passion or emotion, rightly understood. God of course grieves, rejoices, gets angry, etc.
Lister explains this dual understanding in this fashion: “God is both invulnerable to involuntarily precipitated emotional vicissitude and supremely passionate about his creatures’ practice of obedience and rebellion, as well as their expression of joy and affliction.”
Or again, “while God is sinlessly, passionately, and voluntarily responsive in the economy of redemption, he is never ultimately passive, in the sense of being involuntarily forced into an emotional experience that he does not intend to have. To state it differently, God is impassible and impassioned.”
This book seeks to elucidate this historically, theologically and biblically. It is quite important since the entire doctrine of divine impassibility has fallen on hard times of late, especially at the hands of the free-will theists. And many evangelicals are jettisoning or radically reworking it as well. Thus this teaching, which has always been part of classic Christian thought, needs to be re-stated and re-defended.
Some very helpful and important books to have done so recently include Richard Creel’s 1986 study, Divine Impassibility, and Thomas Weinandy’s 2000 volume, Does God Suffer? And evangelicals who have also defended the traditional thinking about this include Paul Helm and Gerald Bray. Evangelicals who offer a modified defence of it include John Frame and Millard Erickson.
But Lister offers a somewhat new defence, one which he claims is really not unlike what most of the early church fathers held to. He demonstrates how most of them promoted both divine impassibility and divine passion. In this process he also looks at the common charge that the Fathers were far too much impacted by Greek philosophy, at the expense of the biblical data.
He argues that this charge is largely overstated and without real merit. Sure, some like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria may well have gone overboard here, but most of the Fathers recognised that they must be true to the biblical data, while incorporating any helpful insights of the surrounding intellectual milieu.
Indeed, given all the diversity in Hellenistic thought regarding divine emotion and involvement, “charging the fathers with imbibing ‘the Greek view’ is simplistic, at best.” Moreover, “there is ample evidence in Patristic theology to demonstrate that the Fathers sought to defer to biblical authority on matters of Christian doctrine, even in the midst of their philosophical influences.”
Lister then looks at how this doctrine has been expressed throughout church history, examining many of the main players, including: Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin and Charnock. Since Luther and his followers (notably Moltmann) took a rather different tack on all this, a fair amount of time is spent on these figures as well.
Several chapters on theological and hermeneutical method are also included, setting the stage for the conclusion of the book where Lister seeks to explain and defend his position. Biblically and theologically he makes his case by looking more closely at some key biblical concepts, including the transcendence/immanence aspects of God, the creator/creature distinction, and the doctrines of God’s self-sufficiency and his voluntary condescension.
Key passages are examined along the way, and interaction with various critics (such as the openness theologians) is included in his irenic presentation. Ample footnoting takes the interested reader much further, and is well worth carefully consulting as well.
Suffice it to say that there are the sorts of considerations which must be taken into account here as we try to get our heads around matters like divine impassibility – biblical, theological, exegetical, philosophical and historical. Vital biblical concepts such as divine aseity, immutability, foreknowledge, omniscience, providence, the Trinity, theodicy, Christology, and the relationship between God and time are all raised and dealt with in this important study.
Needless to say the way in which he so successfully does all this in some 300 pages can hardly be comprehensively reflected here in a short review. But for those interested in such topics (and regardless if you accept the doctrine in question or not), this superb exposition provides much to think about and reflect upon.
Lister provides us with a very welcome addition to what is arguably a very complex, multi-faceted, and increasingly controversial issue. It will not be the last word on the topic, and it will not convince everyone. But for anyone interested in more fully grasping some key biblical and theological themes, this will be an extremely valuable and rewarding study, very much worth paying careful attention to.