"Divine Impassibility" edited by Matz and Thornhill. A Review

Divine Impassibility: Four Views of God's Emotions and SufferingDivine Impassibility: Four Views of God's Emotions and Suffering by Robert J. Matz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On rounding the corner in the hallway, I came on a huddle of men deep in the middle of a conversation. At first, there would pop up snatches of words from their muffled chatter until I finally came up close and could hear more clearly. That’s when I quickly realized they were deep in the middle of a technical discussion, using important guild language they all easily understood. It took some time to catch up to speed and get into the dialog. Something like this is how I felt as I dove into the 200 page softback “Divine Impassibility: Four Views of God’s Emotions and Suffering” edited and refereed by Robert J. Matz, assistant director of online studies and institutional effectiveness and assistant professor of Christian studies at Midwestern Baptist , Seminary and A. Chadwick Thornhill, chair of theological studies for Liberty University School of Divinity and an assistant professor of apologetics and biblical studies. The main participants – who appear to have been in this conversation before the book was compiled – are James E. Dolezal, Daniel Castelo, James C. Peckham, and Thomas Jay Oord. This little volume is part of the Spectrum Multiview Series put out by IVP Academic.

The format is straightforward. Each author espouses one of four view: (1) the strong view that God is impassible (without passions) - Dolezal; (2) the qualified view of divine impassibility – Castelo; (3) the qualified view that God is passible (with passions) – Peckham; and (4) the strong view of divine passibility – Oord. Each contestant enters the ring by himself to exhibit his skill, dexterity, density and speed. The other contenders sit outside the ropes to give their impressions and evaluations at the end of the round, with one last opportunity to clean up his moves handed over to the main competitor. It’s a very simple and useful approach.

The central issue has to do with God’s emotional life. Is God the unmoved mover, unaffected emotionally by his creatures, untouched by evil, free of all suffering (Dolezal)? Maybe God is unable to be affected by external forces and conditions against his will but can will to be affected (Costelo). Then again, it might be that God voluntarily chooses to feel and suffer with his creation, while the Creator-creature distinction is maintained, and God’s nature remains unchanged and unchallenged (Peckham). Or has God, who is love, become necessarily vulnerable to his creatures, affected by the give-and-take of relationship (Oord)?

A reader can find themselves getting dazed by the language of precision in places; stunned by a few heavy guild words (anthropomorphic, anthropopathic, theopathic, apophatic, etc.); and bemused by a few, finely nuanced explanations. But in the end, even if one is not won over to this or that position, you will find that the book has raised some important questions, and the contenders have toiled hard to persuade. As the last round closed, I would say that none of the contestants won the match. I was shocked by the conclusions Oord made that seem to get too close to a god swaddled in circumstances and situations, who could potentially be just as helpless as his creatures, “Creation makes an impact on God’s experience. Consequentially, a relational God is affected by what creatures do” (130). I was also given much to think about by Dolezal, Costelo and Peckham regarding what we Christians mean that God is immutable, and loving, etc.

The editors, Matz and Thornhill, penned the introduction and summarizing conclusion. They clearly mapped out the ground rules and parameters for each competitor to follow. Further, they nicely fill in the spectators so that we can know what's going on in the ring, including the nifty chart "Four Questions for Four Views in Divine Passibility". Finally, the editors draw in the early church pastors and theologians, showing that the "issue of impassibility thus surfaced largely in polemical contexts, first against Greco-Roman and Gnostic opponents, and eventually against heterodox groups that challenged the coherence of the teaching that Jesus both shared in the divine essence and yet suffered and died as a human" (11). The introduction was very useful.

“Divine Impassibility” is a thought-provoking volume. It will help a reader to begin to ask better questions of God’s self-revelation, such as when God says, “I have been broken over (Israel’s) whoring heart that has departed from me” (Ezekiel 6.9). Even though it is a bit technical, I think perceptive readers will be able to follow and digest the contents. I recommend the book.

My thanks to IVP Academic for sending the book, on my request, used for this review. As always, they never made any stipulations on me, other than that I present my own analysis. Therefore, the evaluation given heretofore is my own, provided without my being under any duress.

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