by Patrick Lee

In the last several decades process philosophers and theologians have vigorously criticized the traditional Christian beliefs that God is immutable and completely self-sufficient.  The view of process philosophers and theologians is that God suffers along with his “creatures,” that he does not create from nothing, that he depends in several ways on his “creatures,” and that he is fulfilled or deprived by the success or failure of the world.[1]  Recently, other thinkers, who reject the label of process philosophers or theologians, and who prefer to be called “open theists,”  have also proposed such arguments.[2]   

            Process theologians and Open theists argue that Scripture reveals that God is a person, that He knows and loves us, that He responds to our prayers, is pleased or displeased with us, and that he invites us to enter a personal relationship with Him.  But these points, it is objected, imply that God changes, and that what we do affects God.  So, we must concede, contrary to classical theism (the argument continues), that God changes and is affected by our actions.[3]

            I will argue, on the contrary, that God is indeed immutable, and that God is not dependent, for any perfection or fulfillment in himself, on his creatures.  To hold otherwise, as the likes of Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas have made abundantly clear, is to deny (in effect) that God is God, to fall away from theism itself.  Thus, I will argue that classical theism has much more to say in its defense than is usually admitted by its detractors. God is indeed personal, and knows and loves us, but we simply cannot assume that what is true of human persons, knowledge and love (which involve change and dependence) is true of the divine persons and knowledge and love. To make that assumption, as process and open theists blithely do, is to compromise God’s transcendence. 

            I will examine the following points: first, the fundamental truth that God is the Creator, and what that entails; second, two views on divine impassibility; and, finally, a more detailed look at a key claim of the second view (on divine impassibility), namely, that even after revelation what God is in himself remains unknown, though revelation does tell us about God through the personal relationship we are invited to enter with him.

            When we ask, does God have emotions? the most straightforward, correct answer is, Yes, because he became man.  Jesus is both God and man, fully divine and fully human.  So, Jesus has human emotions: joys, desires, fears, sadnesses, and so on.  The Christian faith holds that Jesus is one divine person but with two natures, human and divine.[4]   I do not wish here to examine in detail this central dogma (since I will concentrate on the question of whether God has emotions in his divine nature), but briefly the following should be said.  A person is an intelligent and free subject of actions, a morally responsible agent.[5]  A nature is the intrinsic source of characteristic actions, that by which or with which one acts.  In Christ, the one who acts is God himself, so he is a divine person.  But Christ can act by  his divine nature or by his human nature (or by both).  Thus, after the Incarnation, literally, God does suffer as we suffer, he does have emotions as we have emotions, since it is the person who has the emotions, even though he has these emotions by his human nature. 

            Traditionally it was believed that at least one main reason why God became man was so that the God-man Jesus Christ could be a mediator.  God’s transcendence, that is, the infinite difference between his perfection and ours, did, from our angle, make approaching him difficult, certainly somewhat frightening.  God became man, however, and we humans can now be personally united to God, brought within the divine family (the Trinity), in Jesus Christ.  So, if one complains that the classical theist’s God seems too different from us, and therefore difficult to approach, I believe it is fair to answer that God in his divine nature is difficult to approach, and it is partly for that reason that God became man.[6]

            Hereafter, when I discuss whether God does this or does that, I will mean God in his divine nature without, usually, specifically indicating that restriction.  If  by “emotion” one means a sensate (psycho-somatic) reaction to good or evil, then, as most agree, God does not literally have emotions, since he does not have a body.  But the question remains:  is God affected in some way by our actions?  Does he literally suffer when we suffer or do wrong?  Does he really become angry, repent of his actions, or rejoice at the repentance of a sinner?  Does he literally feel joy over the way things are in himself, and in his creation? 

            The classical view, as articulated for example by Saints Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, said that God is immutable, impassible, and non-temporal.  In other words, since God is perfect, he does not change.  Since he is perfect, he does not undergo change from any other being (he is impassible).  And since he does not change, there is in him no distinction between past, present and future. On the classical view, to be sure, God does delight in his goodness and loves his creatures, but this cannot be interpreted as meaning that God is changed by, or different because of, his creatures.[7]



            Scripture and the teaching of the Church reveal that God loves us and that he invites us to enter a personal relationship with him.  This is indeed central to God’s revelation.  But the very first part of that communication is an identification:  it is God who speaks to us, who invites us to enter a personal relationship with him.  What is meant by “God”?  Prior to informing us that he invites us to a covenant with him, God must somehow indicate who it is that is speaking.  And it is just here that we find a tradition in Scripture as equally central as the theme of God’s love or patience, namely, God’s transcendence. The one who speaks to us is not to be confused with “other gods,” but is the Creator, and the Almighty. 

            The very first words of Genesis make this identification:  “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.”  Moreover, God is so transcendent that no image should be made of him (Exod. 20:4).  Ordinarily, mere humans cannot behold God directly and live (Exod. 33:20).  He is the exalted One, who dwells in the high and lofty places (Isa. 57:15; 33:5).[8]  Furthermore, this doctrine--that God is Creator, and transcendent, that is, beyond what in this life we can understand--is reaffirmed in the New Testament.  For example, writing to Timothy St. Paul says:

In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time--God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord or lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.  To him be honor and might forever.  Amen. (1 Tim. 6: 13-16)[9]

            To say that God is the Creator is to refer to him as the ultimate explanation for the existence of the contingent beings in the material universe.  The things in this world do not exist by reason of what they are, but are caused to exist by others.  Those causes may, in turn, be caused by still others.  But such a causal series cannot go on indefinitely.  There must be a cause of the existence of these contingent things which does not receive its existence, but which exists by reason of what it is.  That is, there must be a self-sufficient being, something which can explain the existence of the things in this world because it has existence of its own nature. 

            We find in ourselves various natural inclinations, basic tendencies toward activities or conditions such as life, health, knowledge, friendship, artistic or skillful performance.  These natural inclinations are toward activities or conditions which are objectively fulfilling or perfective of us as human persons.  These inclinations or tendencies must be from the creator.  But they are inclinations directing us toward our real fulfillment.  It is reasonable, then, to conclude that the creator is in some way intelligent (as directing) and benevolent (as responsible for directives toward our good). 

            Moreover, every aspect of the material universe, including its matter and energy, is contingent, and thus needs causation.   Hence the uncaused cause of the existence of the material universe is the Creator.[10]

            So, whatever else is said about God must be consistent with the fundamental truth that he is the Creator and all that that legitimately implies.  We may now ask, can one consistently hold that the Creator changes, or that he is modified by creatures? 

            The proposition that God is the Creator implies at least three other points:  1) God creates freely; 2) God possesses his complete perfection within himself, 3) God is immutable and is not in time (that is, his existence is not measured by time). All three points are denied by process theism, but the last one is also denied by others, for example, “open theists.”  In the rest of this section I will explain these points.  In subsequent sections I will present two other viae mediae, which do not deny that God is immutable.

            The basic Judeo-Christian belief that God is Creator implies that God did not have to create; it was only out of generosity that God created.  This point is taught by Scripture and the Church.  It is taught so frequently in Scripture, especially in the Psalms, which often figure in the liturgy of God’s people, that it is impossible to cite all the places which teach or imply it.  The creation story of Genesis, while describing God’s work of creation in a figurative rather than a literal sense, does clearly teach that God created out of generosity rather than need.  Psalm 135 says that God wills events in heaven and earth: 

“Praise the name of the Lord;

Praise him you servants of the Lord,

you who minister in the house of the Lord, . . .

I know that the Lord is great,

that our Lord is greater than all gods.

The Lord does whatever pleases him,

in the heavens and on the earth,

in the seas and all their depths. (Ps. 135: 1-6)

The book of Wisdom teaches:

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon earth.  But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things . . . .  For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.  And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you.”[11]  (Wis. 11: 22-26)

The book of Revelation teaches that God creates by his will: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (Rev. 4:11)[12]

            As a Catholic, I believe that Scripture should be read in the context of the tradition of the Church, which is articulated by the Church’s authoritative teachings. In the First Vatican Council, the Church defined that God created all things, “by his will, free from all necessity.”[13]  And the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:  “We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom (note omitted).  It is not the product of necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance.  We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will . . . .[14]

             That God creates freely rather than necessarily is implied also by the contingency of the things in this world.  Each thing in this world might or might not be.  But if God had to create, this would not be so, that is, these things would not be contingent.[15]  Morever, since the Creator may or may not cause these entities to be, and may cause these or those to be, it is reasonable to conclude that the Creator causes them freely, somewhat as a free agent selects among possible courses of action which course of action to adopt.[16]

            The belief that God is Creator implies, secondly, that God is perfect in himself.  That is, God must have his complete perfection within himself.  If God’s perfection depended on others, then God would have to create at least something as a means toward his own fulfillment.  In that case, again, the things in this world would not be contingent.

            Moreover, every perfection and being in the universe is but a faint echo of the perfection in God.  Whatever perfection is in the effect must pre-exist in the cause, though it may exist in the cause in a higher manner.  This is because the cause explains the effect.  If all of the perfection in the effect did not pre-exist in the cause (though perhaps in a higher manner), then the perfection in the effect which did not pre-exist in the cause would remain unexplained.[17]  Since all being and perfection in the universe finds its source in the Creator, the perfection and goodness in the universe is related to God somewhat as the rays of light are related to the unimaginable brightness of the sun.[18]  So, God has his perfection within himself, and it is greater than the perfection of the created universe, which is but a reflection of it.

            That God is Creator entails a third truth also:  God does not change and is not in time (these are two aspects of one point).  That which changes has its existence spread out over time, broken up, as it were.  What is temporal must be composed of parts; part of it is now and part of it is not yet.  But since God is perfect, and self-existent, this cannot be true of God. 

            Some have argued that God’s perfection entails his immutability, since to change would be to move away from perfection.  My argument, however, does not presuppose that every change must be either for the better or for the worse.  Rather, my argument is that temporality involves a continuous flow, a continuous transition from the present to the past, and so a temporal being cannot exist wholly in any moment.  What I am saying applies analogously both to spatial beings (bodies) and to things in time.  No body in space, however small, can exist wholly at any one point (an unextended location) in space; for, if it could, the additions of those bodies could never add up to an extended space.  But several bodies in space must constitute an extended (increasingly larger) space.  Analogously, no temporal being can exist wholly at any one moment, for then the addition of new moments could not be added to equal an extended time.[19]  So, every entity in time, every temporal being, must be spread out over time, and thus, must be composed of parts.  But if a thing is composed of parts, then it cannot be actual of itself.  It will depend on its parts; and its parts, as being mere parts rather than wholes, will not be self-actual either (but dependent on something else).  Thus, it seems to me that the traditional position that the temporal entails dependence in being--and thus cannot be predicated of God--is correct.  Temporality must be denied of God.

            Moreover, the Church, in her creeds as well as in definitions by Church councils, has taught definitively that God is eternal and immutable.  These are prominent articles of the creeds.  For example, the Fourth Lateran Council[20] proclaims: 

We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true God, eternal, infinite (immensus) and unchangeable, incomprehensible, almighty, and ineffable, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; three persons indeed but one essence, substance or nature entirely simple.[21] 

            It is important to realize, however, that to say that God is the Creator does not describe God’s essence.  Rather, it refers to him, and says something about him, through the relationships that other things have to him (more on this, below pp. 15-25) . 

            This negation of change and temporality, however, does not mean that God is in no way responsive.  There is no contradiction in holding that a timeless God responds to our prayers.  Suppose Joe prays for his wife to be healed and God heals her in answer to Joe’s prayer.  One need not suppose God has changed his mind.  Rather, one can suppose that God eternally wills that if Joe prays then his wife is cured.  Joe’s prayer brings it about that the world is different from what it would have been if he had not prayed, though God does not change.[22] 


            So, where does this leave us with respect to whether God has emotions?  Granted that God is not in time and that God has his perfection within himself--in other words is not perfected or fulfilled by others--there are, I think, two directions one could move in.  I believe the second direction or view is probably correct, but I must say that the first view is also preferable to process theism and to the whole position proposed by others, such as “open theists,” who deny that God is immutable.

            According to the first view, God does not change and God is not perfected or fulfilled by others, since they receive all of their perfection from him.  Still, according to the first view, God is different in his being, in certain respects, from the way he could have been.[23]  God freely and eternally wills that these creatures exist rather than those possible ones, though he also wills that they exist at particular times.[24]  He could have willed that other beings exist rather than the ones that he freely chooses to create.  And, according to the first view, God’s willing that these beings exist versus God’s willing that those beings exist, is a real difference in God.  God’s will would be in some way different had he willed a different world to exist.

            The same point, according to the first view, applies to God’s knowledge.  God moves me to do a good deed.  But suppose that, given that I have free choice,[25]  I resist this movement, or I fall away from God’s movement of me to do the good deed (call it Y), and that I do a bad deed (say, X) instead.[26]  How does God know that I do the one deed rather than the other? According to the first view, the content of his knowledge is in some way different than it would have been if I had done the other deed. 

            Suppose I freely do or will X rather than Y.  To say that this choice is free is to say that in the very same circumstances it was possible for me to will Y or perhaps not to will at all.  According to the first view, my willing X rather than Y somehow brings it about that the content of God’s knowledge is in some way different from what it would have been if I had willed Y.  However, it is important to note that my willing X rather than Y does not introduce into God some perfection he does not in some way already super-abundantly possess.  After all, I will X or Y only because these possibilities are already there for me because of God’s inclining me toward fulfillment.  It is also important to note that the badness of the bad choice is not a positive something, but the privation or falling away from what is proper and right.[27]  So God’s knowledge is different from what it would have been, had I chosen differently, but my action does not perfect or fulfill God.   

            According to this first view, one can literally say that God does have emotions, in the sense of spiritual affections.  One can literally say that God is pleased with what I do, or is displeased with it.  He delights in it or is angry about it.  He eternally delights in or is eternally displeased at this deed, just as he is eternally pleased or displeased by what I did yesterday or will do tomorrow.  Since God is not in time (is not temporal), what is past or future with respect to us is not past or future with respect to God, but is in some way “present.”[28]  So, although God is not in time, his will and knowledge are in some way different from the way they would have been if I had acted differently.  And so God has spiritual responses, or emotions. 

            But there are difficulties for this proposal.  One difficulty is that it seems to involve thinking of God as composite.  God is the uncaused cause and a necessary being.   If one then says that in some respects God is caused, that some aspects of God are contingent (for example, in some way his willing and knowing creatures is in some way dependent on creatures), then it seems that one must distinguish the uncaused part of God from the caused part of God, since nothing, not even God, can be both uncaused and caused in the same respect.[29]   But it does not seem possible for any composite being to exist necessarily.  The whole will depend upon the parts, but the parts could not be necessary beings--as parts, they must depend on their place within the whole.  And so, just of itself, the composite being might or might not be.[30]  As we saw above, the Creator cannot be a contingent being.  

            There also is theological warrant for the position that God is not composite, but simple.  The creed of the Fourth Lateran Council, as we already quoted above, taught that God is three persons, but “one, utterly simple essence, substance or nature” (sed una essentia, substantia seu natura simplex omnino).[31]  Speaking of the three persons in God, the Council of Florence taught:  “These three persons are one God, not three gods; for the three persons have one substance, one essence, one nature, one divinity, one immensity, one eternity.  And everything is one where there is no distinction by opposition of relation.” [32]  And the First Vatican Council proclaimed that God is “one single, utterly simple and immutable spiritual substance.”[33]  Perhaps there is some way of interpreting this simplicity to be a special sort of simplicity.  However, the Councils seem precisely to deny a substance-accident composition, like that in human persons, when they deny composition of God.  And it is just that sort of composition that the first view seems to suggest.


            The first view seems to presuppose that when we say that God knows or wills, at least part of the meaning of the terms “knowing” and “willing” is the same as when we say that George or Mary knows or wills.  But this, according to the second view, is to overreach the limits of our understanding and, what is more, to compromise God’s transcendence.  It wrongly supposes that we have apprehended some aspect of what God is in himself. 

            One can compare the existence of things in this world to the wetness of a patch of grass.  The grass is wet, but not by reason of what it is, and so there must be an extrinsic explanation, a cause, for why it is wet.  By contrast, one does not need an explanation of why grass is a plant, since that is what it is.  Similarly, the existence of the things in this world requires explanation.  The things in this world do not exist by reason of what they are, and so they need a cause of their existence.  But the Creator of all things is quite different.  To say that God is the Creator is to say that he is the uncaused cause of everything else, the ultimate explanation for the existence of the contingent beings in this world.  So, unlike contingent beings, whatever God is in himself, he exists by reason of what he is.  His existence must be related to him somewhat as being a plant is related to grass, that is, as self-explanatory. What-God-is is sufficient for his existing.  And thus God exists necessarily. 

            Because contingent beings (i.e., the things in this world) do not exist simply by reason of what they are, it is possible for us to understand what any of them is without knowing whether it exists or not.  Understanding what a contingent being is does not (by itself) tell us that it exists.  For example, understanding what a human is or what a dinosaur is does not by itself tell us that there are any humans or dinosaurs.  But the Creator exists by reason of what he is; what he is is sufficient for his existing.  Hence if we could understand what the Creator is, that understanding would just by itself tell us that he exists.  (This is similar to grass’s being a plant:  since being a plant is what grass is, understanding what grass is just by itself tells us that it is a plant.) 

            Now, every essence or feature that we do understand is such that our understanding of it does not tell us by itself that something of that sort exists.  That is, everything we understand is, if it exists, contingently existing, and we can understand it without thereby knowing that something of that sort exists.  But whatever God is, God exists necessarily; hence if we knew what God is we would know thereby that God exists.  It follows that any essence, quality or action that we truly understand or apprehend is not an intrinsic feature of God’s essence.[34]

            So, whatever we understand--which includes change, bodiliness, but also spiritual (non-physical) actions such as knowing and loving--must be denied of God.  That is, God does not change.  God is not bodily.  But also, God does not know in the sense of “know” that is true of us.  He does not love in the same sense of loving that we understand.  (This also means that God is not inert, is not ignorant, is not indifferent, and is not callous.  God is not subpersonal.  Rather, God is more than, or higher than, what we can understand.)

            With creatures, we often understand something intrinsic to a thing’s nature even if we have not directly seen an individual of that kind.  For example, if we have not seen a polar bear, we still might understand something of what a polar bear is in itself.  The polar bear shares the same nature (to a certain extent) with horses and dogs:  each is a mammal, each is of the class of mammals.  So, directly understanding what a mammal is through observation of horses or dogs allows us to apprehend an aspect of the intrinsic nature of the unobserved polar bear (his being a mammal).  However, God does not have the same nature or feature as any creature, since all the natures and features of a creature are such that they might or might not be, while what-God-is exists necessarily.

            This means that one cannot know what God is through understanding some other thing of the same essence, the same specifically or generically.  One cannot understand what God is as one might understand what a polar bear is--by first understanding what persons are, for example, then inferring that God must have some of the same properties.[35]

            Since creatures are effects of God they are like God in some respect.  But their likeness to God as creatures cannot consist in possessing the same nature or in being of the same genus.  Thus, according to the second view, even our concepts that properly apply to ourselves, understanding, willing and love, cannot be directly applied to God in the sense that they apply to ourselves.  Since our concepts of features found in ourselves present to our minds realities or natures that do not entail their existing, these realities or natures cannot be aspects of God’s necessarily existing essence.[36]  Thus, to say that God understands or that God wills or loves, should not be taken to mean that what is presented to our mind by those concepts are intrinsic aspects of God.  Rather, such statements should be understood as being indirect or analogical:  God understands, should be understood somewhat as: creatures are related to God in a way that is in some respects similar to the way what is understood is related to one who understands, and God is in himself what it takes to be the term of that relation.  God wills creatures to be = contingent beings are related to God in a way that is in some respects similar to the way objects willed are related to a free agent, and God has in himself what is necessary to be the term of that relation. 

            But one might object that perhaps God could be uncaused and necessary in his existence but contingent in other aspects of his being.  Then perhaps we might have concepts of features internal to his essence that do not entail existence.[37]  In other words, granted that if we understood fully what God is we would thereby know that he exists, still, we can understand certain aspects of his being without knowing thereby his existence.

            The difficulty with this position is that it seems to involve a compositeness in God.  If God is not composed--and the arguments for this seem strong--then one cannot apprehend a contingent aspect of God, while abstracting from the necessary aspect.  The objection would succeed only if God’s being could be divided into a substantial, necessary core, versus a contingent, accidental core.  But we have already seen difficulties in that view (see above, pp. 14-15).     

            How then is it possible to know and speak about God at all?  The answer according to the second view is, through the relationships that other things have to him.[38]  An analogy will clarify this position.  In the late 1960's astronomers began to detect the reception of regular radio waves from outside our galaxy.  The waves came with such regularity that some astronomers even suggested that perhaps their source was an extra-galactic intelligence.  Some time later it was correctly inferred that the source was actually neutron stars, whose rapid spinning caused the radio waves.  Before this, however, astronomers coined  the term "pulsar" to refer to the source of these radio waves.  For some time, then, astronomers referred to pulsars, could speak about them, and theorize about them, but did not know what they were in themselves.  They referred to them only through the relations which other things had toward them.  

            This case is similar (in some respects) to our knowledge and language about God.  We do not grasp what God is in himself; we do not know what God is.  Still, we can refer to him through the relationship which creatures have to him.  He is the ultimate source of the existence, perfection, and moral order in the universe.  He is the Creator of heaven and earth.  This causal relation, the relation of creation, enables us to know and speak about him. He is the entity at the term of this relation.  However, this causal relation does not enable us to apprehend what he is in himself. On the basis of this relation we can affirm the existence of the Creator, and can know that the Creator is perfect (as the source of all perfections in this universe), is not bodily, is not limited by time or space, and is a personal being, creating the world with something like freedom and intelligence.[39]  All of this we can know even through natural reason, before or without logical dependence upon, the aid of special revelation (e.g., Scripture). 

            However, there is an important sense in which our relationship to pulsars is unlike our causal dependence on the Creator.  The pulsars are quite distant from us, outside our galaxy.  That is, they are separated from us by quantities of space and time. God, however, is immediately present to every creature.  God causes every creature directly, and is causally present in every effect.[40]  God is also present in another and deeper manner to persons who abide in his friendship.  He is present in them as the lover is to the beloved, as a friend to another friend.  That is, God is present to them because he is in personal communion with them.  However, although God is not separated from us by space or time, if by “distant” one means, greater than, or other than, or beyond what we can understand, then in that sense one can truthfully say that God is “distant.”  Thus, with picturesque language of distance Isaiah can say of God, “He sits enthroned above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.” (Isa. 40:22) and the letter to the Hebrews can say that Christ, “took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, . . . .” (Heb. 1:3).

            Scripture emphasizes that God is beyond what we can understand.  He is like no other god.  He so transcends our understanding that no images should be made of him (Exod. 20:4).[41]  And this, of course, has been taken up in the tradition in the Church. One formulation of the Church’s faith recites as follows: 

We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true God, eternal, infinite (immensus), and unchangeable, incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit . . . .[42]

God’s being or nature is incomprehensible and ineffable.  To think that we understand what God is in himself is to compromise his transcendence, to carve him down to something much less than he is.

            The relation of creation allows us to speak about God through natural reason (that is, without the aid of special revelation).[43]  But with grace and revelation God initiates a new relation to created persons.  With grace and revelation God is known not only as the first cause of all things, and as the source of moral directives, but now as the initiator of the covenantal relationship, a personal communion. What God is, is still not apprehended.  But now God is known on a new level, on the basis of a deeper relationship. 

            In this way, according to the second view, it is possible to understand something about God and speak about God, without understanding what God is, that is, without apprehending any perfection intrinsic to God’s essence.  All of our understanding and language about God are through the relationships creatures have to him, the causal relationship (which all creatures have), the relationship of moral directives to their source, and the personal relationship (shared by persons who have not rejected his offer of grace).   

            It is important also to note that, according to the second view, even these causal relationships are not understood as they are in themselves.  That is, God’s causality, as well as God himself, is known only through analogy.  To say that God is the first cause is to say something like this: the way the warmth of the sidewalk is related to the sun (namely, as explained by it), is similar to the way the existences of the things in this world are related to God.  To say that God is present by grace in a person is to say something like this:  the way the bridegroom is present to the bride is similar to the way God is present to the person in grace.

            Scripture and the teaching of the Church reveal that God loves us, that he invites us to enter into personal communion with him, that he is three persons in one being, that the second person became man and died for our sins.  However, according to the second view of divine impassibility--the view I think more likely correct--even revelation does not enable us in this life to know what God is in himself.  Revelation tells us about God through this new personal relationship.  That is, the personal relationship, which involves much more than a mere causal relationship, remains the vehicle by which we know about God. 

            But what, for example, does Scripture and the teaching of the Church mean when they say that God is personal, and that God loves us?    According the second view, Scripture reveals to us who God is primarily by shaping our covenantal relationship to God.  How we are to relate to God, what this relationship involves, is not summed up entirely in any one statement.  Moreover, the statements about this relationship modify each other.  So, one must read Scripture as a whole, and, in the context of the tradition and life of the Church, understand the covenantal relationship God is setting up with us.  And then, through that relationship, one understands much more about God than one could by natural reasoning unaided by revelation.  We still do not understand God’s intrinsic essence.  But we understand that God has in himself what is necessary for this relationship to him to be possible and appropriate.

            Scripture reveals that we should fear God (that is, respect him), that we should trust Him, that we should ask things of Him.  Scripture teaches that we should relate to God as to a king, as to a Lord.  Most significantly, Scripture reveals that we should relate to God as to a father. To say that God is Father clearly does not mean that the nature (a relation) which we apprehend in human beings is found also, though in a higher degree, in God. Rather, in his being God has what is necessary for this personal relationship in us toward him, to be a fitting one.  Scripture is not telling us that God is not really our Father, but to act as if God were.  Rather, God is bringing us into a relationship such that we fittingly call God Father.  And God really is in his own being fittingly related to as to a father.  But to try to abstract some aspect of fatherhood common to biological fathers and God is to miss the point and to evacuate the meaning that father really has, as said of God.

            In one way, thinking that the language about God in Scripture is a straightforward description of God’s essence overestimates our cognitive grasp of God.  But, paradoxically, it also underestimates the depth of what Scripture and the teaching of the Church reveal about God’s personal being.  If we want to learn about who God is, then we need to enter that rich, multi-faceted, covenantal relationship.  In that relationship we come to understand what God must be like.  As the relationship develops, our indirect understanding of God becomes richer. 

            Consider the central affirmation that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8).  First, the form itself of the expression indicates that the way in which love is in God transcends our understanding.  For the love we understand is never identical with the persons who love.  The love we understand is an act that inheres in the person who loves.  To say that God is love, rather than just that God does love, clearly suggests, in support of the second view, that God’s actions are identical with his substance and being.[44]  According to the second view, we do not apprehend a nature of love common to God and creatures, abstract from finitude, and then predicate this notion of God.  This would assume that we directly grasp a feature intrinsic to God’s essence.  Rather, to say that God is love is to say that we are

being treated by God as a beloved is treated by his true and faithful lover, and that God is in himself what is necessary for this relationship to be real.  The love that we can understand is only a faint echo of the divine love. 

            Scripture contains many descriptions of God which are clearly intended as metaphors.  For example, God is a rock, a shepherd, a husband, one who repents of his actions, shows the strength of his arm, and so on.  Should we think of God (in his divine nature) as really changing, as really feeling regret, as really having an arm? There clearly needs to be a criterion, or criteria, for determining how literally to take these comparisons.  I suggest that the fundamental truths that God is Creator and that God transcends our understanding, which are basic and central truths affirmed in Scripture, do provide, in part, the needed criteria.


            Arguments against classical theism sometimes assume that to deny one property of God, say suffering or grief in our senses of these terms, commits one to affirming the contrary of that property.  For example, to deny that God suffers or grieves (in the normal senses of those terms) is taken to mean that God is aloof and indifferent.  Thus, Clark Pinnock describes the disagreement between classical and open theism as follows:

Two models of God in particular are the most influential that people commonly carry around in their minds.  We may think of God primarily as an aloof monarch, removed from the contingencies of the world, unchangeable in every aspect of being, as all-determining and irresistible power, aware of everything that will ever happen and never taking risks.  Or we may understand God as a caring parent with qualities of love and responsiveness, generosity and sensitivity, openness and vulnerability, a person (rather than a metaphysical principle) who experiences the world, responds to what happens, relates to us and interacts dynamically with humans.[45]

Pinnock’s argument here, however, is based on an incomplete disjunction.  He mistakenly assumes that one or other of those descriptions must apply to God.  He assumes that to deny one property is to affirm the contrary.  Later in the chapter Pinnock returns to this contrast:  “God is not cool and collected but is deeply involved and can be wounded.”[46] 

            It must be admitted that classical theists themselves are partly responsible for this confusion.  For they have not sufficiently emphasized, or have not consistently held to, the point that we do not know what God is in himself.  And perhaps their doctrine has at times seemed to imply that God is aloof and indifferent.  However, to deny one property of God is not the same as to affirm the contrary of that property.  According to the second view, which I hold is probably correct, we should deny that God (in his divine nature) suffers, because we understand what suffering is, and whatever we can apprehend about other things cannot be a feature intrinsic to God’s essence.  God is greater than what we can understand.  But we must also deny, with equal insistence, that God is indifferent or callous, for these also are properties we understand, and are contingently existing.  Similarly, to say that God is immutable is not the same as to say that God is static.  To say that God is impassible is not to say that God is indifferent.  Rather, in each case both contrary properties should be denied of the Creator. 

            One should not, then, think of God as inert, or unresponsive.  To do so is to make the very mistake which the negation was meant to exclude, namely, to compromise God’s transcendence.  God is greater than what we can understand, so we must deny of him those attributes which imply imperfection.  But that means that in doing so we must not impute to him even worse imperfections.

            Even if this mistake is not made (inferring a contrary affirmation from a negation), critics of classical theism almost always assume that we must have some concept of what God is like in himself.  For example, the process theologian Schubert Ogden argued as follows: 

Because it [classical theism] rests on the premise that God can be in no sense really relative or temporal, it can say that he ‘knows’ or ‘loves’ only by contradicting the meaning of those words as we otherwise use them.[47]

Richard Rice argues that the biblical view of God entails that God does change, is affected by our actions, and suffers when we suffer.  Summing up, he says:    

So the statement God is love embodies an essential biblical truth.  It indicates that love is central, not incidental, to the nature of God.  Love is not something God happens to do, it is the one divine activity that most fully and vividly discloses God’s inner reality.  Love, therefore, is the very essence of the divine nature.  Love is what it means to be God.[48]

God certainly knows and loves.  God certainly is love, but, according to the second view, we do not apprehend any nature of knowledge or love held in common by us and God, and so we cannot infer from the characteristics of human knowledge or love to divine knowledge or love.  Both Rice and Ogden assume that many of the descriptions in the Bible--not all, for they admit that many are meant metaphorically--present to our mind features or aspects intrinsic to God’s essence. 

            As another example, Thomas Morris actually criticizes what he calls “creation theology” for the fact that it cannot give us a clear idea of what God is: 

As a way of thinking about God, creation theology has much to recommend it. . . . . But as a sole, independent method for articulating a conception of God, creation theology looks frustratingly incomplete.  The idea of God arising exclusively out of this sort of explanatory reasoning inevitably has a rather minimal content which is both religiously and philosophically unsatisfying.[49]

But Morris assumes that for some reason we really must have, or are due, an idea of what God is, an idea of God that is not “frustratingly incomplete.”  Of course, revelation adds tremendously to our knowledge of God, as I explained above, but even with revelation, in this life our notion of God is indirect and must remain incomplete. 

            Process philosophers and theologians have correctly argued, I think, that classical theists have sometimes implied that God is indifferent or callous to our triumphs and sufferings.  On the other hand, process theism overemphasized God’s immanence to such an extent that what process theists call “God” could not be identified with the one “creator of all that is visible and invisible” in whom Christians profess their belief.  But the solution is not to compromise God’s transcendence a little less, in order to find a via media. Rather, the solution is to see that both extremes--viewing God as indifferent, or viewing God as changing or suffering (in his divine nature)--result from a single mistake, namely, presuming that we really must have a notion of what God is in himself.  Once this presumption is consistently given up, then we can see that denying that God changes, or that God is modified or altered by us, in no way implies that God is indifferent, cool, or callous.             

            Denying that God changes and that God is internally modified by our actions is not a result of undue influence on the part of Greek philosophy.  Nor is it a purely philosophical conclusion imposed on the data of revelation.  In an essay defending an “open theist” conception of God, William Hasker refers to “an a priori exegesis that knows in advance exactly what can and cannot be truly said of God.”[50]  Clark Pinnock says of traditional theology, which insisted on God’s immutability and impassibility, the following: 

Traditional theology has been biased in the direction of transcendence as the result of undue philosophical influences.  Greek thinking located the ultimate and perfect in the realm of the immutable and absolutely transcendent.  This led early theologians (given that the biblical idea is also transcendent) to experiment with equating the God of revelation with the Greek ideal of deity.[51]

However, what led Jewish, Christian and Islamic thinkers to conclude that God is immutable and independent was the doctrine of creation, the doctrine that God is the source of the total being or existence of the things in this world.  This doctrine was not found in ancient Greek metaphysics.[52]  When Jewish, Christian and Islamic philosophers and theologians began to seek an adequate explanation of the existence of things, rather than simply of their motion (as in Aristotle) or of their structure and design (as in Plato) they began to develop a distinctive outlook on the relationship between God and the world. My job is not to recount that history here.  But it is important to note that the truth at stake does not originate in ancient Greek metaphysics, but is a fundamental truth of Scripture and the creeds, that God is the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. 

            So, does God have emotions or spiritual affections or not?  I have presented two views that I think have some plausibility.  On both views the doctrines that God does not change and that God is not perfected by creatures are retained.  According to the first view, God really is affected by what we do and suffer, although he is not changed and he is not perfected by his relations with creatures.  He is in his being different from what he would have been had we acted or suffered differently--for his knowledge and will are different from what they would have been had we acted differently--though he does not change and is not perfected by the actions of creatures.  On this first view there are emotions in God, though of a very different sort than what we normally conceive.

            However, the second view seems to me more probably correct.  According to the second view, one does not simply deny that there might be in God (in his divine nature) something like emotion.  If the question, are there emotions in God, means:  Do our concepts of various emotions present to our minds aspects of what God is? then (according to the second view) the answer is, No.  But we should remember that this is equally true of other concepts, such as our concepts of knowledge and willing.  On the other hand, if one means (when one asks whether God has emotions), can one truly and literally, not just in an improper or metaphorical sense, say that God is pleased with us or is angry with us? the answer is, Yes, in the relational sense explained above.  That is, it is true to say that we are related to God as one who pleases is related to the one who is pleased, and that God has what is necessary to be related to in this way.  We are related to God as one who elicits anger is related to the one who is angry, and God is in his own being what is necessary to be the term of this relation.  Each of these predications indirectly tells us something about God.  When we learn through Scripture, through the teaching and liturgy of the Church, and through our own meditation and prayer, how God is calling us to relate to him, then we learn ever more about the transcendent being to whom it is possible and appropriate to relate to in this way. 


[1] For example, Charles Hartshorne, Divine Relativity (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1948); Jorgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (London:  SCM, 1991).  Some theologians have argued for a via media between classical theism and process theism. They say that God is really spiritually affected or changed by his creation, and so does literally have emotions, and yet God is not radically dependent on creatures, and is indeed sovereign.  Cf. Clark Pinnock et al., The Openness of God:  A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, Ill.:  InterVarsity Press, 1994).

[2] See note 1.  Also see:  Thomas Morris, Our Idea of God (Downers Grove, Ill.:  Intervarsity Press, 1991).

[3] Among other places, the case is presented clearly in:  Richard Creel, Divine Impassibility (Cambridge:  Cambridge Univerisity Press, 1986).  A useful survey and critical assessment of many of the arguments:  Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap., Does God Suffer?  (Notre Dame, Ind.:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 1-26. 

[4] This was defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. I will refer in the standard way to Church councils by citing a work edited by Henricus Denzinger and Adolfus Schönmetzer, Enchridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationem de Rebus Fidei et Morum, hereafter abbreviated as DS, with their enumeration. There will be two numbers; the lower one is found in an earlier edition of the handbook and in many publications using it.  The reference here is to DS, 148/301.  Much of Denzinger- Schönmetzer is translated in The Church Teaches, Documents of the Church in English Translation (Rockford, Illinois:  Tan Publications, 1973).  The reference here can be found on p. 172.

[5] Even someone who is asleep, in a coma, or too young actually to reason and make free choices right now (such as a human fetus), is a person, since he or she is a subject who has the basic capacity to perform such actions, even though it may take him or her some time to actualize those capacities. 

[6] I should add that the belief that God became man (that is, that Jesus is God, a divine person with both divine and human natures) does not logically imply any change in God’s divine nature.  The human nature of Christ came to be as personally united to the second person of the Trinity.  The second person of the Trinity is the term of this personal union, and so no change is implied in the divine nature itself.  See, for example, Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part III, Question 2, article 1; and Q. 3, articles 1 and 2.  Also see:  Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap., Does God Change? (Still River, Mass.:  St. Bede Publications, 1985), especially 32-100.  Herbert McCabe, O.P., God Matters (London:  Geoffrey Chapman, 1987), 39-51. 

[7] See, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Pt. I, Q. 20.

[8] Unless otherwise noted, the New International Version of the Bible is used.  The meaning of the name of God, Yahweh, revealed by God to Moses, is interpreted in different ways.  However, it probably means either that God is transcendent, beyond what we can understand (on the interpretation that “He who is,” was a way of refusing to tell Moses his name), or that God is the transcendent cause of all being.  As McKenzie says in his Dictionary of the Bible, the name Yahweh is perhaps only the first word of the entire name yahweh-aser-yihweh, “He who brings into being whatever comes into being.” John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (New York and London:  Macmillan, 1965), 316.  Cf. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Nashville, Tenn. and New York:  Abingdon, 1962), 417-419. 

[9] Cf. Rom. 1:20-23; 9:5; Rev. 4:8. 

[10]  In the strict sense, to create means, to produce from nothing.  That is, things other than the Creator always presuppose some pre-existing material to work on, and produce things by forming that pre-existing material in a new way; the Creator, however, causes to exist the material as well as the new form or structure.  And so every aspect of the contingent thing has its source in the Creator. 

[11] The Book of Wisdom is in the Catholic Old Testament but not in Protestant versions, so I am using the The New American Bible (New York:  Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1970 for OT and 1986 for NT).

[12] Cf.:  Ps. 33:6; 104:24; 145:9; Wis. 9:11; Eph. 1:11

[13] Vatican Council I, DS 1805/3025.

[14] The Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York:  Doubleday, 1995),  #295.

[15] If one says that the Creator had to create, then the self-sufficient, necessary being is the whole (“creator”-creatures), rather than a being distinct from the world.  One moves, then, to a world-view entirely different from theism. I believe one can show that this position is internally incoherent.  See Germain Grisez, Beyond the New Theism, (Notre Dame, Indiana and London:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 181-204.

[16] Ibid.,  266-272.

[17] Sometimes this point is expressed in this way:  the effect cannot be greater than the cause.

[18] However, the perfection which is in the world need not pre-exist in God in the same manner. Just as the degree of energy in the coil on an electric range pre-exists in a different manner in the electro-magnetic generator in the city's electrical power plant (there it is not actually hot); so the perfection in a horse or a human can pre-exist in God without God being literally a horse or a human.

[19] See David Braine, The Reality of Time and the Existence of God (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988), 23-63; Brian Leftow, Time and Eternity (Ithaca, New York, and London:  Cornell University Press, 1991), 31-49, and chapter 12. 

[20] I realize that not every Christian accepts the Fourth Lateran Council.  However, in my judgment this council is a teaching of the community which Jesus founded to carry on his work, the Body of Christ, a community to which Christ promised divine assistance and protection from doctrinal error. Hence in my judgment this Council is authoritative.   

[21] DS 428/800; The Church Teaches, p. 132.  As I briefly explained above (2-3), after the Incarnation one can truthfully say that God changes by his human nature.  Karl Rahner is making this point, and not denying that God is immutable in his divine nature, when he says:  “If we face squarely and uncompromisingly the fact of the Incarnation which our faith in the fundamental dogma of Christianity testifies to, then we have to say plainly:  God can become something.  He who is not subject to change in himself can himself be subject to change in something else. (Karl Rahner, S.J., Foundations of Christian Faith (New York:  Seabury Press, 1978), 113-114, footnote 3.)  On Rahner’s position here, see: Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap., Does God Change? (Still River, Mass.:  St. Bede Publications, 1985), 163-174. 

[22] Cf. Brian Leftow, Time and Eternity, chapter 13.

[23] On this view, there seems to be a type of potentiality in God so that one could not say that God is pure act as, for example, Aquinas taught.

[24] So, from the fact that God eternally wills that you exist, it does not follow that you eternally exist--God also eternally wills that you begin to exist at a particular time. 

[25] Both this first view and the second view (set out below on pp. 16 and ff.) hold that human beings make genuinely free choices. That is, both views presuppose a libertarian, rather than a compatibilist, notion of freedom.  Not only does the choice spring from the character of the person (compatibilists admit this), but the person in the very same circumstances could have chosen otherwise (exclusive to libertarianism).  

[26] Even this bad deed is done in virtue of God’s moving me to desire fulfilling objects, such as life, pleasure, or even status.  (Status is not in itself bad; only disordered or undue desire for status is bad.) 

[27] Cf. Charles Journet, The Meaning of Evil , translated by Michael Barry (New York:  P.J. Kennedy, 1962); Germain Grisez, Beyond the New Theism, Chapter 19; and  my “The Goodness of Creation, Evil, and Christian Teaching,” The Thomist 64 (2000), 239-269.

[28] “Present” is in quotes to signify that it does not mean exactly what it means when we say that an event is present to us.  The point is that God is not in time, not that he is perpetually in a “present” in our sense of the word present. 

[29] Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Chapter 23, # 3.

[30] A composite is a whole composed of parts.  Parts of an actual being are less than the whole.  Thus the Three Persons of God do not constitute a composite, since each person is God, and none of the three is less than God.        

[31] DS, 428/800l The Church Teaches, p. 132 .

[32] DS, 703/1330; The Church Teaches, p. 135.

[33] DS, 1782/3001; The Church Teaches, p. 152. 

[34] This argument is developed most clearly by Germain Grisez, Beyond the New Theism, especially 241-274. 

[35] We do indeed affirm that God is personal, but the meaning of “personal” must be understood analogically in the same way as I have indicated for the words “know” and “love.”  A person is a subject of actions such as knowing and loving. 

[36] That is, the features which we grasp are such that they do not entail their existence.  Therefore, such features cannot be intrinsic to God’s essence. 

[37] William Hasker, “A Philosophical Perspective,” in The Openness of God, A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, loc. cit., 133.

[38] Cf.: “Concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings are related to him.”  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Ch. 30.  This is quoted favorably by The Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York:  Doubleday, 1995), at #43.

[39] We know that other entities are possible.  So the Creator brings it about that these entities, and not the other possible ones, come to be, and the Creator cannot be determined by anything else to bring about these possibilities rather than those (otherwise he would not be uncaused).  Hence contingent beings are related to the Creator similar to the way possible courses of action are related to a free agent.  This similarity entitles us to conclude that there is something like free will in the Creator, and thus also intelligence, even though we cannot know what these are like in the Creator in himself.  Cf. Germain Grisez, Beyond the New Theism, 268-272.                     

[40] The argument for this is that an adequate cause must be proportionate to its effect, since it explains the effect.  But contingent beings do not have existence of themselves, which means they do not have existence as identical or part of what they are, their natures.  So their natures cannot explain the existence of their effects.  Hence they can cause new existence (which occurs with each new effect) only as cooperating with a being that does have existence as identical with its nature.  And since only the Creator has existence as identical with its nature, it follows that the Creator is immediately operative in every effect. 

[41] Cf. Num. 1:48-53; Lev. 10:1-3.

[42] Fourth Lateran Council, Denzinger, 428/800; The Church Teaches, p. 132; cf. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #202. 

[43] What one knows through natural reasoning, inferring from the visible effects in the world, is sometimes called “natural revelation.”  Special revelation is a personal communication, through selected effects, such as words and deeds of prophets and of Jesus. 

[44] Cf. “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Jn. 14:6. 

[45] Clark Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” in Clark Pinnock et al., The Openness of God, A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, Ill.:  Intervarsity Press, 1994), 103. 

[46] Ibid., 118.

[47] Schubert Ogden, in Process Theology, Basic Writings, ed. by Ewert Cousins (New York:  Newman Press, 1971), 122-123. 

[48] Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Perspective,” in Clark Pinnock et al., The Openness of God, A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, Ill.:  Intervarsity Press, 1994), 19.

[49] Thomas Morris, Our Idea of God (Downers Grove, Ill.:  Intervarsity Press, 1991), 32.

[49] Ibid., 118.

[50] William Hasker, “A Philosophical Perspective,” in The Openness of God, A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, op. cit., 126.

[51] Clark Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” Ibid, 106. 

[52] Many works of Etienne Gilson have painstakingly demonstrated how the metaphysical thinking of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinkers of the middle ages was in its central tenets more influenced by revelation, specifically the teachings on creation and that God is “He Who Is,” (Exodus 3:14) than by ancient Greek philosophy.  See, for example, Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), chapters 2 and 3; idem, God and Philosophy (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1941).