Wednesday, May 7, 2008

D.A. Carson and Impassibility

It has been awhile since I've posted, so instead of continuing to review what I haven't been reading (Rushdoony), I'll review something I am reading presently.

I'm now two thirds of the way through Carson's book on the problem of suffering and evil, How Long, O Lord?. So far it has been a very insightful, pastoral, and well stated message.

Unfortunately, the chapter I just read contains a very atrocious denial and God's impassibility. Despite a familiarity with the arguments for impassibility, Carson provides a very sloppy rebuttal, which results not only in a denial of impassibility, but a confusion in language that fails to distinguish affection from emotion. I'll provide his statements and my critique.

The section of the chapter is entitled, "The Cross Reveals the Kind of God We Trust" and it begins with the following definition and outline of the doctrine of impassibility:

[Impassibility] means, in its weaker form, that God cannot suffer; in its stronger from, three aspects of divine passibility were frequently denied to God in the past: "(1) external passibility or the capacity to be acted upon from without, (2) internal passibility or the capacity for changing the emotions from within, and (3) sensational passiblity or the liability to feelings of pleasure and pain caused by the action of another being" [cited from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church]

Carson then provides a list of passages that seem to contradict the doctrine of impassibility. He then gives three arguments offered by proponents of the view to respond to these verses:

First, they insist that these expressions are anthropomorphisms, that is, figures of speech that talk about God as if he were a human being. For example, when the Bible says that God lays bare his arm, it does not mean that God has a literal, physical arm. The expression is an anthropomorphism. It means something like "God rolled up his sleeves and set to work," that is, God displayed his power in some way.
Second, they argue that since God created everything, he stands outside of time. Therefore he must be above time. Since all our notions of change are bound up with changes across time, we must assume that God, in his own timeless eternity, is himself impassible. The reason the Bible speaks to us as if he were passible is that it is trying to reveal what God is like to us who are locked in time, and it must therefore use our categories.
Third, as far as the emotions of Jesus are concerned, these theologians regularly assign them to the human nature of Jesus, but deny that they pertain to his divine nature.

There is problem here. Carson resorts to a metaphor to describe God's relationship to time: God stands "outside" of time or "above" time. This is confusing, nor is it precisely what impassibility implies. Time is an aspect of Creation, therefore time exists within the mind of God as an attribute of the Created world, whether this be part of the natural order or simply part of the creaturely experience of existence. Time is therefore encompassed by God in a way that could be describe as "outside," but would precisely mean "outside the bounds of," or better yet, "not subject to duration." It is correct then to affirm that the Bible expresses God in the language of duration because that is how we experience existence.

However, Carson does not find it adequate to consider anthropomorphisms--God speaking in ways we can readily understand--as explanatory of such passages in support of impassibility. It is here where he makes the significant blunders:

With all due respect to the many fine theologians who uphold this line of reasoning, I sharply disagree. The God who is left seems too much like Buddha (though of course these theologians intend no such similarity): impassibility is seeping over into impassiveness.

This is a poor analogy, based upon a confusion between the will and the emotions. God's will is affective, that is, it distinguishes valuation among His created order. God places His love on one person and places His wrath upon another. God's determinative will not only effects all things, but has determined God's affections for all things--His will not only accomplishes, but distinguishes objects of favor and disfavor. God's care for His own is based in His will, not in "emotions," which Carson is careless to leave undefined here and a bit further along.

He continues:

Moveover, it will not do to hide behind the relationship between time and eternity, for the very good reason that we know almost nothing about it. We scarcely know what time is; we certainly do not know what the relationship between time and eternity is. Is it so very obvious that there is no sequence in eternity? Granted that sequence, if there is such, must look very different to an eternal being than to us, does it follow that there is no such notion? Does it appear to God as if Christ is eternally coming, eternally dying, eternally rising, eternally recurring? Moreover, if the sufferings of Jesus Christ are somehow restricted to his human nature, are we not in danger of constructing (dare I say it?) almost a schizophrenic Christ? I know that one form of conservative theology likes to go through the Gospels and assign this little bit to Jesus' human nature and that little bit to Jesus' divine nature, but I am persuaded that a much more profound christological integration is possible.

There are multiple problems in this paragraph. First, Carson says we know so little about time and its relation to eternity that it is foolish to assert that eternity has no sequence. There are two errors here. One, Carson's ignorance of time and its relation to eternity does not mean it cannot be adequately explained. Second, the doctrine of impassibility does not deny sequence in eternity. Carson is therefore committing two fallacies: the first is an argument from ignorance, and the second is a straw man. The sequence of eternity is logical sequence. In the same way that two and three follow one in an eternal sequence of numbers, so too the thoughts of God proceed in an unending sequence that has no duration. It is not true that impassibility denies sequence. I have already stated how time relates to eternity in that time is an aspect of Creation that defines the experience of existence by its creatures. The sequences we experience are durative because we have a beginning. God's eternal Being as no duration for there was no time at which He began to Be. Since He has always been as He is, how can He change in His Being (internal impassibility), which is what would be necessary if God had emotions (which are defined according to a change in mood, mind, or state of being)? As to Carson's rhetorical questions, he does not appear to have any better understanding of eternity than he does of time. Clearly the thoughts of Christ's coming, dying, rising, and returning are eternal in the mind of God. But Christ's actions in His human nature are durative, and therefore occur terminally rather than eternally. Christ died once for all, which is one temporal act that is in God's mind eternally and determinately. Finally, Carson applies a guilt-by-association unwittingly by comparing the doctrine of impassibility to the attempts of some to identify specific events of Christ's ministry that are described in terms of his divine or human nature. But Carson, like every other theologian, has to answer such questions unrelated to the question of impassibility. How is it that Christ retained all of His divine nature and could yet say that He Himself did not know the hour at which the Son of Man would return? (Matt. 24:36, Mark 13:32). The distinctions between time and eternity and between Christ's divine and human nature are not empty arguments behind which theologians "hide," but are substantive explanations that reconcile God's Being with His Creation and Purposes in History.

Let's continue to examine Carson's claims, for he continues:

The methodological problem with the argument for divine impassibility is that it selects certain text of Scripture, namely those that insist on God's sovereignty and changelessness, constructs a theological grid on the basis of those selected texts, and then uses this grid to filter out all other texts, in particular those that speak of God's emotions. These latter texts, nicely filtered out, are then labeled "anthropomorphisms" and are written off. But if they are anthropomorphisms, why were they selected? They are figures of speech, but figures of speech that refer to something. To what? Why were they selected? Granted that neither God's emotions nor his sovereignty looks exactly like what we mean by emotions and sovereignty, nevertheless biblical writers chose terms to make us think of God as not only absolutely sovereign, but also as a personal, emotional, responding, interacting God.

It is strange that Carson would find problems in the method employed by theologians who arrive at impassibility. It is the same method employed by all systematic theologians who attempt to arrive at logical precision and to reconcile passages of Scripture that appear to contradict upon superficial reading. Carson appears to be using his own presupposition about God's emotions to criticize the fact that others have arrived at opposing conclusions in their analysis of the textual evidence. But Carson faces the same dilemma, for he must reconcile the passages concerning God's changelessness and sovereignty with the passages that speak of his emotions. He does not offer any argument supporting the problems faced by his own view. In fact, in the following paragraph he refutes those who have taken his position to its logical conclusion and argued for a finite, ever-changing God. Carson no doubt opts for a middle ground, and proposes to deal with the arguments in the next chapter, so I'll reserve some criticism on this point. However, the issue is not one of methodology, but of logical precision.

The bigger problem is that Carson acts as if theologians assume that nothing exists behind the use of anthropomorphisms. But an explanation has been given: they speak of God's determinate will in ways that resemble how human experience existence. Theologians who support impassibility also recognize that God is relationally mutable in regard to His creatures because they are mutable. The Biblical language reflects God's various relations to His creatures without attributing any change to God's Being or Nature. Carson's ignorance as to these distinctions makes his arguments quite silly when they are brought to bear. Carson simply does not understand the doctrine of impassibility well enough to refute it, and resorts to attacking a poorly constructed straw man.

In the end, Carson tries to preserve what is necessary to preserve from the doctrine of impassibility (God's Sovereignty and unchanging nature), while retaining his belief that God has emotions. This contradiction rests upon a confusion between emotions and affections that Carson does not appear to be aware of:

My sole point at the moment is simple. The biblical evidence, in both Testaments, pictures God as a being who can suffer. Doubtless God's suffering is not exactly like ours; doubtless metaphors litter the descriptions. But they are not metaphors that refer to nothing, that are suggestive of nothing. They are metaphors that refer to God and are suggestive of his profound emotional life and his distinctly personal relationships with his people. If the term "impassible" is to be preserved--and I think it can be--then one must use it to affirm that God is never controlled or overturned by his emotions. We human beings speak of "falling in love" and "exploding in anger" or simply "losing it." God never "loses it." What he does--whether in righteous wrath or in tender love--he does out of the constancy of all his perfections. In that sense, I think, we may usefully speak of God being "impassible." But never should we succumb to the view that God is exclusively cerebral, utterly without emotions.

It is odd that Carson assumes that impassibility offers nothing by way of explanation for passages referring to anthropomorphisms and yet fails to realize that his construction offers what is so vague as to be as good as nothing. God feels, but not like us. God suffers, but not like us. Metaphors are necessary, but they refer to God's emotions (whatever they may really be like) and God relationship to his people (even though it is much different from our relationships to one another). If Carson has trouble explaining God's eternity and relation to time, what hope does he have of explaining God's emotion in relation to ours, which are so vastly different?

Secondly, and important for the criticism offered here is that Carson's "reconciliation" of impassibility is nothing but a vague and confused appeal to the relational mutability that theologians of impassibility recognize. God's relation to His creatures changes according to their change: when they sin, His anger is upon them; when they obey, His pleasure is upon them. God's nature changes not at all in such human change. Rather, God's affections, which are set according to His divine nature and Being, are manifest in His relationships to us as we live and act in history. Because God has determined the beginning from the end He does not change in His Being when His anger or pleasure is manifest in Creation to His creatures. Rather, we experience the logical implication of God's eternal relationship to sin and obedience. The language of Scripture communicates God's relationship in metaphors of mutable attributions because we are thereby concerned to change ourselves in relation to God's pleasure or displeasure. But to assume that God's Being is altered, which is what emotions are by definition--alterations in one's state of being--then we contradict those passages that speak of God's unchangeable being.

Carson's problems with impassibility would be solved if he considered them more fully and more carefully. His glosses on time and eternity and Christ's divine and human nature are only compounded by his inability to distinguish emotions from affections.

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