B. B. Warfield On Divine Passion -- By: Paul Helm

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 69:1 (Spring 2007)
Article: B. B. Warfield On Divine Passion
Author: Paul Helm

B. B. Warfield On Divine Passion

Paul Helm

Paul Helm is a Teaching Fellow at Regent College, Vancouver. He was Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London, from 1993 to 2000.

The classic Christian tradition, as well as that of the Reformation, including Calvin, and that of the Westminster Confession, affirms God’s impassibility; God can be said to have feelings, such as penitence, or anger, only figuratively, as Calvin explains in this passage from the Institutes:

What, therefore, does the word ‘repentance’ mean? Surely its meaning is like that of all other modes of speaking that describe God to us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry towards sinners. Therefore whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion in him but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience; because God, whenever he is exercising judgment, exhibits the appearance of one kindled and angered. So we ought not to understand anything else under the word ‘repentance’ than change of action, because men are wont by changing their action to testify that they are displeased with themselves. Therefore, since every change among men is a correction of what displeases them, but that correction arises out of repentance, then by the word ‘repentance’ is meant the fact that God changes with respect to his actions. Meanwhile neither God’s plan nor his will is reversed, nor his volition altered; but what he had from eternity foreseen, approved and decreed, he pursues in uninterrupted tenor, however sudden the variation may appear in men’s eyes.1

The Westminster Confession unambiguously asserts that God is “without body, parts or passions.”2

In thus affirming the impassibility of God, the tradition is not (of course) denying the goodness of God, and certainly not denying that that goodness is “refracted” in God’s dealings with the creation as anger or mercy (say) nor (as the quotation from Calvin makes clear) that God accommodates himself to his creation as (say) one who changes his mind, or who is surprised. What they are affirming is the immutability of God, of which his impassibility is an aspect.3

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