The 'Limitation' of the Absolute and Divine Impassibility


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By way of a response to a discussion with @Ahanu on the Baha'i Board.

With regard to 'Divine Impassibility', the terms are logically convertible with one another. There can be no other referent of the predicate ‘impassible’ than the infinite God; there can be no God who is not that one who is, as the fullness of all knowing and being, impassible. Like any number of other predicates – infinity, eternity, simplicity, immutability – the term ‘impassibility’ is merely one of the necessary entailments of the very concept of God as the transcendent source of all reality.

Impassibility does not mean that there is some capacity or aptitude that God lacks, some kind of experience that is beyond his ken; it is not a negative predicate, nor is it a statement about God’s ability to have knowledge of pain or pleasure or joy or sorrow. God knows all such things; He knows not only the suffering or joy of Christ, but our suffering and joy as well – He is omniscient – He knows our passions infinitely better than we know them ourselves.

Nor is the truth that God is impassible a claim regarding experience in any sense we might normally imagine. It is simply a modal statement regarding how God knows. In classical terms, the term pathos or passio is not necessarily allied to experience at all; it merely indicates the modification of one thing by another, and describes the relation between agent and patient forces or substances within any instance of finite change. It certainly has little or nothing to do with anything like the consciousness of phenomenal subjectivity. A rock can be the subject of a pathos, because it is a finite and mutable reality, and therefore possesses potentialities that can be actualised by adventitious agencies. It can be heated by the sun, for instance. And the heat of the sun in its turn, in being cooled by its absorption into that rock, undergoes a pathos of its own. The question is not what God knows (He knows everything), but the manner of that knowledge – whether, that is, he becomes acquainted with realities that are somehow beyond him, and that therefore must communicate themselves to him by way of an extrinsic qualification of his ‘substance’ that would actualise a hitherto unrealised potency.

This would entail that God is a finite being among beings, in whom possibility exceeds actuality. It would also mean that He is not omniscient, for whatever he knows in the form of a passion he can know in only a limited way, because any knowledge gained from the subjective perspective of a patient substance can be known only under the aspect of the pathos it induces, as a subjective impression rather than a direct cognisance of the objective reality of the thing in itself.

Impassibility is not a privation of the capacity for passions; rather, acquaintance through passion is a privation of the act of knowledge. But God has, as the schoolmen would say, no real relations; He does not relate to things in the manner of one thing that can be qualified by other things, but is the fullness of reality in whose perfection all finite things have their being. For him, the fullness of reality from whom everything receives both essence and existence, knowledge is entirely active. Even in becoming human, He did so through the creative act of assuming to himself – and thereby reducing himself to – a finite nature, and thus expressing the infinite treasures of his knowledge in the poverty of the experiences of flesh and blood. Nothing is thus added to the divine nature. The infinite does not admit of addition, and nor is anything subtracted. The Divine nature does not suffer any limitation of Itself in assuming the human or indeed any created form.

All of which is only to say that God, if the concept of God has any content at all, is not a limited substance, standing outside other such substances, and that his particular spiritual intentions (acts of will and knowledge) towards finite things involve no physical processes and no modifications of his substance from without. And if those intentions tell us who God is, it is precisely because they have to do not with any act of God determining himself, but only with an eternal act of self-expression. More important, they would certainly add nothing new in the order of real being to God, since the ‘subtracted’ reality of finite things is always already embraced within the infinitely fuller reality of divine being.

Thus far from constituting some kind of paradox, the statement that the God who became human in Christ is eternally impassible is a necessary affirmation of logic.

By the same token, in God assuming the 'subtracted' reality of finite being, finite being cxan know itself within that 'fuller' reality od divine being, according to its capacity to know and to be.

Ergo: God became man that man might become God.

(The above distilled from an extended response by David Bentley Hart to questions raised by his response to Jordan Daniel Wood's Chalcedonian Christology)