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Frequently Asked Symbolics Questions: Passions

By admin | March 31, 2009

I am occasionally asked about a statement in 2LCF 2:1, which teaches us that God is ‘without body, parts or passions.’ This is a statement about the simplicity and immutability of God, important, even essential doctrines in classic theism. While most agree that God has no ‘body’ despite the frequent use of ‘body’ terminology in Scripture, and that He cannot be dissected into ‘parts,’ many stumble at the use of ‘passions’ since Scripture also employs the language of apparent ‘feelings’ or to use a modern term not in use in the 17th century, ‘emotions.’

The inclusion of ‘passions’ needs to be understood carefully.  Does God genuinely love?  Does he have genuine wrath?  Absolutely.  God is Love.  God’s wrath is very real. Historically, this word has been used with negative connotations. Passions were sinful—they were not the equivalent of “emotions” generally, but rather described the worst parts of humanity’s sinful expressions. Even today, most English translations of the Bible use “passion(s)” with an evil connotation. Our modern use of the term, however, is very different. To be “passionate” about something is often virtuous. [We do, however, speak of ‘crimes of passion.’] If we mistakenly import the familiar sense of this term into its use in the Confession, we run the risk of a serious misunderstanding of its doctrine. We need tools to give historical and theological perspective on key terms.

Richard Muller in his authoritative Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics 3:553-54, in a discussion on the “Divine Affections and Virtues” points out that

An affection is usually favorable or positive, whereas passion is usually negative. . . . A passion, most strictly, is a form of suffering and would not have the connotation of a permanent disposition . . . . Passions,  . . .  indicate a declension from an original or natural condition that is at variance with the fundamental inclination of the individual—and therefore, a loss of power or self-control. . . . Since a passion has its foundation ad extra and its terminus ad intra, it cannot be predicated of God, and, in fact, fails to correspond in its dynamic with the way that God knows. An affection or virtue, by way of contrast, has its foundation or source ad intra and terminates ad extra, corresponding with the pattern of operation of the divine communicable attributes and, in particular, with the manner of divine knowing.

When 2LCF states in 2:1 that God is “without body, parts or passions” it must be understood in light of this statement. Muller helps us to avoid a common misunderstanding of this statement. This is only one example of the massive assistance available in this erudite work.

Topics: Confessions, Doctrine of God, Puritanism, Puritans | Comments Off

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