Androidopomorphism? A Response to Norman Geisler’s View of Divine Impassibility

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Introduction

A friend told me about a short article that appeared recently concerning God’s impassibility titled Is God an Android? by Norman L. Geisler. In this article Geisler makes the claim that people “sometimes object to the classical view of God by claiming that if God is impassible then He cannot experience feelings like love and joy. In short, it makes God into an android . . .” While a refutation of such a non-sequitor is surely valuable, Geisler’s proposed solution is potentially dangerous. The following is a critical response to Geisler’s position in both this article and his other writings, particularly calling into question his use of Aquinas and his claim that his view of divine impassibility represents classical theism.

Personhood

Geisler begins with his definition of persons: “Persons have mind, will, and feelings.” He asserts this without support, and while such a definition might seem self-evident to those used to equating persons with humans, this definition is hardly self-evident. The classic definition of a person is typically considered to be the one given by Boethius: “an individual substance of a rational nature.” Aquinas, who Geisler often considers himself to be representing, qualifies this definition: “a substance, complete, subsisting per se, existing apart from others” (Summa Theologiæ III, 16). Put together we have a rational substance, complete, subsisting per se, existing apart from others. Note that feelings (or emotions or passions) have no place in this definition. Already Geisler’s adherence to “the classical view” in general, or to Aquinas in particular, is suspect.

Note also that the definition of person does not mention being in or having a body. Angels, for example, are classically defined as persons, yet they are without bodies. Thus, the seemingly self-evident definition proposed by Geisler might only seem so to those outside the classical view. The reason this fact is important is because most thinkers consider emotions/feelings/passions as requiring a body (which both God and angels lack). Aquinas certainly thoguht so, and this becomes a major problem for Geisler’s assertion that his view is in line with classical theology or Aquinas.

Androidopomorphism?

Geisler next responds to the accusation of an impassible God being an android: “Androids have only mind and will, but no feelings.” While this might remove an emotive God from consideration as an android, the statement is terminally flawed. Androids are machines having neither intellect nor will who merely ape human functions according to programming. Reductionistic materialists, or those who accept a behaviorist or functionalist view of intelligence, might consider mere machinations as equivalent to personal intellect, but this option is not viable for those adhering to the idea that mankind is a special image-bearing creation of God. (It’s a problem for philosophers too – consider the Turing Test and John Searle’s response, “The Chinese Room”.) And as to a machine’s possessing a “will” – this is generally reserved for science fiction.

What is actually wrong with this “intuition” is that while God being an android would be bad, an android being an android is not bad. Just as we don’t feel sorry for rocks not being able to walk, or trees not being able to talk, we don’t feel sorry for androids not having feelings because (real) androids do not have intellect and will either. Now, a human being without emotions might be considered android-like (or a psychopath), and that would be bad because humans, by virtue of being human, are supposed to have feelings. A feeling-less human would represent a loss, a privation, not just an absence. As will be shown below, this is because embodied personal  beings should have emotions as well as intellect and will. Bodiless persons, however, do not. God not having emotions is only a problem if God is a human person. But He is not. He is a divine person. Thus, we need to see if our intuitive distaste for an impassible human being legitimately informs us about an impassible God.

Unchanging Feelings?

Geisler then makes another surprising assertion: “Classical theists, including Thomas Aquinas, do not believe that God is without feeling but only that He has no changing passions (feelings).” It is difficult to guess where Geisler got this idea, for even a cursory reading of Aquinas shows that this is far from being his position. Aquinas gives several reasons why God cannot have passions/emotions/feelings – and only one of them is the problem of God undergoing change. Rather, Aquinas believed that it is by the soul’s union with a body that it can undergo passions in the first place: “aroused by the apprehension and appetite of the soul, and a bodily transformation follows upon them” (De Veritate 26, 2, C). Aquinas’s contention is that God cannot have passions/emotions/feelings (changing or not) because God would require a body for that. Since God is pure actuality he cannot have a body, for bodies are composed of actuality and potentiality. Since God is simple, and a body requires composition, so God cannot have a body. And since God is by nature infinite, he cannot have a body for a body can be divided while an infinite cannot. So, because “every passion of the appetite takes place through some bodily change . . . none of this can take place in God, since He is not a body” (Summa Contra Gentiles I, 89, 3). Aquinas is clear: Because God has no body, He cannot have passions/emotions/feelings – period.

Unprovoked Feelings?

Geisler then claims that Aquinas’s view of Ephesians 4:30 is that “this phrase [“Grieve not the Holy Spirit”] could be called a ‘metaphorical expression’ because ‘The Holy Spirit is God in whom there can be no emotion or sorrow.’ (Commentary On Ephesians, 191). For God cannot be ‘provoked to wrath’ (ibid.).” But Aquinas is raising a possible objection here – not stating his opinion. Further, calling this verse a “metaphorical expression” is Aquinas’s alternate possibility – not a causal connection. Here is the actual text:

 “There might be an objection to his saying grieve not the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is God in whom there can be no emotion or sorrow. I reply that the Holy Spirit is said to be grieved when that person is saddened in whom the Spirit dwells. ‘He that despiseth you, despiseth me’ (Lk. 10:16). ‘But they provoked to wrath and afflicted the spirit of his Holy One: and he was turned to be their enemy’ (Is. 63:10). Or, it could be called a metaphorical expression.” (CoE)

Now, Aquinas is not concerned with provocation here any more than he was with change in the previous citations. Rather, he sees metaphor as possible because (as in all statements concerning God’s “passions”): “Just as God is said to be angry on account of the similarity of what he does [to the results of human anger], so he could also be said to be grieved” (CoE). So we see that the reason one may say “God is angry” is not because God has the passion of anger (changing, provoked, or otherwise), but because His actions can be metaphorically described that way. Further, Aquinas does not discuss God’s being provoked to wrath in this section, nor does he (as implied) connect it to his reasoning.

Bodiless Feelings?

Geisler then reiterates that God can have “unchanging feelings” and claims that this “is clear from Aquinas’ comments on whether God has love.” But Aquinas never argues for God’s “unchanging feelings,” nor does his position even allow for such an idea. In fact, Aquinas clearly refutes the idea that there can be feelings/passions/emotions in God because these states (changing/provoked or not) require a body. Geisler cites Aquinas as saying, “’We must need assert that in God there is love’ ” and that, “’There must be love in God according to the act of his will’” (both from SCG I.90.1). And Aquinas does say these things. But when states such as joy or love are properly attributed to God, Aquinas says they are not emotions. Aquinas calls love a passion for humans, but he argues that for God love is not what it is in humans. Rather, when Aquinas speaks of God’s love he writes, “Hence it appears that of our affections there is none that can properly be in God except joy and love, though even these are in Him not by way of passion, as they are in us” (SCG I, 91). As with all other passions, “there exist therefore in the intellectual appetite, or will, activities specifically similar to the activities of the sensitive appetite, and differing only in this, that in the sensitive appetite they are passions on account of the implication of a bodily organ, but in the intellectual appetite they are simple activities” (SCG I,90). Again, for Aquinas emotional states require a body.

Geisler asserts that “God has an “intellective appetite” and that is true enough. But for Aquinas this introduces a distinction between animals and God, it does not provide a basis for equivocating on passions: “In us the sensitive appetite is the proximate motive-force of our bodies. Some bodily change therefore always accompanies an act of the sensitive appetite, and this . . . is the first principle of movement in animals. Therefore acts of the sensitive appetite, inasmuch as they have annexed to them some bodily change, are called passions; whereas acts of the will are not so called. Love, therefore, and joy and delight are passions; in so far as they denote acts of the intellective appetite, they are not passions. It is in this latter sense that they are in God” (ST I, 20, 1). Again, it is not simply change but also embodiment that is at issue here. For Aquinas, love and joy in God are not feelings/passions/emotions because one must have a body to experience feelings/passions/emotions (changing or not).

Unprovoked Anger?

 Next, Geisler quotes Aquinas’s words concerning joy – but applies them to anger. Aquinas says, “From this it is manifest that joy or delight is properly in God” (SCG I, 90, 3). Geisler then asserts, “The same is true of anger. Nothing outside of God can make Him (cause Him to be) angry.” But for Aquinas anger cannot be simply lumped into the same category as joy! When Aquinas speaks of anger he says things like, “anger is a passion of the sensitive appetite, . . . [but] in God there is no sensitive appetite, as in us” (ST II-II, 158, 1). The sentences just before the one Geisler quotes say, “the motive of a man’s anger is always something done against him. We speak of anger in God, not as of a passion of the soul but as of judgment of justice, inasmuch as He wills to take vengeance on sin.” Once again, it is not simply an issue of whether God can change or be acted upon – it is that God is not a man and is not embodied.

Eternal Anger?

Geisler then makes this curious statement on the subject of God’s anger: God, Geisler believes, “has anger at sin—and always has and always will because it is contrary to His holy nature. However, by His very nature as absolutely good, God is (and always was and always will be) angry at sin.” Now, Geisler believes (with Aquinas) that whatever attributes God “has” God actually “is” (God being pure, simple, infinite existence). So if God can be angry, then He must in some sense be anger. Now, God’s love is directed to Himself – thus it is not improper to say God is eternally love. But how would anger be properly attributed to God’s essence? How could God have been forever angry at evil before creation? Or is evil part of God’s essence too? If not, then did God’s emotional state not change, or be provoked, when evil first occured? And if God had never created, or evil was not aprt of His essence, would anger still be part of God’s unchanging nature? These questions seem to raise even larger problems for the claim that Geisler is representing the classical view of God, and his continued insistence that Aquinas agrees with him is difficult to understand in light of these clear disagreements.

Putting the Cookies on the Bottom Shelf?

A response of this length may seem over the top for such a short article. Perhaps some might think that Geisler is simply “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf” as he often claims when presenting his theological ideas. But as will be shown below, Geisler’s short article is actually just a summary of his teachings as expressed in his more robust writings.

First, in line with Aquinas and other classical thinkers, Geisler believes that God is without passions for these imply a desire for what one does not have, and God lacks nothing. (Creating God in the Image of Man? 29.) Geisler also denies that God can suffer (Battle for God 170 cf. Geisler’s Systematic Theology Vol. 2, 112.) Yet Geisler is quite clear in several places that he believes God has feelings and emotions:

“However, to say that God is impassible in the sense that he has no passions or cravings for fulfillment is not to say that he has no feeling. . . . God has no changing passions, but he does have unchanging feelings” (CIMG 29.).

“This is not to say that God has no emotional states, but simply that His feelings are not the result of actions imposed on Him by others” (BFG 170 [emphasis in original].

“It is literally true that God experiences feelings. God has feeling in an unchanging way, but not a changing way. He has feelings in an active sense but not a passive sense.” (BFG 186).

In Geisler’s view, then, divine impassibility does not mean “without passion,” “without emotion,” or “without feelings.” Rather, divine impassibility for Geisler simply entails that God has unchanging and unprovoked feelings. It appears that divine emotion for Geisler differs from human emotion only by mutability, causality, and – Iassume from his other writings, degree (e.g., “God can do whatever good we can do, but he does not do it the way we do it. He does it in an infinitely better way than we do – an unchanging way” [CGIM 107 (emphasis in original)]).

Conclusion

Geisler laments that “impassibility is widely misunderstood,” and that, “evangelical theologians have either rejected the doctrine altogether or sought to modify it to alleviate tensions or inconsistencies they believe are inherent within the classical view of God” (BFG 170 and 171 respectively). It might be expected, then, that Geisler’s definition and defense of divine impassibility would be in line with classical theism in general, and Aquinas’s view specifically. As was shown above, however, this is not the case.

Now none of what has been said proves that Geisler’s view of divine impassibility is false – only that Geisler’s claims to represent the classical view of God’s attributes, specifically Aquinas’s, on the subject are not accurate. Confusion enters in when Geisler uses the word “impassible” with his qualifications to the traditional view, but then cites church fathers and other theologians as if they support the his definition simply because they use the same word (and admittedly, the words emotion, passion, feeling, dispositon, affection, state, etc. can easily suffer from equivocation). If Geisler wishes to promote this view of divine impassibility, then he should simply be more forthcoming about its innovative nature and reference the views of others with greater accuracy. That would avoid a lot of confusion and give credit where it is due.

A larger concern, though, about Geisler’s view of divine impassibility are its implications for divine embodiment. Given Aquinas’s (and the majority of ancient and modern scholars’) understanding of the necessity of embodiment for the feelings in question, then “unchanging feelings” might only require that God have an “unchanging body.” But this is certainly not what Geisler concludes (e.g., STv.2 ch. 6). Given Aquinas’s insistence on, and continuous references to, the necessity of embodiement for feelings, Geisler’s lack of discussion on the subject seems rather alarming. And if Geisler is the best Evangelicalism has to offer in defining and defending the “classical” attributes of God today (being  closer  to the Classical/Thomistic end of the theological spectrum than most evangelicals), then there may be little to halt the growing popularity of divine passibilism and its consequent: divine corporeality. Given that Evangelicalism has already largely given up on “without parts or passions,” this concern is not based on an unwarranted slippery slope.

“You thought that I was one like yourself.
But now I rebuke you
and lay the charge before you.”
(Ps. 50:21)

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