Among open theists there has been a running in-house debate between what I will call the “passibilist” and “impassibilist” camps. T. C. Moore has lately been leading the charge on behalf of the passibilists, while Tom Belt and Dwayne Polk have been leading the charge for the impassibilists. (As noted below, by “passibilism” and “impassibilism” here I’m speaking strictly with respect to passibility in feeling.)
I find myself genuinely sympathetic to both sides because it seems to me that both sides genuinely want to affirm something valuable about God and want to avoid certain deeply problematic extremes. My hope is that with some careful definitions and distinctions we can find room for at least a partial rapprochement.
First, let me state some preliminary assumptions that I hope all parties can agree on.
- The Anselmian intuition that God, whatever else we may say about Him, is necessarily and essentially the greatest possible being. As Plantinga glosses this idea, God is “maximally excellent”, i.e., instantiates a maximally great property set in all [metaphysically] possible worlds. Most philosophical theists, myself included, take this intuition to be axiomatic for theism. Debates among theists tend to center around what that maximal property set consists in, not whether God instantiates such a set. For example, classical theists tend to think that a maximally excellent being must be immutable, timeless, wholly impassible, etc., whereas open and relational theists tend to think that such a being need not be any of those things.
- That God created ex nihilo, from which it follows that all beings extrinsic to God ultimately owe their existence wholly to God. (This is very plausibly an entailment of the Anselmian intuition. If some beings exist in even partial ultimate independence of God, then God’s sovereignty is less than absolute and His power must be restrictively qualified in more than just the standard can’t-do-the-logically-impossible, etc. ways.)
- That God’s intra-Trinitarian experience prior to creation is one of perfect, unalloyed bliss. God doesn’t create because He’s unhappy or bored with His existence. Creation is a wholly gracious act by which God freely undertakes to extend the circle of Divine Love. (Again, this is very plausibly an entailment of the Anselmian intuition. A God who, because of some lack, needs to create seems emotionally co-dependent on creation and therefore less than maximally excellent.)
- That God has differential preferences from among the various causally possible futures. There are some causally possible futures that, relatively speaking, God would prefer not occur and others that, relatively speaking, God would prefer to occur. For example, given the Bible’s explicit declaration that God hates evil (especially moral evil, i.e., sin), it is clear that, all other things equal, God prefers futures with less moral evil over futures with more moral evil.
- That God is impassible in nature and passible in knowledge, to use Richard Creel’s helpful distinction between four different types of impassibility (nature, will, knowledge, and feeling). Impassibility in nature means that God’s character is immutable and essential to God. God cannot become less than perfectly loving, perfectly holy, etc. Passibility in knowledge means that what God knows depends, to some extent, on what creatures do. This sort of passibility is an entailment of open theism, to which all parties to this dispute are committed. Whether God is impassible in will or not, depends on whether God has done exhaustive contingency planning from the get-go. Since I believe that God can do such contingency planning and that God has compelling moral reasons to do so if He can, I believe that God is necessarily impassible in will, but some open theists (e.g., John Sanders) demure, preferring to see God as making some decisions on the fly in dynamic response to creaturely developments. Let’s set this issue aside. The primary issue here is whether God is passible in feeling, that is, whether God’s original intra-Trinitarian tranquility can come to be perturbed, even slightly, by creaturely actions. There are, I believe, strong considerations pulling in both directions.
On behalf of the impassibilists
That God is impassible in feeling is plausibly thought to be entailed by the Anselmian intuition and creation ex nihilo. Thus, if God by definition is essentially an intrinsically maximally excellent being, and if being in a state of emotional bliss is a genuine perfection, then it seems that God’s intra-Trinitarian bliss prior to creation must be essential to Him and therefore cannot be lost or perturbed.
In addition, if God does exhaustive contingency planning from the get-go, then He can’t ever be caught “off guard” by anything that creatures may do since He’s already prepared for every possibility. Hence, it may be argued, nothing creatures do or can do could possibly upset God’s pre-creation intra-Trinitarian bliss.
On behalf of the passibilists
Setting the Incarnation and Crucifixion aside because they involve metaphysical complications that would take us far afield, the differential preferences thesis poses a serious challenge for impassibilism. If that thesis is right—and how can open theists avoid it?—then God cannot be indifferent concerning how things turn out. God must, rather, be at least somewhat disappointed when we choose selfishness over love and when we gratuitously inflict pain on others. For while God permits us to do such things, He also clearly desires that we not do so. And since many such evils have occurred, God must be keenly aware of the rather large gap that exists between all of the more ideal “what could have beens” and the relatively screwed up “what is”. Recognition of that gap is the basis for disappointment, and it’s a sentiment that the Bible amply attests when it speaks of Divine repentance, regret, sorrow, and anger in response to human sinfulness.
Steps toward a rapprochement?
Emotional perturbation obviously comes in degrees, from being emotional overwhelmed by events to the point that one freaks out and has an “emotional breakdown” to complete indifference. Let’s distinguish, therefore, between three different positions corresponding to different points on this spectrum:
- Strong passibilism in feeling: God’s emotions can be perturbed by creaturely actions to the point that God can be, if not temporarily overwhelmed by them, then at least temporarily functionally impaired by them. In other words, in response to, say, a major unexpected disappointment (the Fall?) God may need some time to “process” it (by “venting”?) before continuing as usual.
- Weak passibilism in feeling: God’s emotions can be perturbed by creaturely actions, but the degree of perturbation is such that God cannot in any degree be functionally impaired by them.
- Impassibilism in feeling: God’s emotions cannot be perturbed at all by creaturely actions. God’s intra-Trinitarian bliss is maintained is perfect equanimity regardless of creaturely actions.
As I see it, the second view (weak passibilism in feeling) is clearly the most defensible and may, if accepted, go some distance toward a rapprochement by avoiding the extremes that may worry passibilists and impassibilists, respectively.
A God who could be emotionally perturbed to the point of functional impairment would not be omnicompetent. He would be emotionally fragile in a way that is all too human, but unfitting for a maximally excellent being as per the Anselmian intuition. An essentially omniscient God who creates ex nihilo would know ahead of time the extent to which evil is possible in creation and how such evils would feel to His creatures (since He designed them with the capacity to feel in just that way), and He would know in advance that He is competent to deal with even the worst-case scenario, should it come to pass. So there’s no reason why God should be overwhelmed or even functionally impaired by disappointment.
A God who couldn’t be perturbed at all couldn’t be omnibenevolent given the open theist commitment to morally significant creaturely freedom and an open future. The mere fact that God has differential preferences regarding creaturely outcomes requires that God be able to feel disappointment, in some sense, when things go contrary to God’s preferences, and be pleased, in some sense, when things go according to God’s preferences. In other words, while believers in divine meticulous providence may consistently affirm that God is impassible in feeling because on such views God gets exactly what God has chosen and so shouldn’t be even slightly disappointed or pleasantly surprised by anything, on open theism and doctrines of general providence more broadly, God should feel differently depending on what happens.
But then what about the idea that God’s intra-Trinitarian bliss prior to creation must be essential to Him and therefore cannot be lost or perturbed? I think what open theists have to say is that it’s not that God’s pre-creational bliss cannot be perturbed, but that it cannot be perturbed apart from God’s choice. God’s inner tranquility is not essentially independent of creaturely actions, but it is initially so independent. God is not essentially invulnerable to disappointment, but can willingly make Himself so vulnerable, for such is a necessary concomitant of creating a world containing morally free creatures. A God that couldn’t make Himself vulnerable to disappointment could also never be pleasantly surprised by anything, and therefore would necessarily miss out on an important positive emotional experience that humans can enjoy. It may be argued, then, that God’s maximal excellence is not diminished but is actually enhanced by the ability to make Himself vulnerable to disappointment.