When addressing the wicked, God says to them after recounting their continued transgressions, “These things you have done and I kept silence; You thought that I was just like you; I will reprove you and state the case in order before your eyes.” (Ps. 50:21)
As I read A God Without Passions: A Primer, by Samuel Renihan, I was struck over and over by that phrase in the verse above, “You thought I was just like you…”. The book deals with the subject of divine impassibilty, which simply means that God does not have passions or emotions. It is a subject that is often confusing to many. Some have encountered the doctrine before, but it was never sufficiently explained, and without the proper groundwork to understand the doctrine, let it fall by the wayside, undeveloped. Some have never heard of this doctrine before and therefore conflate the human experience of emotions with God’s perfections. Renihan’s singular focus is to exalt God by showing the vast difference between the creature and the creator. God accommodates man’s deficiencies and frailties in order to graciously communicate with him. This includes language. But, because some theologians have not exercised clear thinking on this matter, they have muddled the proper distinctions of emotions and perfections and have caused many to think of God in a very human way. God is thought to have emotions in the same way that men do. Men think God is altogether just like them. Does God love in the same exact way that a man loves? Is there a clear and direct one to one correspondence to love from God and love from Man? Renihan explores this in a clear and succinct manner.
Renihan’s writing style is both pastoral and didactic. He builds one concept upon another so that nothing is left dangling in mid-air and a proper foundation is set to examine the next area. He writes in an easily understood manner, and whenever he cites older theologians (Reformers, Puritans and Baptists), he clarifies where the language of the time might impede modern understanding. He clearly articulates the challenges of understanding this doctrine and why it is often confusing for some. At the same time, he removes the confusion and presents to us a glorious God who is not subject to the whims of emotive affections, but is a God who is enthroned upon his own perfections.
The subject matter is eminently important, for much poor preaching and doctrine has come forth by confusing the nature of creaturely emotions and divine perfections and imposing the creaturely emotions upon the divine creator. In this primer (which suggests that there is a more in-depth study forthcoming) Renihan seeks to explain these differences and demonstrate the implications of ascribing to God the humanly emotions. Indeed, Renihan trumpets the words of the Psalmist as an admonition to the church, “You thought I was just like you” throughout his work. If God is immutable, then subjecting him to experiences of emotion suggests that his perfections were not perfect and were in need of improving. Thus, the creation improved upon the creator. Doctrine has implications in areas we often least expect it, and hence, it is important not to become undisciplined when it comes to thinking of our great God and Savior.
I highly recommend this book. It can be useful for study groups (each chapter has questions that can be answered from the associated chapter). It is not expensive or lengthy and can be read in an evening.