Genesis 6:6 & the Impassibility of God
In today’s post you’ll notice I spent a lot of time trying to explain how Genesis 6:6 does not indicate any change in God’s mind or nature. Just read the passage, it doesn’t seem to be introducing a new characteristic of God’s character that is contradictory to any of His other attributes. This issue boils down to at least two aspects of the doctrine of God or how we understand God’s nature from Scripture.
The first doctrine is that of God’s immutability. Immutability is a big word that basically means He is unchanging in His nature, knowledge, and existence (see point three below in the excerpt “The Anatomy of Theism” by J. I. Packer).
The second doctrine is that of God’s impassibility. Impassibility is a big word that basically means no one can inflict suffering, pain, or distress upon God (see point seven below in the excerpt “The Anatomy of Theism” by J. I. Packer).
Insofar as God seems to be described as undergoing change in relenting or repenting, we have to make a categorical distinction between our emotions and God’s. Why? Well, consider these passages of Scripture:
"God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?" (Num. 23:19)
"And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret." (1 Sam. 15:29)
"The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, 'You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.'" (Psalm 110:4)
So how are we supposed to think of God regretting or being sorry here in Genesis 6:6? Well, first if God is sorry, repents, grieves, etc. it is does not happen in the same way that men are sorry, repent, or grieve. Many will say it’s a human (or anthropomorphic) way of describing the actions of God in a way that men can understand it. I think this is true, but it’s more than this. God is being described as dynamic. He is affected in some way by the way people act toward or away from Him. His being sorry is described with the word usually translated “repent”, and it’s used elsewhere when a family member is lost in death. God is feeling deeply here. He is deeply relational, but somehow differently than the way men are. He is repentant without experiencing change of thought, heart, or being. He is meticulously involved with His creation and yet is not subject to being a victim or passively suffering pain. The excerpt below from D. A. Carson’s book The Gagging of God will hopefully clarify how to think about God’s impassibility. The second excerpt below “The Anatomy of Theism” will hopefully clarify an orthodox approach to how to think about the character of God from a biblical perspective. I was blessed for be pointed to these excerpts from footnote 33 on page 118 of Bruce Waltke’s commentary on Genesis. I hope this post will be helpful to your understanding of this aspect of God’s nature.
Excerpt 1: The Gagging of God, Christianity Confronts Pluralism by D. A. Carson (pp. 236-7).
As for God’s impassibility, a number of theologians have studied that subject a great deal during the past half-century or so. Certainly the influence of Greek thought has sometimes treated God as completely emotionless, dismissing the countless instances of the ascription of emotion to God in the Bible as cases of anthropopathy [meaning ascribing human passions on non-humans]. I cannot agree. Where theology has taken that turn it needs to be corrected by the text of Scripture. The profound problem with that stance is that it runs the risk of depersonalizing God; the problem with abandoning every conceivable understanding of impassibility is that it runs the risk of de-absolutizing him. I am inclined to be sympathetic to some such articulation of the doctrine as this:
God is impassible, which means that no one can inflict suffering, pain, or any sort of distress upon him. Insofar as God enters into experience of that kind, it is by empathy for his creature and according to his own deliberate decision, not as his creatures’ victim. The words “of that kind” are important, for this impassibility has never been taken by Christian mainstreamers to mean that God is a stranger to joy and delight; it has, rather, been construed as an assertion of the permanence of God’s joy, which no pain clouds. How the formula applies to the atoning sufferings of the incarnate Son is a special and open question, on which different views have been, and are, maintained. . . . The historical answer [to the question of what impassibility means] is: not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in face of the creation; not insensitivity and indifference to the distresses of a fallen world; not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief; but simply that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us, for his are foreknown, willed and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are. In other words, he is never in reality the victim whom man makes to suffer: even the Son on his cross, where “a victime led, thy blood was shed,” was suffering by his and the Father’s conscious foreknowledge and choice, and those who made him suffer, however free and guilty their action, were real if unwitting tools of divine wisdom and agents of the divine plan (cf. Acts 2:23; 1 Pet 1:20).
Excerpt 2: “The Anatomy of Theism” from J. I. Packer’s chapter Theism for Our Time from the book God Who Is Rich in Mercy: Essays Presented to Dr. D. B. Knox, ed. P. T. O’Brien and D. G. Peterson (pp. 6-8)
It will now help us forward if we review the ingredients that make up mainstream Christian theism. Expositors differ on the details, but here is a check-list of the usual items, expressed in as simple a way as the thoughts themselves allow.
(1) Trinity - God is personal and triune. Tritheism and Sabellianism (modalism) are both untrue, and God is as truly three personal centres in a sustained relationship of mutual love and harmony as he is a single personal deity. The three persons of the Godhead are individuated in relation to each other without ever being separated from each other; they are consciously three while yet ontologically as well as cooperatively one.
(2) Self-Existent/Self-Sufficient - God is self-existent and self-sufficient; in Thomist jargon, his existence (being) is identical with his essence (nature), and is necessary in the sense that he does not have it in him, either in purpose or in power, to stop existing. God exists necessarily, inasmuch as he cannot not-be. The answer to the child’s question, who made God? is that God did not need to be made, since he was always there. This quality of God is called aseity: a word meaning that he draws his existence, his life and vitality, a se (from himself). He depends on nothing outside himself, but is at every point self-sustaining.
(3) Simplicity/Perfection/Immutability - God is simple, perfect, and immutable: that is to say, he is wholly and totally involved in everything that he is and does, and his nature, goals, plans and ways of acting do not change, either for the better (for, being perfect, he cannot become better than he is) or for the worse (for it is not in his nature to become worse). Simplicity, perfection, and immutability together are the basis of that glorious divine integrity, fidelity, and constancy which Scripture sees as being worthy of endless praise.
(4) Infinity/Incorporeality/Immensity - God is infinite, incorporeal, immense (“measureless,” as the hymn puts it), omnipresent, omniscient, and eternal: which means that he is not bound by any of the limitations of space or time that apply to us, his creatures, in our body-anchored existence. Instead, he is always present everywhere, really though invisibly and imperceptibly, and is at every moment cognizant of everything that ever was, or shall be, or now is.
(5) Omnipotent - God is purposeful and omnipotent: he has a plan for the history of the universe he made, and in executing it he governs and controls all created realities. Without violating the nature of things or, under ordinary circumstances, the ongoing of natural processes, and without at any stage infringing upon the self-determined, spontaneous, creative, and morally repsonsible quality of human behaviour (the things that we do “of our own free will,” as we phrase it), God acts in, with, and through his creatures to do everything that he wishes to do exactly as he wishes to do it, and by this sovereign action he achieves His goals.
(6) Transcendent and Immanent - God is both transcendent and immanent in his world. On the one hand he is distinct from the world, does not need it, and exceeds the grasp of any created intelligence that is found in it, yet on the other hand he permeates it in sustaining and new-creating power, shaping and steering it in a way that keeps it on its planned course in a steady and stable state.
(7) Impassibility - God is impassible, which means that no one can inflict suffering, pain, or any sort of distress upon him. Insofar as God enters into experience of that kind, it is by empathy for his creatures and according to his own deliberate decision, not as his creatures’ victim. The words “of that kind” are important, for this impassibility has never been taken by Christian mainstreamers to mean that God is a stranger to joy and delight; it has, rather, been construed as an assertion of the permanence of God’s joy, which no pain clouds. How the formula applies to the atoning sufferings of the incarnate Son is a special and open question, on which different views have been, and are, maintained.
(8) Love - God is love: that is to say, giving out of goodwill, for the recipient’s benefit, is the abiding quality both of ongoing relationships within the Godhead and of God’s primary outgoings in creation and to his creatures. This love is qualified by holiness (purity), a further facet of God’s character that finds expression in his abhorrence and rejection of moral evil; towards resolute non-worshippers and wrongdoers God shows the hostility of righteous retributive judgment. Nonetheless, both we and they must acknowledge that their creation, as such, was an act of love, and it is basically the spurning of that love in thankless unconcern that brings them under the judgment whereby God rejects them. This rejection is, in fact, precisely an endorsing and ratifying of their rejection of him.
(9) Relationship to Man - God’s ways with mankind, as set forth in Scripture, show him to be both awesome and adorable by reason of his truthfulness, faithfulness, grace, mercy, patience, constancy, wisdom, justice, goodness, and generosity. For these supremely admirable qualities God is eternally worthy of our praise, loyalty, and love, and the ultimate purpose of human life is to render him that multiform worship and service in which both he and we find our fullness of joy.
(10) Gracious Condescension in Language - God uses his gift to mankind of language to tell us things directly in and through the words of his spokesmen – prophets, apostles, the incarnate Son, the writers of Holy Scripture, and those who preach the Bible. God’s messages all come to us as good news of grace, whatever they may contain by way of particular commands, prohibitions, threats or warnings, for the fact that God addresses us at all is an expression of his goodwill and an invitation of fellowship. And the central message of Scripture, the hub of the wheel whose spokes are the various truths about God that the Bible teaches, is and always will be God’s free gift of salvation, freely offered to us in and by Jesus Christ.
 Carson, D. A. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 236-7.
 Packer, J. I. God Who Is Rich In Mercy: Essays Presented to Dr. D. B. Knox, Theism for Our Time Ed. P. T. O’Brien and D. G. Peterson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 6-8. I edited this for clarity by bolding and putting parenthesis around points and putting it in block paragraph form. Also, I added headings for clarity.