How happy is God?

Golden buddha handsWe’d like to focus our admiration of Orthodoxy on what is believed by open theists to be perhaps the most egregious disfigurement of the biblical portrayal of God, the Orthodox doctrine of apatheia (pronounced [ap-uh-thee-uh], from the negating a- [“without”] + pathos [“passion”] and most often translated into English with ‘impassibility’). Open theists all (with the exception of this blog and perhaps John Sanders) understand apatheia to be the denial of emotions in God. “After all,” one prominent open theist told me, “That’s what the word means—‘a’ negates ‘pathos’. No feeling. No emotions in God.”

We’d like to go on record as saying that if the Orthodox doctrine means what open theists generally understand it to mean, namely, that God is void of all emotion, bereft of all enjoyment whatsoever, then we won’t be defending Orthodoxy on this point. But our understanding is that by apatheia the Orthodox do not refer in any simplistic sense to a denial of emotion in God. Things really are a bit more complicated and nuanced than that. Our suspicions that apatheia may not be contrary to open theism’s core convictions as open theists assume were confirmed when we read open theist John Sanders’ clarification on his own understanding of the Fathers on apatheia. John writes:

“…it is clear that when the fathers said God was impassible they did not intend to rule out that he has emotions or that he is affected by and responds to us.”

Sanders feels this is good news, for “it enhances the degree to which the openness model agrees with more of the tradition.” We’d like to explore the nature and extent of that agreement in this and future posts.
Our conviction is that the Orthodox doctrine of apatheia is far better understood as “equanimity.” But it’s not difficult to understand why the Fathers, given their challenges would want to express this in negative terms as a- followed by the dysfunction or abuse they wished to dissociate with God. But a wider reading of these same Fathers (which we’ll have occasion to review in future posts) shows they attributed emotions to God with great conviction and consolation.

Open theism has built its case (rightly) on the view that God is love — fundamentally and essentially. But what this entails involves us in some disagreement. Open theists virtually all agree that as ‘love’ God is believed to be emotionally open or ‘vulnerable’ to a suffering world. So God’s—if you’ll permit us to use the phrase—‘emotional life’ is in a state of constant flux between fulfillment and diminishment depending partly upon the well-being of the world. God’s overall “aesthetic satisfaction” (to borrow a phrase from Greg Boyd which we’ll use a lot here) is understood to be the difference of an equation involving both God and world; that is, reasons God has to be joyful and ecstatic minus reasons God has to be sad or diminished. To open theists (with virtually no exceptions) then, ‘vulnerability’ essentially means we get to decide how happy God is. In our view, however, open theism need not adopt this understanding of divine love, and there are good reasons to urge open theists not to move in this direction.

To anticipate many posts to come, let us say that we believe Greg Boyd’s Trinity and Process describes a balanced approach to the excesses of Process theism on the one hand and objectionable aspects of traditional “classical” theism on the other. Take for example a few statements from Trinity and Process (italics ours):

“God experiences Godself with an intensity of aesthetic satisfaction which can under no circumstances conceivably be improved upon.”

“…this God-defining zenith of aesthetic intensity has been constituted in the triune sociality of God from eternity. This is necessary, and as such it is neither increased nor diminished by the contingent and temporal affairs of the world.”

“…this aesthetic satisfaction is the same whether or not there is a non-divine world for God to enjoy. God is no ‘greater’ for fellowshipping with the world, for it is God’s fellowship with Godself, not the world, which constitutes and characterizes the necessary unsurpassability of God’s aesthetic satisfaction. God’s gracious fellowship with the non-divine world simply expresses this primordial eternal fellowship.”

We suspect some will find this surprising given recent statements by Greg (preached and published in various forms) regarding God’s suffering love. The most recent summary of his views are expressed in a ReKnew video blog where at minute 3:50 he says, “The love that unites the triune God is greater than their own enjoyment of that unity” and moments later “The separation of God from God on the Cross represents the perfect unity of God with God.” We hope to show why this ought not to be our view of love.

Obviously there are contexts that qualify everything one says, and in our upcoming treatment of Greg’s work in Trinity and Process we’ll be careful to examine Boyd both then and now, but for now it should be clear that his present position and views on the Trinity (with respect to divine suffering in/with the world) are not what they were when he authored Trinity and Process.

Stay tuned!
(Pictures from here and here.)

17 comments on “How happy is God?

  1. Alan Rhoda says:

    Hey Tom,

    Brief comment on “impassibility”. As philosophers of religion use this term, it is generally understood to refer not to God’s not having emotions, but much more broadly to God’s not being in any way passive with respect to creatures. In that sense, what it means is that no causal or explanatory relations can run from creatures to God.

    Obviously, open theists (and all free-will theists, for that matter) must reject impassibility so understood. Richard Creel wrote a really nice book on impassibility a few decades back (Creel’s an open theist, by the way). He distinguishes between impassibility in (a) nature, (b) will, (c) feeling, and (d) knowledge and goes on to argue that God is passible only in the last sense. I think his argument is pretty good, though there’s certainly room for open theists to disagree about (b) and (c). Your quotes from Greg suggest that he affirmed (b) when he wrote T&P.


  2. tgbelt says:

    Hi Alan. Creel’s book is great. And Greg refers to it several times in T&P. Actually, Paul Gavrilyuk gave Creed’s book a tentative thumb’s up and said Orthodox would do well to check it out. But what Dwayne and I will show is that Greg believed in (c) when he wrote T&P. But it might be good to revisit Creel on (c), because as I remember he argues God is impassible in that sense. I could be wrong.

    We want to argue that God is impassible in the sense of (c) (with respect to ‘feeling’) and that this is where Greg was when he wrote T&P. But we don’t mean (c) in all the senses a classical theist (or perhaps even an Orthodox believer) might insist upon it. We mean it in the qualified sense Greg describes in the quotes provided in the post (i.e., as “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction”).


  3. Alan Rhoda says:

    You’re right about (c), Tom. I had meant to say (c), not (b).

    Nice blog, btw.


  4. Inigo Montoya says:

    One other thing to consider is that the Fathers were not as far removed from the Apogee of Greek Panthiesim as we are, and may have been trying to purge out aview of the devine that essentially makes God in our image, vs the other way round. I mean, talk about some emotional gods…


  5. Hey Tom (I love this blog you’ve started)

    It seems like impassibility of (c) based on the premise that God is eternally satisfied within Godhead and has no fluctuation in aesthetic satisfaction would call into question the nature of love that we can experience within the Godhead in theosis.
    If what I do doesn’t not affect his feelings in any way, it seems to lead to a kind of relational nihilism and would call into question many of the key passages we open theists cite as God actually “experiencing” emotion beyond anthropomorphism as responses to genuine possibilities.
    I don’t see a problem with a sovereign God who allowed genuine possibilities for love sake to also allow Himself to genuinely feel anger, joy, etc.


    • tgbelt says:

      Hi Paul! Good questions. We hope to work through them. That’s kinda the heart and soul of it. What’s it mean for a God who is unimprovably happy to “feel” the world in all its brokenness? Can’t answer right here, though. Not enough room! Stay tuned.


  6. You and D talked about this on the boards a few years back concerning God’s aseity. D, likened it to someone who is completely satisfied in themselves eating ice cream. For such a person, eating ice cream would not contribute to their aesthetically satisfying experience.


  7. Shane says:

    And for humans, experiencing at least the more unsavory emotions like sadness, fear, frustration, embarrassment, and so on, along with the common secondary emotion in which they often manifest–anger–is typically a manifestation of our insecurity (instrumental, relational, both…?) in the face of some perceived existential threat (thanks in part to our limbic system). Is God legitimately eligible for such insecurity or threat? I’m inclined to venture a “no,” and it gets me thinking about whether or in what sense One perfectly secure (on both the instrumental/power and relational/attachment fronts) might experience any of those emotions in a way that doesn’t stem from insecurity (born of need) but, rather, merely from desire.

    Just thinkin’ out loud here. Thanks for the stimulating conversation.


    • tgbelt says:

      Precisely Shane. I think we can safely dismiss as impossible in God’s case all those emotions that reflect any measure of dysfunction or of a failure to self-identify as perfectly secure, fully related, infinitely beautiful and loved, etc. At the very least THAT is out of the question. And this should include certain manifestations of ‘anger’ too–which for us is pretty much universally sinful and dysfunctional.


  8. Bruce says:



  9. The link to John Sanders’ article does not work.


  10. I personally believe that human beings can make God happy and sad. Making a distinction between how He feels among Himself as being a Trinity in fellowship and how He feels in connection to human beings seems to be a rather Hellenist concept (?) I feel like it imposes an unnatural reading on the Bible. In Genesis 6, God was grieved in His heart and that’s it, I think. 🙂 In our lives there are happy and sad moments. The same goes for God’s life but He sees human beings worshiping Him and helping their neighbours, while other human beings worship themselves and torture others. This must certainly complicate the issue we are discussing here.


    • Tom says:

      Believing God is only as happy as we allow him to be is certainly the more popular view. I can’t make sense of it though, for all the reasons we’ve tried to describe on the site here.

      You mention it feels like an unnatural reading of the Bible to think God has an essential satisfaction that transcends the world. There are passages that clearly tend toward the traditional view of God undiminished beatitude, passages that have to be read unnaturally to be made out as passibilist.

      Take Gen 6. Let’s grant the passibilist view of God at that time. Are you open to the idea that those who wrote and edited the OldT had understandings of God that were not entirely true, that they may have inherited a strongly passibilist (or vengeful) God from their neighbors?

      I’d use your first name, but I don’t know it! Sorry.


      • At this moment, it is better not to reveal my name online anymore. Genesis 6 seems to be strongly speaking about God reacting on His emotions. Feel free to elaborate on your thoughts. 🙂


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