God reveals himself to his people in the Bible. The opening chapters of Genesis show us that God is relational. Indeed, all true theology is relational theology since God, in his triunity, is a relational God. God relates to his creatures, especially those made in his image, in a manner suitable to their creatureliness. Because God is wise and good, he does not relate to Adam in the garden in a manner that utterly confuses him. Rather, there’s a beautiful simplicity concerning how Adam must live in relation to God, which was friendship with God based upon his gracious condescension.
Now, that does not mean we are not frequently confronted in God’s word, as Job was, with the supreme, infinite majesty of our God. God is infinite in his perfections; he possesses unchangeable omniscience; he enjoys eternal omnipotence. To him alone, we can say with David, “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty. . . . You are exalted as head above all” (1 Chronicles 29:11). Our God “is clothed with awesome majesty” (Job 37:22).
However, we also find that much of what pertains to us as humans is also attributed to God. We read of God’s “face” (Exodus 33:20), “eyes” (and “eyelids,” Psalm 11:4), “ear” (Isaiah 59:1), “nostrils” (Isaiah 65:5), “mouth” (Deuteronomy 8:3), “lips” (Isaiah 30:27), “tongue” (Isaiah 30:27), “finger” (Exodus 8:19), and many other body parts. What’s more, sometimes we read of God possessing human emotions. He is sometimes jealous or grieved (Deuteronomy 4:24; 32:21; Psalm 78:40; Isaiah 63:10). After Adam sins, God, who has just made the world by acts of divine power, wisdom, and goodness, asks Adam, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).
God Without Passions
What are Christians to make of these declarations of God? Is God eternally unchangeable in his being, or does he, like humans, have the capacity to change? Can God really experience distress or learn something new? What does it mean for God, who is Spirit, to “get angry”? Does God really need to ask Adam where he is, as if he can’t find him?
If we are committed to the biblical and theological view that God is unchangeable (see Psalm 102:26–28), we are affirming that in God there is no change in time (he is eternal) or location (he is omnipresent) or essence (he is pure being). God does not change, nor can he change (Malachi 3:6; Isaiah 14:27; 41:4). Thus, there are no “passions” in God, as if in his essence he can be more or less happy or more or less angry. God is what he always was and will be (James 1:17) in the infinite happiness and bliss we call divine “blessedness.”
An immutable God does not have passions; or, as John Owen famously said, “a mutable god is of the dunghill.” We do not deny that God has affections (for example, wrath or hatred), but affections like wrath in God are either acts of his outward will or they are applied to God figuratively.
Passions refer to an internal emotional change, which are suitable to humans. Think of our blood pressure rising with anger. God’s jealousy — a metaphorical way to speak of him — helps us to understand outward acts of his will. When God wills for the wicked to be punished, sometimes in the most severe way (like the flood in Noah’s time), we can speak of the “anger of the Lord.” Because God is holy and righteous, he must punish sin. When he outwardly executes his punishment, the Scriptures often speak of his fury or wrath. But to suggest that Achan, for example, could upset God so that God is less happy is to make Achan into God and God into Achan (see Joshua 7).
God’s Amazing Stooping
God relates to his image-bearers in a way that does justice to the history of redemption. He condescends and, for our sake, sometimes appropriates to himself “passions” that, while not properly true of his being, are ways of speaking that help us to understand how he will relate to us in terms of his purposes and will.
“God relates to his creatures, especially those made in his image, in a manner suitable to their creatureliness.”
Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) explains the importance of God’s dealings with us in this way: “If God were to speak to us in a divine language, not a creature would understand him. But what spells out his grace is the fact that from the moment of creation God stoops down to his creatures, speaking and appearing to them in human fashion” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:100). If he did not, we would be left in a cloud of unsearchable darkness concerning who God is and what he is doing in the world.
Now God’s “stooping” and “appearing” are not mere anthropomorphisms in the sense that he is accommodating to us in terms of the language he uses. Rather, the humanlike language used of God in the Old Testament is fulfilled wondrously in the person of Christ in his incarnation.
The Son related to God’s people in the Old Testament by dwelling in their midst (1 Corinthians 10:4). According to Owen, in dwelling with his people, the Son
constantly assumes unto himself human affections, to intimate that a season would come when he would immediately act in that nature. And, indeed, after the fall there is nothing spoken of God in the Old Testament, nothing of his institutions, nothing of the way and manner of dealing with the church, but what has respect unto the future incarnation of Christ. (Works, 1:350)
This is a beautiful way to understand the Old Testament. These anthropomorphisms attributed to God are not only a form of accommodation on his part in terms of his covenantal relationship with his people, but they set the stage for the incarnation of the Son of God. Yet, since the Son is the reason for all things (Colossians 1:16), it goes without saying that anthropomorphic language concerning God is not merely prospective of Jesus but derives from him from the beginning.
Owen adds that it would have been absurd to speak of God continually by way of anthropomorphisms (such as grief, anger, repentance, and so on) unless it was intended that the Son would take to himself “the nature wherein such affections do dwell” (350).
“What is impossible for God, who cannot change, is possible in Christ because of the glory of the incarnation.”
Everything anthropomorphically yet not properly attributed to God is actually properly attributed to Christ as God-man. Jesus, who has arms and eyes, a heart and soul, also grieves (Mark 3:5) and expresses indignation (Mark 10:14). What is impossible for God, who cannot change, is possible in Christ because of the glory of the incarnation. In him we can affirm both God’s unchangeability and his ability to express human passions. The Son of God, as one person with two natures, is both unchangeable and changeable; he experienced an infinite joy in the deity but also, while on earth, an inexpressible sorrow in his humanity.
Always Set to Be Man
Our Lord Jesus is not only the fulfillment of all promises, which are yes and amen in him (2 Corinthians 1:20), but the fulfillment of all truth concerning who God is toward his creatures. The Lord’s hand (arm) is not too short to save because his “hand” is his Messiah who is able to save to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25). Hands are what we use to work, and God works with his hand (Jesus) our salvation.
God often spoke of himself in human terms because the Son was always set to become the true human, the one truly in the image of God (Colossians 1:15), who allows the faithful to see God by faith in this life and by sight in the life to come. As important for us as his divinity is his humanity — a humanity that such stooping language in the Old Testament always anticipated.