I was recently in an online forum and another participant mentioned how many early creeds etc. said that God was ‘without passions’ and so presumably had no emotions. I’ve come across similar interpretations in other recent books and discussions, seeing this as an abstract philosophical depiction of God as what we’d call a ‘cold fish’ – remote, distant, uninvolved, unmoved, with nothing much corresponding to our feelings and emotions. And rightly, this is rejected – God is not like that. But then, in an attempt to attribute passion and feeling to God, modern writers and speakers somehow slip into the idea of a rather weak and vulnerable God.
This couldn’t be more wrong; just read some of Augustine’s words where he prays to God and celebrates God’s love for him. Now I agree that in modern English usage it is broadly right to talk about a God who has ‘passions’ and who ‘passionately’ cares about things. The trouble is, the older theologians whose ideas are being questioned were Latin (or Greek) speakers, or later theologians trained in ‘classics’, for whom the connotations of ‘passion’ and its related words were very different. Like ‘gay’ in modern times, ‘passion’ has somewhat changed its meaning over the years ….
In the ‘classic’ languages, ‘passion’ is associated with ‘passive’ and with a whole notion of ‘suffering’. In this context a ‘passion’ is something that happens to you; something overpowering from outside that takes you over, that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and drags you along to do something. Now the limited gods of paganism could have passions in that sense – look at Zeus, only has to see a pretty girl (or boy) and he is smitten and out of control, and cannot be satisfied till he’s had that pretty young thing in bed (often he’s too impatient to actually make it to a proper bed!). He cheerfully betrays his own goddess wife, Hera, and often not merely seduces but kidnaps and rapes, or deceives, the object of his ‘passion’. In other contexts also the pagan gods are portrayed as indeed moved by ‘passions’ – losing control and acting pettily, meanly, and with fickle inconstancy from one day to another.
However, when you think of the one true God, the Creator, the fount and origin of all things, the perfect being, can you really think of him having that kind of passion? If God could have that sort of passion – or rather, that sort of passion could have God – then there would be something(s), and likely not very desirable something(s), more powerful than God, able to frustrate his intentions and drag him into things against his better judgement. If God is truly God, there cannot be other things outside him that can so affect him. God is not a passive victim of wildly inconsistent passions. That was the real point being made by these ancient theologians.
But they did not depict God as cold and remote and unfeeling – far from it. They depict a God of warmth of feeling, of white-hot caring, way beyond human ‘passions’ in their sense of ‘passion’. But they didn’t see God as ‘passive’ in his feelings; God’s caring is all active, he takes the initiative and actively throws his whole magnificent wonderful self into his caring. Not that some external force grabs him and controls him, but that he himself is the very embodiment of that caring, that it flows out of him in majestic generosity. God is active love, not the passive victim of forces beyond his control. I’m tempted to coin a new word to get across the difference between our usage and the usage of those wise Latin-speakers. They would not, with their usage of words, describe God as ‘passionate’ – what they wanted to say about God might rather be conveyed by the word ‘actionate’.
Our God is Love!!