Meditations for your Lord’s Day on the Figurative Descriptions of God:

Augustine, City of God, Book 17, Chapter 5

But where God says, “Who will do all that is in mine heart and in my soul,” we must not think that God has a soul, for He is the Author of souls; but this is said of God tropically, not properly, just as He is said to have hands and feet, and other corporal members. And, lest it should be supposed from such language that man in the form of this flesh is made in the image of God, wings also are ascribed to Him, which man has not at all; and it is said to God, “Hide me under the shadow of Thy wings,” that men may understand that such things are said of that ineffable nature not in proper but in figurative words.

Augustine, City of God, Book 17, Chapter 7

But that division with which God threatened the kingdom and people in the person of Saul, who represented them, is shown to be eternal and unchangeable by this which is added, “And He will not be changed, neither will He repent: for He is not as a man, that He should repent; who threatens and does not persist,” — that is, a man threatens and does not persist, but not God, who does not repent like man. For when we read that He repents, a change of circumstance is meant, flowing from the divine immutable foreknowledge. Therefore, when God is said not to repent, it is to be understood that He does not change.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Q.19, Art. 7, RO 1 (referencing Genesis 6:7)

These words of the Lord are to be understood metaphorically, and according to the likeness of our nature. For when we repent, we destroy what we have made; although we may even do so without change of will; as, when a man wills to make a thing at the same intending to destroy it later. Therefore God is said to have repented, by way of comparison with our mode of acting, in so far as by the deluge He destroyed from the face of the earth man whom He had made.

John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 6:6

The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sakes he should, in a certain sense, transform himself. That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single considerations that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen. The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity. Wherefore, there is no need for us to involve ourselves in thorny and difficult questions, when it is obvious to what end these words of repentance and grief are applied; namely, to teach us, that from the time when man was so greatly corrupted, God would not reckon him among his creatures; as if he would say, ‘This is not my workmanship; this is not that man who was formed in my image, and whom I had adorned with such excellent gifts: I do not deign now to acknowledge this degenerate and defiled creature as mine.’ Similar to this is what he says, in the second place, concerning grief; that God was so offended by the atrocious wickedness of men, as if they had wounded his heart with mortal grief: There is here, therefore, an unexpressed antithesis between that upright nature which had been created by God, and that corruption which sprung from sin. Meanwhile, unless we wish to provoke God, and to put him to grief, let us learn to abhor and to flee from sin. Moreover, this paternal goodness and tenderness ought, in no slight degree, to subdue in us the love of sin; since God, in order more effectually to pierce our hearts, clothes himself with our affections. This figure, which represents God as transferring to himself what is peculiar to human nature, is called anthropopatheia.

John Calvin, Harmony of the Law, v.1 – On Exodus 2:24

How far remembrance is possible with God, we must learn from its contrary. God is said to forget when he does not really and openly appear, and stretch forth his hand to help; therefore, when we say he “remembers,” we mark our apprehension of his aid; and both expressions have relation to effect. In the same way he is said “to behold,” and its opposite, “to turn his back,” because we then perceive that he beholds us when he actually succours us.

John Calvin, Commentary on Malachi 3:6

Here the Prophet more clearly reproves and checks the impious waywardness of the people; for God, after having said that he would come and send a Redeemer, though not such as would satisfy the Jews, now claims to himself what justly belongs to him, and says that he changes not, because he is God. Under the name Jehovah, God reasons from his own nature; for he sets himself, as we have observed in our last lecture, in opposition to mortals; nor is it a wonder that God here disclaims all inconsistency, since the impostor Balaam was constrained to celebrate God’s immutable constancy —
“For he is not God,” he says, “who changes,” or varies, “like man.” (Numbers 23:19.)

We now then understand the force of the words, I am Jehovah. But he adds as an explanation, I change not, or, I am not changed; for if we do not take the verb actively, the meaning is the same, — that God continues in his purpose, and is not turned here and there like men who repent of a purpose they have formed, because what they had not thought of comes to their mind, or because they wish undone what they have performed, and seek new ways by which they may retrace their steps. God denies that anything of this kind can take place in him, for he is Jehovah, and changes not, or is not changed.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.13,1

The doctrine of Scripture concerning the immensity and the spirituality of the essence of God, should have the effect not only of dissipating the wild dreams of the vulgar, but also of refuting the subtleties of a profane philosophy. One of the ancients thought he spake shrewdly when he said that everything we see and everything we do not see is God, (Senec. Praef. lib. 1 Quaest. Nat.) In this way he fancied that the Divinity was transfused into every separate portion of the world. But although God, in order to keep us within the bounds of soberness, treats sparingly of his essence, still, by the two attributes which I have mentioned, he at once suppresses all gross imaginations, and checks the audacity of the human mind. His immensity surely ought to deter us from measuring him by our sense, while his spiritual nature forbids us to indulge in carnal or earthly speculation concerning him. With the same view he frequently represents heaven as his dwelling-place. It is true, indeed, that as he is incomprehensible, he fills the earth also, but knowing that our minds are heavy and grovel on the earth, he raises us above the worlds that he may shake off our sluggishness and inactivity. And here we have a refutation of the error of the Manichees, who, by adopting two first principles, made the devil almost the equal of God. This, assuredly, was both to destroy his unity and restrict his immensity. Their attempt to pervert certain passages of Scripture proved their shameful ignorance, as the very nature of the error did their monstrous infatuation. The Anthropomorphites also, who dreamed of a corporeal God, because mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet, are often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.

John Trapp, A Clavis to the Bible (On Genesis 6:6)

These things are spoken of God, anthropopathos, after the manner of men; but must be taken and understood theoprepos, as it beseemeth God. When Repentance is attributed to God (saith Mr. Perkins) it noteth only the alteration of things and actions done by him, and no change of his purpose and secret decree, which is immutable. God’s repentance (saith another learned Divine [Gataker-RZ]) is not a change of his will, but of his work: Repentance with man, is the changing of his will: Repentance with God, is the willing of a change: Mutatio rei, non Dei; effectus, non affectus; facti, non consilii.

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (the numbers refer to Topic, Question, and Paragraph – transliterations have been omitted)


The three difference of time are applied to God when he is called “the one who is, and was and is to come” (Rev. 1:4). This is not formally, but eminently and after the manner of men, to describe (if possible) in this manner the eternity of God. This is not done dividedly as if they might be predicated of him successively, but undividedly because the eternity of God embraces all time at once. Hence the past is affirmed without the negation of the present and the future, and the present is asserted, but without the negation of the past and the future. “Although,” says Augustine, “that immutable and ineffable nature does not admit of he was or will be, but only of he is, yet on account of the mutability of time, with which our mortality and mutability is concerned, we may say without error, he is, was, and will be. He was in the past ages, he is in the present, he will be in the future. He was because he never was not; he will be because he will never cease to be; he is because he always is” (Tractate 99, On the Gospel of John).

III. 11, XI

Repentance is attributed to God after the manner of men but must be understood after the manner of God: not with respect to his counsel, but to the event; not in reference to his will, but to the thing willed; not to affection and internal grief, but to the effect and external work because he does what a penitent man usually does. If repentance concerning the creation of man (which he could not undo) is ascribed to God (Genesis 6:6,7), it must be understood not pathetically, but energetically. Although he could not by a non-creation undo what he had done, yet by a destruction he could produce change.


Although God testifies that he willed to go down and see whether the cry of Sodom that came to him was true (Gen. 18:21), it does not follow that he was ignorant of the nature and degree of the impiety of that city before. He had already said, “The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great.” But this is said after the manner of men to intimate that he performs the part of a good and exact Judge, and neither pronounces nor executes anything rashly (as an accurate judge inquires on the spot into the thing itself to avoid precipitate action).

IV. 2, IX

Although God changes his dispensation towards men in time, either for good or for evil, it does not follow that the decree itself is changed or is made only in time because this very change was decreed even from eternity. Rather these things, said in accommodation to men, ought to be understood in a manner becoming God; not with respect to a change in God, but with respect to a change in his works. Thus the following passages are understood: Jer. 18:10; 31:28; Deut. 28:63.

V. 10, V [Speaking of what the image of God in which Adam was created is not]

Nor does it consist in any figure of the body or external bearing in which man resembles God (the delirium of the Anthropomorphites of old). For although we do not think that every relation of that image should altogether be denied of the body and see some rays of it glittering there, whether we regard man’s immortality of which his body is also in its own manner a partaker; or that majesty of bearing which Ovid thus elegantly expresses, “Whilst other animals look downwards upon the earth, he gave man a lofty face, and ordered him to look at heaven, and lift his countenance towards the stars” (Metamorphoses 1.85); or attend to the admirable structure, symmetry and use of the organic body and all its members; still it is certain that image shone in the body not so much formally as consequently and effectively (inasmuch as both the figure of man itself and the majesty resulting from it testify to the power of man over the rest of creatures, and thus of his having a soul fitted for contemplation and knowledge; and thus the proper seat of the divine image is the soul and not the body). If human members are attributed to God in the Scriptures, it does not therefore follow that the image is to be placed properly in these, since they are ascribed to him after the manner of men and must be understood in a manner becoming God not formally and properly, but figuratively and analogically.

JOHN GILL’S Exposition of the Old and New Testaments – On Judges 10:16

“…and his soul was grieved for the misery of Israel.”

Which is to be understood after the manner of men; for grief properly does not belong to God, there being no passion in him; but it denotes a carriage or behaviour of his, which shows what looks like sympathy in men; a love and affection for Israel, notwithstanding their ill behaviour to him, and a change of his dispensations Providence towards them, according to his unchangeable will; so Maimonides understands it of the good will and pleasure of God, to cease from afflicting the people of Israel….

Exposition of the Old and New Testaments – On 1 Samuel 15:11

“It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king, etc.”

Which is not to be understood of any change of mind, counsel, purpose, or decree in God, which is not consistent with his unchangeable nature; but of a change of dispensation, and outward dealings, and is spoken after the manner of men, who, when they repent of anything, change the course of their conduct and behaviour; and so the Lord does without any change of his mind and will, which alters not; and though he changes the outward dispensations of his providence, yet he never changes and alters in the matters and methods of his grace; though he repented he made Saul king, he never repents of his making his saints kings and priests for himself; his outward gifts he sometimes takes away, as an earthly crown and kingdom; but his gifts and calling, which are of special grace, are without repentance.

A Complete Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Book 1, Chapter 4

It is no objection to this, that the parts of an human body are sometimes attributed to God; since these are to be understood of him not in a proper, but in an improper and figurative sense, and denote some act and action, or attribute of his; thus his face denotes his sight and presence, in which all things are, Genesis 19:13 sometimes his favour and good will, and the manifestation of his love and grace, Psalm 27:8; Psalm 80:3 and sometimes his wrath and indignation against wicked men, Psalm 34:16 ; Revelation 6:17. His “eyes” signify his omniscience and all-seeing providence; concerned both with good men, to protect and preserve them, and bestow good things on them; and with bad men, to destroy them, Proverbs 15:3; 2 Chronicles 16:9; Amos 9:8. His “ears”, his readiness to attend unto, and answer the requests of his people, and deliver them out of their troubles, Psalm 34:15; Isaiah 59:1. His nose and nostrils, his acceptance of the persons and sacrifices of men, Genesis 8:21 or his disgust at them, anger with them, and non-acceptance of them, Deuteronomy 29:20; Isaiah 65:5; Psalm 18:8. His mouth is expressive of his commands, promises, threatenings, and prophecies delivered out by him, Lamentations 3:29; Isaiah 1:20; Jeremiah 23:16. His “arms” and “hands” signify his power, and the exertion of it, as in making the heavens and the earth, and in other actions of his, Psalm 102:27; Job 26:13; Psalm 89:13 118:16; Deuteronomy 33:27.

A Complete Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Book 1, Chapter 5

Nor is the unchangeableness of God in his word, whether in a way of promise or threatening, to be disproved by repentance being ascribed to him, which is to be taken in a limited sense, for in some sense it is absolutely denied of him, Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29. When it is spoken of him, it is to be understood improperly and figuratively, after the manner of men, he doing like what men do, when they repent, that is, undo what they have done; as a potter, when he does not like a vessel he has made, breaks it to pieces: so when it repented God that he had made man on earth, and Saul king, Genesis 6:6; 1 Samuel 15:11 he destroyed man from off the earth, whom he had created; and took away the kingdom from Saul and his family, and gave it to another: in doing which he did not change his mind, but his operations and providences, and that according to his unchangeable will.

John Brown of Haddington, Questions and Answers on the Shorter Catechism, q.4

Q. If God be a spirit, how are eyes, ears, arms, feet, face, fingers, mouth, lips, &c., ascribed to him in scripture? —A. God, in condescension to our weakness, doth by these bodily members point out some property in himself, the work of which in some way resembleth the use of such members in man, Hos. xii.13, and xi. 8.

Q. If God change not, how is he said to repent? —A. His repenting means only a change in his work, but it means no change of his will, Gen. vi. 6, 7.

Q. Why is the change of work called a repenting? —A. In allusion to the case of men, whose change of work shows a change of their will, Acts iii. 19.

Timothy Rogers Trouble of Mind and the Disease of Melancholy, pp.221,222 (of the SDG reprint) [In context he is speaking of grieving the Holy Spirit]

The divine nature indeed is incapable of our passions; it is above our joys and our sorrows.
It is said of those who are upon Mount Olympus that the see the clouds gather below their feet; they see the hail and the thunder disturb and land on the plain, while they rejoice in the pure light of the sun. In such a manner the divine essence sees all the troubles and agitations of the creatures, remaining always in its own peace and tranquility. This expression is borrowed from human affections, and when the Holy Spirit does that in us which our nature does when it is seized with sorrow, then He is said to be grieved.

Fairbairn‘s Opening Scripture: A Hermeneutical Manual Introducing the Exegetical Study of the New Testament

In this way, Scripture was explained as accommodating itself to men’s infirmities or habits, when it speaks of God as possessing human parts and passions, or uses parables, proverbs, and familiar images, to set forth to our view things spiritual and divine.


To the first or more general class of accommodations are to be referred the representations given of Divine and spiritual things—things which lie beyond the region of sense, and are not directly cognisable by any faculties we possess. Such things can only be made known to us by an accommodation from the visible to the invisible, from the known to the unknown; and though, in such cases, the form is necessarily imperfect, and conveys an inadequate idea of the reality, it still is the fittest representation of the idea, the nearest to the truth of things, which it is possible for us in present circumstances to attain to. What is said, for example, of God’s anger toward sinners—or of His being revealed (through Christ) in flaming fire for the execution of judgment upon the wicked—or of the possibility of moving Heaven by prayer to depart from some purpose already formed, as if there could be passion or mutability with God—everything of this sort manifestly proceeds upon that necessity, which is inherent in our natures, of thinking and speaking of God in a human manner. It is impossible, otherwise, to gain definite ideas of His perfections and government; and the only way of guarding against the abuse of such representations, is by the employment of counter-representations, which declare God to be in Himself essentially spiritual, unchangeable, and incapable of being carried away by the feelings and impulses of finite beings.

We must, nevertheless, think of Him, and conduct ourselves towards Him, as if the human form of conceptions respecting Him conveyed the exact truth;—He will act toward impenitent sinners precisely as if He were moved to anger by their sins—His appearance for judgment against them will be as if He were encompassed with devouring fire—He will give effect to earnest and believing prayer, as if He could be changed by the entreaties of His people.

p.140 [speaking of the leading principles which can help us determine whether a text is literal or tropical]

The first of these is, that when anything is said, which, if taken according to the letter, would be at variance with the essential nature of the subject spoken of, the language must be regarded as tropical. This principle requires to be little more than enunciated; it carries its own evidence along with it. No single act, no particular attribute can be ascribed by an intelligent writer to a person or an object, which is inconsistent with their proper nature. So that, on the supposition of the nature of that nature being known to us, we can be at no loss to understand in what sense the language should be taken. Thus, it is essential to the nature of God, that He is spirit and not flesh—a Spirit infinite, eternal, and unchangeable; consequently without bodily parts, which are necessarily bounded by space and time; without liability to passionate excitation or erring purposes, which arise from creaturely limitations. Hence all those passages, which represent God as possessed of human powers and organs, as seeing, or hearing, or having experience of such affections as are the result of human weakness and infirmity, must be understood in a figurative sense.

Hodge Systematic Theology, I.5,7

Those passages of Scripture in which God is said to repent, are to be interpreted on the same principle as those in which He is said to ride upon the wings of the wind, or to walk through the earth. These create no difficulty.

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Part One, VI, B.

The immutability of God is a necessary concomitant of His aseity. It is that perfection of God by which He is devoid of all change, not only in His Being, but also in His perfections, and in His purposes and promises. In virtue of this attribute He is exalted above all becoming, and is free from all accession or diminution and from all growth or decay in His Being or perfections. His knowledge and plans, His moral principles and volitions remain forever the same. Even reason teaches us that no change is possible in God, since a change is either for better or for worse. But in God, as the absolute Perfection, improvement and deterioration are both equally impossible. This immutability of God is clearly taught in such passages of Scripture as Ex. 3:14; Ps. 102:26-28; Isa. 41:4; 48:12; Mal. 3:6; Rom. 1:23; Heb. 1:11,12; Jas. 1:17. At the same time there are many passages of Scripture which seem to ascribe change to God. Did not He who dwells in eternity pass on to the creation of the world, become incarnate in Christ, and in the Holy Spirit take up His abode in the Church? Is He not represented as revealing and hiding Himself, as coming and going, as repenting and changing His intention, and as dealing with man differently before and after conversion? Cf. Ex. 32:10-14; Jonah 3:10; Prov. 11:20; 12:22; Ps. 18:26,27. The objection implied here is based to a certain extent on misunderstanding. The divine immutability should not be understood as implying immobility, as if there were no movement in God. It is even customary in theology to speak of God as actus purus, a God who is always in action. The Bible teaches us that God enters into manifold relations with man and, as it were, lives their life with them. There is change round about Him, change in the relations of men to Him, but there is no change in His Being, His attributes, His purpose, His motives of action, or His promises. The purpose to create was eternal with Him, and there was no change in Him when this purpose was realized by a single eternal act of His will. The incarnation brought no change in the Being or perfections of God, nor in His purpose, for it was His eternal good pleasure to send the Son of His love into the world. And if Scripture speaks of His repenting, changing His intention, and altering His relation to sinners when they repent, we should remember that this is only an anthropopathic way of speaking. In reality the change is not in God, but in man and in man’s relations to God. It is important to maintain the immutability of God over against the Pelagian and Arminian doctrine that God is subject to change, not indeed in His being, but in His knowledge and will, so that His decisions are to a great extent dependent on the actions of man; over against the pantheistic notion that God is an eternal becoming rather than an absolute Being, and that the unconscious Absolute is gradually developing into conscious personality in man; and over against the present tendency of some to speak of a finite, struggling, and gradually growing God.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius De Trinitate, ch. V

It cannot therefore be affirmed that predication of relationship by itself adds or takes away or changes anything in the thing of which it is said. It wholly consists not in that which is simply being, but in that which is being in some way in comparison, not always with another thing but sometimes with itself. For suppose a man standing. If I go up to him on the right and stand beside him, he will be left, in comparison with me, not because he is left in himself, but because I have come up to him on the right. Again, if I come up to him on the left, he becomes right, not because he is right in himself, as he may be white or tall, but because he becomes right in virtue of my approach, and what he is depends entirely on me, and not in the least on himself.

John of Damascus, Dogmatic Chapters, Book I, Chapter 11.

Since we find many terms used symbolically in the Scriptures concerning God which are more applicable to that which has body, we should recognize that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life. So then all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, but have a higher meaning: for the Deity is simple and formless. Hence by God’s eyes and eyelids and sight we are to understand His power of overseeing all things and His knowledge, that nothing can escape: for in the case of us this sense makes our knowledge more complete and more full of certainty. By God’s ears and hearing is meant His readiness to be propitiated and to receive our petitions: for it is this sense that renders us also kind to suppliants, inclining our ear to them more graciously. God’s mouth and speech are His means of indicating His will; for it is by the mouth and speech that we make clear the thoughts that are in the heart: God’s food and drink are our concurrence to His will, for we, too, satisfy the necessities of our natural appetite through the sense of taste. And God’s sense of smell is His appreciation of our thoughts of and good will towards Him, for it is through this sense that we appreciate sweet fragrance. And God’s countenance is the demonstration and manifestation of Himself through His works, for our manifestation is through the countenance. And God’s hands mean the effectual nature of His energy, for it is with our own hands that we accomplish our most useful and valuable work. And His right hand is His aid in prosperity, for it is the right hand that we also use when making anything of beautiful shape or of great value, or where much strength is required. His handling is His power of accurate discrimination and exaction, even in the minutest and most secret details, for those whom we have handled cannot conceal from us aught within themselves. His feet and walk are His advent and presence, either for the purpose of bringing succor to the needy, or vengeance against enemies, or to perform any other action, for it is by using our feet that we come to arrive at any place. His oath is the unchangeableness of His counsel, for it is by oath that we confirm our compacts with one another. His anger and fury are His hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat. His forgetfulness and sleep and slumbering are His delay in taking vengeance on His enemies and the postponement of the accustomed help to His own. And to put it shortly, all the statements made about God that imply body have some hidden meaning and teach us what is above us by means of something familiar to ourselves, with the exception of any statement concerning the bodily sojourn of the God-Word. For He for our safety took upon Himself the whole nature of man, the thinking spirit, the body, and all the properties of human nature, even the natural and blameless passions.

Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, III


Far from being an excessively “speculative” doctrine in the modern sense of the term, the orthodox discussion of the divine will was deeply rooted in the redemptive and historical elements of Christian theology and indicative of the a posteriori character of much Reformed theology in the era of Protestant scholasticism: for the distinctions made by the orthodox concerning the divine willing were not a matter of rational speculation but rather a result of the examination of biblical texts and traditional discussions of the voluntas Dei, the latter with particular respect to the needs or concerns of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone.

pp.450, 451

In our finite minds, we divide the will of God, as the Scripture itself does, “according to the diversity of its objects.” [quoting from Pictet, Theologia christiana,] To make the point as forcefully as possible, the distinctions in the divine will serve the purpose, not of dividing the will, but, explicitly, of preserving the sense of its unity: it is the Arminian, not the Reformed theology, that argued two wills in God.


Here, admittedly, the orthodox line of thought is guided not by a totally open or unbiased exegesis of texts, but by an ontological conception of the immutability of God: this guiding conception in turn leads to an interpretation of Scripture that gives priority to those texts stressing the unchangeability of God over those texts which indicate change, priority to those texts which stress God’s otherness over those which indicate emotion, passion, or other kinship with humanity. But this is not a case of rationalism or metaphysical speculation overruling revelation: instead it is an example of one of the many instances in which theology must make a choice concerning its view of God, deciding which aspects of the scriptural view are governing concepts, anthropomorphism or transcendence, the “repentance” of God or the divine constancy. And in this case in particular, the Reformed orthodox stand not only in the line of the more philosophical arguments typical of scholastic theology but, together with the older scholasticism, in the line of the church’s exegetical tradition — and, indeed, in accord with the doctrinal statements and with the exegesis of the Reformers.


The Reformed orthodox doctrine of the divine affections and virtues, although far more elaborate and characterized by a fuller and clearer recourse to scholastic distinctions, also stands in substantial continuity with the views of the Reformers. In particular, apart from differing nuances found in various thinkers throughout the period, the exegetical basis of the doctrine remained much the same: the orthodox systems refer to the same texts that the Reformers had identified as the crucial loci and, we might add, had themselves received from the medieval and patristic exegetes as the primary points of reference. Nor, indeed, has the basic doctrinal assumption shifted: life the Reformers, the orthodox assume that God has affections that characterize his relationship to the world and that some analogy can be drawn between these “divine affections” and the affections that belong to human willing — with the major qualification that, unlike human affections, the divine affections do not indicate essential change in God and that they are permanent rather than transient dispositions.

p.555 [quoting from Vermigli, Commonplaces, I.xii.21 on the attribution of repentance and anger to God]

it must be considered, that the scripture speaketh of God after the manner of men, for the affect of remembrance declareth the goodness of God: for they which be mindful of their friends in danger, do (for the most part) relieve them. Howbeit, to remember, accordeth not properly with God, seeing it noteth a certain forgetfulness that went before; which to ascribe unto God, were an unjust thing. But of knowing we see there be three kinds, the which are distinguished one from another, according to the difference of time. For if a thing present be found out … this knowledge is the root of all the other and more sure than the rest. Further, if it respect unto things that be past, it is called memory. If unto things to come, it is foresight. … Of those kinds of knowledge, none is truly attributed unto God, but the first, seeing all things are present with him: and even as his nature, so his actions are by no means comprehended within the course of time. But yet it is said in the Scriptures, that either he remembered, or that he foresaw; because oftentimes those effects are attributed unto him which they are wont to do that foresee or remember.

Fifth Theological Oration: On the Holy Spirit, Gregory of Nazianzus

According to Scripture God sleeps and is awake, is angry, walks, has the Cherubim for His Throne. And yet when did He become liable to passion, and have you ever heard that God has a body? This then is, though not really fact, a figure of speech. For we have given names according to our own comprehension from our own attributes to those of God. His remaining silent apart from us, and as it were not caring for us, for reasons known to Himself, is what we call His sleeping; for our own sleep is such a state of inactivity. And again, His sudden turning to do us good is the waking up; for waking is the dissolution of sleep, as visitation is of turning away. And when He punishes, we say He is angry; for so it is with us, punishment is the result of anger. And His working, now here now there, we call walking; for walking is change from one place to another. His resting among the Holy Hosts, and as it were loving to dwell among them, is His sitting and being enthroned; this, too, from ourselves, for God resteth nowhere as He doth upon the Saints. His swiftness of moving is called flying, and His watchful care is called His Face, and his giving and bestowing is His hand; and, in a word, every other of the powers or activities of God has depicted for us some other corporeal one.

Matthew Poole:

When terms expressive of our passions are applied to perfect beings, we must understand them so, as they alone can agree to such beings, separated from those excesses which they have in beings more imperfect. Joy signifieth nothing but the full sartisfaction of the will in a good obtained. Commentary on the Whole Bible; Luke 15:3-7

dividerThank you to the folks on the Puritan Board for posting such great historical material for us to ponder.




2 thoughts on “God is Without Passons

  1. I have delved many times into doctrine too deep for me; I always come away wishing I could get back to “All I ever want to know about God is what I see in Jesus Christ I.E. 2cd Corinthians 4:6”; but the egg is broken, it can not be put together again. I wonder, “is this eating from the tree of the knowledge of
    of gold & evil?”

  2. I understand your point Br. Robert. Calvin instructs us;

    “Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know, so nothing is taught but what is expedient to know.”

    The framers of the Reformed Confessions thought it best to mention God is “without passions.” We can take comfort in knowing our God has loved us eternally, with everlasting love and does so perfectly.

    Have a good Lord’s Day tomorrow.


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