One of the Trinity Did Suffer: A Reply Against Classical Theism and Its Inherent Nestorianism

Science of Story Building: Use Emotion With Intention | by Ann Searight  Christiano | Science of Story Building | Medium
“The divine feels are real.” — Thomas Aquinas, maybe

This is a guest post by Dr. R.T. Mullins. Mullins is a philosophical theologian at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (University of Helsinki). The views expressed herein are those of Mullins.


Several people have asked me what I think of Brendon W. Case’s review of my book, God and Emotion. Let me start by saying that I am thrilled that people are actually reading God and Emotion. When you write academic books, you kind of expect that no one will read them. Sure, your mom says she will read it, but you know that really means, “I will put it on my coffee table so that I can brag about my son to house guests.” So I am really glad that Case read my book. I’m also thankful for the boys over at London Lyceum for constantly promoting my work, and having venues for people to do book reviews of my publications. But with that said, everyone wants to hear a typical sarcastic Mullins reply. So buckle up buttercup. Let’s get into it.

The Context for God and Emotion

God and Emotion is part of the Cambridge Elements in Philosophy of Religion series. The elements have a strict word limit of 35,000 words. I did manage to get away with more, but I had to cut a lot of material. Much of that extra material has been published elsewhere, or will be included in future papers. For example, my “The Problem of Arbitrary Creation for Impassibility” in Open Theology (2020). In this paper I argue that impassibility, creation ex nihilo, and divine rationality entail a contradiction. Basically, it is metaphysically impossible for an impassible God to create a universe, or perform any contingent action ad extra, for a reason. There is also my “Why Can’t the Impassible God Suffer? Analytic Reflections on Divine Blessedness” in TheoLogica (2018). In that paper, I argue that timelessness, immutability, and simplicity do not entail impassibility. Despite what you may have heard, there is in fact no logical entailment from those other classical attributes to divine impassibility. I will also mention one further paper, though I could mention many more that did not make it into the book. The final one is “Classical Theism, Christology, and the Two Sons Worry” in Johannes Grossl and Klaus von Stosch (eds.) Impeccability and Temptation: Understanding Christ’s Divine and Human Will (2021). In this paper, I argue that impassibility entails Nestorianism.

You might be thinking, “Ryan, why are you talking about these other publications?” Here is why. I keep hearing people say, “Why didn’t Ryan address all of these topics that he has published on elsewhere?” That has been the main criticism of God and Emotion thus far. As you will soon see, this is also a large part of Case’s criticism. I reply, “I did not talk about those other topics because the book had to be short, and I addressed those topics elsewhere.”

Case’s Summary of God and Emotion

For the most part, Case’s summary of God and Emotion seems fair, but I want to quickly address a few points that Case raises. To start, Case says that he does not find the distinction between emotions and moods obvious. This is a distinction that is widely discussed within the philosophy of emotion. The distinction rests on the intentionality or aboutness of emotions. Emotions have a cognitive content in that they are always about something. Moods on the other hand seem to be about everything and nothing. Moods do not have a clear object. Case says that he finds this less than obvious. Why? Case cites a computer scientist who claims that emotions are not always about objects in the world. I guess you can cite a computer scientist on the topic of emotions. I, however, prefer to cite psychologists and philosophers of emotion.

The next issue that I want to consider in Case’s summary is this. He says that I insist that divine empathy rules out impassibility. I suppose there is a sense in which I insist on this

point. Though I think it would be more accurate to say, “Mullins cites numerous classical theists who explicitly say that the impassible God cannot have empathy.” Another accurate statement would be, “Mullins explains why impassibility is inconsistent with divine empathy.” An impassible God cannot be moved, caused, or influenced by anything outside of Himself for His beliefs, emotions, and actions. Empathy involves being moved and influenced by something outside of yourself for your beliefs and emotions. So an impassible God cannot have empathy.

Notice what I just did there. I defined impassibility, and then drew an inference from it. Something I noticed throughout Case’s review is that he never defines impassibility or passibility. Keep that in your back pocket. I will return to that theme again.

The next mild critique from Case is my reliance on Reformed theologians like James Dolezal, Herman Bavinck, and Arthur Pink. This will later connect to a major criticism that Case has—I don’t talk about Thomas Aquinas enough. I know, I know. I only offer a few citations from Aquinas in God and Emotion. Apparently citing a bunch of people who say the exact same thing as Aquinas is not sufficient. Sure, Dolezal cites Aquinas so much that one wonders if Dolezal is violating some fair use copyright laws, but it is accurate to point out that Dolezal is not in fact Aquinas. So my reliance on brand new work from Dolezal in a book trying to help readers understand current debates is problematic.

The final mild criticism contained in the summary is about the problem of creepy emotions for divine empathy. Case says that my responses to the problem of creepy emotions makes the passible God “surprisingly close” to the impassible God. I found this odd since impassibility explicitly says that God cannot have empathy, whereas passibility says that God has maximal empathy. I don’t quite understand how saying that God has maximal empathy looks anything remotely close to an impassible God who cannot possibly have any empathy. This connects with something I said earlier—Case never defines impassibility in this review. Nor does he define passibility either. Many of his comments leave me wondering if he actually understands these definitions.

In what follows, I want to briefly consider some major criticisms that Case raises in the remainder of his review of God and Emotion.

No Biblical Evidence for Impassibility

In God and Emotion I point out something that most scholars agree upon—the biblical portrayal of God is that of a passible being. Even the classical theist Paul Helm admits this. I state that there is no biblical evidence for divine impassibility, and refer readers to John Peckham’s exhaustive study on this topic. I also cite several biblical scholars who make the same statement. I could have cited scholars like Clark Pinnock and Terrence Freitham who say that impassibility is an anti-biblical doctrine, but I digress.

Case takes issue with this point. He raises two problems with my claim. First, there are biblical passages like James 1:17 and Hebrews 13:8. Second, there is a paper by David Bentley Hart called “No Shadow of Turning,” and I do not cite it. I’ll start with the Hart paper.

I did originally have a few citations to Hart’s paper, but the original manuscript was way over the word limit. Hart did not make the final cut. Why? Well, Hart’s paper is heavy on bald assertions and caricatures of opposing views, and light on arguments. I tried to think of what I could say in response to Hart’s paper. The only reply I could think of is to accurately describe divine passibility, and not include unnecessarily big words in my book in an effort to sound smart. Since my book does accurately describe divine passibility, I saw no need to engage with Hart. So Hart got cut.

With regards to James and Hebrews, I find these odd proof texts for impassibility. Recall that Case never defines impassibility. The James passage says that there is no shadow of turning in God. Hebrews says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

What does that have to do with impassibility? I’m not really sure. Impassibility says that it is impossible for God to be moved, caused, or influenced by anything external to Himself for His thoughts, emotions, and actions. Nothing in either of these verses says anything like that.

I guess what Case has in mind is that these passages suggest divine immutability, or the view that God cannot change intrinsically or extrinsically. What are we to make of this suggestion? First, let’s ignore the fact that most biblical scholars do not think that these passages teach this strong doctrine of immutability. We don’t need to consider what biblicists like John Peckham have to say on this topic. Second, ignore the fact that the Hebrews passage explicitly describes the mutable and passible Jesus Christ in explicitly tensed terms. It describes Jesus as having a past, present, and future. That is not how one should be describing an immutable and timeless being since those are explicitly temporal terms. Beyond that, I suppose one should be open to the possibility that Hebrews is describing Jesus as an impassible, immutable, and timeless person.

Impassibility and the Metaphysics of Creation

Case says, “I take it that Mullins does not adequately reckon with the importance of divine impassibility for a coherent metaphysics of creation.” This is a remarkable statement. To be fair to Case, the content of my paper, “The Problem of Arbitrary Creation for Impassibility” didn’t make the final cut of God and Emotion. Case is offering a review of that book, and not my larger body of publications. So he cannot be criticized for failing to engage with my papers that are explicitly on the topic of impassibility and the metaphysics of creation.

Yet I really cannot make sense of Case’s complaint here. After saying that I do not reckon with the importance of impassibility for creation, Case goes on a lengthy diatribe about divine timelessness and simplicity. The discussion on timelessness and simplicity makes up the majority of Case’s review of my book on impassibility, passibility, and the philosophy of emotion. As far as I can tell, Case’s complaint is not actually about impassibility at all. It is about timelessness and simplicity. I guess the complaint is something like this: God and Emotion does not adequately reckon with the importance of divine timelessness and simplicity for a coherent metaphysics of creation.

Again, I think that this is a fair complaint from Case. God and Emotion does not give a lengthy discussion of timelessness or simplicity. I can explain why. The original draft of God and Emotion contained the entirety of my first book The End of the Timeless God (Oxford University Press, 2016). The copy editor at Cambridge University Press told me that this violated some copy right law. I didn’t really understand what she was saying, but the end of the story is that I was not allowed to include my entire book on divine timelessness and simplicity in a book on impassibility and passibility.

Love, Unity, and Not Enough Aquinas

Case considers my Unity argument against the consistency of divine love and impassibility. Case notes that I primarily focus on Calvinist thinkers for this argument, and do not consider the work of Aquinas. In Case’s mind, Aquinas has a far superior view on the nature of divine love than the Calvinists I engage with.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this complaint. My chapter on love offers a fair bit of engagement with Eric Silverman’s recent Thomistic defense of the coherence of divine love and impassibility. It also offers a lengthy discussion of recent work on divine love from the Thomistic philosopher Eleonore Stump. Her work on divine love is an exposition and defense of Aquinas’ theology. My Unity argument is explicitly responding to Stump’s Thomistic defense of divine love and impassibility. But maybe Case is right to point out that I am not taking Aquinas seriously.

Analogical Divine Grief

In one section of Case’s review, he suggests that God timelessly has analogical grief towards creation. I cannot make much sense of this. As I explain in God and Emotion, analogical predications are literal predications. They are not metaphorical predications. Classical theism says that God cannot have any emotion that is inconsistent with God’s undisturbed happiness. Further, this happiness is grounded entirely in Himself since an impassible God cannot be moved or influenced by anything external to Himself. Now, I take it as obvious that grief is inconsistent with pure bliss that is entirely grounded in God. Also, I don’t understand how an impassible God could have grief over the events of history. Impassibility says that the events of history cannot influence God. In light of what classical theism actually says, I cannot make sense of this so-called analogical grief that Case speaks of.

The Incarnation to the Rescue

In the final section of Case’s review, he claims that the neo-Chalcedonian doctrine of the incarnation helps us transcend the debate between impassibility and passibility. This is because God the Son is both passible and impassible.

My guess is that Case wants to say that the divine nature of Christ is impassible and the human nature of Christ is passible. That is fine, but it doesn’t help us transcend any debate over the divine nature. All of the arguments that I present in God and Emotion are concerning the divine nature. Nothing about adding a human nature to the story addresses the arguments that I develop.

In fact, I think that classical theism plus the incarnation entails Nestorianism. So appeals to the incarnation certainly will not help one avoid any of the arguments that I have raised against classical theism. As I pointed out at the beginning of this reply, I published a paper arguing that the neo-Chalcedonian doctrine of the incarnation is inconsistent with classical theism.

Again, Case cannot be judged for not engaging with this paper. He is meant to be writing a review of my book God and Emotion, and not a review of issues that fall outside of the scope of this book. Of course, most of Case’s review focuses on issues that fall outside of the scope of God and Emotion, and concern topics that I have published a great deal on elsewhere. If Case is really interested in what I have to say about the incarnation, or God’s relationship to time, it would be best that he not look at a book on God and emotion. Instead, he should read a book on God and time that contains a lengthy chapter on the doctrine of the incarnation. Luckily for Case, I have written a book on that, and I suggest that he consider what I have to say there.

Author: Dr. R.T. Mullins (University of Helsinki) (Website)


This is Joe Schmid speaking now. (Or writing, I guess…) Hey, if you’ve gotten this far, I’m guessing you’re interested in classical theism, models of God, and philosophy of religion. If so, I think my extensive work on these topics will serve you. 🙂 You can check out my popular (though quite academic!) work on my YouTube channel, Majesty of Reason. Check out in particular my playlist on classical theism. You can also check out my scholarly work (with free links to the published articles) on this page of my website. And, finally, stay tuned for my forthcoming book with Springer “Existential Inertia and Classical Theistic Proofs” (coauthored with Daniel J. Linford). Ciao!

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