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A Biblical Picture of God: A Passionate Deity

I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their eyes which played the harlot after idols.” – Yahweh (Ezek 6:9)

Because God’s Nature Never Changes, His Emotions Change

 

Although this Thomistic view of God might at first seem to find biblical support in passages that tell us God does not change (Num 23:19; Ps 33:11; 102:26; 103:17; Prov 19:21; Is 14:24; Heb 1:11-12; 6:17-18), other passages directly teach specific ways in which God does change (Ex 32:10-14; Jg 2:18; Ps 18:26-27; 106:45; Jer 26:19; Amos 7:3, 6; Jon 3:10; Prov 11:20; 12:22). In fact, sometimes these two realities are confirmed within the same passage (1 Sam 15:10-11, cf. 28-29). Christian theologians and philosophers seeking to be aligned closest with the text of the Christian Scriptures are calling for an abandonment of classical notions of divine impassibility. Such a hermeneutical move is not hard to make. These texts do not make it necessary to affirm that God never changes in any way but only that God’s basic nature and moral character never changes. In fact, it is precisely because his basic nature never changes that his emotions toward sinners always change when they repent. Passages affirming God’s immutable nature in no way force the interpreter to conclude that God’s emotional state is somehow static towards his creation, much less that his emotions are unreal.

 

 
Nothing to Warrent a Metaphorical Understanding of Divine Emotions

 

While the passages that teach God is a spirit (Jn 4:24) warrant a metaphorical understanding of depictions of God’s body parts, there are no comparable passages which force a metaphorical understanding of the portrayals of God’s emotions. Not having a body prevents God from using body parts, but we would have to conclude that God does not have a spirit in order to preclude him from emotional experience, for such experience is fundamental to spiritual existence. Since activities of the human heart—including human emotions—are attributed to the spirit (Num 5:14; Dan 2:1, 7:15; Ps 78:8; Mk 8:12; Lk 1:47, 80; Acts 17:16; Rom 2:29; 8:15; 2 Tim 1:7), we have no reason to believe that our human experience does not profoundly correspond to God’s, since God not only has a spirit but is a spirit. As we might expect, language about the emotions of God are also attributed to his spirit (Deut 2:30). Language about the heart of God is virtually interchangeable, therefore, with language about his spirit. Therefore, we have every reason to believe that divine emotive language is no more anthropomorphic than language about the very nature of God himself (i.e. that he is a spirit). We might rather conclude that God’s emotions (as his thoughts) are more real, complex, frequent, and intense than human emotions. Just as God is more knowledgeable than humans (in fact omniscient), so we should think of God as far more emotional than humans (in a sense, omnipassient).
Descriptions of divine emotion cannot be reduced to divine actions without doing violence to the biblical language. Reducing the point of analogous correspondence of divine emotion to a similarity with human actions associated with those emotions does not best suit the biblical picture of the nature of God’s emotions and their relation to his actions. For example, not long after the fall of man God was so grieved over human sin that he wiped out the human race through a universal flood, sparing no one but Noah and his family—not even infants (Gen 6:4-8). The burning wrath of God cannot be reduced to his action, however, for Gen 6:4-8 is a pronouncement of present grief with a promise of future judgment. The grief existed apart from and previous to the act of judgment. We best understand the biblical text concerning this universal flood when we see it as directly motivated by God’s grief and anger. The laments of God are his “inward feelings” (Is 16:11). Changes take place with respect to God’s feelings. His wrath and jealousy are said to be “spent” and “satisfied” in God’s acts of judgment (Ezek 5:13; 21:17; 16:42; cf. 6:12; 7:8). God’s wrath is not the same as his acts of judgment; rather, God’s wrath is demonstrated through his acts of judgment (Rom 9:22). God’s zeal is “aroused” like the zeal of a man of war and is the stirring of his heart (Is 42:13; 63:15). Divine acts of deliverance are not the same thing as his compassion; rather they are “in accordance with” (or a result of) his compassionate nature (Neh 9:17, 19, 27, 28). The analogy of choice in the Scriptures for God’s emotion is not human action, but human emotion—and divine emotion is said to be “just as” human emotion (Ps 103:13, cf. Num 25:11).

 

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Emotional Language Saturates the Biblical Picture of God

 

What is more, the emotional aspects of the divine nature dominate the biblical mosaic of God. The God of the Bible is no stoic deity. From beginning to end, the Bible paints a picture of God as being driven by his intense emotions. God weeps bitterly and drenches nations with his tears (Is 16:9). The reason why God tells Israel not to worship any other god is because he is very jealous, and he will “wipe [them] off the face of the earth” if their hearts go after other gods (Ex 20:5; 34:14; Deut 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; 32:16, Josh 24:19, 1 Kgs 14:22; Ps 78:58; Ezek 39:25, Nah 1:2, Zech 1:14; 8:2; Zeph 1:18; 1 Cor 10:22). As we might anticipate, God is “hurt” by the adulterous hearts of his people when they are “turned away” from Him (Ezek 6:9), yet because nothing thwarts God’s sovereign plans, he is also richly happy (1 Tim 6:15; 1 Tim 1:11). His tender compassion is described as a fruit of his loving kindness (Is 54:8; Lam 3:22-23, 32). Furthermore, the ubiquitous “zeal” of the Lord accomplishes everything from acts of mercy to acts of slaughter: his gracious acts of keeping a remnant in Israel (2 Kgs 19:31; Is 37:32), establishing justice and righteousness through the throne of David (Is 9:7; 59:17), protecting his people (Is 26:11), restoring his people (Joel 2:18), and judging his people (Ezek 5:13; 38:19; Zeph 3:8).
The entire redemptive history of the Bible centers on God’s love for fallen humanity that moves him to aggressively initiate all of redemptive history. Perhaps the following is the most often repeated list of God’s attributes in the Old Testament: “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Ex 34:6, cf. Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 145:8; Is 54:10; Jer 16:5; 31:3; 33:11; Lam 3:22; Dan 9:4; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). As one might expect then, God’s love also finds a central place in the writings of the New Testament (Mt 5:44-45, Jn 3:16; 15:10; 16:27; 17:24, 26; Rom 5:8; 8:35, 39; 2 Cor 9:7; Heb 12:6; 1 Jn 3:1). Not only is love “of God,” but “God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-12, 16-19; 5:2, Jd 2, 21; Rev 3:19). One cannot understand the holiness, justice, judgment, redemption, or history of God and his people without understanding how these themes are tied in the biblical texts on the emotions of God.
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In my next post, I will argue that emotions are of supreme importance to the Image of God in man.
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Footnotes

 

This seems to have come about (at least in great part) through the Open Theism controversy. Most of the recent works on the doctrine of God have been forced to deal extensively with the Open Theist controversy and consequentially the multitudes of biblical passages that lead Open Theist’s to criticize the Thomistic picture of God. When the Open Theists swung the pendulum in the right direction, they swung it too far, however, and deny the classical doctrine of divine omniscience. Conservative theologians in reaction to this pendulum effect were jealous to provide a more biblical alternative to both the Thomistic view and the Open view. In spite of many errors that have spawned from Open Theism, recent theological dialogue with Open Theists has at least yielded this healthy corrective to the classic understanding of God: many now reject the classical doctrine of divine impassibility.
“This [Thomistic] concept of God, I believe, does have serious problems and requires modification. My own study has indicated those points where alterations could be made. Pure actuality, impassibility, and simplicity could be eliminated, …” Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God: An Exploration of Contemporary Difficulties with the Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 114. “In light of the nuanced understanding of divine immutability, it is necessary to reject divine impassibility. The king who cares experiences real emotions; he sympathizes with our pains and can rejoice over our joys.” John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2001), 277. 

J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1993), 29.

For example, there are no passages that say, “God’s heart is not moved,” or “For I am the Lord, and nothing can harm me or excite my heart to pain,” or any such passages that would force us to question whether God experiences true emotions in the way an affirmation that God is a spirit forces us to conclude that God does not have body parts.

This analogy between the way we think of God’s thoughts and the way we think of his emotions came to me when I realized that just as one’s search for truth is an attempt to attain God’s thoughts (or think God’s thoughts after him), so our desire should be to feel the way God feels about everything we perceive. “So, we learn to pursue God’s pursuits after him, to act God’s acts, feel God’s feelings, love God’s loves, hate God’s hates, desire God’s desires. … No, we will never be all-knowing, or all-powerful, or all-present. But yes, we will be wise and loving, true and joyous. We will weep with those who weep.” David Powlison, Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2003), 10.

Just as human wrath burns from “within” the human heart (Est 1:12, cf. Ex 32:19, Jd 9:30, 14:19, 1 Sam 20:30, 2 Sam 12:5, Job 32:3), so God’s “anger burned” against Israel and those who sinned (Num 32:10, 13). Just as humans are said to have fierce wrath (Gen 49:7), the same language is used to describe God’s wrath (Dt 29:28; 1 Sam 28:18; 2 Kgs 23:26). Even rage is found in God (Ezek 5:15). Human jealousy so closely corresponds with God’s, it is said to be the same as God’s jealousy (Num 25:11). His rejoicing over his people is compared to a bridegroom rejoicing over the bride (Is 62:5, cf. Zeph 3:17). This compassion is surely to be thought of as an emotion, for his compassion is described as being “just as” the humanly compassion of a father for his son (Ps 103:13, cf. Jonah 4:10-11) and they are described as the stirrings of his heart (Is 63:15). Matthew Elliot appropriately affirms, “God’s love is like a parent’s love for their child,” and asks: “Is there any stronger emotion?” Matthew A. Elliot, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2006), 106.

For a discussion on how God’s sovereignty is the foundation of his unshakable happiness, see “The Happiness of God” in John Piper’s Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 31-50.

“Set in the context of eschatological salvation, the NT macarisms have great emotional force. Often there is a contrast with false happiness.” F. Hauck, “makarios” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged Version, eds. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003 Reprint), 549. Although makarios can have a broader meaning than just “happiness,” and may convey something more like “favored,” the emotive term “happy” is still inherent in the meaning, and thus translating makarios as “happy” is a good way to convey the cash value of the idea of “favor.” The concept of being favored or fortunate fundamentally depends on the concept of being happy. Who would want to be blessed if it amounted to pure misery? Being blessed only has its ultimate attraction in the happiness that necessarily coexists with it. Language of favor and blessing plays to our God-given desires for happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

Although I will argue later in this post series that there is no legitimate reason to deny that love (or any other emotional term in the Bible) is an emotion, for a detailed examination of the various words translated “love” and the common anti-emotion bias which seeks to suppress the emotive content these words, see Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 135-164.

Emotions, Starting with God’s

Exploring Some Stumbling Blocks

It is often said that Christianity is not about emotions. Even if one is willing to admit that emotions should not be altogether ignored (for such advice would seem impossible to human nature), we are warned by pastors and Christian teachers that they are not to become our main concern. We are told: “We must avoid the mistake of concentrating overmuch upon feelings. Above all, avoid the terrible error of making them central.” “When we describe someone as ‘an emotional type,’ we do not intend to give a compliment.” It would seem that our emotions lead us into all sorts of trouble, and in lieu of such trouble it might seem like the best plan of action is to suppress them altogether and seek rather to be guided by our reason, or some other virtuous aspect of our nature. After all, does not the Bible itself teach that being “enslaved by all kinds of passions” is characteristic of the pagan lifestyle at odds with the new creation (Tit 3:3)?

This post series will seek to answer the above questions from a biblical perspective, not merely by looking at what the Bible teaches about human emotion, but rather, our study will begin by looking at the emotions of God himself. Several important conclusions will be reached from a study of the biblical text. Humans are “emotional” because God is emotional. Not only are our emotions valid or legitimate since they are simply a reflection of the nature of God, but they are a necessary component of all true virtue, holiness and righteousness. By the same token, human emotions are the most important among the God-like qualities of humanity. In the end, it seems unavoidable that an intimate and reciprocal experience of heart-felt love between God and humanity is precisely how God is most glorified, and therefore, there is no greater end for which people in the image of God exist than to experience deep emotions—namely, love and joy in God himself.
Emotional Language and Divine Immutability 

That human beings are emotional would seem to need no strained argument. On the other hand, there are at least two immediate stumbling blocks to a proper understanding of the relation of our emotions to God’s emotions: 1) the analogical nature of language about God as conceived by Thomistic Theism and 2) the logic of divine impassibility. We must keep both of these stumbling blocks from obstructing our path to the truth about emotions in the imago Dei.

Although all language about God is analogical, it became commonplace in classical theism to stress that God does not actually experience emotions any more than he actually has a human body based on the nature of anthropomorphic language. Just as we are not to conclude from passages that speak of God’s eyes, ears, and mouth that God actually has human eyes, ears and a mouth, so we are not to conclude from passages which speak of God’s anger, jealousy and joy that God actually experiences anger, jealousy and joy. This latter analogy is not between human emotion and divine emotion but rather between human emotion and divine action. Such passages are therefore thought only to mean “he acts toward us as a man would when agitated by such passions.” God’s emotions, then, according to Thomistic theism, only have correlation by virtue of his actions. 

The analogical nature of the biblical language about God, however, is not the only motivation for believing that God does not experience emotions. The doctrine of divine impassibility—which understands God to be incapable of suffering—is usually the motivating factor for a classical, Thomistic understanding of emotive language about God. A strong and strained emphasis on the immutability of God in classical theism—which understands God to be incapable of changing—has perhaps been an even greater impetus, therefore, for a widespread adherence to the doctrine of impassibility. Such emphasis has caused a long history of philosophical attraction in the church and theology. Here the argument does not lie merely in Scripture, but in philosophical extrapolation from passages on divine immutability. If God does not change (as the Scriptures affirm), then it would seem that his emotional state is also immutable. Besides, if God actually feels differing emotions toward human beings depending on what those human beings do, we make God’s experience dependent upon human experience, and God becomes vulnerable, as it were, to suffering emotional turmoil and injury. Can God actually be dependent on his creatures in any way—especially in a vulnerable way? Both the nature of analogical language and the doctrine of immutability have caused many to conclude that God does not actually experience emotion.
In my next post, we will see that this conclusion has been reached with a flawed logic and at the expense of the meaning of the biblical langauge about the emotions of God.

Footnotes

Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965, 1990), 114-16.
Robert C. Roberts, Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 14. 

These problems are the most immediate because they relate to God himself.

A.A. Hodge quoted by Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 26. Italics are added by Culver.

Perhaps the popularity of the writings of Anselm is just as much to blame for the popularity of this pesky doctrine as the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Anselm wrote:

But how are You at once both merciful and impassible? For if You are impassible You do not have any compassion; and if You have no compassion Your heart is not sorrowful from compassion with the sorrowful, which is what being merciful is. But if You are not merciful whence comes so much consolation for the sorrowful? How, then, are You merciful and not merciful, O Lord, unless it be that You are merciful in relation to us and not in relation to Yourself? In fact, You are [merciful] according to our way of looking at things and not according to Your way. For when You look upon us in our misery it is we who feel the effect of Your mercy, but You do not experience the feeling [emphasis mine]. Therefore You are both merciful because You save the sorrowful and pardon sinners against You; and You are not merciful because You do not experience any feeling of compassion for misery.

Anselm of Canterbury, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 91.

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