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.
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.