T h e o • p h i l o g u e

Home » religious » Human Emotions are of Supreme Importance to the Imago Dei

Human Emotions are of Supreme Importance to the Imago Dei

If the brightest colors in the biblical picture of God are painted with the brush strokes of emotional language, we might expect human emotions to be central in the biblical picture of mankind since humans are the most God-like of all creatures. Furthermore, if God’s perfect holiness, raging wrath, and passionate love are to be understood in terms of his emotions, we might expect that the holiness, virtue, and love of those made in the imago Dei are also to be understood primarily in terms of emotions—and this is exactly what we find. Not only are fear, contrition, joy, gratitude and love commanded, they are central to biblical ethics and receive an unparalleled place in glorifying God. If this is true, central to redemption is the redemption of human affection from centering on sin to centering on God, and central to the restoration of the image of God in people is the restoration of God-centered emotions. 

Ways to Distort the Biblical Teaching about Emotions – The numbers of angles through which this truth can be supported are so overwhelming that a denial of it can only be respectively achieved by running the emotive language in the Bible through a foreign philosophical grid. Such philosophical intrusion takes place on at least three accounts. First, as we have already seen, Thomistic theism creates unnecessary stumbling blocks to the importance of emotion by denying their existence—and therefore importance—within God himself. Second, non-cognitive views of emotion in philosophers such as Plato (who contrasts emotion with the intellect), René Descartes and Schleiermacher (who equate emotion with the physical effects of emotion), David Hume (who understands emotions as animal like), Immanuel Kant (who argues that emotions have no role in ethics), in evolutionary scientists who follow the non-cognitive theories of Charles Darwin (who argues that emotion developed before cognition as an adaptive survival behavior independent of the will), and especially the James-Lange theory of emotion in psychology (which reduces emotions down to changes in physiology) have made great headway in confusing the masses about the nature of emotion itself. This confusion has resulted in an unnecessary dichotomy between ethics and emotion, and has greatly influenced New Testament interpretation.

Third, certain popular philosophical notions of culpability make adherents uncomfortable with the idea that God would command an emotion. Such conceptions of culpability rely on the premise that God can only command that which the subject of that command is actually able to do. By extension, it is assumed that God would not make demands of humans with respect to realms over which they have no immediate control. Attempts to come to terms with culpability paradigms have caused many interpreters to exclude the possibility that emotions are commanded in the New Testament since humans are unable to have direct control over them. According to this culpability model, then, love, which is the central virtue and fountainhead of all ethics, cannot be an emotion since God commands it repeatedly. There are many other reasons why interpreters have a vested interest in de-emotionalizing the biblical language of human emotion. Although by no means do these three philosophical trespasses exhaust the complexities of anti-emotion bias in handling the biblical text on human emotion, I have offered a brief critique of the first of these three philosophical disorientations and will also offer a brief critique of the second and third.

Non-Cognitive Theories of Emotion Don’t Cut It – Several cases could be made which would be sufficient in themselves to doubt whether non-cognitive theories of emotion do justice to either the human experience or the biblical texts. These cases could be grouped into at least three categories: cases made from philosophy, the sciences and the biblical text. Arguments from philosophy and science might be summed up with this brief affirmation: cognitive theories of emotion excel in philosophical explanation and scientific research where non-cognitive theories are woefully deficient. Elliot points out further that 1) “there has been no definitive success in differentiating the emotions on the basis of physiology,” 2) “even if each emotion were linked to different physical reactions it would not prove that the non-cognitive approach was correct. This would only show that different cognitions have different physiological reactions,” and 3) “from our knowledge of neuroscience, the brain structures used for emotion and cognition cannot be readily separated.”

Let Philosophy Bow Down to God’s Utterance – There at least three ways of handling the objection that emotions cannot be commanded if the subject has no immediate control over them. The first is authoritarian. If the Scriptures are the ultimate authority and they everywhere command emotion, we must bow down to the mouth of God and conform our petty philosophical construals to fit more comfortably with God’s flawless utterance. The second rebuttal is both philosophical and theological in the sense of being a philosophical argument that fits comfortably within a Calvinistic theological framework. If faith and repentance are emotional in nature (and they are), then God’s holding people responsible for coming to Christ in faith and repentance—even though they are not able without the effectual drawing of the Holy Spirit—demonstrates that capability is not a necessary condition of culpability. The third refutation is more philosophical and is based on a cognitive view of emotion. Simply put, the argument is this: “If emotion is cognitive, love is about something, can be commanded and is emotional.” In other words, if emotions are cognitive, they reflect our belief system. Consequently, our emotions are indicators of our value system—what we believe to be most valuable. Inasmuch as we are responsible for our belief system and our value system, we can likewise be responsible for our emotional dispositions that necessarily result from them. These are only a few of the arguments that demonstrate that emotions can happily fit within the category of imperatives without biblical, theological, or philosophical strain.

Let Words Mean What They Mean: A Call Back to Sober Linguistics – Arguments from the biblical text are less complicated, yet more authoritative. Since the stumbling block has consisted mainly in the error of reading philosophical ideas onto the biblical language, one might push the burden of proof on those who interpret passages in such a way by challenging them to demonstrate whether or not their philosophical ideas about emotion are either explicitly in the text or likely to be inherent in the meaning of the emotive language of the Bible. An evenhanded search for such foreign concepts, however, will inevitably leave the seeker disappointed. In New Testament studies, for example, there were both cognitive and non-cognitive views in the Greco-Roman world, the latter “stresses the unreliable nature of emotion and the need for it to be controlled by reason,” while the former “underscores the need to change harmful emotions by correcting false beliefs.” While non-cognitive Greek ideas about emotion can be seen alongside Jewish ideas about emotion in the writings of Second Temple Judaism, even the most Hellenistic of these writers still rejected the stoic idea of emotional extirpation. Furthermore, some of these same writers found Old Testament views of emotion in tension with Greek Philosophy. The writings of the New Testament are in sharp contrast with more developed ideas about the “passions” from Greek writings that explicitly stress the use of reason and use emotional language pejoratively. Simply put, neither a study of the original languages, contemporary backgrounds, or the context in which emotive terms are used provide sufficient warrant for depleting the emotional words in the original text of their controversially emotive content. On the contrary, they afford merit to do just the opposite.

Conclusion: We Should Not Be Surprised

Although starting as far back as the church fathers, the emotions of God have been seen as metaphorical by many, such erroneous ideas about divine emotions ultimately have their roots in Platonic philosophy, not the sacred Scriptures. “We have been told that God’s emotions were ‘anthropomorphisms’, described like those of humans. In reality, human emotions are in the image of God himself.” From the prophets of the Old Testament whose prophetic lifeblood resided in provocative metaphors to get emotional responses from the people through “shock value,” to the emotional letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament—even down to the pervasive emotive language about God and from the lips of God himself—the Bible is unabashedly emotional. Even more important, if one desires to take the humble path to discerning what most glorifies God and most impressively reflects his image, one cannot find a more sure route than the commandments of God himself. When Jesus boils the whole law down to love for God and love for people, he virtually places all worship, all obedience, all attempts to glorify God, and all social ethics in an all-encompassing God-like emotion (Mt 22:36-40, cf. Mk 12:28-31, Rom 13:8-10; 1 Cor 13:1-3, 13; 16:14; 1 Pt 1:8; 4:8; Js 2:8; Heb 13:1; 1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:10-24; 4:7-5:4). Since God is in nature a spirit, one should not be surprised that emotions—which are attributed to the spiritual realm—are the most customary characteristics of God and take center stage in the biblical cinematics of redemptive history. Since mankind is in the image of God, it should not be surprising, then, that the most important of the God-like features of creatures in his image should be their participation in those vigorous exercises of the heart that everywhere define their obedience, holiness, and relationship to God—namely, their emotions.


As far as making a case for the centrality of human emotions to the biblical picture of godliness and spirituality, Jonathan Edwards’ treatise, The Religious Affections, has not been significantly improved. Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001 Edition). The only exception to this might be the developments made by John Piper in the ethical nature of pleasure and its relation to obedience. Piper, Desiring God. It would be laborious to rehash the multitudes of texts and arguments for this position in this brief paper. Sam Storms has attempted to make Edwards’ work of the affections more accessible to modern readers in Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007).

Edwards concludes “they who would deny that much of true religion lies in the affections, and maintain the contrary, must throw away what we have been wont to own for our Bible, and get some other rule by which to judge of the nature of religion.” Edwards, Religious Affections, 35.

Non-cognitive theories either define emotion exclusively in terms of the following three elements or put greater emphasis on one of the following three elements: 1) conscious experience, 2) emotional behavior, 3) physiological events. Non-cognitive theories create sharp dichotomies between cognition and emotion. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 20.

Here I follow the summary given by Matthew A. Elliott in his chapter “What is Emotion?” where he gives an overview of the history of theories on emotion with specific attention to the inadequacies of non-cognitive views of emotion in ethics and psychology. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 16-55.

The noncognitivist metaphysical view is philosophically responsible for denying that moral judgments had any meaningful reference to actual properties of actions, persons, policies and other objects of moral assessment and at best only expressed one’s personal attitudes toward something. Decognizers understand moral judgments to be incapable of being either true or false. David O. Brink, “Emotivism,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, gen. ed. Robert Audi (New York, New York: Cambridge Press, 2006 Printing), 260.

Elliot’s book to a large extent is a cataloging of these errors and the beginning of a new explicitly cognitive approach to interpreting emotions in the New Testament. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 124-235.

From ancient times the so-called “passions,” have been understood as passive from the perspective of the one who experiences them—that is, that emotions happen to a person. They are not something a person consciously chooses. The emotional pain, for example, that may result from an insult, might be compared to the nose bleed that may result from a punch in the nose. People do not make a conscious decision about whether to have a nose bleed when punched, it is demanded by the nature of physical chemistry. Likewise, our emotional responses are like necessary effects of our spiritual chemistry. In either case, emotions are, in a significant sense, out of the subject’s control. Robert M. Gordon, “Emotion,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 260.

“Many others have agreed by defining love in non-emotional terms. This has often been in response to trying to answer the question of how love can be commanded. … This is also a prevalent misconception on Old Testament studies.” Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 138. Elliot’s work goes a long way in exposing the prevalence of these errors.

Elliot lists the following philosophical problems with the James-Lange theory: 1) The problem of naming specific emotion without reference to cognition: “Whereas the James-Lange theory implied that each emotion must have a unique physical manifestation, experimental evidence points to the fact that there are identical physical responses for different emotions,” 2) the James-Lange theory is woefully deficient in providing a framework in which motivational theory makes sense, 3) the same physical sensations can be interpreted as different emotions in different circumstances, leaving the means for differentiating different emotions in the James-Lange theory inadequate, 4) the failure of the non-cognitive framework to provide evaluation of emotion, that is, to provide a framework for judging whether an emotion is appropriate or inappropriate, right or wrong. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 23, 27-28.

This would include argument like these: Aristotle, who understood human emotion as the result of intellectual realization, had a better understanding of emotion than Plato, 2) Descartes created a false dichotomy by holding that emotion was not caused by cognition but was first felt and then interpreted (or labeled) in cognitive categories, since both are quite capable of coexisting as different stages of the emotional experience, 3) Darwin’s theory of macro-evolution from which he posits a theory of the development of human emotion is vulnerable to critical scientific cross-examination and should not be taken as “pure” and authoritative science, 4) William James’ comment that “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble,” flies in the face human experience of emotive causality, 5) the James-Lange theory of emotion is laden with anomaly where cognitive views of emotion excel in providing coherent explanation, 6) although the James-Lange theory of emotion held sway in the beginning of the 20th century, more recent work done by Cannon, Schachter and Singer have proven many of the details of the James-Lange theory false and represent a shift toward a more cognitive view of emotions in recent psychology. A close look at philosophy and the sciences actually demands for a cognitive theory of emotions and thereby takes the rug from underneath all philosophical theories relying on non-cognitive views of emotion (William James’ comment is quoted by Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 22).

Arguments against non-cognitive theories of emotion abound also in physiological evidence as set forth by Antonio Damasio:

1. Even when logical facilities are completely intact (as measured in numerous tests) an unfeeling person is unable to function normally or make good practical decisions. People who function as almost a logical computer, having a pronounced lack of emotion in normally emotional circumstances, are unable to function rationally;
2. It is beyond doubt that many different parts of the brain, both higher and lower brain sections, play an indispensable role in emotion;
3. It is probable, based on empirical evidence, that specific emotional responses are learned and not innate [Ibid, 29-30].

Ibid., 29.

As Elliot puts it: “The fact that these things are commanded is not disputed. What is at issue is: (1) are emotions actually commanded in these passages, and; (2) what do these commands mean in practice? The burden of proof is upon those who would argue that these are not commands of emotion. The meaning seems very straightforward. Whether or not we believe it is logical to command emotion, the simplest interpretation of these passages is that the biblical writers do, in fact, command emotion. … There is no evidence from the texts themselves that these terms have been redefined by the writers as theological concepts that do not contain an emotional core. On the contrary, the evidence points to these words retaining their usual meanings of simple emotions. The arguments of those who deny that emotion can be commanded seem to come from a desire to be consistent with their own philosophical understanding of emotion and, at the same time, maintain the integrity of the writers of the New Testament. We must challenge the tenability of this position.” Ibid., 141.

See Piper, “Conversion,” in Desiring God, 53-74. Beyond Piper’s demonstration, it might be added that repentance must be defined in terms of the changing of one’s heart with respect to the law of God, which law might be summarized by the most important commandments to “love” God and people (Mt 22:36-40). Repentance might be seen, then, as primarily an emotional change in the heart of the individual who goes from loving sin (idolatry) to loving God and people in his image (reconciliation). This understanding is impressively confirmed, among other texts, by Ezekiel’s description of New Covenant conversion (Ezek 11:19-21, 38:24-27).

Ibid., 141.

Roberts, being influenced by Solomon’s proposal to redefine emotions as judgments, uses similar language define emotions as “concerned-based construals … they are states in which the subject grasps, with a kind of perceptual immediacy, a significance of his or her situation.” Roberts, “Emotions and Christian Teaching,” Spiritual Emotions, 11. For his argument on how this helps understand why emotions can be commanded see his chapter entitled, “Emotions and Christian Character,” Ibid., 22-31. Defining an emotion as a “judgment” or “construal,” however, seems to take the cognitive position too far. Rather, it seems more helpful to understand emotions as intense internal experiences based on one’s judgments/construals. With this sort of definition, one has the ability to maintain the distinction between the judgment itself and the emotion which results. Appreciation of this causality is lost when an emotion is understood as cognition (judgment or construal) rather than an experience based on cognition.

Eric L. Johnson teases out this thought briefly when he writes about emotions as “signs,” which “signify people’s deepest drives, understandings and values, often with greater accuracy than their thoughts about such things,” in his groundbreaking work Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 300-303. 

Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 79.

I have in mind Philo, Josephus, and the author of 4 Maccabees. Ibid., 117-121.

Ibid., 111.

Sandy believes that shock value was the prophetic strategy of metaphorical language because “metaphors speak with more emotion.” D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 70-73. The emotive and translucent nature of Old Testament judgment and blessing language leads Sandy to conclude that prophetic utterance was not mainly to inform the people concerning the future, but to provoke an emotional response that would arouse their hardened hearts.

The different positions typically discussed under the imago dei such as the substantive views (the image of God resides in a quality of combination of qualities), the relational views (the image of God is primarily having to do with mans experience of a relationship with God and fellow human beings), and the functional views (the image of God primarily consists in something someone does) easily overlap in fundamental ways and none of them do justice to all the ways in which we are like God if considered to the exclusion of the others. It seems better to accept each as a different angle on the imago dei rather than pitting them against one another. After all, Christians largely agree that our relationship with God is what is most important and that this relationship works itself out both through human capacities and human action. No matter how one slices the anthropological cake, growing in our heart-felt love for God and our sincere love for others is the surest way to the restoration of the image of God in us. However, since any action of the body is void of moral virtue unless it is attended by love (1 Cor 13:1-3), we must admit that moral action derives its ethical value from God-centered emotions. Not only is emotion the ultimate ethical priority, but also that which gives any and all action its ethical dimension. In this sense, while it is harder to see any of the imago dei views as the most God-like characteristic in degree, we can certainly affirm that emotions are the most prominent of the God-like characteristics in importance. Since all people are in relation to God whether they like it or not (either good relations or bad ones), reciprocating love between God and man is more basic to the image of God than mere relation. For a concise summary of the three major views see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006 Printing), 520-529. For a lengthier treatment of the doctrine see Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapdis, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994 Printing).

Although Elliot’s work may anticipate a resurgence of the Edwardsian paradigm for the importance of emotions to true spirituality, it is long overdue. Elliot’s work demonstrates that much work and thought is desperately needed in the study of emotions. He understands his work as only the beginning of a basic outline. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 237. This work includes further untangling kinks in biblical exegesis, biblical and systematic theology, Christian philosophy, church history, historical theology, and most importantly, practical theology. For example, although writers in the Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM) have progressed in the amount of importance they place on emotion, I am convinced that their writings are still plagued with misunderstandings and false dichotomies with respect to the role of emotion in obedience in the Christian life. For example, the false dichotomy which is reflected in the approach which asks the question, “Are one’s sinful habits a result of one’s past or sin nature?” fails to grapple with the role of our past in shaping our emotional dispositions (including our sinful dispositions). The most prolific writer for BCM, David Powlison, however, still operates with this false dichotomy. Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes, 155. In spite of such errors, however, Powlison cannot avoid basing his whole motivational theory on the emotion of desire. His chapters entitled, “I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire,” and “What Do You Feel?” show how central emotion is in a practical approach to Christian counseling. Ibid., 145-62, 211-23. It is also my perception that much of the tension between secular psychology and biblical teaching that creates strong dichotomies in the counseling wars could be smoothed out with a mature development of emotion theory from a biblical perspective.



  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve really enjoyed your series on emotions. It’s balanced and based in truth. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Bradley says:


    Glad to know you appreciate it. Thanks for mentioning it.


  3. bstiltner77 says:

    You and I have never met and I only stumbled onto your article here but I felt the need to let you know that it was very helpful for me and I appreciate the diligent study you put into it. I am a church planter in Aiken SC, graduate of SEBTS and lover of God…I always appreciate good and thought provoking writing that causes me to think more passionately about our God.

    In Him, Benny

  4. Benny,

    You did not stumble sir; you were led. And I hope your church plant gets plenty of Son and [living] water, and grows into a mountain. Glad you have reaped benefits from my study.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow T h e o • p h i l o g u e on WordPress.com
%d bloggers like this: