T h e o • p h i l o g u e

Home » Posts tagged 'emotions'

Tag Archives: emotions

Funny … Faithful … Feelings

Let’s give thanks; but let’s also BE thankful

I remember when I was still a pre-teen, I used to get into fights with my older brother.  And, of course, I had good parents who, being the good parents they were, would always make my brother say he was sorry when he did something mean to me.  In a way, I guess you could say that was part of his “punishment.”  He had to apologize.  Sometimes we both had to apologize to each to each other at the same time in order to not get in trouble.  We would tell each other we were sorry and, as if that wasn’t punishment enough (we weren’t really sorry), we would be forced to hug each other!  For two kids who had been fighting all day and felt not an ounce of remorse for what we had done to each other, that was certainly an awkward moment.  There we were, saying what we didn’t mean and acting like we meant it (by giving each other a superficial, awkward feeling hug).

What does this have to do with Thanksgiving?  Well ….

Thanksgiving = the giving of thanks.  Giving of thanks to who you ask?  Who else could we thank for having family, friends, and lots of food (and so many other things above and beyond what we need)?  It would have to be God.  Who else would it make sense to thank?  No single person, not even both of my parents combined, are the sole source of all that is precious to me in my life.  I could only thank them for certain things.  But with one swift bow of my head, I can thank God for everything, knowing that if it wasn’t for his creative hand, I would not exist, much less have all the things I enjoy about life.  It just happens to be that I live in the most free (as far as I can tell) and richest nation in the world, and grew up in a middle class family (i.e. not “poor”).  If I was born, say, in northern China, I would probably not have been exposed to Christianity in the way I was here: maybe I would be a atheist.

So … what does this have to do with the story about me and my brother?  Well …

Giving thanks with your lips is one thing.  Giving thanks from your heart is another.  Just like you can say “I’m sorry” and not mean it, or hug someone even while you are hating their guts, so you can “give thanks” on Thanksgiving, and not really mean it.  You can go through all the motions with your family and still not feel very thankful.  Giving thanks to God without actually being grateful is something like telling your brother you are sorry for calling him a @#$*%, then as soon as you are out of the sight of your parents, calling him a @#$*% all over again and laughing about it.  When we are young, we give apologies when we don’t really feel sorry because it’s expected of us from our parents.  When we get older, we can give thanks when we don’t really feel very thankful (if at all) because it’s expected of us from our culture.

This Thanksgiving, I hope you don’t find that the corporate prayer moment where your family pauses to pray to God before the meal as the “awkward moment” of the holidays when everybody goes through the motions of thanking God even though they don’t really feel very thankful.  Thanksgiving, without a focus on God, is likely to have only a miniscule chance of engendering a heightened sense of gratitude in our hearts for all we have.  How thankful a person is always can be seen best in his or her actions.  Are we thankful for our life?  Then let’s not do things that destroy it.  Are we thankful for our salvation?  Then lets not do things that hinder our walk with Christ.  Are we thankful for our religious freedom?  Then let’s make the most of it for Christ and reach out to those who need the love of God.  Are we thankful for the abundance of food we have?  Then let’s not become gluttons and overeat.  Are we thankful for our wives and/or husbands?  Then lets treat our spouses with more patience and forgiveness.  Are we thankful for God’s grace?  Then let’s show lots of grace to others.

__-_-Launching Soon: U R B A N G L O R Y-_-__

 

ug_blogad

 

Maybe it’s because we’re so humble. . . heeding the advice of Solomon to let another man praise us and not our own lips. Or perhaps its because we’re so consumed with our own callings that we’re oblivious, except for our general faith that God is at work, to the massive, intricate, and exciting story that God is weaving on a daily basis with our work and the work of brothers and sisters we have never met. Regardless of the reason, the fact is simple – the Church isn’t all that good at telling its story. By “story” I don’t mean the elements of the Gospel that we are so committed to preach, but the vastly bigger picture of that Gospel working revolutionary change in people and communities all over the globe. We hear testimonies of individuals often in our local congregations when a dramatic conversion occurs or when a missionary comes home to visit, but there exists no entity with the vantage point to compile the stories of individual leaders and local bodies in the cities of men into the expansive landscape that is the daily growing city of God — until now. On January 5th, U R B A N G L O R Y will begin exposing the expansion of the Kingdom in cities all over the world by broadcasting the stories of  prominent and every day church leaders, innovative ministries, influential scholars, and revolutionary professionals who are all threads in the incredible tapestry that God is weaving to spread his Glory to the nations. We invite you to be the first to check it out and let your friends know as well. The future of this exciting new platform depends on your involvement. 

 

Our first podcasts for 2009 will include … 

Johnny Hunt talks about his agenda for his upcoming term as president of the SBC, and shares his thoughts on the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debates within the SBC. 

Gerald Hiestand clarifies his unconventional views on dating and sexual purity and lets us in on his passion for the new SAET Society, the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology. 

Aaron Skinner of Kairos Creative challenges the church to think differently about the role of brand development for community presence and the sake of the gospel.  

Matthew Elliot shares his story about coming to grips with the role of emotion in the Christian life during his Ph.D. studies that culminated into his high-praised books Faithful Feelings and Feel.

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.

_____________________________
Footnotes

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.

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).

 

.
 
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.
.
In my next post, I will argue that emotions are of supreme importance to the Image of God in man.
________________________________

 

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.

%d bloggers like this: