Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Losing our religion

According to a survey cited in The Times newspaper, around 75% of Church of England clergy believe that the UK can no longer be called a Christian country. The latest census data bears that out. In 2011 the number of people identified as Christian was 60%, but by 2021 that had dropped to 46%.

For hardline secularists the decline of Christianity in our country may be an occasion for rejoicing. But as Rod Liddle argued in a recent column in The Sunday Times, what we’re left with as Christian influence has receded is a more individualistic society, devoted to the pursuit of material gain. The trouble is that looking after number 1 and buying endless stuff online hardly satisfies the deepest longings of our souls.

Similarly, as Celia Walden reflected in an article in The Telegraph, we’ve swapped the worship of God for the worship of self, “as a secular society, we’ve thrown ourselves into the cult of self, precisely because we’re flailing, with no basic spiritual scaffold to keep us steady.” Welcome to the brave new post-Christian world.

But if we broaden our perspective to take in the global picture, Christianity is not in decline. The faith is advancing in China, Africa, South America and even Iran. Even here in the UK Rod Liddle points to the “rapidly growing numbers attending Pentecostal and evangelical churches — where eternal biblical certainties are still enjoined upon the worshippers”. This is evidenced in a piece in The Spectator by Dan Hitchens, Inside the fastest growing – and shrinking – churches in the UK

The worship of self and wealth are poor God-substitutes. The eternal biblical certainties set before us the one true and living God who is worth worshipping.  He is the God who sent his Son, the Lord Jesus to die for our sins and be raised from the dead that we may have the hope of everlasting life. Jesus calls us to renounce the cult of self saying, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

* For various local parish magazines and newspapers 

Thursday, October 05, 2023

God's emotions!

In a previous post I argue that God does not have emotions, see here. In this post I want to assert that God does have emotions like us. Joy and sorrow, compassion and anger, astonishment and disappointment are all part of the range of feelings experienced by God. 

But I am not contradicting myself.

How am I able to hold that God both does and does not have emotions? Because God did something that enabled him to do things that God cannot do. Given the aseity (self-existence) of God, he cannot die. His life is self-sustaining. Given his immensity, God cannot be bound by space. Given his eternity, God is not subject to time. Given his impassibility, God experiences no fluctuating feelings. But the God who has life in himself became mortal. The omnipresent God was bound by space. The eternal God entered time. The impassible God experienced fluctuating feelings. How? Because 'the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us' (John 1:14).

At the incarnation the Son of God took a human nature. In his human nature our Lord not only had a human mind and will, but also human emotions. B. B. Warfield writes most helpfully on this in his essay, The Emotional Life of Our Lord. Even in his exalted state, Jesus 'knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust'. He knows what it is to be a member of suffering humanity from the inside. Jesus  can therefore sympathise with us in our weaknesses, having been tempted on all points as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:14-15).

The Reformers developed the idea of the 'communion of attributes' to help clarify the relationship between the divine and human natures in the person of Christ. They certainly did not mean that divine attributes are communicated to Jesus's human nature, or the other way around. At the incarnation the Son of God became what he was not [man], without ceasing to be what he was [God]. That is the so-called extra-Calvinisticum. According to John Calvin, 'The Son of God descended miraculously from heaven, yet without abandoning heaven; was pleased to be conceived miraculously in the Virgin’s womb, to live on the earth, and hang upon the cross, and yet always filled the world as from the beginning. ' (Institutes of he Christian Religion, II:xiii.4). 

The 'communion of attributes' is an aid in making sense of passages in the Bible say things like, 'they... crucified the Lord of glory' (1 Corinthians 2:8), or 'the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me' (Galatians 2:20). Does that mean Jesus suffered as God and died on the cross? No. Should we understand, then, that Christ's human nature died for our sins? No. We believe the person of the Son of God gave himself to the suffering and death of the cross in his human nature. The Second London Baptist Confession explains,

Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture, attributed to the person denominated by the other nature. (8:7 - see also WCF and SDF) 

It is in that sense we may speak of 'God's emotions', because in the person of the Son, God entered into the sorrows and joys of life in our fallen world, 'tears and smiles like us he knew'. We don't need to cut God down to size to make him more relatable when he has already descended to our level. In other words, if you want a God who feels like us, don't deny the impassibility of God, proclaim the incarnation of God. 'And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us'.

See here for an earlier post on Anselm and the suffering of the impassible God.

Monday, October 02, 2023

God’s emotions?

In his article God's emotions in September's Evangelical Times, Psychiatrist Alan Thomas argued that God has emotions that correspond to our human feelings. He tries to square this view with the impassibility of God taught in historic Reformed confessions such as the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. Here is my response. 

God's 'emotions' and accommodated divine self-revelation 

Thomas notes that biblical revelation depicts God as having 'a complex range of emotions', including 'raging, painful emotion' (Genesis 6:6). Such descriptions of God reveal something of his character - his wrathful response to sin, but are they meant to be taken at face value? After all, Scripture also speaks of God having 'hands', 'eyes' and 'back parts'. We usually regard language like that as anthropomorphic, or speaking of God in human terms. That is not because of some prior philosophical commitment, but because Jesus tells us, 'God is Spirit' (John 4:24). God is also 'one' (Deuteronomy 6:4). Divine simplicity rules out God having a bodily form, which necessarily involves being composed of complex parts (1 Corinthians 12:14).

The fact that the Bible uses anthropomorphic language of God tells us something about biblical revelation. It speaks of God in ways that are accommodated to our capacity as finite and fallen human beings. To get technical, Scripture does not speak of God univocally so that what is true of us is true in the same way of him. Rather, the Bible speaks of God analogically, or by way of analogy. When passages describe God delivering Israel from Egypt with his 'outstretched arm', they are speaking analogically of a display of his power on behalf of his people. We would not understand such speech univocally, as if God acts as we do by extending a divine limb through time and space.  

The analogical view of divine self-revelation in Holy Scripture is in place to safeguard the Creator/creature distinction that is fundamental to sound Christian theology. If anthropomorphic figures of speech are taken univocally, what you get is a vision of God remade in our image. The same holds true when it comes to interpreting the Bible's 'anthropopathic' language, which speaks of God in terms of human emotions such as 'grief' and 'regret'. 

But how do we know that God doesn't actually 'feel' regret when the text of Scripture says he does? Consider 1 Samuel 15:11 & 35, where the Lord is said to regret making Saul King of Israel. Surely we should take these verses at face value and not try to rationalise expressions of divine disappointment? The prophet Samuel no less suggests otherwise when he says, 'And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.' (1 Samuel 15:29). God works all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11), including the appointment of Saul as King of Israel and his subsequent rejection. Taken literally expressions of 'regret' would mean that Saul's reign didn't work out as God intended, but that is not the case. God is not a man that he should feel regretful when his high hopes are not realised. A univocal reading of 1 Samuel 15:11 & 35 would be misleading, for in reality God is not like us in harbouring regrets.  

God's 'emotions' and divine impassibility

Thomas notes that historic Reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Second London Baptist Confession teach that God is 'without body, parts, or passions' (1689, 2:1). He reflects on the theme of impassibility later in the article, arguing that it means that God is unchangeable and concluding, 'God has emotions, but he does not change.' But he has already admitted that our human emotions are in a state of constant flux as we interact with the world around us. Indeed, emotion may be defined as 'a strong feeling deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.'  (Oxford Languages). Which is why theologians have tended to be cagey about ascribing emotions to God. We are creatures of ever-changing moods. Circumstances affect how we feel, from the simple pleasure of eating an ice cream by the beach, to deep grief on losing a loved one. God is not like that. He is the ever-blessed God. There is nothing within him to disturb his infinite peace. Nothing outside of him can affect him. That is not because God is apathetic, but because he is perfectly fulfilled in the joyous perfection of his Triune life. That is precisely why the church has confessed impassibility.

What about divine wrath against sin, isn't that a case of the world impacting on God's emotional life? We must not think that God's wrath involves him being provoked into ‘losing his rag’. That would be a passion. Rather, God's wrath is the unchanging expression his holy justice when confronted by sin. Apart from the Fall God would have been eternally just, but his justice would not have been revealed in the wrathful punishment of sinners (Romans 1:18, 2:5). God's wrath is removed from sinners not because his feelings towards them change, but because his justice is satisfied by Christ's propitiatory sacrifice, Romans 3:25. God sent his Son to propitiate his wrath out of love for his people, 1 John 4:10. We benefit from the atoning work of Christ when we are united to him by faith. 

Properly understood, impassibility  does not make God cold or remote. The Lord is most loving and merciful. But his love is not a fickle passion that was ignited by our love for him and may be doused if our love should grow cold. His love for us is eternal and unchangeable, flowing to us from the infinite depths of God's being. The Father loves his people even as he loves his own Son (John 17:23, 26). That is why Paul can assure believers that, 'nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord' (Romans 8:39). Depicting God's love as if it were a passion or fluctuating emotion robs us of that certainty. Thomas knows this, saying, '[God] is utterly different from us as our exalted Creator who is eternal and unchangeable.' Yes, hence impassibility. 

God's 'emotions' and divine personality 

Thomas's tendency to start at a human level and then project up to God doesn't end with his handling of texts that speak of God in an arthropathic manner. He also reinterprets key theological terms in the light of human experience. For example, 'To be a person is to be a being who experiences emotions.' That may or may not be an adequate definition of human personhood. It is way off beam when applied to God, as the author does here: 'To be a person is to be in relationships, and such relationships always generate feelings. So since God is personal and eternally in relationships within the Godhead then feelings must be integral to who he is.' 

The Fathers who developed early Trinitarian terminology were very circumspect when it came to defining what is meant by divine personhood. Augustine confessed, 'We say three persons, not in order to say that precisely, but in order not to be reduced to silence.' In traditional Trinitarian theology the words 'person' or 'hypostases' simply denote what is true of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as they may be distinguished from each other, as opposed to what is true of the being of God, which is wholly possessed by the Three. Hence the formula: 'One God in three persons'. The three persons may be distinguished only in terms of their eternal relations of origin. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. That is their manner of subsisting in the being of God. The Fathers certainly did not read characteristics of human personhood such as having emotions into the divine persons. 

The Fathers also carefully distinguished between the personal attributes of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as reflected in their eternal relations of origin and the attributes of God's being, which are possessed equally by the three persons of the Trinity. What makes God 'personal' is that the one God subsists in three persons. It is misleading therefore for Thomas to speak of God's 'personal attributes, including emotions' or, 'In personal terms, he is faithful and true' and, 'Since his emotions are the attributes of a person'. Faithfulness and truth, much like justice and love are moral attributes of God's being, not personal attributes such as Fatherhood and Sonship. The person-to-person love the Father has for his Son is the infinite and eternal love of God's being. The Son who is of the same divine essence as the Father loves him with the same infinite and eternal love. Trinitarian orthodoxy demands that the we maintain the distinction between what is true of the three divine persons and what is true of the one divine essence. In construing attributes of God's being in personal terms we are in danger of making it sound like his being is a fourth person alongside the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Thomas's novel definition of divine personhood plays havoc with Christology. According to the Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD), the incarnate Son of God is person with two natures, divine and human. The historic Reformed confessions like the Second London Baptist Confession reflect this understanding: 'two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person..which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ' (1689, 8:2). However, according to the author'To be a person is to be a being who experiences emotions.' Jesus experienced emotions in his human nature such as sorrow and joy, anger and compassion. Using Thomas's definition, that makes Jesus a human person, as well as the second person of the Trinity. The incarnate Son, in that case, is a union of two persons, rather than a union of two natures in one divine person. That is a Nestorian understanding of Christ, which is explicitly ruled out by Chalcedon. 

Concluding thoughts 

Of course, there is nothing stopping us redefining time-honoured theological terms and investing them with new meanings, but in doing so we may find ourselves inadvertently stepping outside the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy. For all their emphasis on sola Scriptura, the Reformers and Puritans were happy to identify themselves with the ancient creeds of the church. With its drive to reinvent theological wheels contemporary Evangelicalism is in danger of drifting from the Reformed Catholic faith of our Fathers. That said, we would be rather suspect if someone from the Evangelical family tried to rework the doctrine of Scripture so as to call into question its inspiration and inerrancy. We would also look askance at any attempts at including good works in a redefined doctrine of justification by faith. The doctrine of God, however, seems fair game for theological revisionism. Strange, that.