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. 


Anonymous said...


Peter Ratcliff said...

Thank you for this solid and God glorifying refutation of inadvertent error.

Ben said...

Thank you for this, very welcome.

You point out an incompatibility with the church's historic understanding of Christology: an interesting aspect which hadn't occurred to me.

But why this, now? Why is this thought to be a legitimate subject for debate? It sounds as if you have some ideas yourself of why this is so. Come on, let's hear them.

Guy Davies said...

Our forefathers were self-consciously 'Reformed Catholic' in their outlook. That's why they incorporated Nicaea & Chalcedon in their confessions (Westminster, Savoy & 2nd London). Broadly speaking Evangelicalism lacks this 'Reformed Catholic' awareness. It is therefore prey to contemporary theological trends such as social Trinitarianism and a more 'touchy-feely' view of God. Of course, in the incarnate Christ we encounter God in human form with feelings just like ours, yet without sin. We don't need to cut God down to size to make him more relatable when he has already come down to our level, 'And the Word was made flesh'.