Does God have emotions? In the first installment in this series, we focused on the classical view of “impassibility,” which seems to treat emotions ascribed to God primarily as metaphors for divine action. Emotions ascribed to God are not actual but are phenomenological. In this post, we’ll look at a contrary viewpoint that doesn’t merely affirm divine emotions but interprets them as practically equivalent to human emotions. If the older view at times seems to leave God inwardly “unaffected” by human sin and misery and, as it were, “comfortably numb” in his celestial repose, this view unashamedly portrays God as “dazed and confused.”
In Defense of Divine Impassibility
As I suggest in my first post and will try to demonstrate in two subsequent installments, I don’t think the classic view of God and emotions is beyond the need for nuance and minor refinement. However, before we dismiss the classical view, we should pause and explore some of the reasons that prompted such careful thinkers as Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, Owen, and other reputable theologians to reject a more straightforward reading of divine emotions as portrayed in Scripture.
No Goose Bumps for God
One reason that gives these scholars pause is the fact that emotions as experienced by humans often include a physiological dimension. Sweaty palms, flushed face, rapid heartbeat, goose bumps and other physical phenomena frequently accompany human emotivity. Since God is an incorporeal Spirit (Rom. 1:20; Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17), theologians have correctly rejected any physiological dimension to divine emotional experience. This also may have been part of the reason why many theologians call emotional ascriptions to God “anthropopathisms” (i.e., human emotions ascribed to God that have a figurative not literal meaning) much like bodily ascriptions to God are called “anthropomorphisms” (i.e., human body parts ascribed to God that have a figurative not literal meaning
The Times They Are a Changin’ … but Not God!
But, as we’ve seen, the many older theologians that reject a more literal reading of divine emotivity are motivated by more than a concern to protect God’s incorporeal nature. After all, with the exception of strict materialists, everyone agrees that emotions or affections have a psychological as well as physical dimension. If so, why can’t God experience the psychological aspect without the physical?
Enter the doctrines of divine transcendence, sovereignty and immutability. Emotions, affections, and passions are commonly understood as inward reactions and/or responses to outside stimuli.1 These inward reactions and/or responses entail psychological changes. Since, according to Scripture, God is unchangeable or immutable (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Ps. 102:27; Mal. 3:6; James 1:16-18; Heb. 1:12; 13:8), how can we attribute psychological “changes” to an unchangeable Being?
Can’t Take God by Surprise
Moreover, the outside stimuli to which you and I respond (i.e., circumstances or events that normally provoke emotive responses) are often beyond our control. We have little or no control over the premature death of a family member that brings grief, the deceitful politician who provokes anger, or the surprise birthday party that prompts joy and gratitude. And some outward circumstances, which confront us, are so surprising and overwhelming that we have trouble controlling the emotional responses themselves. Many of us can recall the sibling or friend hiding behind the door whose “surprise” appearance and exclaimed, “Boo!” sent us emotionally (not literally) “through the ceiling.”
Almighty God, however, stands transcendently above time and space (Gen. 1:1; Pss. 90:2; Isa. 40:25-28; 57:15; John 1:1; Acts 17:24-28; Rom. 1:20; 16:26; Col. 1:16-17; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2 Pet. 3:8). Furthermore, he is absolutely sovereign. He’s planned every event that has or ever will come to pass within the matrix of human history. He actively controls every event and circumstance so that nothing can take him unawares or by surprise (Gen. 50:20; Job 23:13-14; Ps. 135:6; Prov. 16:33; Isa. 46:9-10; Dan. 4:34-35; Acts 4:27-28; Rom. 8:28-29; 9:19-20; Eph. 1:11). Since God is the supreme ruler and governor over all things, how can we attribute psychological “reactions” and “responses” that would make him seemingly the “pawn” of outward circumstance and, therefore, vulnerable?
I suspect it was this latter concern—a concern to protect God’s transcendence, sovereignty, and immutability—that has been the primary concern that has driven some classic theologians to reject, minimize, or redefine divine emotional capacity.
The Attack Against Divine Impassibility
This suspicion is supported by the fact that the primary heresies to which classic theists have responded on the question of divine emotions have affirmed the non-material nature of God. These would include Socinianism, Pantheism, Panentheism or Process Theology, and, most recently, Open Theism. None of these views attribute to God a literal human-like body (though Pantheism and Panentheism closely identify God with the material universe). They all, however, to one degree or another, challenge God’s absolute transcendence, sovereignty and/or immutability. They have no hesitation, therefore, conceiving of God as less than omnipotent and omniscient. He is, therefore, not absolutely sovereign over all events in creation. Accordingly, he is subject to external stimuli and genuine change.
Pinnock’s “Most Moved Mover”
For example, Clark Pinnock, an Open Theist, doesn’t hesitate to assert, “God does not control everything that happens. Rather, he is open to receiving input from his creatures. In loving dialogue, God invites us to participate with him to bring the future into being.”2 This line of reasoning, not surprisingly, exploits the biblical data on divine emotions. “God is not cool and collected,” avers Pinnock, “but is deeply involved and can be wounded.”3 Indeed, Clark’s “Most Moved Mover”4 has all capacity in the world to feel sorrow and pain, making Him genuinely “vulnerable.”5
Boyd’s “God of the Possible”
Gregory Boyd, another Open Theist, and author of God of the Possible 6 concedes that God knows much of the future but argues that God hasn’t determined the future “exhaustively.”7 In creating humans with a “free will” (in the libertarian sense), God has, according to Boyd, necessarily self-limited his ability to know and control the future. “All things are possible for God,” Boyd would aver, but all things are not “certain.” Consequently, Boyd’s “God of the Possible” takes risks,8 is shocked by the “unexpected,”9 and gets genuinely “frustrated” when things don’t go his way.10
Does Human Sin Make God Mad and Sad?
We return again to our interpretation of Genesis 6:6. If we follow the reasoning of some classic theists we have a God who thinks (6:5), a God who acts (6:7), but not a God who feels. “Certainly,” insists Calvin, “God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains for ever like himself in his celestial and happy repose.” God’s remorse and pain, says Calvin, are simply his mode of “accommodation” (see Part 1).
The “open” view, on the other hand, is eager to affirm real emotion capacity in the Godhead. Not only does Genesis 6:6 depict a God as “mad and sad,” but it portrays him as bewildered,11 caught off guard, distraught, and, as a result, so “caught up in the matter” that he “will never be the same again.”12 If the classic view portrays the God of Genesis 6:6 as “comfortably numb,” the open view depicts him as “dazed and confused”:
Been dazed and confused and surprised that it’s true
Wanted a good man, never bargained for you
How did it happen? Must confess I don’t know
But sin’s taken over my world down below.
Men hurt and abuse and engage in all vice
Took risk when I made them, like rollin’ the dice
Don’t know where they’re goin’, only know just where they’ve been,
Gonna love you humans tho you frustrate my plan.
Once again, my satirical lyric is, admittedly, hyperbolic and rhetorically overstated.13 But it’s not far from the truth. Open theism has a tendency to interpret God’s emotions as virtually equivalent to human emotions. Instead of man being made in God’s image, we have something like God being made in man’s image.
Closing the Door on the Open View
When one considers the clear biblical affirmations of God’s non-material nature, transcendence, sovereignty, and immutability, together with the ancient and modern challenges to these doctrines, he can understand why a number of classic theists and Reformed theologians have felt constrained to dissuade the reader from interpreting emotions ascribed to God too literally. After all, responses to external stimuli that entail psychological changes would seem to conflict with the biblical portrait of a sovereign God who has decreed the end from the beginning and who does not change.
It has seemed preferable to some, therefore, to interpose a great deal of dissimilarity between the referent we normally associate with emotional attributes when predicated of humans and the referent to which such emotive attributions actually point when predicated of God. As a result, what you and I normally think of as emotions turn out to be quite different when applied to God. They refer, metaphorically, to divine actions (redemptive or punitive), which, in turn, spring from unchanging ethical virtues within the Godhead.
… But Not on Divine Emotions
Is this the last word? Some Reformed evangelical theologians don’t think so. While basically affirming the doctrines of God’s transcendence, sovereignty, immutability, and its corollary, impassability, these theologians believe there’s more correspondence between divine and human emotions than some of the construals found in the older theism seem to allow. We’ll hear from some of these Reformed theologians in our next post.
- Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1998) defines “emotion” as “A moving of the mind or soul; excitement of the feelings, whether pleasing or painful; disturbance or agitation of mind caused by a specific exciting cause and manifested by some sensible effect on the body.” Some definitions assume a strict dichotomy between the mind, will, and emotions. For example, one dictionary defines “emotion” as “an affective state of consciousness in which joy, sorrow, fear, hate, or the like, is experienced, as distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness” (Dictionary.com Unabridged based on the Random House Dictionary, 2006). However, Jonathan Edwards does a fine job of demonstrating the connection between emotions (or “affections” as he calls them) and the volitional dimension of man’s inner being. A Treatise on Religious Affections (1746; reprint, Banner of Truth, 1961), 24-27. Moreover, John Frame shows the connection between the mind and the emotions–emotive responses being intertwined with cognitive evaluations of events or states of affairs. The Doctrine of God, 509-12, 528-29, 608-11. Recently, Matthew Elliott has published a monograph entitled Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament (Kregel Academic, 2006) in which he demonstrates the cognitive element of emotions from the Scriptures. We’ll have more to say about this in Part 4 of our study. In any case, emotions are undoubtedly responses or reactions that entail psychological changes in the way one feels. [↩]
- The Openness of God, ed. Clark H. Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1994), 7. [↩]
- Ibid., 118. [↩]
- The title of Pinnock’s primary book on the subject: Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001). [↩]
- Ibid., x, 93; cf. “An Interview with Clark Pinnock,” Modern Reformation (Nov-Dec, 1998), 37. [↩]
- God of the Possible: Does God Ever Change His Mind? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000). [↩]
- Ibid., 11-12, 15-17, 23-24, 53-87. [↩]
- Ibid., 57-58. [↩]
- Ibid., 59-62. [↩]
- Ibid., 62-63. [↩]
- The reader may recall from Part 1 that this is the term Gerhard von Rad used to depict God’s emotional respond in Genesis 6:6. See Genesis: A Commentary, 2nd ed., trans. John H. Marks (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), 117. [↩]
- So concludes Terence Fretheim when interpreting Genesis 6:6. Actually, I concur with some of the language Fretheim employs. For instance, he remarks, “The sinful response of humankind has indeed touched God; God is not apathetic. Even more, it [the text] indicates that God’s judgment is not a detached decision.” But Fretheim’s depiction gets a bit carried away and is couched within the overall framework of an “open theist” view of divine sovereignty, immutability, and transcendence. The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984), 112. [↩]
- I adapted and reworked the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.” [↩]