Does God have emotions?

December 23, 2009

Some one once visited our church and amongst other things encouraged us to ¨balance¨ the intellect and emotions. We need to balance our heads and hearts he intoned. I replied that the intellect alone needs to be balanced and this we do by holding correct views, or believing the truth. That is all the balance we need. Further the intellect cannot be balanced against emotions as there is no parity between emotions and the intellect. His reply was that God has emotions. ¨God rejoices over His people¨, he added, quoting from scripture. ¨God does not have emotions¨, I replied, to his obvious annoyance! To put things into proper perspective and remove confusion over emotions and the intellect the following approach will be followed. We look at the nature of God as revealed in scripture and from the truth that man is created in the image of God we draw conclusions about the place of emotions and the mind.

That God has no emotions is nothing novel, as it has been held by the sixteenth century Reformation Christians and those immediately after them. It is sad testimony to the extent of 21st century neglect of godliness and the ignorance of scripture that goes with it, amongst those who call themselves Christians, that one would find even a preacher who says God has emotions, in a supposedly Reformed denomination for that matter. The following quotes, one from an Anglican(courtesy, Godorn Clark), and another from the Westminster Confession of Faith should suffice. First, the Anglican, Augustus Toplady:

¨God is not irascible and appeasable, liable to emotions of joy and sorrow, or in any respect passive. … When love is predicated of God, we do not mean that he is possessed of it as a passion or affection. … Love, therefore, when attributed to him, signifies (1)his eternal benevolence, i.e. His everlasting will, purpose, and determination to deliver, bless, and save his people.¨(Complete Works, pp 106, 107, London 1896)

The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter II, section I:

¨There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; … ¨

If the view expressed in the quoted passages, that God is without emotions are correct, what then, is one to make of scriptural references to emotions in God? The answer is not hard to come by at all. Scripture refers to human body parts in speaking about God. But no Christian in their right mind, some fringe cults perhaps excepted, would suggest that literal body parts is being meant! This manner of speaking about God, ¨the hand of the Lord¨, ¨the voice of God¨, ¨Godś eyes¨ and so forth is called anthropomorphism and causes the majority of Christians no difficulty. But, some Christians, in an inexplicable and irrational turn about, will insist that references to emotions in God be taken literally. But why? Can´t literal emotions be disposed of in these passages and still retain intelligibility? The answer is that indeed it can be done and should be!

First, Toplady says God is not ¨liable to emotions of joy and sorrow¨. In other words, God does not suffer ups and downs! Indeed, if He did, He would find it hard to be immutable, omnipotent and perhaps a further half a dozen other attributes would be vitiated! His immutability alone should be sufficient to dissuade Christians from the idea that see-saw emotions could be part of God´s being and that therefore, references to emotions in God be not taken literally! God´s wrath or anger refers to his righteous judgement against sin and not literal emotional outbursts of anger, fits of rage, throwing tantrums, ¨flying off the handle¨, being pissed off, peeved, breathing fire or getting red faced! Likewise, God rejoicing over His people is not meant emotional excitement, but means God taking pleasure and satisfaction and viewing approvingly the work of His own hands that is His people. This use of emotions in reference to God´s activity is called anthropopathism!

Secondly, Toplady says love in God is NOT an emotion. I will go further and say love in scripture is NEVER an emotion, neither for God nor humans. We agree with Toplady´s definition of God´s love! Toplady says the love of God for his creatures, the elect in particular, refers to his plan and execution of Salvation and his care and providence. It issues from His mind and will and not sentimental motions in His being!

I John 3:16a, “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us”

I John 4:9-10, “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiantion for our sins.” 

Neither is love an emotion in us. Creaturely love is the creature´s duty towards God and other creatures as prescribed by God! In other words, it is simply obedience to God´s commands. Scriptures abound to support this view, but Romans 13:9 – 10 is perhaps the clearest.

¨Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet: and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.¨

Paul says the commandments can be summarised by simply saying love your neighbour as yourself. Love is keeping God´s commandments! Since we are comanded to love, love then is a volition. Sentimentality has nothing to do with it.

The scriptures tell us that man is created in God´s image. If God has not a body or emotions, and we do, it follows that the image is whatever man is that is other than body and emotions. This we identify as the mind, intellect or spirit. Man is therefore NOT a ¨tripartite¨ being or a unity of body and spirit. Man is simply the image of God, the mind or spirit! This is not to deny that man has a body, but that the scriptural data requires that man be defined by the image of God which is the spirit. Further, God is a spirit and those that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth. God is truth and His words are spirit and life. Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that issues from the mouth of Jehova. This establishes the primacy of truth and as a subsidiary theorem, the primacy of the mind or intellect, for we are to know the truth, and that we do with the mind. For as a man thinketh so is he. Notice, not as he feels! This shows how wrong headed the pop psychology feel good about yourself exhortations are — unless the good feelings issue from hearing the objective truth!

What then is the place of our emotions? Emotions are some kind of response to what the mind understands or thinks. Here is a comment on emotions made by one pastor:

¨………… While I am at it, I may as well get in a plug for emotions too. I cannot determine whether Dr. Clark views emotions as illusory or as merely untrustworthy. If the former, I must maintain that emotions do exist, and we must do something with them other than deny them. If the latter, I would observe that “trusting your feelings” is worse than inadvisable. It is impossible. A feeling, that is an emotion, is incapable of making propositions. No one ever acts on his feelings. He acts on his thoughts. And only the intellect can think. When people set their “hearts” in opposition to their “heads,” when their “emotions get the better of them,” what they are in fact doing is revealing what their intellects really believe, as opposed to what they claim to believe. The intellect is primary, whether anyone admits it or not. Well then, what do we do with emotions? We admit them as responses to what the intellect apprehends. Emotions cannot be controlled, but thoughts can. Emotions have no cognitive content or ability, so they cannot be blamed for leading us astray. Men go astray because they believe lies. Therefore you do not tell a chronically angry man that he must control his emotions. You recognize his chronic anger as an emotional symptom of his thoughts. Then after finding out the thoughts that are making him angry, you seek to change them. Exponents of Christian experientialism would be benefited more by a rebuke for their practice of fabricating false doctrine in hopes of pleasing their carnal minds and producing pleasant emotions, than by an injunction to forsake emotion. ………………….. —Douglas Withington, Pastor, Harrisville, Pennsylvania (The Trinity Review May, June 1983)

Well, there you have it!