Saturday, July 9, 2011

Does God have emotions? - Cheung

The IMMUTABILITY of God follows from his eternity. Since there is no "before" or "after" with God, he remains the same in his being and character. This attribute is also associated with his perfection. If God is perfect in every way, then any change in him must be for the worse. But since he is immutable, he cannot change for the worse. And since he is already perfect in every way, he has no need to change or develop.

Psalm 102:25-27 says that, although the physical universe undergoes decay and will perish, God remains the same:

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.

God says in Malachi 3:6, "I the LORD do not change." And he says in Isaiah 46:11, "What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do," and Psalm 33:11 says, "the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations." Numbers 23:19 says, "God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?" And James writes that God does not "change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17). God remains the same not only in his being and character, but all his thoughts and decrees stay the same.

The immutability of God implies the IMPASSIBILITY of God. This means that God is without "passions" – emotions or feelings. Less thoughtful believers protest against the doctrine, since they misapply biblical passages that seem to describe a God who experiences emotions such as grief, joy, and wrath (Psalm 78:40; Isaiah 62:5; Revelation 19:15).

Passages that appear to ascribe emotions to God are anthropopathisms. Opponents of divine impassibility argue that this is to avoid the obvious teaching of Scripture. It dismisses as anthropopathism what we do not wish to associate with God. However, these same people would agree that those biblical references that ascribe to God bodily parts such as hands and eyes are anthropomorphisms. Those who think that God really has a physical body should not even be considered Christians. Therefore, one must not reject anthropopathism as an explanation without good reason.

Since the Bible teaches that God is spirit and that he has no form (John 4:24 and Deuteronomy 4:12, 15), any passage that speaks about God as if he has a body is obviously figurative. When they are understood this way, both kinds of passages make good sense, whereas to interpret them in the opposite direction would not. That is, if it is thought that God has a physical body, then those passages that say he is spirit and that he has no form would generate confusion, if not outright contradiction. And this problem would arise because they are not supposed to be interpreted this way.

The Bible is consistent in this. When it talks about God's being, it teaches that he is spirit and that he has no form. When it talks about his ability and his work, it sometimes uses anthropomorphisms, so that it refers to his hands, arms, eyes, ears, and so on. The former refers to what he is, and the latter refers to what he does. The difference is very definite and easy to perceive. In fact, given those passages that tell us about the being of God, it would be heretical to interpret the other passages as teaching that God has a body. Likewise, given what the Bible tells us about the being of God, it would be heretical to say that he has emotions that resemble human feelings and fluctuations.

The view that God experiences emotions like men appear to entail a number of contradictions:

A man may become angry against his will in the sense that he does not choose to become angry, and he does not choose to experience whatever causes the anger, but that the "trigger" incites this emotion in him against his preference. This applies to human experiences of joy, fear, grief, and so on. Although one may develop a remarkable level of self-control by the power of the Scripture and the Holy Spirit, it remains that a person's volition and emotion do not maintain an exact relationship. His emotional state is not always exactly the way he wishes or decides it to be. However, this cannot be true with God even if he were to experience emotions, because such lack of self-control contradicts his omniscience, sovereignty, and immutability.

Since God is omniscient, he cannot be surprised, and this at least eliminates certain ways of experiencing emotions. Suppose I become angry because a man insults me at this very moment. It is unlikely that I would still be angry two thousand years in the future. And if I had known two thousand years in the past that he would insult me today, it is unlikely that I would become angry by the time he does it. In fact, if I have had two thousand years to consider his insult, by the time he actually does it, I might not react at all.

Perhaps the reply is that all facts are simultaneously present to God, so that the insult that angers him is always happening "now." But this would imply that God must be angry about this one insult throughout eternity, and not just when it happens. If so, then God's emotions would not offer us the kind of interactivity that proponents of divine emotions are after. In any case, suppose something happens that alleviates this anger. Of course, the only way is forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But since God knows Christ's sacrifice just as well as the man's insult, we are at a loss as to whether he is ever angry or not. The mental experiment results in absurdity, because the truth is that God is not like man, because he is not a man.

Then, if an action of mine can cause anger in God in a similar way that I can cause anger in a man, then this means that I can cause anger in God by my power. To the degree that he lacks self-control, he is helpless against my efforts to cause anger in him. Likewise, if an action of mine can produce joy in God in a similar way that I can produce joy in a man, then this means that I have the ability to produce joy in God at will. In this manner, I would exercise a significant measure of control over God. But this contradicts his sovereignty and immutability.

The matter becomes much more complex when we take into account that he knows all the thoughts and actions of his creatures in all of history simultaneously. But it is enough to consider all the billions of people who anger him at any point in time, and the thousands or at least hundreds of people who please him at the same time. How is it possible for him to be angry with two billion people in a sense like man's anger and pleased with two hundred people, also in the human sense, at the same time? If the answer is that God's mind is immense, so that he is not subject to human limitations, then our point is also established. There is no warrant to say that God is extremely similar to man in some ways, as if bound by many of man's limitations, but that he is completely superior to man in other ways, as if he has none of man's limitations.

Therefore, some form of divine impassibility is necessary. If God is angered by our sins, it is only because he wills to be angered by them, and not because his mental state is subject to our will or beyond his control. Even if God has emotions, they are under his control, and they will never compromise his divine attributes. And since they cannot compromise the divine attributes, this also means that even if he has emotions, he does not have them in a way that is similar to man. But then we wonder why we would still call them emotions. Thus at least in this sense and to this extent, we must affirm that God is without passions.

Christians who have been influenced by modern psychology and philosophy are eager to defend emotions, both in man and in God. Although they might acknowledge that those biblical passages that refer to God as if he has a physical body are instances of anthropomorphism, they refuse to admit that those passages that refer to God as if he has emotions are instances of anthropopathism. However, they have been unable to offer an excuse for this hypocrisy.

The dictionary defines "emotion" as "disturbance, excitement; the affective aspect of consciousness; a state of feeling; a psychic and physical reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling and physiologically involving changes that prepare the body for immediate vigorous action." The word originally refers to a disturbance of the mind. Although this meaning is now obsolete in colloquial speech, even in common usage, it remains a "psychic and physical reaction." In my view, a definition of emotion should include the idea of a disturbance of the mind that may interfere with the normal process of rational thought. The disturbance itself does not carry a negative connotation, but it is a description of what happens, although a disturbance of the mind would, of course, often produce negative consequences.

Contrary to popular teaching, the Bible never says that the mind consists of the will, intellect, and emotion. This division originates from secular psychology, not biblical psychology. Under this scheme, the will, intellect, and emotion are distinct parts of the mind, so that the mind is only real as the aggregate of the three. Since they are related but independent, there is no necessary relationship between the development of each part. Thus Christians who assume this framework would often say that a person must not only develop his intellect, but that he must also develop his emotion. But if this framework is false, then the recommendation tells us to do something that cannot be done, since it assumes a division in the mind that does not exist. The result is a perverted spiritual development.

The Bible teaches that the inward part of man is the mind. The will and emotion are not things in themselves, but merely functions of the mind. To illustrate, digestion is not an organ apart from or within the stomach, but the stomach is the physical organ, and digestion is the function of this organ. Likewise, the mind is the inward and incorporeal part of man. Sometimes it becomes disturbed, and a disturbance of the mind affects how it thinks, often in a negative way. Therefore, the emotion is not good in itself. Although the Bible does not call all emotions sinful, many emotions can indeed be sinful, and sinful emotions often lead to other sins:

Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." (Genesis 4:6-7)

Christians do not need more emotions; they need more self-control. The Bible contains not nearly as many emotional words or phrases as people want to believe. Some people may even misinterpret the contentment in Philippians 4:12 as an emotional satisfaction, that is, before they realize that it is a Stoic word denoting indifference. And is "happy" even an emotion in the Bible? Love is not an emotion in the Bible, but a volition. The spiritual man is marked by self-control, and has achieved mastery over his emotions. The mind of God is so integrated that he does only what he wills. As we increase in faith and holiness, our emotion should increasingly come under our conscious control, so that we become excited because we decide to become excited, become angry because we decide to become angry, and we can stop when we decide to stop.

Jesus experienced emotions, but what can we infer from this? He also experienced hunger and fatigue (Matthew 21:18; Luke 4:2; John 4:6), but this only proves that the Son of God took upon himself a human nature. Just as Jesus in his divine nature did not experience hunger or fatigue, he in his divine nature did not experience emotions. Only his human nature experienced hunger, fatigue, and emotions. Those instances when he experienced emotions were indeed disturbances of the mind (Mark 14:34), and since Hebrews 4:15 says that he never sinned, we conclude that not every disturbance of the mind is sinful. However, it is invalid to infer from this that emotions are good, or that it should not be restrained or suppressed. Therefore, the fact that Jesus experienced emotions only proves that he possessed a human nature and that not every disturbance of the mind is sinful.

On the other hand, the Gospels show that Jesus was always in full control of himself. He was so disturbed before his arrest that he bled through his skin, but he never lost control. He was able to pray to God, to resolve to fulfill his will, and to rebuke his disciples for falling asleep. He was under intense pressure, but he retained full control of his mental and physical functions. Sometimes things happen that disturb us, but to be disturbed in the mind is not part of sanctification. A person is not holy or spiritual just because his mind fluctuates like the waves of the ocean. Rather, Christ's self-control in the face of the most disturbing circumstances – his faith to walk on the stormy waters – is what his followers ought to emulate.

Cheung, Vincent (2011). Systematic Theology (p. 58-62).

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