Saturday, January 02, 2010

Does God Feel Emotions?

Not having spent a lot of time studying theology - I am at home with the exposition of scripture. As someone who could be close to being a "Biblicist", I certainly have not had much use for concepts of God divorced from the clear teaching of scripture.

In a discussion over at Vox Populi there was a running debate (well, not really a debate) in the comment thread about whether God feels emotion. The person holding forth the position that God did not feel anger, or joy, or any other emotion related it to the theological positions of Aquinas and others. Most of the comments by "Benyachov" were fairly rude and arrogant - but the main point seemed to be that to believe that God has emotion is an unwarranted characature of God:

Based on your overly literalistic anthopomorphism carried to it's logical extreme, God MUST be some kind of Bird since he has "wings" or he must have an appendage like "wings". Your reasoning here is just plain silly. Yet even here with your use of the phrase "similar to human emotion" you are all but admiting this verse must be understood analogously and not literally.
Now, one of those principles of reading the Bible is not to allow one isolated passage to overwealm others- and there are literally hundreds of places in scripture where God is described as having wrath, joy, anger, love, etc. Is all of this anthopomorthic "nonsense" or bad understanding of the ancient use of these words? Also, if "Benyachov"'s entire point is that we can only know how God feels by imperfect analogy rather than by literal understanding from our own emotions then why insult someone over this? After all, "Benyachov" has no more understanding about what "exactly" God feels than his antagonist did.

I didn't find "Benyachov" to be a particularly inviting to have a conversation with - I wasn't in the mood to be insulted. However, he did recommend an essay on the theology here: Does God Have Emotions?. In looking at that essay, it seems that Benyachov has pushed the argument too far. From the essay:
Thus, I will argue that classical theism has much more to say in its defense than is usually admitted by its detractors. God is indeed personal, and knows and loves us, but we simply cannot assume that what is true of human persons, knowledge and love (which involve change and dependence) is true of the divine persons and knowledge and love. To make that assumption, as process and open theists blithely do, is to compromise God’s transcendence.
When we ask, does God have emotions? the most straightforward, correct answer is, Yes, because he became man. Jesus is both God and man, fully divine and fully human. So, Jesus has human emotions: joys, desires, fears, sadnesses, and so on. The Christian faith holds that Jesus is one divine person but with two natures, human and divine. I do not wish here to examine in detail this central dogma (since I will concentrate on the question of whether God has emotions in his divine nature), but briefly the following should be said. A person is an intelligent and free subject of actions, a morally responsible agent. A nature is the intrinsic source of characteristic actions, that by which or with which one acts. In Christ, the one who acts is God himself, so he is a divine person. But Christ can act by his divine nature or by his human nature (or by both). Thus, after the Incarnation, literally, God does suffer as we suffer, he does have emotions as we have emotions, since it is the person who has the emotions, even though he has these emotions by his human nature.

Traditionally it was believed that at least one main reason why God became man was so that the God-man Jesus Christ could be a mediator. God’s transcendence, that is, the infinite difference between his perfection and ours, did, from our angle, make approaching him difficult, certainly somewhat frightening. God became man, however, and we humans can now be personally united to God, brought within the divine family (the Trinity), in Jesus Christ.

However, the author of the essay draws back from this:
But the question remains: is God affected in some way by our actions? Does he literally suffer when we suffer or do wrong? Does he really become angry, repent of his actions, or rejoice at the repentance of a sinner? Does he literally feel joy over the way things are in himself, and in his creation?

The classical view, as articulated for example by Saints Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, said that God is immutable, impassible, and non-temporal. In other words, since God is perfect, he does not change. Since he is perfect, he does not undergo change from any other being (he is impassible). And since he does not change, there is in him no distinction between past, present and future. On the classical view, to be sure, God does delight in his goodness and loves his creatures, but this cannot be interpreted as meaning that God is changed by, or different because of, his creatures.

This seems to be what "Benyachov" is hanging His argument on - that feeling emotion would mean God has changed; but this doesn't actually seem to be the essayist's position here or as he continues.

Both "Benyachov" and the essayist hang their hats, at least partially, on Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas writing about "passions":
Therefore acts of the sensitive appetite, inasmuch as they have annexed to them some bodily change, are called passions; whereas acts of the will are not so called. Love, therefore, and joy and delight are passions; in so far as they denote acts of the intellective appetite, they are not passions. It is in this latter sense that they are in God. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii): "God rejoices by an operation that is one and simple," and for the same reason He loves without passion. -- Summa Theologica, Part 1, Q 20
Aquinas places the love of God as an act of will rather than a passionate act (at least in a bodily material sense). However, Aquinas also distinguishes between two different parts of passion:
In the passions of the sensitive appetite there may be distinguished a certain material element--namely, the bodily change--and a certain formal element, which is on the part of the appetite. Thus in anger, as the Philosopher says (De Anima iii, 15,63,64), the material element is the kindling of the blood about the heart; but the formal, the appetite for revenge.
so that there are non-materially based elements of passion God could have - assuming they did not imply imperfection. Aquinas therefore distinguishes between non-material passions God could have, and those He couldn't:
as regards the formal element of certain passions a certain imperfection is implied, as in desire, which is of the good we have not, and in sorrow, which is about the evil we have. This applies also to anger, which supposes sorrow. Certain other passions, however, as love and joy, imply no imperfection. Since therefore none of these can be attributed to God on their material side, as has been said (ad 1); neither can those that even on their formal side imply imperfection be attributed to Him; except metaphorically, and from likeness of effects, as already show (3, 2, ad 2; 19, 11). Whereas, those that do not imply imperfection, such as love and joy, can be properly predicated of God, though without attributing passion to Him, as said before
Of course, God would not have the problem with the formal element of passion invoking the material element - He doesn't have a body to be materially affected by His emotions: it has to stay confined to the formal element that Aquinas accepts.

The interesting emotion in the list is anger. Obviously, scripture talks about God being angry, and having wrath which I see as a close analog to anger. Does being angry presuppose that you have sorrow about something you lack? My pastor's definition of "wraith" :
The wrath of God is the settled, consistant, pure, deeply felt, eternal rejection of evil
Now, assuming "deeply felt" does not require a physical body and reaction, does this disagree with Aquinas? If it does, which is right (is Thomas Aquinas the final authority)? Can "anger" be attributed to God with the same kind of definition - something that is settled, consistant, pure and eternal?

Back to the essayist: he does not seem so inclined to say that God does not have emotion in Himself, only that we cannot really know what God's nature really is:
Scripture and the teaching of the Church reveal that God loves us, that he invites us to enter into personal communion with him, that he is three persons in one being, that the second person became man and died for our sins. However, according to the second view of divine impassibility--the view I think more likely correct--even revelation does not enable us in this life to know what God is in himself. Revelation tells us about God through this new personal relationship. That is, the personal relationship, which involves much more than a mere causal relationship, remains the vehicle by which we know about God.
The essay is an argument against process theology and open theism - the ideas that God is not immutable and that our choices and behaviors alter God. It is not an argument that God doesn't love, or have joy - it is an argument that
we do not apprehend any nature of knowledge or love held in common by us and God, and so we cannot infer from the characteristics of human knowledge or love to divine knowledge or love.
I can accept that to a large extent.

One question this whole discussion does raise for me: if Christ is the vehicle by which God can bodily feel human emotions - and Christ is one nature with God and our way of knowing God as much as we can know Him - did God change during and after the Incarnation? Did he have to learn about who we were by becoming who we were in order to be our mediator? Or did God hold that in His nature, through Christ, from the beginning - before the Word became flesh and lived among us? He did, after all, create us in His image and, according to the Psalmist, know us in our inner most beings even before Christ was with us.

So, some help on this from the theologians out there. Does God have emotions?


  1. Jeremy Pierce1/06/2010 7:28 AM

    This is an excellent summary of Aquinas and a healthy sorting through of how to think about the issue in our terms now. I actually have nothing to add. You've already said all the things I'd want said.

  2. Weekend Fisher1/18/2010 6:36 PM

    I wouldn't call myself a theologian in the sense of a trained and studied approach as you seem to ask. Still, if Christ is our picture of God then God does have emotions. If "theology" means knowing God, and knowing God means seeing Christ, then the question is answered. And if a theologian says Christ doesn't settle the question, then that theologian is saying Christ isn't exactly who Christianity has proclaimed since the first century.

    Take care & God bless

  3. why does God not seem to act? i've been praying for a girl who will be the one and right now its seems like nothing is happening

  4. even after the incarnation, i do not believe that the godhead (as he is in himself) has emotions that are like ours. sure christ the man possesses emotions that are identical (though glorified...on that account, what exactly are glorified emotions) to our emotions and work in pretty much the same manner but christ the god does not experience his emotions (if they indeed can be called emotions) the way we humans perceive emotions. remember that there was no union between the divine hypostasis and the human hypostasis; they simply coexisted in the same location (that of the man christ jesus). so no, god has never changed. he is the same yesterday, today, forever.

  5. Yes of course, God has got emotions. Haven't you read the Bible which says"

    God loves, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life,” (John 3:16).

    God hates, “The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates,” (Psalm 11:5).

    All these are emotions!

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly