A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Two Ways with Divine Emotion

It seems perfectly reasonable to ask about God’s emotions: does he have them, does he feel them, how are they like and unlike our emotions, and so on. In the spiritual life of thoughtful Christians, questions like these come quickly to mind and often feel urgent. But whoever asks such questions immediately finds themselves ensnared in a few difficulties that are linguistic or terminological. This is frustrating, because it makes it harder to get to the actual theological and spiritual question you started out trying to ask. I don’t think there’s any way around the terminology tangle; once the question presents itself in terms of emotion, you’re required to go straight through the middle of it. Does God have emotion?

God, as we see in Scripture, loves, hates, rejoices, is angry, is sorry, and expresses a number of related states. Should we batch all of these under the category of “emotion?” Never mind that it seems perfectly natural to us to do so; what we’re asking is whether that is a helpful move to make. Does that move of categorization map onto the reality of things in an illuminating way?

Go back just a few hundred years and you couldn’t ask this question this way. “Emotion” is a relatively young category. It’s native to early modernity, which helps explain why it seems so natural to us, and why we feel so at home with it. It’s from around here, and so are we. There is a lexical illustration of this: Troll through the earliest occurrences of the word ’emotion’ catalogued in the Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll see that right up to about 1700 the word was mainly used to mean political disturbances, riots, movements through a medium, migrations, and much more. It’s amusing to see how practically anything jiggly, anything moved into motion, was an e-motion.

More substantively, though, Thomas Dixon has traced the actual concepts (not just the word) involved in talking about interior states and affective events as emotions. Dixon’s argument is detailed, but even from its title, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge, 2003) indicates the direction he takes. The category of emotion was created recently, and before that we talked about passions.

Actually (as Dixon documents), we talked about passions, affections, virtues, and several other things. On one side, words for these internal affairs tended to reach up to something transcendental (virtues), and on the other side, they tended to be kept higher than merely physical sensations (passions may arise from the body’s demands, but they weren’t simply reducible to “animal spirits”). The new, secular category of emotion renovated the house structurally: it lowered the ceiling of transcendence and also admitted some aspects of embodied responses into the room of the feelings.

The story is fascinating, and others besides Dixon (philosophers, psychologists, and historians) have told parts of it. But for theological purposes, the thing to notice is that the variegated classical vocabulary was collapsed into a single word: passions, affections, and virtues all came under the supercategory of emotions.

As Kevin Vanhoozer has pointed out, this collapse has led to the “hasty secular generalization” about all sorts of inner states (see Remythologizing, leading up to p. 440). They are all now considered to be things which come in and overpower the internal life. And that’s where we pick up the theological thread when it seems natural to us to ask whether God has emotions. You could cite this genealogical argument and then refuse to use the category of “emotion” altogether. But what you gain in purity you lose in power, and most people will assume you’ve got something to hide.

If you accept the category “emotion” and apply it to God, you have two options: Either insist on precision before beginning the theological application, or trim and clean as you go. In more detail:

(A) Insist on precision in advance. You could demand a clear definition of emotion as the price of moving forward. The definition should be crisp and precise (“a concern-based construal” or “a mental state resulting from an evaluation that is affectively positive or negative” or something). The definition needs to be honed by contrast with some of the classical terminology like passion, affection, and virtue. That contrast will help narrow the field, so that it is possible to pursue the question of whether God has things that belong under this clearly defined category; it demotes “emotion” from the status of supercategory, and you can make some progress. Normal people will rarely submit to this kind of analytic badgering, so a lot depends on your audience or interlocutor. The real problem is that normal people regularly come up with the question “does God have emotions?” but are not likely to hold still while you parse the question and counter-interrogate their presuppositions. So that leaves option

(B) Trim and Clean as you Go. You could accept the word “emotion” and then begin trimming down its connotations so that the category could be appropriately spoken of God. The main thing that needs to be trimmed is the implication that an outside force causes a negative change in God. There are various ways to block that implication, but it’s important to be explicit about it; remember that you’ve elected to keep using the word ’emotion’ and that means you’re obligated to deal with the connotations it brings trailing along behind it. Certain kinds of Reformed theologians have a tendency to think they can block the implication pretty easily, simply by flexing the muscle of divine sovereignty: God is strong enough to be weak, stable enough to be moved, all-determining enough to determine himself to be determined by a covenant partner, and so on. The hope is that it gives them a doctrine they can live with: God is not overwhelmed, but, like, self-whelmed from within or something. But of course (as critics can easily prove) it’s not the standard Christian doctrine of God from before the modern period. But it may be part of a way of saying God has emotions while eliminating the unworthy implications.

Option A is like taking care to prepare the right tool for the theological job, and then doing the job. Option B is like jumping right into the job with whatever’s at hand, and then learning along the way why the tools aren’t quite right.

Either way might work; the point is not to answer all the important questions, but to clear away the complications that come from modern recourse to the category of emotion. Once that’s done, you can return to the actual subject matter and ponder God’s engagement with the world of creatures.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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