Damascene Cosmology – Does the Christian God have emotions?

For some, the above explanation simply is not enough in explaining that God doesn’t change. It is quite popular to point out that God has emotional responses to humans. Quite often he says that he is angry towards someone while pleased with someone else, indicating that God certainly does have emotions.

If God is emotional, this would be indicative of change within God. It would mean that he can fluctuate in degrees of being angry, happy, sad, pleased, or any other range of emotions. Even though all of his emotional responses are justified, they serve to show that God does indeed change (or so the critic would have us believe).

The semantics of the argument are that if I do good works, God becomes happy with me, or increases in happiness to me. If I do something evil, then God becomes angry at me or is less pleased with me. All of this show God moving in degrees of one emotion to the other, which would indicate that God is mutable.

I do believe that there are two reasons why such a view is misguided. The first reason, which is the weaker of the reasons, is that Christ is still incarnate and still God. The second reason, which I believe to be stronger, is that God is not like man, thus we’re using the wrong standard to explain God’s emotions.

In dealing with the first explanation of how God has emotions, we must not forget that Christ did not abandon his human nature at the resurrection or at the assumption. Christ lives today and still holds on to his human nature and shares that nature with us. Thus, since Christ is God, it is very appropriate to say that God has emotions, that God shares in our joys, that God suffers when we suffer, and so on. But such statements should only be understood in light of the Incarnation.

Since Christ has a human nature, it is not impossible to suppose that He would “change his mind” without being changed. As a person he functions through both his divine and human natures, so when interacting with humans his human nature, which is limited just like our nature, could be what he operates through. This means that he could change his mind and it wouldn’t cause change within the divine essence, merely in the person of Christ (if we suppose change occurs when one changes one’s mind).

The problem with the above is that while it works philosophically, it is too problematic theologically. We could say that the effects of the Incarnation were something Christ had access to prior to the event of the Incarnation, but this then why have an Incarnation? If Christ were able to use the effects of the Incarnation prior to the Incarnation itself, then why be born of a virgin into human flesh? While I do believe there are responses to this, the entirety of the reply creates an unnecessary controversy for what is essentially a weak answer.

The second response to the critic – that God is totally above us and therefore our descriptions of him are inadequate – is a far superior response. In modern theology we have become too accustomed to speaking of God as solely immanent. While God is immanent, we must never forget that such immanence comes from the Incarnation. In light of this we must remember that God is still transcendent to His creation. Understanding that God is transcendent to his creation is vital in understanding how God can have emotions, but not be subject to change.

When we describe emotions we immediately have the context of human emotions in mind. The problem is that human emotions are shared attributes common among animals, not with God. When an animal encounters a dangerous situation the animal has the choice to flee or fight. If he flees, then instinctually his emotion of fear took over his actions. If he fights, then instinctually his emotion of anger took over his actions. Just like animals, human emotions are more often than not based upon our instincts. In fact, the goal of some moral codes is to overcome our instincts and to react rationally rather than emotionally; this is what it means to develop as a human. These types of emotions, the ones based upon instinct, are called passions.

The error is we often attribute our understanding of emotions onto God’s emotions. When God says he is angry we take what we understand “angry” to mean from our limited experience and apply it to God. The problem is that our emotions are linked to our having a body whereas God is without a body. While our emotions stem from our passions (which doesn’t make them wrong), God’s emotions stem from something else.

By saying that God’s emotions are different than our own emotions is not begging the question or asking someone to assume an immutably passionless God so I can prove an immutable passionless God. Rather, we understand that God must be without a body and since he is without a body he wouldn’t be subjected to passions. Passions arise from the animalistic side of humanity (we are rational animals), which is the side we share with creation and not with God, that is, our passions are not part of the divine image pressed upon us. Since we do not share this with God, while we might have passions, God does not.

To understand how our explanations of God are inadequate, we must first understand that we know things by their nature. We know what a bear is because we have examined the bear and know what “bearness” is. If your only experience in life is with a black bear, you will still know when you see a Grizzly bear or polar bear that you are dealing with a bear, even if you have no previous experience with these species of bear. The same stands true for humans, cats, dogs, tables, ships, or anything else in creation. We know what things are because we can examine them.

With God, we cannot examine him and therefore we cannot know what he is. This is why all theology concerning the nature of God is apophatic; we cannot say anything about the nature of God, merely what God is not. We can say that man is a rational animal because we partake in humanity. But we cannot put such a definition on God because we cannot examine God. What we know of God is not on our own accord, but on his. What we know of him is only what he chooses to reveal of himself.

Another way we come to know things in nature is by similarities. We can imagine creatures based upon other creatures that we’ve experienced. If I ask people to imagine a unicorn, most people will immediately think of a horse with a horn on its forehead, with some people thinking of a horse with wings and a horn on its forehead. The fact is, when I say “unicorn,” most people can imagine what a unicorn is because we are familiar with the mythology and with what a horse is. We can understand what a unicorn is because we have experienced a species similar to a unicorn, even though no unicorns actually exist. If I describe a Dodo bird to you, you will get an accurate understanding of what the bird is. This is because we understand different species of birds and we understand the genus that birds fall under. Therefore, if I say “the dodo bird has a beak,” you understand what a beak is in relation to other animals, so you can get an accurate ideas as to what the beak is on the dodo bird.

With God there is no equal to him, therefore we cannot understand God through some similar species. We do not know of anything as part of God’s genus, being, essence, or species, so he is beyond similarity.[1] God shares his being with no one, so we have nothing to compare to God. When God says, “I am angry,” we don’t know what it means for God to be angry. Certainly the existential aspect of “angry” means something completely different for a being who is infinite, powerful, and not subject to the passions as opposed to a finite and passionate being.

Some would say that because we are made in God’s image we can know what God means when he describes his emotional state, but I would argue that being made in his image proves we cannot know what he means when he describes his emotional state. If we think of a statue we instinctively know that the statue is a likeness of a person. Few people have asked if the sculpture David is actually the David spoken of in the Bible. In all sculptures, even when the statue shares a likeness with the human, such a likeness is lesser than what the human actually possesses. Likewise, though we are alive and not statues, being in God’s likeness still makes us lesser than Him. While we might experience anger and God might experience anger, his experience of anger will be significantly different than our experience of anger.

None of this says that God is not personal or that he lacks emotions, but rather that he is superpersonal. To be superpersonal means that God is above our experience of what it means to be personal. The best analogy I can think of is how dogs emotions are similar, but different from human emotions. While dogs certainly have emotions and those emotions are tied to us (as they are physical beings and share in our passions), their experience and expression of those emotions are vastly different from how a human experiences and expresses emotions. A dog will jump in your lap and lick your face to express happiness. A human will write a poem or move nature itself in honor of someone, which is a superior expression of happiness because it requires emotions.

God is much higher than us than we are to dogs. If our experience of emotions is superior to a dog’s experience of emotions, then God’s experience of emotions must be infinitely higher than our own experience.

Being made in God’s image means that we cannot understand how God is angry, happy, or any other emotional state, merely that he has those emotions. We cannot transpose how we function onto how God functions because he is higher than we are. This is because we’re a lesser image of God, not an exact copy. While God can sympathize with us and relate to us, this only comes through the Word and mostly through the Incarnation. The divine nature, however, is completely beyond us and therefore we cannot say, “Well I feel this way when happy, therefore God must feel the same way.”

Since God is transcendent it follows that our language about God is inadequate in terms of comprehensively understanding or describing any aspect of who he is. When we write of God and describe God we must understand that our language is analogous and not a literal description. To say God is good is not to describe a literal situation because our only experience of “good” comes from what we have done and seen others do. God is above that and therefore the best we can do is imagine the best “good” we possibly can and that would be analogous to God.

Such a teaching is actually what Christians have believed for a while and is found throughout Scripture. For instance, do we really believe that God has a right hand? Do we really believe that God is a rock? When we say that he has a right hand or that he is a rock, we are speaking analogously of God and not in a literal sense. To quote St. John,

“Since in sacred Scripture we find many things said symbolically of God as if He had a body, one should know that since we are men clothed in this gross flesh, we are unable to think or speak of the divine, lofty, and immaterial operations of the Godhead unless we have recourse to images, types, and symbols that correspond to our own nature…Thus, to put it simply, all these things which are affirmed of God as if He had a body contain some hidden meaning which, through things corresponding to our nature, teaches us things which exceed our nature – except it be something said respecting the presence of the Word of God in the flesh.” (St. John of Damascus, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book I, chapter 12)

As St. John points out, everything in Scripture that speaks of God in human terms is an analogy about God that merely points to something higher (the lone exception being when it speaks of Christ, who is God in the flesh). Scripture makes appeals and even God speaks of himself in human terms so that we can know something about God rather than nothing, but such descriptions do not compressively explain God or fully explain what God is like.

Though God is transcendent and beyond comprehension, we an still have substantial knowledge of God. That is, though we cannot say what the essence of God is, we can say what it is not and we can still speak of God. But our ability to speak of God comes through the Incarnation; absent of Christ becoming flesh, we could not know God.

Imagine if you were attempting to explain to someone what it was like to go to the Pacific ocean if that person had never seen an ocean. While you could give that person a substantial description, to the point that the person understood what the Pacific looked like, all the knowledge the person had would be analogous. You would have to appeal to lakes he had been to or pools any other feature in order to describe the Pacific. The less experience he had with other objects similar to the Pacific, the harder and more inadequate the explanation would become.

Likewise, with God, since nothing is his equal or comparable to him, everything we can know about him is purely by analogy and therefore absent of comprehension. If we say that God loves like we love or suffers like we suffer or regrets like we regret or changes his mind like we change our mind, we are claiming comprehension. We know what it is to experience and do all those things, so to say that God does such things in the same way we do is to say that we comprehend some aspect of the divine nature, which is impossible.

In this way, God is known to us, but remains a mystery. For those who say, “But if God is ever-present in his creation, how is he transcendent,” I would reply that God’s transcendence is not reliant upon distance, but rather upon magnitude; God is transcendent not because he is removed from us by time, but because he is greater than us in all aspects.

When we say that God suffers with us or God has emotions, this is only true insofar as we are speaking of the Incarnation. Beyond that, God does not have emotions. God does not suffer. But this is where many critics make a mistake and say, “Then you’re saying God is cold and uncaring.” If I say that God is without emotion then people automatically assume that I must be supporting the opposite.

Such an allegation simply holds no merit. If God is beyond speaking in terms of saying he has emotions, then he is equally beyond speaking to say that God is cold. To say that God doesn’t have emotions is not to say God doesn’t care, but rather to say that he is higher than us and does not have emotions in the same way we have emotions.

Again, we know what it is to suffer, but it is improper to say that God (the divine nature) suffers because he is beyond us. We know what it is to be uncaring, so it is improper for us to say that God is uncaring. To say that God is not loving does not mean he hates us, but rather his love is so far beyond our understand and experience of love that we cannot compare our love to his love.

I am saying that when we say that God doesn’t have emotions or that God doesn’t have regret, I am not implying the opposite. Rather I’m saying that we do not know what it means for God to act in regret, in anger or in love, because he is above us and our knowledge of these things only comes from our own experience. To admit the negative of a positive is to compromise God’s transcendence; since God’s essence is beyond us, we cannot define his essence. This means anything we say about him will always be an analogy and we cannot interpret Scripture to mean that God does and feels things in the same way we do and feel things.

Returning to the original idea that certain passages show God has emotions or show that he changes his mind and can regret, we see that such interpretations are faulty because they put God on our terms. We must never forget that anything we say about the divine essence must be done by analogy, whether we use the phrase “God’s right hand” or “God changed his mind.” For our only experience of repenting and changing our minds comes from ourselves, who are imperfect. If God is perfect, however, then his experience will be superior to ours. Thus, when God “repents,” there is no change within him. Something occurs, but it is not done in the way we are familiar with.

All of Scripture is inspired, but still written through a human perspective. Everything said of God, unless it is about God in the flesh, is an analogy and should not be taken literally, but rather we should accept that it all points to a deeper truth about God. Through these analogies we know God and relate to him, but he still remains an eternal mystery to us.

[1] Most theologians, and I fall into this camp, believe that God is beyond a genus, species, being, or essence. Such terms describe what is created, but not the creator. However, since we are human we can use some of these terms in explaining God, but we must understand that these terms are for our benefit and do not actually contain God.


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