Listening to our Reformed elders
Calvin warns against taking anthropomorphisms – “forms” (morphe) drawn from the sphere of the human (anthropos) – as literal descriptions of God. God does not have arms. God does not literally break nor is he wrathful the way humans are. Indeed, according to Calvin we do not know what God is in himself, only how he appears to us. Calvin urges us to use great caution “that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends… Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself” (Inst. 1.13.21).
How then should we interpret God’s admission that Israel’s rejection “crushed” him, and all the other biblical “anthropopathisms” (i.e., attributions of humans passions, feelings, and suffering to God)? The Westminster Confession of Faith famously declares God to be “without body, parts, or passions.” Subsequent theologians agreed, taking care to distinguish “passions” from “affections” (i.e., positive dispositions). Fair enough: but which is the proper category for God’s love? And, if we’re not to take God’s being red--faced literally, then what does red-faced (jealous) mean?
Divine perfections: shapes of God’s being in communicative action
We speak well of God when we say who God is and what this “who” is like. Although we do not have exhaustive knowledge of God as he is in himself, we can know him truly, for everything God says and does reveals something of who and what God is.
God’s acts in history “communicate” his eternal nature. The way God is in time, especially in the history of Jesus, corresponds to the way he is in eternity. Jesus is the historical “exegesis” of the eternal Father (Jn. 1:18). Think of revelation and redemption alike as forms of communicative action.
God’s communicable attributes – perfections like goodness and love in which humans participate to a greater or lesser degree – are not “parts” of God but rather shapes of God’s indivisible communicative activity. As one whose being is communicative activity, God is like us; as the one who is the Author of all being, however, God is wholly unlike us. Everything that God does, all his communicative acts, must therefore be qualified by his Authorial status. God is good, but not in the same way in which humans are good. God’s goodness is Authorial (i.e., unoriginated and infinite).
The divine communicative acts that reveal God and propel the history of redemption forward are dynamic analogies of the eternal triune life. The work of Father, Son, and Spirit in history is a dramatic analogy (a being-in-temporal-act) of the light, life, and love that God is in himself (a being-in-eternal-act). So, while God’s acts in history may seem to resemble human acts, we must take care to keep in mind the “Authorial qualifier,” especially when we are confronted with the Bible’s anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms. Speaking well of God means using human terms and remembering that God is the “wholly Author” in our midst.
What is an emotion?
Is “being moved by” among the perfections of God? Everything depends on whether we can rightly predicate motions, by which I here mean emotions, of God, and this in turn depends on our definition of emotion.
Robert Roberts, a philosopher and moral psychologist, thinks that emotions are primarily mental rather than physical.4 First and foremost, emotions are about things of which we are aware. Non-cognitivists are wrong to reduce emotions to the physical sensation, say, of being hit in the stomach. Emotions are cognitions that typically involve a person believing something (i.e., a proposition) about a particular person or object. Saul became jealous and angry with David because he believed that David’s success and the people’s celebration constituted a threat to his own status as king (1 Sam. 18:6-9).
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