Does God Have “Emotions”?
Trying to answer a badly-worded question often leads to an inferior answer. Loaded questions implicate those who even attempt to answer them. “By what authority doest thou these things?” Whether Jesus had answered “By My own” or “By My Father’s”, he would have been accused of pride or blasphemy. Best rule of thumb: ask the questioner of a loaded question to re-phrase the question, or avoid answering altogether.
Does God have emotions? This question suffers from the equivocal meaning of the word “emotion”. It’s impossible to answer without sounding like you are equivocating yourself.
Afrikaans has a phrase “Ja-nee”, which is loosely translated as “Well, I suppose” or “Perhaps”, or “Depends”. Literally translated, it is exactly “Yes-No”. That’s about how accurately you could answer the question, “Does God have emotions?”
Yes, He does, and no He does not. This shows how vapid the word emotion is. Here are three theologians explaining how God does and does not have what people today call “emotions”.
Thomas Aquinas claims that love can be either an act of the “sensitive appetite”, which makes it a passion, or an act of the “intellective appetite”, which does not. Aquinas suggests love in God is the latter. God rejoices and delights in what pleases him, without desiring out of a sense of need. This distinction would maintain God as an affective being, not a passionate one (Summa Theologica, XX, i). God has affections, but not passions.
Jonathan Edwards shows that there are bodily “passions”, but God, angels and spirits in heaven possess affections, as do embodied humans. “Feelings” in the body are unique to man, but are not the same as affections:
“But yet it is not the body, but the mind only, that is the proper seat of the affections. The body of man is no more capable of being really the subject of love or hatred, joy or sorrow, fear or hope, than the body of a tree, or than the same body of man is capable of thinking and understanding. As it is the soul only that has ideas, so it is the soul only that is pleased or displeased with its ideas. As it is the soul only that thinks, so it is the soul only that loves or hates, rejoices or is grieved at what it thinks of. Nor are these motions of the animal spirits, and fluids of the body, anything properly belonging to the nature of the affections, though they always accompany them, in the present state; but are only effects or concomitants of the affections that are entirely distinct from the affections themselves, and no way essential to them; so that an unbodied spirit may be as capable of love and hatred, joy or sorrow, hope or fear, or other affections, as one that is united to a body” (Religious Affections, 98).
Finally, C. S. Lewis demonstrates that God’s affections are not weaker or colder than what we think of as emotions, but stronger and clearer:
“When we wish to learn of the love and goodness of God by analogy—by imagining parallels to them in the realm of human relations—we turn of course to the parables of Christ. But when we try to conceive the reality as it may be in itself, we must beware lest we interpret ‘moral attributes’ in terms of mere conscientiousness or abstract benevolence. The mistake is easily made because we (correctly) deny that God has passions; and with us a love that is not passionate means a love that is something less. But the reason why God has no passions is that passions imply passivity and intermission. The passion of love is something that happens to us, as ‘getting wet’ happens to a body: and God is exempt from that ‘passion’ in the same way that water is exempt from ‘getting wet’. He cannot be affected with love, because He is love. To imagine that love as something less torrential or less sharp than our own temporary and derivative ‘passions’ is a most disastrous fantasy” (Miracles, chpt. x, emphasis added).
Here we can see the problem with this mangled word emotion, and perhaps part of the reason why evangelicalism finds itself embroiled in a debate about the impassibility of God. Words matter. Misleading words mislead.
Does God have emotions? Ja-nee. Does God feel? Ja-nee.
Does God have affections? Yes. Does God have passions? No.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.