God is emotionless, and that is Good News for humans: Thoughts about God, humanity, and salvation

I am in a pretty busy time of ministry right now, and I have not had a lot of time to do any real serious writing. I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while, hoping to get more coherence in my thoughts. I’m posting this now with the hopes that these thoughts will continue to percolate into something helpful. 

The desire for God to have emotions is grounded in a misunderstanding of God’s eternal and self-existent life, the purpose of emotions in human life, and of God’s work of salvation.

In the 1st of the 39 Articles a general statement about the Christian God is made:

THERE is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Here we see God considered in himself in both aspects of who he is: the Unity of the essence and the distinction of persons. In the first half of the statement, several aspects of God’s infinite being and life is established, all of which safeguard against two things: 1) imagining that we can comprehend God, 2) that God is the greatest being in a chain of being. God is not like humans or the created world. He is totally other; not distant, but definitely not a being among other beings. This is how John Webster puts it: “In his inner works, as Father, Son and Spirit, God is plentitude of life and incomparable excellence… in the perfection of his immanent triune life God ‘only’ is God, and God is ‘alone.'” (God without Measure, I.119-120).

Further, Webster argues that God in his plentitude of life and his triunity is Simple. “God has no career, no process of coming-to-be” (Webster, God without Measure, 1.120). Finally, following Aquinas, we say that all creatures are contained within a genus; God is outside and before all genera (ST. 1a.4.3.ad 2).

All this means that God is not like humans, who are created, while God is the fullness of life. Emotions, as they are experienced in human life, are related to the contingency and progression of life, something which is simply not a reality in God. God is the fullness and plentitude of life; he is perfection in all its beauty and light and beyond all measure: as Paul confesses: “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (1 Timothy 6:15-16; see also James 1:17). 

This has been the standard Christian confession for much of history, however, in modern theology, and often times in pastoral care, the question arises whether God should, can or must relate to human experience and emotion. Most understandably, this question arose among theologians after the Jewish Holocaust of World War II.  If we say that God is without passion does this not mean that he is distant and uncaring?

To the contrary, It is my thesis that it is good news that God is passionless, i.e., doesn’t have emotions, especially for the doctrine of human nature and salvation. To prove this thesis, we need to consider the problem from three angles: from the doctrine of God, the doctrine of human nature, and the doctrine of salvation.

God’s infinite, eternal life: 

Building off of what we said above: God’s is infinite life, actuality, and plentitude. To say that God is passionless is to say that he is full of life and being – it is the opposite of aloof. In his infinite life, he is changeless, neither needing anything or advancing towards some goal. God is the creator who does not change; this changelessness is not a defect, but a fact of his being infinite life and goodness. Out of God’s infinite goodness, he creates and sustains the world. Because God is totally complete and full in himself is he able to creates and sustain the created world out of his plentitude and generosity not out of a need for us. If God were not complete in himself and created the world, the world and God’s being would be co-terminus. God would have made the world for his sake, not our own (See Webster, God without Measure, I.126).

God is One, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One could imagine that in the intra-trinitarian relations there is emotion. However, this would be to project some kind of temporal or metaphysical movement in the Trinity. As if God the Father at some time choose to love the Son and the Spirit and thus generate and process them respectively. This would introduce change and progress in the divine life and would collapse the Trinity into created being. Contrary to this, God is eternally the Father generating the SOn and the Father and Son spirating the Holy Spirit, in an eternal, changeless, and infinitely simple way. God’s being is the fullness of life and action; he is the Living God who chooses to create beings who are different than God.

Creatures are from God and are created out of nothing. They are completely dependent on God for their existence and sustenance; everything from God for Creatures is a gift. Further, human creatures are created for fellowship with God. God freely creates creatures and gives them being, “making them for their own sake, not for his” (Webster, God without Measure, I.126). Human existence comes from and returns to God, but God does not depend on creatures. Humans were made for communion with God; this is our end, our telos and a part of that being made by God and toward God is our emotional life.

To be human is to have emotions:

Emotions are a feature of created human nature and correlate to our teleological end – we have emotions because we were created for an end purpose, i.e., life with God in the beatific vision (Ia-IIae Q 1-5). Emotions are an aspect of being contingent creatures on the way to this end.  Emotions are not bad, they are an integral part of human nature that reflect the fact that we were to desire God and love him forever.  Aquinas divides human emotions in terms of longing (concupiscence)  and resistance (Irascible). “For the concupiscible regards as proper to it the notion of the good, as something pleasant to the senses and suitable to nature: whereas the irascible regard the notion of good as something that wards off and repels what is hurtful.”(Ia Q 82.a5). Emotions, properly ordered, draw us towards the good and repel us from what is evil. Emotions are an aspect of humanity’s journey towards God, they are innate to what it means to be human creatures.

One may object at this point and say if we are created in the image of God, doesn’t that mean that emotions are a part of God’s character? Being created in the image of God doesn’t mean that everything we have is identical to God or visa-versa. Obviously, we are not infinite, self-sufficient and eternal. Neither is God changeable, becoming or created. Whatever being made in the image of God means, it does not mean being identical with God or God with us. Because emotions are connected to our mutability, our changing nature that longs for the good, it is not an aspect of being created in the image of God. Rather, emotions draw us toward God who is our good (see Summa Ia-IIae q 22. a 1; q23  a1, a4).

Further, emotions are firmly established on the creature side of the creator-creature divide. the Human desire for God to experience emotions as we do is rooted in our idolatrous desire to see God in our image. If God had emotions as we did, he would not be mighty to save, he would be like us, and we would be lost.

In Scripture, emotional language is used to describe God in the Old and New Testament. I need to think more about the Old Testament language, though traditionally, it has been understood in terms of metaphor and analogy.

But, to properly speak of God having emotions we can only look to the person of Jesus Christ who has a fully human nature in the incarnation.

Pastorally, this is the location we talk about Jesus Christ feeling for us and with us. Further, we have to realize that Christ’s incarnation was not to identify with humanity but to save humanity from death, sin and the devil. The second person of the Trinity experienced human emotion as a correlate of his work of salvation, but it was not the primary purpose. Yet, because The Son of God incarnate has experienced human emotions, he empathizes with our struggle and gives us the Holy Spirit to properly train our emotions. So that we learn to hate evil and love God, with our whole being including our emotions.  (See Hebrews 2; John 11).

 

 

Quotes from The Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Gregory of Nazianzus On the Economy of Salvation

950701f716f292ee7eca7ed5558406ee

When I started reading the church fathers, one of the most refreshing aspects of their writings was the way they talked about The scope and depth of Salvation. This quote is taken from an excellent resource, the Ancient Christian Doctrine series, and exemplifies the way Gregory summarize Scripture’s witness to the magnificent work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.

“He who gives riches becomes poor, for he assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of his Godhead. He that is full empties himself for a short while, that I may have a share in his fullness. What is the riches of his goodness? What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in the image; I did not keep it. He partakes of my flesh that he may both save the image and make the flesh immortal. He communicates a second communion far more marvelous than the first; in as much as then he imparted the better nature, whereas now he himself partakes of the worse. This is more Godlike than the former action, this is loftier in the eyes of all men of understanding.” Gregory of Nazianzus, ACD, 2.105.

This is a beautiful passage that exposes some of the most profound mysteries of our faith, in the context of Jesus Christ’s humility as the source of the salvation of the world. First, it is vital to see that Gregory reflection on Christ is an expansion of the magnificent Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This verse, for Gregory and many other church fathers, is a touchstone for reflecting on God’s work of salvation.  Christ who is equal to the Father, the same essence, became human to bring humanity into communion with God.
Significantly, Gregory does not speak of this salvation in abstract terms, he sees his own life wrapped up in this mystery: “What is the riches of his goodness? What is this mystery that is around me?” The life that Jesus lived is the life that he gives Gregory. He took Gregory’s sin and death and gave him his life and love.

To clarify the second half of the quote, let me explain what Gregory is saying. ‘The image’ which Gregory refers to is the image of God, that we read about in Genesis 1:26-28.  The salvation in Christ is much greater than when Adam and Eve were created (‘second communion far more marvelous than the first’) because in Jesus Christ humanity receives a more profound and greater union with God than Adam and Eve had. This is the mystery of the incarnation: Christ has taken our human body and life and made them his, forming what is sinful and dying into his body which is holy and immortal, through his infinite life.

The personal appropriation of Christ’s objective work on the cross for all of humanity is what continues to capture my attention in Gregory and other Church Fathers. They knew and experienced the reality of Christ’s wonderful exchange in their lives. As an Anglican priest, I am reminded that when I serve the meals of Grace of word and sacrament to the church, I am offering my congregation nourishment to continue to grow in this mystery: the mystery of our justification and sanctification and glorification in Jesus Christ through the Power of the Holy Spirit. Every week, we are invited into this great mystery of Salvation – union with God in Christ, so that we can have the same mind and be the one body of Christ in the world.

 

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Thomas Aquinas On the Image of God in Humanity

ICONS,_Sinai,_Christ_Pantocrator,_6th_century

In Christian Theological Anthropology, a fundamental question arises: what does it mean to be made in the image of God? There have been many answers proposed to answer this question. Two of the most common responses to this question is that the image of God is primarily found in the reality that humans are intelligent and relational creatures because God is intelligent and relational. Another common appraisal of the image of God in humanity is that humanity is the representative of God in the created world. When Aquinas is brought up in this discussion he is often plastered with a simplistic negative assessment: he believed that the image of God resided in the intellectual faculties of humans, that is not what Genesis 1:27-28 meant by the image of God. Therefore his assessment is incorrect. While Aquinas does focus on the intellectual facilities of humans in a way that, perhaps, is not the original meaning of Genesis 1:27-28, his view is much more nuanced than and is investigating.

In this post I want to consider a few quotes from Aquinas’s articles on the Image of God to propose the following: 1) that Aquinas’s doctrine of the image of God is not static. Instead, it has three factors: creation, redemption, and glorification. 2) In these factors, it is Christo-centric. 3) And while he does focus on the human mind as the seat of the image of God, it is the human mind directed towards God, thus revealing the relational dynamic of the image of God in humanity.

From the beginning of Aquinas’s Summa, he establishes three essential principles: 1) that the human creature is made for a particular end: to know and love God, and the only way we can know God is through revelation (1.1.a1). 2) Theology proper is the study of God: God himself in his infinite life and that which comes from God, i.e., all that is not God. This is how Aquinas says it, “But in sacred science, all things are treated of under the aspect of God; either because they are God himself; or because they refer to God as their beginning and end” (1.1.a7). Theology proper, i.e., theology ordered towards who God is and what God does start and ends with God as the beginning and end of all that exists. 3) since theology studies derivatively all that comes from the Triune God in his creative activity, the study of theology traces God’s creation, redemption, glorification, and the return of the creature to God – i.e., the mission of the Son and the Spirit for the reconciliation and restoration of the world (see 1.43-44). Taking these points together, in relation to our topic, human nature and the image of God will have a particular direction, one that is grounded in God as humanity’s creator and God as humanity’s end.

Our quotes come from Aquinas’s 93rd question in the first part of the Summa. He introduces the question as follows: “We now treat of the end or term of man’s production inasmuch as he is said to be made to the image and likeness of God” (1.93.Pro). So in treating the end goal of humanity’s creation, Aquinas establishes what the image of God in humanity is; in do8ng si the end, i.e., the beatific vision of God, or communion with God, shapes the beginning.

In the first article, Aquinas established what the image of God is in man. He argues, that humanity is an imperfect likeness of God, not imperfect because of sin, but imperfect because humanity is a creature, not the creator. This imperfection is akin to a painting of a real thing (1.93.1a). Humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, but not perfectly so because they are creatures and because there is only one perfect image of God:

The First-Born of creatures is the perfect image of God, reflecting perfectly that of which He is the Image and so he is said to be the Image, and never to the image… The image of God exists in his first-born Son; as the image of the king is in his Son who is of the same nature as himself; whereas it exists in man as in an alien nature, as the image of the king is in a silver coin. (1.93.reply 2).

The image of God in humanity is from God and is directed towards humanity’s end: perfection and union with God in Christ Jesus who is the perfect image and likeness of God. Notice, that for Aquinas, in the scope of redemption Christ, not Adam, is the first born of creation. He is the perfect image of God in the creation, and he is the one in whom our imaging of God is made perfect.

This is made evident a few articles later, where Aquinas considers whether all of humanity has the image of God or not:

Since man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature, he is the most perfectly like God according to that in which he can best imitate God in his intellectual nature. Now the intellectual nature imitates God chiefly in this, that God understands and loves Himself. Wherefore we see that the image of God is in man in three ways. First, inasmuch as man possesses a natural aptitude for understanding and loving God; and this aptitude consists in the very nature of the mind, which is common to all men. Second, inasmuch as man actually and habitually knows and loves God, though imperfectly; and this image consists in the conformity of grace. Third, inasmuch as man knows and loves God perfectly; and this image consists in the likeness of glory. Wherefore on the words, The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us (Ps 4:7), the gloss distinguishes a threefold image of creation, of re-creation, and of likeness. The first is found in all men, the second only in the just, the third only in the blessed (1.93.a4).

Setting aside the definition of the image for a second, notice how Aquinas defines the image of God in humanity via the whole of the economy of God’s work in the world: Creation, re-creation, and glorification. Mankind was created to know and love God, after the fall humanity was re-created when the perfect image of God, the Son, came and saved humanity. The image is brought to completion and perfection when humanity knows and loves God as much as is humanly possible in the beatific vision. This threefold distinction not only shows how the image of God is related to the work of Christ in creating, saving, and glorifying humanity in his own body, it also demonstrates that the image of God is in all of humanity. However, because mankind was created to be in communion with God, there are different levels of image bearing correlated to where one is in relation to the true image: Jesus Christ. Thus, the image of God is both a given reality in creation, but because we were made for God, it must also be re-created and perfected through the mission of the Son and the Spirit so that humanity can delight in and know the one for whom we were created.

This final point helps us make sense of why Aquinas, following Augustine, sees the image of God as especially located in humanity’ intellectual nature. For Aquinas, the intellect is not mere rationality, it is the location of our knowledge and love; our knowledge of God and our desire for God. our ability to know and love is what sets humanity apart from other creatures (1.93.a6). But this knowing and loving are not a general knowing and loving, but knowing and loving God. Aquinas quotes Augustine who argues that the image of God in humanity is most reflective of God when it is knowing and loving God (1.93.a8). In other words, the fullness of the image of God in humanity is directly connected to individual humans united to God in Christ through the Spirit who builds up in us the mind of Christ and fills us with the love of God.

Thus the location of the image of God is connected to the intellect not because knowing is the most God-like feature of humans, but because we were created to know and love God. When humanity is united to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, actively pursuing him in love and knowledge, that is when we are most reflecting the image of God, at least while we are still on earth. In the new creation, the image will be made perfect, and we will be like the first-born of all creation, the perfect image of God without defect: Jesus Christ the Lord.

From this discussion, we can see that Aquinas’s understanding of the image of God is about reflecting and participating in the knowledge and love of God. That for which humanity was made is grounded in Christ who is the perfect image, and it is brought to completion through the economy of salvation.

When we talk about the image of God, Aquinas’s understanding gives significant direction: 1) we must affirm that everyone has the image of God, and thus has an intrinsic value and significance. 2) At the same time, because we were created to be in a relationship with God, those who are oriented towards God in Christ have the potential to reflect the image of God more faithfully, insofar as they are orienting their lives towards the knowledge and love of God; i.e., growing in sanctification. 3) Knowledge of who God is and what God does, combined with a desire and delight in God is the path of conforming to the image of God in Christ Jesus (see John 17:3). 4) The image of God is still being brought to completion through the invisible missions of the Son and Spirit in the lives of Christians. 5) The end for which we are created was revealed at the beginning: We were made in the image of God to enjoy him forever in Christ.