/ Gentle Reformation


The following is a guest post of Tom Sullivan, a retired engineer who is a member of the Lafayette Reformed Presbyterian Church of Lafayette, Indiana.

The Holy Bible often speaks of God’s emotions (feelings),[1] usually in response[2] to some human behavior. However, some theologians have claimed that since God cannot change, He does not have “real” emotions. For example, supposedly our sin cannot make Him “really” angry because that would be change in God. “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6 ESV). Instead, they say that Scriptural language referring to God’s emotional responses to events on earth is anthropomorphic, meaning human-shaped. Others, such as Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology disagree.[3] This monograph does not present new theology, but a helpful mental perspective on the question. For example, XXVII ÷ IX = III is the same truth as 27 ÷ 9 = 3, but one is easier and clearer than the other. With the right perspective, we can take God at His word without resorting to explaining away parts of Scripture.

We encounter anthropomorphism all the time. Mickey Mouse is an anthropomorphic mouse. When a product claims to make your automobile “happy,” that is anthropomorphism. But now consider the compound eye of the fly. If we were to insist on defining eye on the basis of the structure of the human eye, then we would be using anthropomorphism by calling the means by which a fly sees an eye. But when we say that a fly has eyes, we are not referring to structure, but to function; the compound eye is the fly’s faculty of vision. In fact, if we explicitly think in terms of function, not structure, we may say that a crab’s claw or a bird’s beak is its hand, because it is their faculty for manipulating the physical environment, just as a human hand manipulates the physical environment.

When we read Scripture, we instinctively use this functional thinking because the Bible speaks in this way about God. He hears prayer, sees all we do, and His hand may be heavy on sinners in judgment. We know God has faculties with which to hear sound, see light and objects, and manipulate things in the physical world, because the Bible says He does these things. We understand that these faculties are not physical like ours, but those of an infinite spiritual being; we do not trouble ourselves with how those faculties “work.”[4] God’s use of these faculties in interacting with our universe does not produce any change in God. After all, God created the universe, upholds it by the Word of His power, brings all things to pass, and even entered space-time as the God-man, Jesus Christ. Yet He still remains unchanged in His being. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 ESV). Another way in which God interacts with His creatures is emotionally.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.48 states that God is “much displeased” by other gods, but also the Confession of Faith, 2:1 states that God does not have “passions.”[5] The implication is that God has genuine emotions, but they are different from human emotions in structure. By adopting a functional perspective on God’s emotions just as we do with His other faculties, we may easily understand that God has genuine emotions concerning events in this universe, of which there are many examples in Scripture. But we also understand that structurally, God’s emotions are those of an eternal, perfect, spiritual Being. God’s emotions are real, holy, perfectly controlled, and do not interfere with any of His attributes, including His unchangeableness.[6]

Let us never go beyond what is written, but with child-like faith, take God at His Word. When God tells us he is displeased, pleased, angry, reconciled, and so on, He is speaking truth. We also have feelings because we are made in God’s image, and are thus able to understand what He is communicating to us. That is sufficient. “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another” (1 Corinthians 4:6 ESV).


1 In general discourse we all know what is meant by emotions or feelings when someone uses those words. That admittedly general and imprecise meaning is that used in this monograph. (Academics and professionals will also use the same words when writing for lay readers, but use more precise terminology in scholarly discourse. For example, theologians often use the term "affections" in reference to God to differentiate from human "emotions".)

2 See footnote 4.

3 Hodge wrote, “The God of the Bible, who has revealed Himself as the hearer of prayer, is not mere intelligence and power. He is love. He feels as well as thinks. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear Him. He is full of tenderness, compassion, long-suffering, and benevolence. This is not anthropomorphism. These declarations of Scripture are not mere ‘regulative truths.’ They reveal what God really is.” From Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 699.

4 Since God is omniscient (all-knowing, knows everything past, present, and future in this created space-time), one could reasonably conclude that God’s infinite knowledge is His faculty of sense, such as sight. Also, His infinite, eternal knowledge is why He Himself does not change in response to any events in His creation: He always knew what He would do and why even from before creation. However reasonable these statements may seem, this writer refuses to assert them, thus going beyond what is written in Scripture. The problem is that to assert these kinds of things about how God “works” requires making assumptions that, due to our finite and sinful nature, may be flat out wrong. Flesh and blood living on one small planet can have only the vaguest knowledge of the “anatomy and physiology” of an infinite, perfect, eternal, transcendent God. Wrong assumptions about God have been productive of many heresies, useless dissensions, and even bloodshed throughout history.

5 Words change their meanings, especially their most commonly used meanings, over time. Today, passion often means a strong love or other emotion, as in God's Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards, an excellent book by John Piper (ISBN: 978-1581340075). But in the 17th century, passion, in all of its uses, meant being moved by an external force, such as suffering pain, being acted upon by something, or strong emotions that move the mind or move one to action. Because God is unchanging, He cannot be moved or changed by anything.

6 Even in human life, we have an illustration of how emotions need not produce any change in God: consider the different reactions by a toddler and a mature Christian adult to the emotion of disappointment caused by finding a plate of cookies empty.