Faith in Focus

The Pathos of God - A Covenantal Perspective, Part 2

In the first article we observed that at the heart of the covenant concept in Scripture is the intimate communion and fellowship between the parties concerned. For man to be in covenant relationship with God means that man “walks with God”; he is involved with God as his friend, and this in opposition to mankind as a whole, who since the Fall, has determined to live autonomously, that is, by his own laws, independent of God.

In this article and the next, we shall explore what it means for God to be in covenant relation to man. How does God function within the covenant bond and how does the behaviour of his covenant partner affect him? What does the Scripture mean when it ascribes human emotions to God, such as grief, wrath and love? When we experience these emotions as human beings, it is because we are involved and what happens to us affects us, sometimes profoundly. If we were not involved and affected, we would be apathetic, i.e. without emotions, disinterested, somehow removed from or above what is happening around us. But what of God? Is he apathetic? Or does he display pathos, involvement at the level of his heart?

These are fascinating questions and before we attempt to answer them, we need to consider some of the suggestions that have been made in the past.


Greek Mythology and Philosophy

In Greek mythology, the gods displayed all the human emotions, both good and bad. For example, according to Homer (8th century B.C.) Zeus, the god of weather and thunder, ruled according to power rather than righteousness and justice. He had innumerable loves and children, who again, advanced his influence, and his wrath was frequently the result of petulance or caprice rather than the outworking of a moral principle. Herodotus (484-424 B.C.) was convinced that the gods worked harm in people’s lives and did not hesitate to speak of their envy and pride. Indeed, the gods could not abide anyone being as happy as they were, often visiting their anger upon wealthy people because their envy was aroused. We can summarize by affirming that the Greek gods were creations in the image of man, and they displayed “larger than life” human characteristics, both moral and immoral.

The Greek, philosophers, most notably Plato (422-347 B.C) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C), reacted against these human characterizations of the gods. In their attempt to explain and give order to the real world around them, they looked for an anchor that would give stability and meaning to all the flux or change that they observed. For Plato, this anchor was the ideal world (a world of ideas) behind the world that we see, touch, taste and feel. This ideal world was the world of true, eternal, and self-consistent being. Since the ideal world was unchangeable, there was no place in it for human emotions, since emotions, as we know, come and go. They change, and are inherently unstable and they sometimes express themselves in unreasonable ways, which for Plato, was certainly something to be avoided.

Aristotle further developed Plato’s ideas. He extrapolated back from the real world and posited a god who was the First Cause of all things. For Aristotle, “god” was the Mover and Ground of all that is and since he is the mover of all things, he himself must be Unmoved, unchangeable, completely independent and, very important for our discussion, devoid of all emotion.

The Greek philosophers’ view of the divine, was certainly an advance over that of Greek mythology with its all too human gods. The Bible teaches that God is the creator of all things and that he sustains the universe by his power. In this sense, he is certainly the Ground of all that is. Moreover, God is not dependent on anything or anyone. Unlike the Greek gods, he is self-sufficient and independent of his creation. But what Aristotle failed to acknowledge was the personal character of God. For him, “god” was an idea, a concept only, and he is therefore incapable of sustaining relationships with others. In this way, the covenant formula “I will be your God, and you will be my people” is, strictly speaking, a misuse of language.


Philo and the Apologists

The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C.- A.D. 50), was heavily influenced by the Greek philosophical view of God. His goal in philosophy was to reconcile Greek thought with the Old Testament Scripture. According to Philo, the reason why the Scripture speaks of God in anthropomorphic terms (i.e. language that ascribes human form to God, e.g, the “eye of God”, the “hand of God”, etc.) and anthropopathic terms (language that ascribes human emotion to God, e.g. God grieves, loves, displays wrath, etc.) is that here God is accommodating himself to us in our human weakness. In other words, he is using language that we as human beings can understand. But what we should do is move beyond this language and consider God as he is in himself, or in his essence. However, God in his essence is incomprehensible to us and therefore we should speak of him in negative, rather than positive terms. God is unchangeable, incorporeal (no bodily form), incomparable, impassible (devoid of emotion), etc. And when the Bible says that God is angry, for instance, we should not understand that God actually feels anything, since God is, by definition, incapable of any changes and incapable of being affected by anything.

Of the early church fathers, Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254) and Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215) have in this area exerted considerable influence on later theology. According to Origen, the dignum deo (that which is appropriate to God) could be summed up in three points: 1) God has no corporeal body or form, 2) God is apathetic and knows no emotions such as anger or grief, 3) God is unchangeable, not only in his inward being, but also in relation to others. He cannot move or change his mind in any sense. Therefore, when the Scripture says that God changes his mind, or that he is angry with his people, these are “word pictures” or “allegories” which must be interpreted in a spiritual way. Likewise, Clement taught that God was impassible and therefore, if we want to be most like God, we should rise above our emotions and affections, such as courage, anger, love, cheerfulness. We have to rid ourselves of these because they are disturbances of the mind. The saint is a person who functions by reason, and is not affected by emotion.


Reformed Theology: Calvin and the Confessions

In a fascinating passage in the Institutes, Calvin discusses the “repentance” of God. He writes:

Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry toward sinners. Therefore when we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience; because God, whenever he is exercising judgement, exhibits the appearance of one kindled and angered. So we ought not to understand anything else under the word “repentance” than a change of action, because men are wont by changing their action to testify that they are displeased with themselves. Therefore, since every change among men is a correction of what displeases them, but that correction arises out of repentance, then by the word “repentance” is meant the fact that God changes with respect to his actions. Meanwhile, neither God’s plan nor his will is reversed, nor his volition altered; but what he had from eternity foreseen, approved, and decreed, he pursues in uninterrupted tenor, however sudden the variation may appear to men’s eyes (Institutes, 1.XIII.1)

Notice how Calvin’s explanation is again along the lines of divine accommodation. When God says that he is angry, he speaks from our human experience. He is not angry in himself, because he is “beyond all disturbance of the mind”. So this is how he seems to us only. On the other hand, Calvin does affirm that God changes his action, in accordance with his eternal divine decree. So while Calvin is content to employ the explanation of divine accommodation, he is not prepared to go as far as the Greek philosophers, who strenuously resisted any form of change in God.

When we come to the Reformed Confessions, we meet with a similar explanation. The Westminster Confession states:

There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal most just and terrible in his judgements; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty (chapter 2, section 1, cf. Belgic Confession, § 1).

The Confession affirms that God is “without body, parts or passions”. The proof text for this statement is Acts 14:14, 15, in which Paul and Barnabas were thought by the Lystrans to be Greek gods. They tear their robes (an act of passion!) and state emphatically: “we also are men of like nature (lit. “having like feelings or passions”) with you”. The missionaries were at pains to point out that the living God, the Creator, was not “like men” in the same way that the Greek gods were “like men”. And the Westminster Reformers also wanted to express this forthrightly in their statement on the doctrine of God. But at the same time, they affirmed that God is “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering”, yet “hating all sin”. This was something that the Greek philosophers, and Origen and Clement, would have had a great deal of trouble saying, because for them, God was simply devoid of all emotion and feeling.

So what are we to make of all this? When the Bible ascribes emotion and feeling to God, can we take these verses as they are, or should we always read: It is only as if God were feeling these things? We have argued that, contrary to the Greek philosophical conception of God, the covenant concept means that God is intimately involved with his people. To be in covenant with God is to commune with him in fellowship. But this is no one-sided relationship. Sovereignly and graciously, God chooses to walk with us in covenant and this means that he takes an interest in us and is affected by the way we respond to him. When the Bible says that God is loving towards us, or that he is angry or grieved by our unfaithfulness, this is covenantal language, i.e. language that is entirely consistent with, and an expression of, the nature of the covenant bond. The Old Testament writers, particularly the prophets, could not help but speak of God in this living and personal way. At the same time, however, these emotions in God are divine emotions, not human ones. Just as Isaiah affirms that the thoughts and ways of God are not our thoughts and ways, but are much higher than ours (Is. 55:8, 9), so too, the pathos of God is much higher and more wonderful than ours. In Hosea 11, for instance, as God wrestles with the unfaithfulness of the 10 northern tribes of Israel, he says that he will not come in wrath, “For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (vs. 9). Thus, contrary to all human expectation, the love and the mercy of God take us by surprise. The divine pathos is not “larger than life” human emotion as in Greek mythology. To use theological terms, God’s pathos is transcendent, as well as immanent, and therefore it repeatedly amazes us, precisely because it is divine and not human.

We have now set the scene for an analysis of some of the divine emotions as they are expressed within the covenant bond. We will return to this theme in the following article.


Mr Michael Flinn is the Minister of the new Dovedale congregation in Christchurch.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised May 2000 / Copyright 2000