Elliott: God’s Emotions Inform Our Emotions, Part 1

Elliot_review_08032015Matthew A. Elliott. 2006.  Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.(Goto Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do you think that Jesus practiced emotional intelligence?

In emotional intelligence training we learn that complete communication has 2 parts:  the information being communicated and the feeling attached to it. Excluding one part or the other leads to confusion and misinterpretation [1]. Information communicated in concrete examples is easier to remember than abstract examples. Short stories communicate ideas and emotions better than long explanations. Body language often reveals our true feelings, even when we are not entirely truthful with ourselves.

In his book, Faithful Feelings, Matthew Elliot examines scripture’s descriptions of God’s use of emotions with special emphasis on the New Testament (NT).  He writes:

“This book attempts to apply modern studies dealing with emotion to the NT. But it is not primarily about the vocabulary of emotion: anger, love, joy, hope, jealousy, fear, and sorrow. Instead, it is about emotion itself, how it was perceived by the writers of the NT, and what role they thought it should play in the life of the believer” (14-15).

While this subject is very timely, it is not new. Theologian Jonathan Edwards (2009, 13), writing in 1746 about the effects of the Great Awakening, noted that both head and heart were necessarily involved in effective discipling. Thus, he coined the phrase “holy affections” to distinguish the marks of the work of the Spirit from other works and associated these holy affections directly with scripture.

Elliott distinguishes 2 theories of emotions:  the cognitive theory and the non-cognitive theory. The cognitive theory of emotions argues that “reason and emotion are interdependent” (47) while the non-cognitive theories promote the separation of reason and emotion (46). In other words, the cognitive theory states that we get emotional about the things that we believe strongly. Our emotions are neither random nor unexplained—they are not mere physiology. Elliott writes: “if the cognitive theory is correct, emotions become an integral part of our reason and our ethics” (53-54) informing and reinforcing moral behavior.

The implications of this discussion are far reaching for the church. If my emotions reinforce and inform my thinking, then work on either side can help me understand my own priorities.  Reflection on my emotions can then help me organize my thoughts which may otherwise be inconsistent for lack of priority.  Likewise, theological reflection aids my emotions in being more consistent, more “even tempered”. Fellowship and Bible study in the church can, of course, aid in this process because healthy thinking and healthy emotions go hand in hand. The balance of heart and mind is therefore an obvious goal to reach Edward’s ideal of holy affections.  The bodily resurrection of Christ reminds us that we are both body and spirit—a denial of the Platonic duality of body and soul—which is another allusion to the unity of heart and mind.

Matthew Elliott received his doctorate in NT studies from the University of Aberdeen and is currently the president of Oasis International in Chicago, Illinois which makes Bibles available to the poor in English speaking parts of the world [2]. Faithful Feelings is written in 6 chapters:

  1. What is Emotion?
  2. Emotions in the Greco-Roman World.
  3. Emotions in Jewish Culture and Writings.
  4. Emotion in the NT: General Analysis, Love, Joy, and Hope.
  5. Emotion in the NT: Jealousy, Fear, Sorrow, and Anger. and
  6. Emotions in the NT: A Summary Statement.

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments, abbreviations, a list of books of the Bible, and an introduction and are followed by a bibliography, an index of names, and index of biblical references.

Elliot (90, 238) observes that emotions must have an object and that our evaluation of the morality of a particular emotion depends on its object. For example, Elliott (214) reports that the only passage in the NT where Jesus gets angry occurs in the story of the healing of the man with the withered hand:

“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, Come here. And he said to them, Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill? But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:1-6 ESV)

In the story, Jesus asks the Pharisees if it is right to do good on the Sabbath?  In other words, is Sabbath observance more important than caring for one another?  Their unwillingness to answer incensed Jesus and he gets angry because of the “their hardness of heart”. In his anger he heals the man.  The object of Jesus’ anger is accordingly a hardened heart—in other words, a righteous object of anger[3].

Matthew Elliott’s Faithful Feelings is a book that I have referred to this book frequently in my writing and speaking since I read it in 2012. This book is of obvious interest to pastors, lay leaders, and seminarians interested in current controversies. Elliott makes an important contribution to the discussion of how to understand emotions in the Bible and to develop a better balance between head and heart in our faith.

In part 1 of this review, I have provided an overview of Elliott’s work.  In part 2, I will dig more deeply into his analysis.

Did Jesus practice emotional intelligence? Jesus’ extensive use of parables and object lessons, like the washing of feet, in his teaching suggests that Jesus was an expert at communication and fully understood the role of emotional intelligence in effective communication.

Question:  Do you suppose that the observation that post-moderns often hold inconsistent views is more a consequence of choice (decision by emotional response) or simply the result of insufficient time for reflection?  What do you think?


[1] This is often the source of problems interpersonal communication via electronic media—even the most carefully crafted email can be misunderstood.

[2] http://oasisint.net/about/boardstaff.

{3] God likewise gets angry over sin:  “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen 6:5-6 ESV)


Edwards, Jonathan. 2009. The Religious Affections (orig pub 1746). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press.


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