Elliott: God’s Emotions Inform Our Emotions, Part 2

Elliot_review_08032015Matthew A. Elliott. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the 1960s when I grew up, boys were expected to fight their own battles.

Back then I almost always won playground fist fights. It was not because I was particular big or strong; it was not because I had not learned karate; it was not because I looked for fights. The chief reason that I won was because I kept my eyes open and thought about what I was doing. Most bullies that picked a fight with me closed their eyes and swung as hard as they could. Their emotions were in full control and they lost. I won, in part, because my fighting strategy engaged my emotions and thinking more equally.

Differences in attitudes about the role of the head and the heart existed also in the ancient world. In his book, Faithful Feelings, Matthew Elliott divides his comments among Greek philosophy, the Old Testament, and the New Testament (NT).  In each of these contexts, remember the distinction between the cognitive theory of emotion (we get emotional about the things that we believe strongly) and the non-cognitive theory of emotion (random, unexplained, or physiological reactive emotions).

Greek Philosophy. The Greek philosophers held a range of views about emotions.

For example, Plato’s division of the body, mind, and soul allowed later Stoics to divide the emotions from thinking—“passions were produced in the irrational part of the tripartite soul” (59-60). Things like magic arise as ways to manipulate these impersonal and irrational forces (61) and fear of emotional and irrational Gods was thought to account for unexplained suffering in the world (62).

In contrast to Plato’s tripartite division, Aristotle divided the person into just body and soul and believed that even the appetites of the body were subject to reason (hunger’s object is food) and intelligent behavior was open to reasoning and persuasion (66).

Old Testament. Perhaps because the Hebrew mindset promoted unity of heart and mind, the Jewish attitude about emotions differed fundamentally from Greek thought.

Elliott (82) writes: “The righteous base their emotions on the knowledge of God.”  For example, the Hebrew word verb for to know (יָדַע) includes a much greater range of meanings than in English—“Emotional ties, empathy, intimacy, sexual experience, mutuality, and responsibility are all encompassed with the usage of this word” (82). Elliott observes that: “Prayer in the Psalms is not a ritual to conjure up emotion but, rather, a heartfelt cry based on beliefs about God and the world.” (83)  In other words, in Hebrew thought we see an integration of “knowledge and emotion…[which] includes knowledge that is heartfelt and emotional” (83). For example, Elliott (85) observes that biblical love is always a command—an odd idea if you believe love is just a warm and fuzzy emotion— and it is a manifestation of obedience to God which the most basic daily prayer in Judaism, the Shema, makes clear:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5 ESV)

Here love is commanded and we find unity not only between the body and soul, but unity of God himself. Elliott (123) writes that:  “Israel’s God was emotionally stable.”  Heart and soul are words which simply emphasize different aspects of the unified person.

King Solomon (123) summarizes God’s emotional stability best when he writes:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to tear, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Eccl. 3:1-8 ESV)

Elliott (115) concludes that “In Judaism emotion was a good thing…”

New Testament.  Elliott begins his analysis on emotion in the NT by noting a great deal of confusion and, as a result, errors in the literature about the nature of emotion.  He cites 4 errors:

  1. Mistakes in interpreting vocabulary or emotion words;
  2. Mistakes made in exegesis due to misinterpretation of emotion;
  3. A general neglect of emotion in NT studies; and
  4. A pervasive non-cognitive understanding of the emotions (125).

One mistake that he highlights is the use of the Greek word for heart, kardia (καρδία).  Much like the Hebrew word for heart (לִבּ), kardia has a wider range of meaning that in the English where the focus is narrowly on emotions.  Kardia “connotes the integration of mind, will, and emotions” (130).  Likewise, references to the mind (νοῦς) have a wider range of meaning in Paul’s work than the narrowly focused Greek mentality would suggest (132).  For Paul, heart and mind were words used for emphasis in a unified (holistic) person, not to suggest Platonic or Aristotelian division of the person.

This holistic view of the person leads to new insights into the meaning implied by the words of emotion.  For example, Elliott writes:

“What is love? I agree with Aquinas, Arnold, and other leading theorists that love is most general an attraction towards an object.  This attraction is the result of seeing a quality in an object that is good, valuable, or desirable. This definition is the only definition which will allow love to function as the root of all other emotions…” (135).

Notice how knowledge of a person is tied in with love of that person.  I may love someone who is hideously ugly because I understand that they had a horrible accident or because they are extremely kind or because they are a close friend or relative.

Thus, when Jesus commands us to love—“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31 ESV)—he is using an emotion word, love, but he is not focused on commanding an emotional state (141).  Elliott writes:

“Emotions tell us the truth about what we believe and what we value. When the NT commands emotion it is exhorting the believer to have the values and beliefs out of which godly emotions flow.” (143).

The idea here is that in loving a person we are to treat them as worthy of love and as members of the family of faith.  This is not a warm and fuzzy kind of emotional state.

Clearly, there are a lot of details to go over in Elliott’s exhaustive inventory of emotions in the NT.  Elliott summarizes writing:  “Emotions are a faithful reflection of what we believe and value.” (264).

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 first 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.

QuestionHow do you feel about this cognitive theory of emotion? Do you think that emotions and intellect really inform each other? How does this inform your attitude about theology?

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