Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Aquinas’

Being emotional is part of what it means to be made in God’s image

May 8, 2014

A month ago, I wrote that the doctrine of God’s immutability (“God doesn’t change”) shouldn’t be construed to mean that God doesn’t feel or experience emotion. In the Bible he certainly does! Because God freely chooses to be in relationship with his Creation, he allows himself to be affected by that Creation—he takes pleasure in us; he suffers because of us. Because God is unchanging in his being, character, purposes, and promises, however, God is never capricious or moody.

Granted, we could say that every time the Bible depicts God’s experiencing an emotion, the Bible writers are resorting to anthropomorphism—making God seem more human than he really is—because in our finitude we’re unable to experience him in any other way. But that fails to make sense of a great deal of scripture. As Roger Olson said, “The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.”

Historically, Protestants, who believe that scripture is our primary authority guiding faith and practice, never defended this extreme version of immutability (“God doesn’t change to the extent that he also doesn’t feel”), which comes to us by way of Thomas Aquinas. (Do Catholics believe this?) Unlike Aquinas, we don’t believe that experiencing emotion represents any kind of imperfection. On the contrary, emotions are good and indispensable even to sinful human beings, who often fail to control them or direct them to good ends. Needless to say, we’re not God.

I’m only bringing this up again because Jason Micheli, a popular blogger and fellow United Methodist pastor (in another conference), has a series of blog posts in which he’s arguing, by way of this extreme version of God’s immutability, that sin can only be a problem on the human side, not on God’s side. He writes:

Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else into this punitive ogre, this satan.

Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it does not matter at all to God.

In a fairly literal sense, he doesn’t give a damn about our sin.

It is we who give damns.

Sin does not matter at all to God. How many chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, must we tear out of our Bibles if that’s true?

In a sermon he preached to confirmands(!) about the Lord’s Prayer, my colleague goes on to say that we project the guilt of our sin onto God such that we turn God (I kid you not) into Satan, a wrathful accuser bent on our destruction. Jesus, by contrast, teaches us not to project our guilty consciences onto God when he says, “Deliver us from the evil one.”

See, it’s all right there in the red-letter words of Jesus! What, you don’t see it?

Regardless, Micheli would say that God’s “forgiveness” (scare quotes are deliberate, since this “forgiveness” bears no relationship to actual forgiveness) is merely this: We remember again that God doesn’t condemn us for our sin. God is love, which can only mean that God never “gives a damn” about sin.

So God is just fine with us whether we sin or not. How could he not be? If God were sorry that we’re sinners bound for hell then that would imply that God feels something for us.

I find the whole discussion bizarre.

I suppose the idea helps protect us from guilty consciences, but who needs that much protection? Guilty consciences are often good and necessary things! Speaking as someone who has sinned really badly in my life, I take no comfort in any god who could look at what I’ve done and be O.K. with it.

But it’s not just me and my personal sins, which are bad enough. What about sin on a global scale? God isn’t bothered by that? I’m reminded of something that Miroslav Volf said about pacifism rooted in the idea that God never punishes or judges sin:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.[†]

Read this nice post (“Does God Change?”) from Roger Olson if you want to know more about my understanding of immutability. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with something that evangelical theologian Bruce Ware said in an essay on the subject, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I underline the part that means the most to me:

The abundance of Scriptural evidence of God’s expression of emotion and a more positive understanding of their nature lead to the conclusion that the true and living God is, among other things, a genuinely emotional being. Heschel suggests that instead of thinking of the emotions ascribed to God as anthropomorphic, we should rather consider our human experience as theomorphic, as part of what it is to be created by God in his image.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

Christmas needs the cross, part 2

December 19, 2013

In a current series of posts entitled “Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross,” United Methodist pastor, blogger, and author Jason Micheli writes the following (sorry—the man likes carriage returns):

Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all.

More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

As I said in yesterday’s lengthy post, I responded to his words above with the following:

Saying that Jesus “came to die” is an inelegant, un-nuanced way of expressing the truth that Jesus did, in fact, come to rescue us from our sin and reconcile us to God.

Yesterday, I began laying out why I disagree with Micheli (and why I find his overall tone—that any half-wit can see that he’s right and nearly everyone else is wrong—obnoxious, to say the least).

I felt slightly intimidated, however, because he says (without citing any sources) that he’s not saying anything that classic Christian thinkers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus didn’t also say.

But of those thinkers, I’ve only read a little of Aquinas, so what do I know, right?

I thought, “Am I missing something?” Has my seminary education once again let me down? At Emory—which is hardly Bob Jones University, after all—we were never taught, for example, that God sent his Son for some reason other than to save us. “For us and for our salvation,” the Nicene Creed says, “he came down from heaven.” And this view certainly corresponds to Wesleyan thinking on the subject.

But to appreciate my insecurity, you must understand something about me: over the past five years, I have experienced nothing less than an evangelical reawakening. I have fallen in love with the Bible again. I believe in its infallibility. I believe that the Bible is sufficient to inform our thinking about God, humanity’s relationship with God, and Christian faith.

To put things in perspective, there was a time when I thought (to my great shame) that C.S. Lewis—C.S. Lewis!—wasn’t a sophisticated enough Christian thinker, unlettered as he was in modern theology! Isn’t that hilarious? I was literally sophomoric when I graduated from the Candler School of theology. (“Sophomore” literally means, from Greek roots, “wise fool.”)

By the way, Jason Micheli lost me the moment he prefaced a quotation of C.S. Lewis by saying, “I hate pastors who quote C.S. Lewis but…”

So here I am, trying to understand what the Bible says, believing that the Bible alone ought to inform our understanding of the incarnation. After all, the Bible already has much to say about it without resorting to philosophical ideas outside of the Bible.

In his defense, Micheli says he’s doing speculative theology, that he’s only speculating on ideas about which the Bible is silent but which are nevertheless philosophically necessary—as any trained chimpanzee could surely see, he might add.

In principle, speculative theology that’s unopposed to biblical theology is O.K., so long as our speculations don’t become dogmatized (as with the Marian dogmas or transubstantiation in Roman Catholic theology). But as I’ve tried to argue, Micheli’s argument comes into conflict with what the Bible actually says.

He says, for instance, that God can’t truly love us unless or until God becomes incarnate in Christ. I am always very reluctant, even in theological discourse, to say what God can and can’t do. I’ll let God speak for himself, which in this case I believe he has—in scripture! John 3:16, for example, certainly contradicts Micheli’s idea: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” Because God already loved the world, he sent his Son. The incarnation was a consequence of God’s prior love. Not to mention that God loved his people Israel in the Old Testament, as the Bible says in a thousand different ways.

Micheli also says, for instance, that it’s incorrect to say that God became incarnate to save us from sin. But against this idea, I read verses like Matthew 20:28: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. Or Galatians 4:4-5: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” God sent his Son to redeem. Or Hebrews 2:14: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” He partook of flesh and blood that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.

As Jesus turns his face to his impending suffering and death on the cross, he says, in John 12:27, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” In the context of John’s gospel, Jesus’ “hour” is his being lifted up on the cross. For this purpose I have come to this hour—to die on the cross. 

In the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, Paul connects the birth and incarnation (“having been found in human form”) directly to the cross (“he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross.”)

But this is just me citing scripture. I’m no Duns Scotus, after all. So I consulted United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity, which synthesizes the Bible and the the thinking of the Church Fathers. In his the section of his book entitled “The Necessity of the Incarnation,” Oden writes[†]: “Scripture states the point starkly: he came to die (Athanasius, Four Discourses Ag. Arians, 3:58). The relationship between his birth and death can be stated schematically,” and he includes the following schematic (click to expand):



All that to say, I hope, that it is no theological mistake to say that the main reason God became incarnate was to save us from sin. To say that the meaning of Christmas is found in the cross. Or, indeed, even to say that Jesus was born to die.

Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 272.