Saturday, December 14, 2013

How Does That Make You Feel?

Confession: I like reading philosophy. I say this by way of confession because there’s been a lot of philosophy through the years, secular and Christian, that’s left me feeling dirty intellectually and theologically. Many writers have made greater commitments to their own reasoning over against historical and (more importantly) biblical orthodoxy. This makes me feel icky.

K. Scott Oliphint is different. He’s not the only one, but reading Dr. Oliphint leaves me feeling like I am better equipped to obey that specific part of the greatest commandment than I was before I read him: “You shall love the Lord your God with all...your mind” (Matthew 22:37//Mark 12:30//Luke 10:27). Dr. Oliphint’s philosophy is pleasantly accessible (without avoiding the deep stuff) and even doxological. I’m re-reading God with Us this Advent season and thoroughly enjoying it.

Like I said, I like reading philosophy. But I’m bad at doing it. I am neither a philosopher nor the son of a philosopher, and am incapable of going past a pedestrian discussion of the weather with a philosopher. But as I’ve been re-reading God with Us this afternoon (and nursing a persistently annoying head cold with Echinacea tea), I was reminded of a theory I once jotted down on paper but never submitted to the imitation eternity that is the blogosphere (wow...the spell-checker recognized “blogosphere” as a real word...sigh).

What jogged my memory was Dr. Oliphint’s discussion of God’s immensity, immutability, and impassibility (which occurs back-to-back on pgs. 79-88). When I say this his words “jogged my memory,” it does not mean that anything I am about to say is an echo of his words or would be endorsed by him (or any other real philosopher) in any way. Disclaimer sufficiently made.

I affirm God’s immutability and impassibility whole-heartedly. I have read some objections to this classic doctrine, but have still returned to the ancient confessions of these doctrines. God is unchangeable and is not impassioned (in the sense that He reacts to events with emotions).

A few years ago I was reading the account of the Flood and paused at the recording of God’s “feelings” at that moment: “And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart (Genesis 6:6). God does not literally have a “heart” (neither do we, at least according to the common way we refer to it), but this figure of speech (anthropomorphism and even anthropopathism) adequately and powerfully conveys God’s attitude toward what was going on in the world at the time: “...the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5).

We read this and automatically interact with the facts based on our experience of things: something happens, and we react emotionally to the occurrence of that something. Is this what’s happening here with God? Did God wake up one day, look down, see the wickedness of humanity, and change moods in response to this wickedness? If so, God is not impassible.

What occurred to me a few years ago was that God’s “emotions,” as revealed in Scripture, need to be considered not in the context of an “emotional life” of God (which, in this understanding, is analogous to our own “emotional life”), but as a function of revelation.

God is always, unchangeably grieved and wrathful towards wickedness. This attribute of God is not dependent on His being exposed to wickedness. It isn’t that the day before God “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” all was well in the “emotional life” of God, but the day He “saw” everything changed in His divine “mood.” It’s that God is always grieved and wrathful against wickedness, and when it arose to a certain level in the civilization of humanity, God revealed this attribute of Himself through the subsequent events of His interaction with Noah, the Flood, and through the scriptural revelation of all this in the words of Moses we have recorded in Genesis. God’s mood didn’t change; He revealed an unchanging attribute of Himself at a specific time (and at a specific point in Scripture). He did not become; He revealed.

I believe the analogy for God’s “emotional life” is not in our own experience of feelings, but in God’s omnipresence (or, as Dr. Oliphint discusses it, God’s immensity or immeasurability). God is not limited by space or confined in it in any way. Dr. Oliphint mentions the following verses for this doctrine: Psalm 139:7-12; Jeremiah 23:23-24; Acts 17:28 (pg. 81, footnote 74.). While God is not limited by definite space as we are, He nonetheless allows His Presence to be revealed covenantally in specific places: the Garden of Eden, the Tabernacle, the Temple, the new covenant Church. For God to be “enthroned upon the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 13:6//Isaiah 37:16; Psalm 80:1; 99:1) does not in any way mean that God solely existed above the images of the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon actually even confesses that any limiting of the Presence of God is crazy (1 Kings 8:27//2 Chronicles 6:18). This would be as foolish as the reasoning of Aaron before idolatrous Israel on the day of the golden calf (Exodus 32:4). For God to be specially manifested in a certain place in the midst of His covenant people did not mean that He was limited to that place, but that He gracefully revealed His Presence to His covenant people within the bounds of that covenant.

I’d like to propose that His “emotions” are the same way. The “feelings” we see Him manifesting at certain points in Scripture are actually His constant, unchanging attributes revealed at a certain point to describe His covenant relationship, either with unsaved humanity (under the curse of the violated covenant of works) or saved humanity (under the blessings of the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ). He manifests His attributes as a function of revelation, not as a result of passion.

Well, I’d better stop before I hurt myself or cause Dr. Oliphint to somewhere break out in a cold sweat because his name’s been mentioned in the context of the philosophical ramblings of a non-philosopher.

God’s “emotion” is a function of revelation, not mutability or passibility.

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