Folks, I am pleased to introduce you to my friend, Dr. F. Scott Spencer, NT scholar and author of the new book, THE PASSIONS OF THE CHRIST: THE EMOTIONAL LIFE OF JESUS. Spencer presents this new blog series as a way to introduce to you some of the key issues and ideas involved in his work on Jesus and emotions. Spencer is a great scholar, and an even better writer. Enjoy!
F. Scott Spencer
I confess that the lead title of my new book, Passions of the Christ, plays on Mel Gibson’s infamous movie to create a little buzz, and I devote a chapter to probing Jesus’s final hours of agonizing prayer at Gethsemane and excruciating death at Golgotha. But my focus in these “Passion” scenes and elsewhere in the Gospels falls on Jesus’s Emotional Life (subtitle), the range of passions Jesus experiences as he carries out his messianic mission.
Yet clarifying that this book investigates Jesus’s emotions immediately triggers some critical questions. We will talk about (3) big questions in this series. Here is number (1):
Is It Possible that God and Christ Are “Passible”?
Traditionally the God of the Bible has been thought to be “impassible”—not subject to vulgar passions, not moved by volatile feelings, like the testy (and horny) gods of Greek mythology and like faulty and fickle human beings. Of course God loves, in fact is Love. But divine love is often quickly qualified as pure and perfect, on a totally different plane from our capricious loves. Likewise, God’s anger is always righteous, unlike our kneejerk outbursts. Moreover, all of God’s apparent “passions” remain firmly under God’s control. In short, God affects earthly creatures and events but is not affected by them.
As the unique God-Man who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), Jesus melds the full “natures” of God and humanity into one person. What does this mean for Jesus’s experience of emotion? Many Christians presume that his cool, calm, collected God-ness keeps his impulsive emotional humanity in check, sort of like Commander Spock’s Vulcan equanimity (usually) constrains his human emotionality.
But in the wake of two twentieth-century world wars wreaking unprecedented hell on earth, Christian theology engaged the matter of God’s and Christ’s passions anew. Where are God and Christ amid such body-and-soul-crushing events? Don’t the core biblical themes of creation and incarnation stress that God and God-in-Christ are truly in our messy world with us struggling creatures in deep sympathy, gut-level compassion? The hands-in-the earth God (Gen 2:7–9) plunges into the creational process, moves with creation, and is moved by it. Early on God becomes “sorry” about getting into this whole world-making business because of humanity’s obsession with violence (Gen 6:5–6, 11–12). But God opts to see the creational project through to restoration, to feel God’s way, as it were, in and through it all.
The Hebrew prophets voiced God’s intense, impassioned responses to various crises engulfing Israel, as the Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel echoed in his magisterial two-volume work, The Prophets. Jeremiah in particular “convulsed with the divine pathos” reflecting “the dramatic tension in the inner life of God.”
Likewise, the NT Gospels vividly attest to Jesus’s embodiment of the “passion of the passionate God,” as the theologian Jürgen Moltmann unpacks in his landmark work, The Crucified God. Though the Gospels provide no psychological profile of Jesus or theory of his “two natures,” they show and tell the dynamic story of the God-man speaking, acting, responding—feeling his way through the broken world which finally breaks him on the cross. To gloss over the passions of the incarnate Christ is to sanitize his humanity beyond reasonable belief. A dispassionate Jesus is simply not believable.
Nijay: Stay tunes for Question (2) coming in the next post: “Is It ‘Reasonable’ to be Emotional?”
Oh, and check out Spencer’s new book while you wait