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Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Matthew A. Elliott

This interdisciplinary, widely researched study reclaims the vital importance of the emotions emphasized both in the lives and teaching of Jesus and Paul, as well as in the writings of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and others.

Author: Matthew A. Elliott
Publisher: Kregel Academic & Professional
1 review about Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in...

Emotions: Windows to the Soul

  • Jul 16, 2009
Created in the image of our passionate and compassionate God who experiences deep joy and profound sadness, we are emotional beings who experience life deeply and internally. God created us to feel. God loves emotions. Jesus wept, and so do we. The Spirit grieves, as we do. The Father rejoices, as do we. We have the emotional capacity to respond to our outer world based upon our inner actions, choices, goals, beliefs, images, longings, and desires.

However, the Christian world sometimes makes emotions "the black sheep of the image bearing family." Some people view emotions as primarily negative, typically unreliable, and best when ignored or "controlled." Pastors and counselors at times pit feelings against beliefs by viewing emotions as "irrational passions."

Because of our often faulty views of emotions, New Testament scholar Matthew Elliott wrote Faithful Feelings to challenge us to rethink emotions biblically. Elliott seeks to determine how emotions were perceived by the writers of the New Testament, and what role they thought emotions should play in the life of the believer. His purpose is to explore the importance of emotions to our faith.

What Is Emotion?

Elliott begins with the basic question, "What is emotion?" The answer is not as simple as one might imagine. In chapter one, Elliott presents a rather technical debate between those who view emotions as non-cognitive and those who view emotions as cognitive.

The theory of non-cognitive emotions states that an emotion is an impression internally experienced but not caused by a cognitive process. Emotions, in this view, are separate from the intellect.

Elliott supports the cognitive theory of emotions and frequently refers to emotions as "cognitive-emotions." In this view, emotions are inseparably linked to cognition. Simply put, emotion requires cognition.

The difference, for Elliott, is huge. "If emotions are merely physiological impulses, they can be ignored, controlled, or trivialized, while, if they have as their essential element thinking and judgment, they are an essential part of almost everything that we think and do" (p. 31). Therefore, we ought to be able to develop our emotional capacities so that we respond naturally and spontaneously with the emotions which are appropriate to our various situations.

What then, is a cognitive-emotion? Emotions are the felt tendency toward an object judged suitable, or away from an object judged unsuitable (pp. 31-32). The key for Elliott is that we must link emotion to evaluation. His main thesis is clear: the contrast that some habitually draw between reason and emotion is false. "Emotions are not primitive impulses to be controlled or ignored, but cognitive judgments or constructs that tell us about ourselves and our world" (p. 54). Emotions are based upon belief and values.

What View of Emotions Do We Find in Scripture?

Having described emotions as cognitive-emotions, Elliott's next task is to determine whether the writers of the New Testament separated emotion and reason or whether they saw them as a unified whole. To accomplish this goal he provides background to the New Testament era. He first discusses the Hellenistic view of emotion (chapter two), and then he examines emotion in Jewish culture, including the Old Testament (chapter three).

Elliott makes many vital points. His interpretation of anger in Cain and Jonah is excellent. "Instead of just prohibiting it, God questions the cognitive basis for the anger" (p. 96).

His work on sorrow, lament, and grief is quite helpful. He shows that it is right and proper to feel sorrow over trouble and death. He demonstrates how the Old Testament encouraged the grieving to express their emotions. His discussion of the process of grieving in the lament Psalms is very instructive.

Elliott also strikes a biblical "balance" in his presentation of God as an emotional being. "To postulate a God without passion is to take the heart out of Jewish worship. . . . We have often been told that God's emotions were `anthropomorphisms,' described like those of humans. In reality, human emotions are in the image of God himself" (p. 111).

The Point of the Matter

Elliott addresses a legitimate concern when he notes that some people make words like love and hope non-emotional theological terms. They rob these terms of all emotional elements. Elliott returns his readers to a more biblical understanding of these terms as cognitive emotions.

Elliott also addresses a legitimate concern that some people put emotion and intellect in tension. He is driven to bring them together. "Emotions are a faithful reflection of what we believe and value. The Bible does not treat them as forces to be controlled or channeled toward the right things, but as an integral part of who we are as people created in God's image" (p. 264).

While Faithful Feelings is more theoretical in nature than practical, Elliott adeptly summarizes the foundational application of his view. ". . . because emotions are cognitive, people can be held responsible for having particular emotions." ". . . it is possible to educate the emotions and there are many methods that can be used to change harmful emotions or produce healthy emotions" (p. 142).

Elliott's cognitive view of emotions provides a solid foundation for understanding who we are and how we relate. It offers a more hopeful view of emotions than is typically present in some Evangelical Christian circles. It provides an integrated view of our beliefs and emotions that can lead to a greater level of emotional intelligence and spiritual maturity.

Perhaps most importantly, Elliott puts passion back into our souls--the passion God originally designed to be there as we relate to one another and to God. He demonstrates from Scripture that God fashioned us not to relate as soulless drones, but as soulful image bearers. Our walk with God is not one of emotionless duty stripped of all affection, but one of joyful love infused with longing.

Reviewed By: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., author of Soul Physicians, Spiritual Friends, Beyond the Suffering, and Sacred Friendships.

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