In chapter six of The Love of God, Peckham explores “The Emotional Aspect of God’s Love.” God’s love is more than emotion and includes the qualities of volition and evaluation (as developed in previous chapters), but the emotional aspect of divine love uniquely reflects its passion and intensity. Peckham argues that “God’s love for humans is ardent and profoundly emotional” (p. 187). He further elaborates on the range of divine emotions reflected in the biblical portrayal of God, “Scripture presents God as affectionate and loving, devotedly interested and intimately concerned about humans, affected by the world in feeling joy and delight in goodness, yet sorrow, passion and intense anger at evil, alongside profound compassion and the desire to redeem humans” (p. 189).
This aspect of divine emotionality raises the question of whether God can be affected by the actions of humans. Because of the intensely emotional nature of divine love as portrayed in Scripture, Peckham rejects a view of God’s immutability that incorporates belief in his impassibility, the idea that God is not emotionally affected by the world or that he cannot be affected by anything outside himself. Peckham instead argues that God’s love is passible in the sense that “God is intensely interested in and affected by humans, and may be pleased or displeased by their response to him such that the quality of his life is affected by the state of affairs in the world” (p. 187). At the same time, Peckham acknowledges the very real differences that exist between divine and human emotions.
The Biblical Portrayal of Divine Emotionality
Peckham’s presentation of the biblical portrayal of divine love is both exegetical and devotional. He begins by exploring the most prominent terms for love in the OT and NT—the word groups for ’ahav and agapao respectively. Both terms denote a type of love that is “affectionate, passionate, warm, compassionately concerned with and interested in its object(s); love in the sense of high regard, value and appreciation for its object(s); and love that includes enjoyment pleasure and fondness” (cf. Col 3:9; 1 Thess 2:7; 1 Pet 1:22; 4:8) (p. 149). Jesus had a deep love for his followers (John 13:1) and even for the rich young man who would make the choice not to follow him (Mk 10:21). God takes genuine joy in his people (Zeph 3:7), and familial images of various types particularly reflect the emotionality of divine love. The Lord loves Israel as his bride (Isa 62:4; Jer 2:2-3; 16, 23; Hos 1-3) and has adopted Israel as his son (Hos 11:1-4). God’s compassion even exceeds that of a nursing mother for her newborn child (Isa 49:15). The Hebrew word for compassion (racham) is etymologically related to the noun for “womb” and thus likely reflects “a womb-like mother love.”
God does not merely will to love volitionally; he loves with “an emotion that is stirred and roused, responsive to the actual state of affairs” (p. 151). One of the primary NT terms for compassion (splagnizomai) belongs to a word group referring to the inward parts of the body as the seat of emotion and thus depicts compassion as a visceral emotion and a “gut response.” Jesus often reflected this type of compassion as he encountered people in need (cf. Mt. 9:36; 14:14; Mk 1:41; 6:34). The “yearning” of God’s heart (Jer 31:20; Is 63:5) in the OT reflects the churning of internal organs as God is touched by the pain and grief of his people. All of this language conveys “profoundly passible and intense emotionality” (p. 153).
God’s emotional love is particularly reflected in those times when he relents from sending judgment because of the entreaties of his people for grace and mercy. The Lord is moved to pity even at the plight of his rebellious people. The revelation that Yahweh is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger” so that he shows mercy and forgives iniquity (Exod 34:6-7) is foundational to the OT portrayal of God. The Lord continues to “bestow compassion beyond all reasonable expectations” throughout Israel’s history when they betray him and turn to other gods (cf. Judg 10:13; 1 Sam 8:8; 1 Kgs 11:33; 2 Kgs 22:17; Neh 9:7-33). The Lord relents from judgment when humans cry out to him for grace and mercy (cf. Exod 32:9-14; 1 Kgs 21:25-29; Amos 7:1-6; Jon 3:6-10). At the same time, God is not obligated or compelled to show mercy and he may not relent from sending judgment, and he may also withdraw his mercy when humans persistently rebel against him (Jer 16;5; Hos 9:15). The Lord’s “lovingkindness” toward Israel was unconditional in terms of his enduring commitment to the relationship, but conditional in that the blessings and benefits of that lovingkindness were for those who reciprocated with love and loyalty toward the Lord (Deut 7:9; Matt 18:27-35; Rom 11:22). God does everything that he can to avoid the outcome of judgment and destruction, but divine mercy may be forfeited by persistent human rebellion. Jesus lamented over those he desired to save but who were unwilling (Matt 23:37).
God’s compassion is complemented by his passion. God’s jealousy (qana’) in the OT conveys a passionate love and concern for his people and name (cf. Deut 4:24, 31; 5:9; 6:15) without the negative connotations associated with human jealousy. God is provoked to jealousy by Israel’s unfaithfulness (Deut 32:3`; Ps 78:58) and is often portrayed as a scorned husband (Isa 62:4; Jer 2:2; 3:1-12), but this aspect of divine emotionality reflects his protectiveness of the exclusive covenantal relationship he has with his people. God is not jealous in a manipulative, controlling, or envious way but in a manner that reflects the depth of his passionate love for Israel and his desire to protect his people from the consequences of their sinful choices.
God’s love manifests itself in both positive and negative emotions, but these negative emotions are never arbitrary or unmotivated. They always come in response to sin and evil, and God’s wrath is so terrifying because it is the divine response to the rejection of his powerful love. Even when humans sin, God is constantly pulled toward forgiveness and mercy. God is also deeply pained by human sin (Gen 6:6), because he can see the terrible consequences that will follow.
The Issue of Passibility Versus Impassibility
In light of the biblical data, Peckham concludes that maintaining divine impassibility and supposing God’s impassible passion and/or feelings fails to do justice to the many biblical passages in which God experiences responsive emotions. There are simply too many passages like Hosea 11:8-9 that “use passionate, gut-wrenching language” to depict God’s intense emotions, and this pervasive canonical witness argues against imposing an ontological presupposition of God’s impassibility onto the text that leads to reinterpretation of the biblical data (pp. 161-62). Impassibility is particularly difficult to maintain in light of texts that place God’s emotionality within the contexts of give-and-take-relationships where God reacts to unfolding events and human responses to his various initiatives. Based on his analogical understanding of language about God, Pekcham concludes that God’s emotions are real but not identical to human emotions. Nevertheless, there must be similarity for this language about God to have any real meaning. Because of his canonical approach, Peckham particularly seeks to establish a view of divine emotionality that prioritizes and is consistent with the canonical depiction of God. This approach recognizes anthropomorphism in the biblical portrayal of God, but also insists that divine emotionality should not be viewed merely as metaphorical language unless there are canonically derived reasons for doing so.
While rejecting the idea of impassibility, Peckham sees validity in the qualified impassibilist attempts to maintain divine transcendence and the ontological invulnerability of God to the effects of his creatures. God’s passibility is voluntary. God’s emotions may genuinely be affected by the free choices of his creatures and he may feel emotions in response to the free actions of his creatures that he does not causally determine, but God is not involuntarily invulnerable to these effects. God experiences emotions differently from humans because his experience of emotions is “entirely flawless” (p. 180). He is never overwhelmed by his emotions or manipulated by others because of some form of emotional codependency. God has freely opened himself to being affected by his creatures. While God maintains the sovereign freedom to remove himself from this arrangement, he also elects to remain constantly committed to it as an expression of his faithfulness (p. 181). In concluding the chapter, Peckham summarizes: “While none can overpower God, he is affected by worldly events because he has willingly opened himself up to reciprocal love relationship with creatures (p. 189). God loves in highly emotive ways but not in ways that are beyond his divine control.
Image: "The Return of the Prodigal" By Michel Martin Drolling - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19222829