What Happened to God's Emotions?

June 01, 2009

What Happened to God's Emotions?

This essay is about the meeting of two histories—one, the history of apologetics as an enterprise, and two, the history of ideas of divine emotion. We would like to suggest here that one of the first, and least fortunate, outcomes of the apologetic enterprise was the redefinition of Western Christianity’s view of God, namely his capacity for emotion. In a special issue devoted to apologetics, we hope this will be something of a humble warning to the apologist to beware of what we might call apologetic transposition.

The danger of transposition lies in the translational dynamic of apologetics. In ‘giving a reason’, the apologist seeks to make the Christian faith: (1) at least intelligible; (2) hopefully intellectually plausible; and (3), if possible, compelling, attractive, or persuasive. Because we seek to do so in a cultural and intellectual milieu largely hostile to the claims of the Christian faith, apologists and Christians through history have sought to relate their claims in the language of their surrounding culture. This is inevitable and, for the most part, positive. But is such translation always a one-way process? Or can it in some way feed back into—and even reconstitute—the message being translated? Can translation—to use a musical metaphor—sometimes mean transposition into a different key? By emphasising certain notes, by avoiding sharps for flats, or by finding new voicings, do we in fact shift the key from minor to major, or from major to minor?

This essay will explore one crucial example of apologetic transposition: that of the Hellenization of God in the second century. For clarity, we can frame our question thus: how did we get from point A to point B? Point A is the Biblical view of divine emotion; point B is the doctrine of God’s impassibility, an idea that enters Christian theology in the second century.

When we look at point A, we see a God who loves with a jealous love— who though slow to anger, can be provoked to wrath (see for example, Exodus 34:6-7, 14 and Hosea 11:1-11). We see in the person of Jesus Christ the grace, compassion and love of Jahweh revealed in the flesh. We see him deeply moved with anger, pity, and grief (see for example Jesus in Gethsemane, in Mark 14:33-34, or his response to the death  of Lazarus and the grief of his family in John 11:33-38). It is striking that the New Testament several times ascribes to Jesus the verb splangnizesthai—to be moved with compassion, or literally, to be moved ‘in the bowels’ with compassion (see for example, Matthew 9:36, or Mark 8:2). In the New Testament we find apostles who love tenderly and tearfully (see Philippians 1:8, 1 Thessalonians 2:18-39 and 2 Corinthians 1:23 – 2:11). And Paul made it clear, such emotional engagement was not just for him, but for his churches too. They were to become ‘imitators of God as dearly loved children and walk in love’ (Ephesians 5:1) and were to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep’ (Romans 12:15). Divine emotion, then, is no mere projection of human emotion; rather human emotion is to conform and respond to divine emotion.

By contrast, at Point B, the end of the second century, we see the entrance of a new language and a new concept into Christian theology. This is the language of ‘impassibilty’—or in Greek, ‘apatheia’. We mention the Greek for two reasons. First, impassibility was a Greek concept that drew on Greek philosophy—Plato and Platonism, the ethical framework of the Stoics, and even Aristotle’s vision of the divine ‘unmoved mover’. But the other reason to use Greek is that the way the word is formed is instructive. The initial ‘a’ in apatheia is privative—that is, it means there is ‘none’ of what follows the ‘a’. As Richard Bauckham explains, ‘Pathos, which the divine apatheia excludes, means both “suffering”, in our sense of pain or calamity, and also “passion”, in the sense of emotion, whether pleasurable or painful. The connecting thought is passivity’.1 Apatheia and its related adjective apathes refer then to God’s immovability, his impassibility, his freedom from emotion. Somewhere, then, between the time of the apostles and the end of the second century, the Christian God became described as apathes—a concept foreign to the scriptures.

How did this happen? A major part of the answer, we would suggest, can be found in the work of Christianity’s earliest apologists to the Roman world. In defending the Christian faith to a Hellenized (i.e. a Greek-influenced) culture, the second-century apologists arguably opened the way for a Hellenization of our understanding of God. Perhaps surprisingly, given today’s apologetic context, the charges to which these early apologists responded were the opposite of those levelled at Christians today: Christians then were charged with ‘atheism’ and sexual immorality. Thus, their apologetic strategy was to compare the character of the one true God, whom Christians imitate, to the character of the promiscuous and irrational gods of the Greeks and Romans, whom, presumably, their followers were to imitate. Their gods were irrational and intemperate; the Christian God represented logos and reason. Another aspect to the strategy was, of course, the translation of Christian ideas into Greek terms that would appeal to their Roman hearers. Here the apologists, to their credit, did not retreat in fear from ‘pagan philosophy’ or resort to intellectual isolationism.

Instead they critically mined the world of Greek philosophy, seeking to take the best for their own and to use it to bear a wider witness to Christ. Yet in doing so, they may have opened the way for Greek philosophy to colonise Christianity.

To shed some light on how God was stripped of emotion, we will consider three of history’s earliest and most important apologists: Justin (the) Martyr who first uses impassibility in a sense designed to rule out emotion, Athenagoras who goes further than Justin, and Clement of Alexandria who elaborates impassibility into a fully formed theological system.

Justin Martyr

As ‘the first ecclesiastical writer who attempts to build a bridge between Christianity and pagan philosophy’ and the ‘most important of the Greek apologists of the second century’, Justin Martyr occupies a significant place in the history of Christian thought.2 His famous first ‘apology’ was intended to appeal to the philosophical values of the Emperor and his court, in order to win his protection from what he saw as malicious and irrational persecution.

In developing his arguments, he relies on a series of contrasts: between rationality and passion, between the Christian God and the false gods, and between believers and the accusers. Justin suggests that the irrationality of the accusations against Christians is reflected in the nature of the accusers’ religious practice—practices which were tolerated and even patronized by the Emperor and his minions. The authorities stood by and allowed the worship of lifeless gods, who defile women and children and maintain their sway over people by terrorizing them and intimidating them out of making intelligent decisions about the reality of such gods (Apol. 1.5). On the other hand, Christians worship the one true God, and his Son, who came from him, ‘giving honor in reason and truth’. Their God is insulted by the irrational worship of idols (Apol. 1.9; cf.  12).3

According to Justin, everyone is agreed that it is ‘an honorable thing to imitate the gods’, a conviction reflected in the presence of the Homeric legends on school reading lists. Yet what will people learn from their superstitious myths? Zeus, a parricide and son of a parricide, is overwhelmed by ‘the love of evil and shameful pleasures’, seducing many women. His sons followed suit (Apol. 1.21). The contrast with the Christian God—nobody’s son, and never subject to passion—could not be starker. ‘We have dedicated ourselves’, declares Justin, ‘to the unbegotten and impassible (apathes) God’. 

Justin’s description here of God as apathes constitutes the first application of this language to God with clear reference to emotions, rather than suffering, in extant Christian literature. (Ignatius earlier referred to God’s impassibility in the sense of his no longer being able suffer after Christ’s suffering, which was followed by his glorification.4) There are tensions in Justin’s thought, however.

Although he used the term apathes, there is no sign in his writings of a willingness to systematically exclude from God all emotional qualities. That was to come later with Clement. Rather, the main contrast being drawn in Justin’s apologetic is between the Christian God and the erotic and frenzied desire of the Greek and Roman gods. His apologetic strategy opened the way to a new linguistic strategy, however. After Justin, the notion of the apathes God would be elaborated further.


‘Athenagoras of Athens’ is a figure who we know very little about—except that he was reputed to be ‘an Athenian Christian philosopher’.5  His apologetic 

writings, however—especially his essay, ‘Plea on Behalf of the Christians’— represent a significant advance in the incorporation of Greek thought into Christian apologetics. Athenagoras’ plea responded to three specific accusations made against Christians: that of their ‘atheism, Thyestean banquets, and Oedipean unions.’ (Leg. 3.1-2)6 The defence against the charge of atheism takes up most of the plea, and here Athenagoras seeks to prove the superiority of God over the gods of the Homeric legends and Greek philosophy. Along the way he clarifies his understanding of the adjective apathes.

Yet if all they said was that their gods were corporeal and had blood, semen, and the passions of anger and lust even then one would be bound to consider these doctrines laughable nonsense; for in God there is neither anger nor lust and desire nor yet semen for producing offspring. Well then let us suppose that they are corporeal yet superior to wrath and anger, so that Athena will not be ‘incensed with Zeus her father, as fierce anger seized her.’ … For my part I regard even men who yield to anger and grief as ignorant and foolish. (Leg.   21.1-3)

Athenagoras continues, citing examples of Zeus’ grief over his dead son and acts of sexual immorality by the gods. These are prefaced by the adamant conviction that for any god to have a claim to existence, they by definition ‘do not fall in love. They experience no passion. For either they are gods and lust does touch them …’ (Leg. 21.4).

Athenagoras provides an account of divine apatheia that explicitly excludes from God a comprehensive range of emotions, including anger, lust, impulse, erotic love and grief. In critiquing the ‘corporeal’ nature of Homeric gods, however, he is forced into awkward positions regarding the doctrine of the incarnation. And in going beyond previous definitions of apatheia, Athenagoras leaves himself open to the charge that he trades one Greek anthropomorphism for another: God is re-made in the image of the rational human ideal.

Clement of Alexandria

There are a number of reasons why Clement of Alexandria constitutes a momentous turning point in early Christian approaches to emotion. For many centuries, Clement was held in the highest regard. With perhaps a little hyperbole, Harcus claims: ‘In terms of the development of Christian thought the name of Clement of Alexandria may be compared with Paul of Tarsus, Augustine, and others of that stature.

His work marks a pioneer attempt at an orthodox Christian systematic theology’.7 Clement’s genius lay in collecting and synthesising the ideas of others. Being a resident in Alexandria allowed him to mine the intellectual resources of one of the great cultural centres of the ancient world. Clement knew he was being adventurous as a Christian engaging with other philosophies. Indeed, he was in this way a kind of proto-modern maverick apologist, unafraid to look deeply and critically at contemporary non-Christian philosophy. ‘The multitude are frightened at the Hellenic philosophy, as children are at masks’, he remarked. (Strom. 6.10)8 Convinced that ‘philosophy too is in some manner a work of divine providence’, 

Clement borrows freely from ‘the truth- loving Plato’, from the ethics of the Stoics, because they are ‘skilled in such matters’ and ‘fit objects for admiration’ for their doctrine of ‘indifferents’. (Strom.  4.5; 4.18)

As with Justin and Athenagoras before him, God’s apatheia was central to Clement’s polemic against the excesses of Greek anthropomorphism. The projection of human form and passions onto ideas of God is patently ridiculous for Clement:

Now, as the Greeks represent the gods as possessing human forms, so also do they as possessing human passions. And as each of them depict their forms similar to themselves, as Xenophanes says, ‘Ethiopians as black and as apes, the Thracians ruddy and tawny;’ so also they assimilate their souls to those who form them: the Barbarians, for instance, who make them savage and wild; and the Greeks, who make them more civilised, yet subject to passion. (Strom. 7.4)

The gods of Greek legends and pagan religions are the product of ignorant imaginations; they construct their deities from human qualities writ large. For Clement it is just as foolish to ascribe human emotions to God as it is to attribute human body parts to Him. So how does Clement explain the Bible’s use of emotion in describing God?

Clement is aware of statements in the Old Testament which seem to be at odds with claims of God’s freedom from all passions. Yet Clement sees this as God’s gracious accommodation—putting things in terms that us weak humans can understand (here he follows Philo of Alexandria). Where God is portrayed as angry, the ‘divinity is not angry’, but simply adopting a procedure to instil fear in order to show people the right way. (Ecc.1:27-28) ‘The punishment that God imposes’, explains Clement, ‘is due not to anger, but to justice’. (Paed. 1.8 (68))9

If God is impassible then so, too, is Christ, God incarnate. Christ ‘resembles His Father, God, whose Son He is.  He is without sin, without blame, without passion of soul’. Clement underlines his view of Christ’s ‘freedom’ from any kind of passion: ‘He was entirely impassible; inaccessible to any movement of feeling—either pleasure or pain.’ Just how close this comes to challenging the whole Biblical narrative of the incarnation is illustrated in Clement’s explanation of Jesus’ bodily functions:

In the case of the Saviour, it were ludicrous [to suppose] that the body,  as a body, demanded the necessary aids in order to its duration. For He ate, not for the sake of the body, which was kept together by a holy energy, but in order that it might not enter into the minds of those who were with Him to entertain a different opinion of Him; in like manner as certainly some afterwards supposed that He appeared in a phantasmal shape.  (Strom.  6.71.1-2)

Clement’s insistence on impassibility brings him perilously close to a docetic denial of Jesus’ real humanity.

Just as important for Clement’s apologetics was his view of Christian life and ethics. Not only are God and Christ free from emotion, so too the ideal Christian ought to be unfettered from such things. Richard Bauckham has noted that this is the ‘anthropological corollary’ of seeing God as impassible.10 For Clement, Christians ought to be subject only to the affections that exist for the maintenance of the body, such as hunger, thirst and the like. (Strom. 6.71.1) Any passion, apart from those appetites, directly related to physical sustenance, is ruled out. ‘Now the sacrifice which is acceptable to God’, claims Clement, ‘is unswerving abstraction from the body and its passions. This is really true piety’. (Strom. 5.11)  Even virtuous and reasonable emotions are unnecessary: ‘Nor does he need cheerfulness of mind; for he does not fall into pain, being persuaded that all things happen well. Nor is he angry; for there is nothing to move him to anger … etc’. (Strom.  6.71.4)

It is important to see the ethical and apologetic flow-on effects of this view of emotion and impassibility. For example, according to Clement, sexual pleasure is wrong by definition. Even within marriage it is unacceptable, since ‘he who seeks only sexual pleasure turns his marriage into fornication’. (Paed  2.10.99,102) Sex is solely for the production of children. (Strom 3.58.1, 2) Even pleasure in music is dangerous. Christians need to beware of ‘syncopated tunes and plaintive rhythms’, as they are inclined to inflame the passions. (Paed 2.4.41) So Clement urges, ‘let no passionate love songs be permitted there; let our songs be hymns to God’. (Paed 2.4.44)

Here is an interesting insight into the ironies of apologetic strategy. While Clement was fighting an apologetic battle of his own (defending Christians from the charge of sexual immorality), he helped set the condition for the opposite battle in the late 20th century, when Christians would be charged not with sexual immorality, but with sexual prudery. For well-known Sydney journalist and author, David Marr, Christians are to be counted among ‘the enemies of pleasure and freedom’. Marr’s book The High Price of Heaven points to Clement of Alexandria as a decisive moment in the development of ‘the terrible idea that the body is the enemy of the soul’.11


The apologetic work of Justin, Athenagoras and Clement did not simply remain in the realm of  ‘apologetics’—  as though it were distinct from other discourse. Rather, it fed back into the formation of Christian theology itself. The unbiblical notion of God’s impassibility was to leaven Christian thinking and practice for centuries. As Bauckham notes, divine impassibility was ‘virtually accepted as axiomatic in Christian theology from the early Greek Fathers until the Nineteenth Century’.12 The question of apologetic transposition, therefore, leads us to the heart of the relationship between apologetics and theology.

To conclude this discussion, it seems fitting to consider some comments made by Swiss theologian Karl Barth on the work of apologetics. While Barth’s criticisms are directed particularly at

his German predecessor Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the founder of modern apologetics, they may be taken as warnings to apologists of all ages—whether of the second century, the 18th, or the 21st. (For more on Schleiermacher see David Hohne’s essay in this issue of Case).

Barth asks some probing questions of the motivations of the apologist.

Friedrich Schleiermacher wanted two things, according to Barth: he wanted ‘to be a Christian theologian, and … wanted, come what may, to be  a thinking man of his time’.13 He was determined to show it was possible to be both at once—that it was false to equate ‘Christianity with barbarism  and unbelief with learning’.14 These two desires compelled him to become an apologist. Yet over time Schleiermacher’s role as apologist began to sit awkwardly with his role as theologian. Taking up the role of apologist meant, according to Barth, ‘a certain relaxation of, and indeed detachment from, the essential theological task of interpreting and proclaiming Christianity’.15

Can you be at once an apologist like Schleiermacher and a responsible theologian? Barth would seem to say ‘nein’. Later he put it more strongly: ‘as long as he is an apologist the theologian must renounce  the theological function’.16 This is because of the translational nature of apologetics–the dynamic with which we are concerned in this essay. The apologist assumes he knows a given audience and then proceeds to translate Christian theology into terms acceptable for them. The audience’s categories (real or imagined) thus become authoritative. In his concern to deal with people ‘of a certain intellectual make-up and tendency’, says Barth, Schleiermacher ‘systematically removes … each and every stumbling- block’ to the faith. Thus ‘Christianity is interpreted in such a way that it acquires room … in the kind of thinking which is assumed to be authoritative … without causing any friction’.17 Acquiring room without friction, as Barth puts it, means Christianity is re-presented within another, alien framework. For Justin, Athenagoras and Clement, the authoritative framework was Greek rationality. For Schleiermacher it was the kind of thinking held by late 18th century ‘cultivated’ Europeans. If so, what are the hidden frameworks we in the 21st century have already accepted as authoritative?

Even more pointed are Barth’s comments on the relation of the apologist himself to the Christian faith. In translating the faith apologetically, in seeking to mediate its claims from a ‘neutral’ position, Barth suggests that the apologist has to start from a position ‘above’ Christianity, rather than within it. Is this the way it should be? We began with a musical metaphor and here Barth provides another. ‘As an apologist of Christianity, Schleiermacher really played upon it as a virtuoso plays upon his fiddle; he played the notes and airs which, if they did not cause his hearers to rejoice, could at least be acceptable to them. Schleiermacher did not speak as a responsible servant of Christianity, but, like a true virtuoso, as a free master of it.’18 This same criticism could well fit the work of Clement of Alexandria and his colleagues. As virtuoso apologists the second century thinkers arguably distorted the very faith they sought to defend. Their example begs that we ask ourselves too whether we speak as ‘responsible servants’ or as ‘free masters’ of Christianity. 


  1. Bauckham, Richard (1984). ‘‘Only the suffering God can help’: Divine Passibility in Modern Theology’. In Themelios, 9: 3, p7.
  2. Quasten, Johannes (1962). Patrology. Spectrum, pp196-198.
  3. The Greek text of Justin’s Apologies is from Migne, Jacques-Paul, (1884). Patrologiae Graece Tomus 4: Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Hermias, Paris: Garmier Bros. The English translation adopted is St. Justin Martyr the First and Second Apologies. trans. with notes by L. W. Barnard (1997), New York: Paulist, pp23-86.
  4. See Ignatius. Eph. 7.2. In Ehrman, Bart D. (2003). Apostolic Fathers. Harvard University Press, Volume 1, pp218-321.
  5. From The Arethas manuscript of 914, see Grant, Robert M (1988). ‘Five Apologists and Marcus Aurelius’. In Vigiliae Christianae, 42, p8.
  6. Text adopted is Athenagoras, Legatio and De resurrectione. Trans. and ed., Schoedel, William R., Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  7. Harcus, A. R. (1997). ‘They Speak to Us across the Centuries 1. Clement of Alexandria’. In Expository Times 108: 10, p292.
  8. The text used throughout this discussion is Clement of Alexandria. The Fathers of the Church: Clement of Alexandria: Stromateis Books 1-3. The Fathers of the Church 85. Trans. Ferguson, John (1991). Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. Clement’s complete works are available in translation online at The Christian Classics Ethereal Library operated by Calvin College. Also for the Stromata see http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ schaff/anf02.vi.iv.html.
  9. Text used here for Clement’s Paedagogus is Clement of Alexandria. Christ the Educator. Trans. Wood, Simon P. (1954) Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. For an online translation see http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.vi.iii.html  10 Op cit, Bauckham. pp8-12.
  10. Marr, David (1999). The High Price of Heaven:
  11. A Book about the Enemies of Pleasure and Freedom. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, pp64-65. Marr, to his credit, recognises that Clement’s teaching was    different from that of Jesus and Paul. Yet perhaps we have to agree with Marr that when Clement’s ideas took hold ‘Western civilization lurched further down a very odd track’.
  12. Op cit, Bauckham. p6
  13. Barth, Karl (1959). Protestant Thought from Rousseau to Ritschl. Trans. Brian Cozens. NY:Harper, p321
  14. Open letter from Schleiermacher to Lücke cited Ibid.
  15. Ibid. p322
  16. Ibid. p323
  17. Ibid. pp326-327
  18. Ibid. p327

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