Monday, April 1, 2013
Book Snap: Matthew Elliott's "Faithful Feelings"
We'll have more on David Mirsch by the end of the week. Meanwhile, here's this from the January 2010 E-Block.
Matthew Elliott's Faithful Feelings [FF] is posed as a contextual analysis of emotion in the New Testament. If it were indeed that, it would earn a place as a recommended work in one of Tekton's bibliographies. That it is instead reviewed here tells you what it turns out to be.
Despite Elliott's profession to be offering a first-century view of emotion, FF sorely neglects the very important anthropological dimensions of emotion as it is perceived and used in honor and shame societies. Indeed, Elliott's bibliography is brimming with texts of modern, Western psychology. He also mixes together commentary from the modern, medieval, and ancient world as though they were socially uniform. This is a mistake that renders FF suspect as a resource.
As we have noted in a commentary on open theism, Biblical texts about emotion must be approached with a certain caution:
Pilch and Malina in the Handbook of Biblical Social Values [50ff, 56ff] note the emphasis in the Biblical world on dramatic orientation as a point of honor. To be expressive in word and deed was to "gain, maintain, and enhance personal and group honor." Expressions of eloquence, which involve exaggeration and over-assertion, may at times "not [be] intended to be taken seriously but are made solely for effect and are heartily appreciated and applauded by an audience that enjoys such eloquence when it hears it."
Free and unrestrained expression of emotion was normal and acceptable, but may not always be taken seriously; note that this is NOT (as one critic of this article suggested) a matter of "honesty" for contextually in this setting, there is no "lie" being perpetrated (i.e., everyone KNOWS the expression is not "real"). Consider in this light the Jewish practice of paid mourners who were paid to wail, but obviously had no personal grief to speak of.
We note this as a caution against reading too much into passages where God is said to feel or express emotion. To put it in modern terms, some of this may have been "performance art" -- not "real" repentance or grief. And if that is so, one of OVT's leading premises is in need of serious qualification.
Elliott is completely without these and other findings concerning emotion in the sort of social paradigm the Biblical writers occupied. To the extent that this is so, his own work must too be approached with caution.
In some cases, this lack of frame of reference matters little. Some of the emotional states Elliott surveys (such as anger) are not effectively different enough from one cultural framework to another to affect his conclusions and concerns, at least as far as he takes them. In other cases, however, Elliott's anachronizing results in an entirely misguided conclusion. The most important of these misguided conclusions concerns his section on love, which is a topic we have discussed in detail here. Elliott's analysis of Biblical agape takes it as an emotion in and of itself, which it is not. Ironically, because Elliott is unaware of the collectivist nature of the ancient world, he dismisses scholars like Witherington  who do properly define "love" in terms of a practical concern for the greater good, and not some sort of emotion or sentiment, and "corrects" them by importing modern ideas of love as an emotion and sentiment into the text.
It is worthwhile to discuss Elliott's analysis of "love" in some detail, since this is a rather critical concept in my own apologetics efforts. But that assumes there is much detail to discuss, and there is not. Most of what Elliott has to offer [84-7, 135-64] does not defend the proposition that Biblical love is an emotion, but merely assumes that it is and forces the text to say what he wants it to mean accordingly. (He has a better case for phileo as involving emotion.) Actual arguments are seldom offered and fail on account of other decontextualizations when offered. For example, Elliott wrongly connects God's love of men to men's having been made in God's image , which makes no sense if "image" is properly defined in terms of humans as God's representative authority, though it would "make sense" with the dual anachronism of a) agape love as an emotion; b) the "image" referring to our innate characteristics as humans.
Far too much time is spent trying to get around the observation of many commentators that love cannot be an emotion because it is commanded; Elliott wavers around this difficulty with a rather contrived explanation that commands to love are actually commands to "have the beliefs and values that will produce the commanded emotion."  If that is so, then it seems that a command to have the beliefs and values would be a great deal more appropriate than a command to have the emotion. (And ironically, that is indeed what the command to agape love amounts to: A command to change beliefs and values.)
Further on, Elliott argues that the good Samaritan would not have offered aid unless he had been motivated by "feelings in his heart". But this again is an invalid attempt to fuse the action with the emotional association that Elliott himself would have when rendering aid.
None of this is to deny that emotion can, as Elliott also says, serve as "fuel" for love. But it is simply false to directly identify agape love with emotional response. It is the icing on the cake and not the cake itself. Obviously most people will indeed have some sort of emotional response when helping others; but other people -- and I count myself among them -- do not require it.
In sum, Elliott has simply assumed that because he and others associate the practice of love with emotional reaction, that it must be universal (thus for example sentiments like, "these basic emotions exist in all people" , while basically true, are far too non-specific) -- and that is the very sort of error anthropological scholars warn against repeatedly. The critical problem here is that Elliott's report falls all too easily in line with the prominent "God is my buddy" teaching that so infects the church today -- and has turned Western Christianity into a shadow of what it ought to be.
Posted by J. P Holding at 7:05 AM