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.

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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 [150] 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 [140], 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." [144] 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" [129], 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.

7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the good word. :) That's a good sum up of my mission and purpose.

      Though, er...I'll have to reprint that with "BS" edited next time I log on here. :P

      Delete
    2. Reprint:

      Hey JP, I just wanted to offer my humble opinion and say to you that I think that you are one of the best Christian apologists living in our day.

      I know you probably don't get the credit you deserve, especially in a so-called "Christian" world of anti-intellectualism and a general refusal to engage the very real and important historical context which can oftentimes dramatically inform the meaning of certain texts which would otherwise leave us totally with the wrong idea.

      So I wanted to thank your for the work that you do, and it is largely because of you that I now have a very rich and nuanced understanding of scripture and a more profound and articulate faith.

      I love how you denigrate the skeptic arguments for the bull that they are, showing them to be the shallowest of thinkers.

      God bless you, and as a man who has always sought truth, thank you.

      -Jonathan (from Canada)

      Delete
  2. Thanks for reading my book! I guess I would say to your readers that they really need to read Faithful Feeling for themselves and see what they think. I would also encourage you to read my recent article "The Emotional Core of Love" in JPC that lays out the arguments that in fact God "does require" emotional motivation for true godly action. The evidence points to the fact that this is the way Jesus himself was motivated. So if you don't find that in yourself, my friend, it is time to stop pursing knowledge alone but also to pursue a new heart. After all, they will not know we are Christians by our arguments, by our knowledge, or by our great apologetics ... but by our love. And that is all about how we feel about other people.

    And one more thing we must address. "God is my buddy theology" has no relation to my books or major place in my theology. In fact, understanding God as one who does experience anger and jealousy will make us into people who have a healthy fear of God, not those who treat him only as a BFF.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I in turn suggest that you and everyone else 1) read Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, as well as various works by the Context Group, so they can see precisely how far you are from understanding Biblical culture; 2) meet personally with someone from an agonistic culture so that they can understand the same in even more depth.

    Yes, you have little choice but to devolve to "read it for yourself and decide." The evidence is not on your side. Far from it. The first evangelistic sermons did not preach "love" -- especially in the modern sense. They preached evidence, which means apologetics. And BTW, pagan surprise at Christian agape had more to do with the fact that they expected a deviant group (as they saw it) to self-destruct into factionalism. Once again, you're not particularly informed on the relevant scholarship.

    As for BFF theology....even those who adhere to it have no problem with God as angry or jealous. They simply think they are protected from it. So yes...your mistakes will do nothing to correct that, and if anything will encourage it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Reprint:

    Hey JP, I just wanted to offer my humble opinion and say to you that I think that you are one of the best Christian apologists living in our day.

    I know you probably don't get the credit you deserve, especially in a so-called "Christian" world of anti-intellectualism and a general refusal to engage the very real and important historical context which can oftentimes dramatically inform the meaning of certain texts which would otherwise leave us totally with the wrong idea.

    So I wanted to thank your for the work that you do, and it is largely because of you that I now have a very rich and nuanced understanding of scripture and a more profound and articulate faith.

    I love how you denigrate the skeptic arguments for the bull that they are, showing them to be the shallowest of thinkers.

    God bless you, and as a man who has always sought truth, thank you.

    -Jonathan (from Canada)

    ReplyDelete