Gordon Clark’s View of “Emotion”

Gordon Clark’s view of emotion has garnered significance interest and raised many questions. But asking simply “What was Gordon Clark’s view of emotion?” is too broad of a question if one is seeking a single answer. His comments on emotion, as will be noted below, apply to a variety of theological concerns. Compiling quotes from his works, we should not be surprised to find that Dr. Clark saw that the first task, as is so frequently the case, is to define the term itself. Only then can be discussed the relation of emotion to God, Man, and Faith.

1. The Problem of Definition.

A. Clark noted that rarely if ever does one find that an author will define emotion.

Dr. Clark: On one occasion I asked a professor of psychology to give me some competent books on emotions. He gave 4 volumes, each one 3…4…500 pages. Each one written by a professor of psychology in some American university. I read all four of those books. Not one of them ever said what an emotion was. Until you define emotion the discussion cannot continue.
[Audience laughter]
Moderator: Dr. Clark, what have you understood those people who do speak of emotions as referring to.
Dr. Clark: Well, they didn’t tell me.
[Audience laughter]
– “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

B. Clark provided his own definition of emotion.

“Emotions by definition are fluctuating; an emotional man is unstable and few people have a high opinion of him; whereas throughout our constantly changing emotional states, our beliefs and the volitions founded on them remain comparatively fixed.” – Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 1961, 2nd Edition 1995, Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, p. 97.

Dr. Clark: I should offer perhaps not a complete definition, but at least an element of the definition. An emotion seems to me to be a sudden upheaval, disturbance in our ordinary calm state of mind. And I don’t see that this is part of the image of God, I think this is part of original sin. – “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

2. Emotion and God.

A. Clark held, in agreement with the WCF, that God lacks emotions.

Moderator: Dr. Clark, I have another question for you. And this moves on to another area of your lecturing material. Dr. Clark, does God have feelings?
Dr. Clark: The Westminster Confession says that God has neither body, parts, nor passions. I suppose the word feeling is a contemporary word for passions and the answer of the confession is no God has no feelings, emotions, or passions.
– “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

B. Yet, Clark held, God has “concern.”

Moderator: Dr. Morris?
Dr. Morris: I would certainly agree with that. It seems to me that the nub of the question is the definition of emotion which is why I started by throwing the ball back to Dr. Clark, I want to hear him on that. If we are thinking of emotion in the sense of some passion that overmasters us and takes us out of what we are in ourselves, then God is surely without emotions. And God’s love doesn’t mean that at all. On the other hand, to say that God is without body, parts, or passions, which in case you didn’t know is part of the Anglican formularies as well as part of the Westminster Confession, means that God is not thrown off his balance by anything outside of him. It means more than that, but it means that. It means that nothing that puny man can do, for instance, can cause God to deviate from his calmness. But it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care. The Scripture is full of the idea that God does care. That caring is shown in his love. It is also shown in his wrath. And the wrath of God runs through and through Scripture. So in the sense that God is, dare I say it, passionately concerned with our well-being, then I would say that God does show emotion. But it’s a question of the definition. We must not take up such a position that we can feel God can be wobbling from one state of mind to another one as we so easily are. That’s not that. But we must hold that, I think, in line with the Scriptural position that God does care very much whether we do good or ill, and he cares for us, for our well-being, and the upshot of his caring we see on the cross.

Audience: Would you permit a follow up question?

Moderator: I’d like to have the panel finish first, and then I’ll… because this is the only aspect we have directly on emotion. A lot more on the image of God in man. So, but, first the panel. Any more on this?

Dr. Clark: I wouldn’t wish to be convicted of placing words in the mouth of Dr. Morris, but his last remarks sound to me to say that he has asserted that God’s will is immutable. An immutable volition which he calls concern. I could agree with that.

Dr. Morris: Ok then let’s not argue.
[Audience Laughter]

– “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

3. Emotion and Man

A. Clark held that humans have emotions and they are sinful.

Dr. Clark: I should offer perhaps not a complete definition, but at least an element of the definition. An emotion seems to me to be a sudden upheaval, disturbance in our ordinary calm state of mind. And I don’t see that this is part of the image of God, I think this is part of original sin. – “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

“Emotion hinders, distorts, or almost eradicates thinking. Acting under the stress of emotion we usually act blindly. An emotionally overwrought student, having had a spat with his sweetheart, can’t memorize the Greek irregular verbs or solve a problem in physics. Nor can he do theology. We must meditate and be still. This command displeases pragmatic Americans.” – Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, 2nd Edition 1990, p. 70.

B. Clark held that Biblical love is to be categorized as a volition (an act of will), not an emotion.

Moderator: I have another one that speaks of God is love. Is the emotive or emotional aspect of man not also a part of the image of God in view of the fact that God is love and we’re commanded to love one another?

Dr. Clark: Love is defined in the 13th or 14th chapter of Romans. Love is defined as obedience to the commands of God. You may say God is love and his love is defined as giving his Son as a ransom for the elect. In the history of theology, love traditionally has never been considered an emotion. There is something that is called love, particularly in these days that is quite emotional, but in theology love has traditionally been considered a volition and not an emotion. That’s a partial answer.

– “Questions and Answers,” Audio Recording, Winter Theological Institute, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 2-4, 1976.

“But Timothy commands the Ephesians to love. Love, then, is something volitional, not emotional. Many ministers love to preach about love. I hear the theme with distressing frequency. It is all the more distressing because the sermons do not explain the difference between Christian love and the love of either the Christian Scientists or the love of Joseph Fletcher. The sexual anarchy and licentiousness of the present age desperately necessitates information on a love it little knows. The Scriptures explain and define this voluntary, non-emotional love in several places, though not in this one verse. The reader may occupy himself profitably trying to find these other passages.” – Gordon H. Clark on 1 Timothy 1:5, 6 in The Pastoral Epistles, 1983, 2nd Edition 1998, The Trinity Foundation, p. 9

Dr. Clark: No. Christian love is not an emotion. It is a volition.

Audience: An act of will.

Dr. Clark: And act of will, yes. Because you cannot command emotion. They take off at all ridiculous ways. And when you are commanded to love, obviously love must be a volition. And the volition is “to obey the law.” Love is obedience to the law.

Audience: Do you feel that emotions are good or bad?

Dr. Clark: Bad. Doesn’t the Apostle Paul say “suppress your emotions”?

Audience: Then we should all be Stoic?

Dr. Clark: Huh? Well, not Stoics, no.

Audience: I don’t think emotions are bad.

Dr. Clark: You don’t? Well if you ever become the pastor of a church I think you may conclude that. Nearly all the church fights arise out of emotions.
Audience: I’m not talking about general emotions. I’m talking about, you know ok, there are emotions that are evil. Those should be suppressed. But there are others, such as love…

Dr. Clark: Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a volition!

Audience: You’re talking about loving your wife which we are commanded to ???

Dr. Clark: And what is that command?

Audience: Love her. Protect her as Christ…

Dr. Clark: Well that isn’t an emotion. That’s a volition. That is a determination of something you’re going to do. Palmer stresses man’s need of regeneration because of total depravity. Well and good, but to substantiate man’s sinfulness after speaking of man’s intellect and will, he adds, “And as far as his emotions are concerned, he cannot love God because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God, Romans 8:7.” That an unregenerate man cannot love God is indubitably true, but the mind of the flesh is not the emotions. The history of orthodox theology, at least from Augustine on, teaches that love is a volition, not an emotion. Paul himself has small respect for emotion.

Audience: ??? back over again to what you said?

Dr. Clark: In Colorado, oh no this is Colossians.

[Audience Laughter]

Dr. Clark: In Colossians 3:5…

[Audience Laughter]

Audience: Colorado 3:5.

Audience: Maybe that is a highway number.

Dr. Clark: Well, it’s C O L. In Colossians 3:5, he says “mortify therefore your members which are upon earth. Fornication, uncleanness, pathos, inordinate affections” and so on. The NAS translates the last two words as “evil desire.” Desire may or [may] not be an emotion. Fornication and uncleanness seem to be emotions, and pathos surely is. The NAS translates it “passion,” the English cognate. Arndt and Gingrich give “suffering” which makes no sense in this verse, and then add “passion, especially of a sexual nature,” also anger. The supreme of all lexicons, who Dwight’s discussed, Liddell and Scott, has “accident, experience, misfortune, death.” None of these make sense in this verse, but the continuation is emotion, that is the continuation in Liddell and Scott, emotion, passion, sensation, and in literature, emotional style. Paul therefore instructs us to suppress our emotions and if so, love is not an emotion. It is a volition. Palmer himself escapes nearly all the religious deterioration this misinterpretation has so widely caused in recent years. But the congregation subjected to semi-Christian psychologies need constant warnings.
– Gordon H. Clark, “Knowledge and Persons”, Audio Transcript, c. 1982 [Clark reading from his text which was later published as The Holy Spirit, 1993. p. 32-33)

4. Faith

A. As opposed to Pietists and Mystics, Clark held that Christianity (and “faith” in particular) is primarily intellectual not emotional.

“The Christian religion is intellectual in nature. Ignorance, emotion, and unintelligibility are not even a map for the road, let alone the road itself or the destination. The difference between the Christian religion and the neo-orthodox, existential, anti-intellectual religion is as great as the difference between Christianity and Buddhism. When our opponents and even some of our less perceptive friends emphasize the experience of person faith, we appeal to Christ’s remark about a faith as small as a grain of mustard seed and conclude that the How is of very little importance, while the What is what really counts.” – The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, 1968, p. 122; reprinted in An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, 1993, p. 122.

“In the United States today non-doctrinal emotionalism finds wide acceptance. But this cannot be done without eliminating Christianity as well.” – The Trinity, 1985, Second Edition 1990, p. 126.

“Unfortunately, at least in the present writer’s opinion, many Christians, motivated by an irrational pragmatism or by an even more extremely irrational mysticism, consider belief to be an emotion or feeling. To be sure, some beliefs stir the emotions, but the very sober belief that a man has five fingers on each hand is as much a belief as some shattering bad news. Nor can believing good news, namely the Good News, be a mere emotion.” – Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, 2nd Edition 1990, p. 5.

“That emotions sometimes accompany volitional decisions cannot be denied; but this is far from insisting that an intellectual decision has emotion as a necessary ingredient.” – Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, 2nd Edition 1990, p. 65.

“In order to define faith, some analysis of personality is needed. Whatever faith is said to be, distinctions among conscious activities are presupposed. According to a very common opinion, consciousness consists of these parts: intellect, volition, and emotion. Faith may be placed under one of them, or it may be described as a combination of two of them, or possibly of all three. At any rate, some analytical scheme is required. Now, one of the many difficulties in this procedure arises from the necessity of expressing Biblical truth in non-Biblical terminology. In itself, the use of non-Biblical terminology cannot legitimately be objected to. The term Trinity does not occur in the Bible, but all trinitarians holds that the ideas and relationships for which the term stands are solidly Biblical. Similarly, the word emotion does not occur in the Bible, at least not in the King James Version. However, in the use of new terminology, one must make sure that the terms are unambiguously defined. Unfortunately, many discussions of faith fail to define intellect, will, or emotion. Those who use the terms seem to have but a nebulous idea of their meaning, and a little Socratic questioning soon reveals the unintelligibility.” – Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 1961, 2nd Edition 1995, Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, p. 90-91.

Now, Calvin and Hodge did not have a three-fold division. They speak of the intellect and will and make no mention of the emotions at all. Now I am of the opinion that Calvin and Hodge, oh, Augustine too, are closer to the Scriptural view of man than this contemporary three-fold division of intellect, will and emotion—especially the Gospel of John. – Gordon H. Clark, “The Problem of Pietism and Non-Doctrinal Christianity.” Audio Transcript, 1977.

B. Clark argued that the head vs. heart distinction is unbiblical.

“Because care is called for, because on principle the analysis finally to be chosen must square with the Bible, and because—as was pointed out a moment ago—the heart of the Bible has often been identified with the emotions of popular psychology, a brief survey of the Biblical data must be made. The key term of Biblical psychology, especially in the Old Testament where the fundamental principles are laid down, is the term heart. When contemporary Christians, often in evangelistic preaching, contrast the head and the heart, they are in effect equating the heart with the emotions. Such an antithesis between head and heart is nowhere found in Scripture. On the contrary this usage at once indicates a departure from the Old Testament. In the Psalms and Prophets the heart designates the focus of personal life. It is the organ of conscience, of self-knowledge, indeed of all knowledge. One may very well say that the Hebrew heart is the equivalent of the English word self. – Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 1961, 2nd Edition 1995, Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, p. 90-92.

“In addition to these neo-orthodox groups the Pietists with their claims to individual guidance and additional revelations, and the saccharine devotional writers who malign dead orthodoxy and cold intellectualism, also exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity when they draw their sharp distinctions between the head and the heart. The head, for them, represents knowledge and dry theology; the heart is all the exciting emotionalism of hillbilly evangelism. But in Scripture there is no contrast whatever between head and heart. The view is a strictly modern innovation that conflicts with Biblical psychology and reflects a wrong notion of true religion. Depreciation of understanding, knowledge, reason, and logic not only stimulates and evil ecumenism but also leads to serious errors in theology, errors concerning human nature, sin, and therefore errors concerning the way of salvation.” – The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, 1968, p. 87; reprinted in An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, 1993, p. 87.

“The term heart therefore stands for volition and not emotion.” – Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, 2nd Edition 1990, p. 68.

But he does admit that in the Bible:

“It is true that sometimes the term heart refers to emotions.” – Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, 2nd Edition 1990, p. 69.

3 thoughts on “Gordon Clark’s View of “Emotion””

  1. Dear Doug:
    Thank you for collecting the source materials from Gordon Clark on emotions. : – )
    They are food for thoughts.
    In light of Clark’s views, much works still need to be done on the relationship between the Bible and the emotions.
    Sincerely,
    Benjamin

  2. This is indeed a breath of fresh air on the topic. With “Hollywood” virtually in the air we breath today, this is a hard subject to maintain a correct view on, even when reading the Bible!
    Thankyou for summarizing Dr Clark on this.

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