Question: "What is theopathy?"


Theopathy is an emotional response to the contemplation and worship of God or a fervency of religious faith. The word theopathy is a combination of two Greek words, theos (“God”) and pathos (“passion” or “emotion”).

Perhaps it will be helpful to note the differences between theology and religion. Many years ago, theology was known as “the queen of the sciences.” The assumption among all scholars was that God did exist and that He could be studied and known at least in part based on how He had revealed himself in the Bible and what He had done in history.

In more recent years, many institutions of higher learning including seminaries have changed their “Department of Theology” to a “Department of Religion.” Religion is humanity’s response to God or what they think about God. The shift may seem subtle, but it is significant. Theology studied God; the study of religion is the investigation of man’s thoughts about God. In modern times, the focus has shifted from theology to theopathy, from knowing God objectively to analyzing mankind’s feelings about God.

Human beings are by nature religious. We long to worship, and, as Romans 1:21–23 explains, if we refuse to worship the Creator, we will begin to worship creatures. In times past, this worship may have been directed to trees or animals. In “modern” societies we worship celebrities, status, money, cars, houses, and maybe most devotedly, ourselves. Some would deny that this is religious devotion, but it is still worship. Human beings long for something “bigger” outside themselves to adore and serve.

As the word theopathy is used today, it could refer to something like Isaiah’s response to his vision of God:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:1–8).

Theopathy can also be used to refer to the ecstatic, altered state of consciousness experienced in other religions. And it can refer to the feelings of a person who thinks God tells him to do something contrary to what the Bible teaches. Even in evangelical circles where lip-service is paid to the Bible, it is often emotion, experience, and personal revelation (“God told me” or “the Spirit led me”) that is the final arbiter of truth and appropriate behavior.

Theopathy is the ability to worship and to be emotionally excited about God (or “the divine”). However, an ecstatic, excited, or emotional experience, no matter how “genuine” or heartfelt, is no guarantee that the experience was a genuine encounter with God. Theopathy cannot be allowed to govern theology. It is only when theopathy is directed by sound theology that we can be sure to truly experience God. God has not promised to reveal Himself in any experience, but He has revealed Himself in His Word, the Bible, which must be the source of our theology and the judge of our experience.