Peter Wallace: A Full and Passionate Life: Robert Law and "The Emotions of Jesus"

One of my favorite places on earth is about five hours southeast of Atlanta by car: St. Simon’s Island, on Georgia’s coast just north of the Florida border. Several years ago on one of many visits I’d made to St. Simons Island, I was struck by an unexpected observation:

Each year here I am surprised by the changes in the shoreline as I walk along the broad, white-sand beach. How many years have I walked along this seaside? And yet every year the shore is different. The sea breezes and tides have reformed the sand bars and the beaches. Gulls waddle in the shallows of new eddies waiting for their meals, eddies that weren’t there the year before. It always throws me off a little.

Not only is the landscape different, but each year I realize I am different. I bring a different set of plans, worries, and experiences to the shore. I have lived through fresh heartaches, joys, and terrors in the months since I’ve been away. Even the cells of my body have changed. I have aged; my body is different. I hope I have learned and grown in some areas, and I hope I have noticed other areas that need attention. My spirit has been wounded in new ways, and cracked open for fresh growth if I have been willing. My own landscape, internally and externally, has changed as much as the seashore.

It is this same phenomenon—this off-kilter sense of deep familiarity juxtaposed with unique newness—that I experience when I read the four gospels in the Bible. I am familiar with the words and the stories, but each time I read them I try to see them with fresh eyes. A phrase I never noticed before shines with relevant meaning. A minor gesture of Jesus’s suddenly generates a sea change in perspective. A troubling question or doubt arises, demanding attention. I know this landscape, but it is different, reformed by the changes in my own understanding, my own spirit and needs.

As I was dealing with the latest crises in my life during my visit to the island [a few] years ago, I reread the gospels once again and, through the lenses of my emotional state at the time, noticed something different in the scriptural landscape. The emotions of Jesus started shining brightly on the pages, and I realized how passionate he truly was, how fully he experienced whatever he was feeling—living it, expressing it, not apologizing for it, but simply being who he was directly, wholly, and authentically. [From Peter M. Wallace, The Passionate Jesus, x–ix.]

That experience began a study lasting several years to identify and meditate on the emotional aspects of Jesus in the Gospels, which I admit requires some holy imagination in many cases. Rarely are emotional adjectives or adverbs attached to Jesus’s words or actions, but when they are, they can be eye-opening and illuminative. Nevertheless, his emotional life is a strong current that runs endlessly beneath the written record.

So I researched the subject which became a book, and going into it I assumed that a great deal about Jesus’s emotions would have been written over the millennia since he walked the earth. I was wrong. I found two or three very enriching yet very scholarly treatises that helped in my understanding, as well as a good number of sermons, chapters, or articles on this emotion or that—such as Jesus’s anger in John 4 or his grief at Golgotha. But I failed to find a popular treatment of the wide range of emotions that Jesus embodied as the wholly human one.

Until I discovered Dr. Robert Law. In his book, The Emotions of Jesus, he too expressed regret at the dearth of resources devoted to this animating subject.

Heart and Soul: The Emotions of Jesus

I confess I quoted liberally from Dr. Law’s book in mine, but after all his book was more than a century old and seemed to have vanished from print, or any recent discussion or contemplation. Dr. Law helped me to realize the utter transparency, authenticity, and honesty of Jesus that seems to be somewhat hidden behind our expectations as we read the Gospels. Jesus was extremely direct in his encounters with friends or foes, often wearing his emotions on his sleeve. My goal in writing my book The Passionate Jesus was to help readers in turn learn how to live authentic lives—which can only happen if we will open ourselves to this gentle yet ardent Jesus that Dr. Law seemed to know so well and write about so powerfully.

Little is known about Robert Law. Here are a few facts. He was born July 5, 1860, in West Lothian, Scotland. He married Ralphina Melville on July 8, 1886, in Fife, Scotland. He was a minister in Scotland for 25 years, then moved to the New World to become Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Knox College in Toronto, where he served until his unexpected death some ten years later.

At Knox, Law replaced the beloved Professor H. A. A. Kennedy, who took a position in New Testament at New College, Edinburgh. The Knox College Senate recorded “with gratitude that a worthy successor has been found in Rev. Robert Law, who has come to us from the city to which Dr. Kennedy went. Professor Law had already proved himself as Pastor, Preacher, Lecturer and Author, and during this first session he has amply maintained the reputation that preceded him.” [“Report of the Senate of Knox College,” 1909, p. 185.]

The College had first attempted to convince the well-known New Testament scholar Dr. James Denney to accept the chair, but he refused, noting that “he had no desire to teach in a colonial backwater like Toronto.” Denney instead recommended his student Robert Law, who gladly agreed. [Brian J. Fraser, Church, College, and Clergy: A History of Theological Education at Knox College, Toronto, 1844–1994 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 126.]

Law was appointed in September 1909 and, “at much personal inconvenience, without waiting to bring his family, sailed for Canada in October, and began his class work the first week of November, thus relieving the [College] of any necessity to make temporary provision for the class in New Testament.” [Fraser] Oh, to have a diary of his to learn more about the emotions involved in leaving family, coming to a new land and new position, and diving right in.

In addition to his responsibilities at Knox College, Dr. Law also was a minister and preacher at Old St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Toronto. Parish life influenced his writing and teaching throughout his career.

Robert Law died suddenly in Toronto, on April 7, 1919, at the young age of 58. He was the father of three sons, Ralph, Ronald, and George, all of whom lived until sometime in the mid-twentieth century, as did their widowed mother.

Dr. Law wrote several other books, his first and most successful being The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John, published in 1909. It remained in print for decades after his death for use by Bible college and seminary students around the world.

Another book by Law, The Grand Adventure and Other Sermons was reviewed by Eugene Caldwell: “I have read every one of these seventeen noble sermons with increasing delight and spiritual profit. Some of them I have read twice. My sins have been rebuked, my faith has been strengthened, and I have had a new vision of the gentleness and power of Jesus Christ…. I can readily see why Robert Law is ranked among the greatest preachers of Canada.” [Eugene C. Caldwell, “The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts.” The Union Seminary Review, Vol. 28, Oct. 1919, 21-27.]

“A new vision of the gentleness and power of Jesus Christ.” This resonates with me because my introduction to Dr. Law was his modest yet brilliant jewel of a book, which flashes the varied emotions of Jesus in its bright facets to brighten our understanding and appreciation of who Jesus was, how he behaved, what it must have been like to be with him and follow him.

The Emotions of Jesus was published in 1915. It is a slim volume. But it possesses a power of insight and description that I have rarely encountered before.

It occurs to me now that this shining book of meditations on the emotions of Jesus, written over a century ago by this Scottish Presbyterian minister and professor who seems relatively forgotten, would be beneficial, as it has been for me, for readers today who seek to know Jesus more intimately and follow him more closely, who seek to live lives of authentic and passionate service as Christians. I’m pleased that Church Publishing has made available a version of Dr. Law’s classic work that I’ve revised for modern readers.

Dr. Law reveals that understanding and appreciating how Jesus experienced and embodied his own emotions can transform how we live in this world for the good. We can become firebrands for social justice by putting our holy anger to good cause. We can be lovers on behalf of those left outside the community’s circle of care. Comforters of those who grieve. Encouragers of those in fear. Active sharers of the way of Jesus.

God knows our world needs more such followers of the way of Jesus right now. In Mark 12:28-34, a scribe challenges Jesus with the question, “Which commandment is the first of all?” And Jesus answers, “The first is, Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe commends Jesus, “You are right, Teacher!” Good for him. “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus tells him—and scares off any further questions.

Jesus certainly lived this all-in life of loving God wholly, passionately. I believe Robert Law, too, embodied this teaching, living a full, passionate, committed life.

And I invite you to enter the realm of emotional vitality and spiritual honesty that Dr. Law has set before us in his sublime book. I pray that his enthusiasm, his sheer love for Jesus, and his desire to know Jesus more fully will shine through and captivate you as it did me.

Adapted from the Introduction to Heart and Soul: The Emotions of Jesus by Robert Law, edited by Peter M. Wallace