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The Centrality and Nature of the Religious Affections

This entry is part 15 of 32 in the series

"Toward Conservative Christian Churches"

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Restoring a right view of the affections may take many years of teaching and instruction. Most Christians exist with very foggy notions of ‘the emotions’ and their relationship to Christianity. Many Christians have either been taught to ignore the affections as irrelevant by-products of a mental-volitional kind of Christianity, or they have been taught to place themselves at the whim of every ephemeral ‘feeling’ they experience in their bodies. This is a far cry from a biblical view of the affections, and it will take some work to address.

The first task is to teach on the centrality of the affections to Christianity. This can be done by teaching those Scriptures which make an affective response to God the most important thing, such as Mark 12:28-29, Proverbs 9:10, Psalm 27:4, or Deuteronomy 10:12. Other Scriptures insist that certain affections ought to characterize our lives, such as 1 Corinthians 16:14, Philippians 4:4, and 1 Peter 1:17. The affections are at the heart of worship, service and obedience, therefore we cannot help teaching that these (and many other) affective responses are at the heart of Christianity.

Though I wish he would distinguish between ordinate affection and the inordinate kind, John Piper has written several books which make good arguments for the centrality of the affections, Desiring God being the most straightforward apologetic for this view. In fact, Piper has simply brought to a modern audience the arguments of several older theologians of the affections, such as Augustine, Anselm, Jonathan Edwards and C.S. Lewis. Whether we pass on these older works, or more recent ones, it is wise to have these books in the hands of our people to allow their arguments to overturn years of wrong thinking about the affections.

The second, harder task goes hand-in-hand with the first. To restore a right view of the religious affections, we must teach that they are more than what most people think of when they think of emotions. As mentioned in the last post, many people view emotions as an internal stirring, with no referential character beyond the self. Certainly they will point to causes for their emotions outside themselves, but they do not see their emotions as corresponding (or failing to correspond) to anything beyond their own mind. It’s “just how they feel about it”. This is much closer to what Jonathan Edwards called the ‘animal spirits’.

Perhaps a helpful way of explaining the affections is to point out that the affections are, in some ways, expressions of value. Psalm 29:1-2 describes worship as the ascription of glory due to God. In other words, God’s nature in reality demands, deserves and calls for a particular kind of response. God, because of who He is, deserves a certain kind of treasuring or honouring or valuing, and such a response is payable by all His creatures. Whether the affections are those of joy, fear, exultation, thanksgiving or reverent awe, we are called to present a worship-response (which is always an exercise of the affections) that gives God what is due to Him.

When described this way, the affections are more than butterflies in the stomach or sweaty palms, they are the means by which humans express value or worth. Our affections express and describe the nature of what we are encountering (or think we are encountering), and what it is worth. Consequently, one can devalue, overvalue, or correctly value the object of our affections, depending on which affections are present, and how those affections are expressed. This is an oversimplification, I grant, but it is a start towards getting people to see their affective responses as expressions of how they view the worth and nature of the object they are responding to.

Perhaps the most helpful book for explaining this concept is The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. Some kind of discussion or mini-study of this book would be very helpful to help crystallize the view of affections corresponding to the beauty or value of things in reality.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.