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Corrupt affections are the soil of heresy

Christian discipleship tends to be taught as a linear process: we fill the head with right doctrine, and people should learn to live lives consistent with that doctrine, and then they’ll be happy. In other words, the movement is from doctrine to ethics to affections, or (to say it yet another way) from the mind to the will to the emotions.

And it seems that such a procedure is, for many, self-evident. The mind is the natural input, because the core of Christianity is primarily propositional; the mind, being the processor of propositions, is given pride of place in the task of discipleship.

And such a privileged position for the mind is not without warrant. The Bible, as God’s communication to man, is propositional (although we’d do well to remember that God’s supreme revelation is the person of his Son [Heb 1.1]).

What I’d like to suggest in this post, however, is that the situation on the ground is considerably more messy, less linear. The reality is that man, as a unity, is capable of taking elements of his thinking, feeling, or doing, and making any of them determinative for the others. We’ve all seen this. For instance, consider the tragedy of the man who renounces Christianity because he finds God’s existence incompatible with his continued immorality. In this case, his ethics trump his doctrine.

Such an inversion of the “standard” procedure needn’t be a bad thing. In Athanasius’s battles for the deity of Christ, he marshaled this argument: it is the practice of all the Christian churches to pray to and worship Jesus; therefore, he must be God. Here is an argument from ethics to doctrine that leads us to the correct conclusion.

Which brings us to the controversy du jour: Rob Bell and universalism. To set up this discussion, consider God’s words to the Ninevites in Nahum 3:

5“I am against you,” declares the LORD Almighty.
“I will lift your skirts over your face.
I will show the nations your nakedness
and the kingdoms your shame.
6 I will pelt you with filth,
I will treat you with contempt
and make you a spectacle.
7 All who see you will flee from you and say,
‘Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?’
Where can I find anyone to comfort you?”

These are ugly verses, and my point in quoting them is not to shock or to appall. Rather, I wish to ask the question: are these verses beneath your God? Would you say, “My God wouldn’t talk like that?” To the degree that your god and the God of Scripture differ, you are an idolater.

That professing believers feel unnaturally comfortable rejecting inspired descriptions of God is not contestable (and Carl Trueman’s The Marcions Have Landed may be the single best title for any article ever discussing this phenomenon). My question is one step deeper: why are people so able to dismiss propositional truth about God?

Can I ask it this way: why are we surprised that the generation of Noah’s smiling giraffes finds the notion of a God of wrath repugnant? As I’ve claimed previously, the kind of claims we find plausible is not determined merely by the other propositions that we accept, but rather by a complex of factors, including our inclinations/affections/emotions about the subject.

Which means that, to the degree that our music and liturgy promote sentimentalism, we have tilled the soil in which heresy grows. We don’t preach Rob Bell’s universalism; we simply prepare his audience to receive his message.

About Michael Riley

Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.