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Affections and Passions

Perhaps one of the most important ideas to grasp in any discussion of music and worship is the difference between affections and passions.

Premodern thought understood a distinction between kinds of emotion. At the time of the writing of the New Testament, common Greek thought articulated a distinction between the splankna — the chest — and the koilia — the belly. The splankna was the seat of of the affections, things like love, joy, courage, and compassion. The koilia was the seat of the passions, things like appetite, sexuality, fear, and rage. The affections were to be nurtured, developed, and encouraged, and the passions were to be held under control. The passions were not evil — they were simply part of man’s physical makeup, but in any contest between the passions and the intellect, the passions always won unless the intellect was supported by the affections.

This was the common way of articulating things in Greek culture, and therefore NT authors wrote with such distinctions in mind. For instance, Paul says in Philippians 3 that enemies of Christ worship their koilia — their “belly,” their passions. In Colossians 3 Paul tells Christians to put on splankna — the “chest,” affections — of mercy, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and longsuffering. In other words, this distinction is not explicitly defined in the New Testament because the original readers would have already understood it, but the distinction is clearly evident. Enemies of Christ serve their passions while God-pleasing Christians nurture noble affections. This distinction has been lost in our day, largely because of the influence of secularism and especially evolutionism, but premoderns understood it.

This kind of distinction was maintained for thousands of years. In more recent times, Jonathan Edwards best articulated this distinction in The Religious Affections. Edwards defined affection as the “inclination of the will.” It is what moves us to do what we know is right. Edwards defined the affections as part of the mind, the immaterial part of man. On the other hand, he defined passion as the agent which immediately affected the “animal spirits,” the physical feelings and impulses we share with animals in terms of physical composition.

The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same, and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference. Affection is a word that in the ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination, but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more over powered, and less in its own command.1

Both affections and passions can drive a person to action. The affections are the inclination of the will (the moral component of the spirit), while the passions drive physical impulses.

What is important to remember is that a Christian must never be governed by his passions. The Bible calls this part of man his “belly” — his “gut,” and reveals an unbeliever to be a slave to it (Philippians 3:19). A Christian should never allow his gut to control him. These passions and feelings are not evil; they are simply part of the physical makeup of mankind. To assign morality to them would be like assigning morality to hunger. Jesus Himself experienced the passion of anger, and yet without sin.

The physical passions are not evil in themselves, but they must always be kept under control. Left unchecked by the spirit, passions always lead to sin. This is why the Bible must warn, “Be angry, and yet do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Anger is not wrong, but it will lead to sin if not controlled. Likewise, appetite is a good thing, but left unchecked it results in gluttony. Sexuality is a wonderful gift from God, but uncontrolled it turns to lust. Fear is a necessary part of the survival instinct of man, but if it controls a person, he can not operate properly. You can distinguish between affections and passions because you can never have too much affection, but it is possible to have too much passion.

The problem is that when the passions are set in conflict with the mind, the passions will always win. A man may know that it is wrong to hit another man, but if he is angry, that knowledge alone will not stop him from reacting wrongly. It is only when his knowledge is supported by noble affections that he can overcome his passions. As C. S. Lewis says, “The head rules the belly through the chest.”2 This is true for faith. Faith is not mere belief in facts. That alone would not move a person to a righteous life. Faith is belief combined with the affection of trust. When belief is supported by trust, a person will be able to overcome his sinful urges. Christians, therefore, should strive to gain more right knowledge and nurture more right affections so that they act rightly. They must also beat their bodies and make them their slaves (1 Corinthians 9.27).

In summary, when people today talk about emotion, they are speaking of a category that may include the affections, passions, or the resultant feelings. This is why we must be more specific when discussing these things — “emotion” is just too broad a term. Most people are thinking of “feelings” when they say “emotion,” but not always. Joy, fear, and “butterflies” are all “emotions,” but they are very different from one another. Therefore, the emotional experiences created by various uses of art are consequently very different from one another.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2001), 26-27. []
  2. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), 24. []

6 Responses to Affections and Passions

  1. “the emotional experiences created by various uses of art are consequently very different from one another”

    This is clearly a hint at a door which, if we were to enter, would open up a whole new perspective on art (especially, music). Are you planning on elaborating on that thought? I don’t find it self-evident to say that passions and feelings are amoral but then to warn about such experiences. So if you could continue along this line, that would be great. Is it in the music? Is it in the use of music that speaks to certain passions? Intent of the author/musician/listener?

  2. Ah – yes, remember those. So you’re saying the feelings and emotions are amoral but that music can appeal to affections or passions, and should thus be used carefully in worship etc.?
    That makes a lot of sense; sorry, I guess I thought there was more to it than there is.

  3. I wouldn’t say that feelings and emotions are amoral; they are profoundly moral. But that’s really a separate issue. For my purposes here, I would say that what constitutes true religion (ala Edwards) and worship is response of the affections, and since passions can be easily manipulated and mistaken for true spiritual experience, we should be very careful about using means (such as Dionysian music) that targets the passions in worship.

  4. Amen to that, but then I am still confused about your statement above: “These passions and feelings are not evil; they are simply part of the physical makeup of mankind. To assign morality to them would be like assigning morality to hunger. Jesus Himself experienced the passion of anger, and yet without sin.”

    Sorry to stretch this out but didn’t you admit here that feelings ARE amoral? Isn’t it the context that gives morality to those feelings – as in righteous anger and anger that is directed at the wrong object or is unjustified? So of course all human action is moral but the feelings and passions are, as you wrote, part of creation and meant to be. Only we need to control them since uncontrolled, they can lead to sin.

  5. Yes, you make a valid point. My point is that having physical feelings in itself is not bad or good; it is how made us. But this does not mean that particular feelings are not bad; some are, as is clearly indicated by passages that command us to avoid some of them.

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