Before we can effectively conserve ordinate affections, we must be gripped by a sense of their critical importance to the Christian life. We can see their importance in four ways.
First, the affections are primary because the heart of our religion is based on an affection: love. The first and greatest commandment is to “… love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”(Mark 12:30) Thus, we cannot escape the vital nature of the affections, for our Lord Himself has placed them at the very core of our faith. Our greatest responsibility is not only to know something or to do something; it is to love something. Scripture is filled with commands for certain affections: fear, joy, sorrow, zeal, sobriety, and reverence. It’s no surprise that Jonathan Edwards wrote: “True religion, in great part, consists in the affections.”
Second, the primacy of the affections is seen in the fact that Christianity becomes twisted and perverted without them. We can view Christianity in terms of three ‘orthos’: orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy. Orthodoxy is right doctrine. Orthopraxy is right actions or practice – the works or fruit that are evidence of orthodoxy in the heart. Orthopathy is right affection – ordinate affection toward God, self and the world around. Each of these exists in a mutually dependent relationship towards the others. Orthodoxy without orthopraxy is the dead faith James described. Orthodoxy without orthopathy is dead formalism or even legalism. Orthopraxy without orthodoxy is undirected pragmatism or innovation. Orthopraxy without orthopathy is dead Pharisaism and hypocrisy. Orthopathy without orthodoxy is sheer enthusiasm or fanaticism. Orthopathy without orthopraxy is sentimentalism and pure emotionalism.
In fact, it is incorrect to continue to use the term ortho in these instances, for the point is that to lose one is to lose the others. If orthodoxy, orthopraxy or orthopathy goes, you no longer have ortho-anything remaining. This means that ordinate affections are not merely dispensable reactions to propositional truths. They are not peripheral, secondary and altogether unimportant subjective responses to orthodoxy. They deal with truth themselves. They deal with affective truth: proportionate responses to the objects or truths considered. The affections are part of a trinity of orthos which lives only if each one is present and proper.
The third reason for the primacy of the affections lies in their power to shape moral judgement, and even overthrow right doctrine. The affections sway our decisions, because as Jonathan Edwards showed, the will never chooses except in the direction of its desires. Therefore, our affections shape our decisions. We should know this; the Bible tells us that the fear of the Lord (an affection) is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. We know right, when we feel right. Ordinate affections lead to ordinate judgements, tastes and sensibilities. Since so much of life is a matter of taking propositional truth from Scripture, and then using wisdom, taste, judgement and sensibility to apply those principles, it appears that apart from the affections, propositional truth is merely the starting point.
In light of this we see the error of many conservative evangelicals who imagine that expository preaching, a grounding in systematic theology, and an emphasis on propositional truth are enough to produce orthopraxy and orthopathy. They believe the black-and-white nature of propositional truth will surely produce ordinate responses in the will and in the heart.
If the heart is being led down the path of inordinate affection, it will pervert the mind, deceive itself, and re-direct the will. Romans 1:18-32 makes this abundantly clear. Charles Hodge, addressing students at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1829, said, “Whenever a change occurs in the religious opinions of a community, it is always preceded by a change in their religious feelings. The natural expression of the feelings of true piety, is the doctrines of the Bible. As long as these feelings are retained, these doctrines will be retained; but should they be lost, the doctrines are either held for form sake or rejected, according to circumstance; and if the feelings again be called into life, the doctrines return as a matter of course.”
If we do not pay close attention to what shapes our affections, we may find that our best attempts to reform Christianity through correct doctrine will fail (has this not already been proved in the last fifty years?). This is not to denigrate orthodox teaching – for it is essential. It is to say that such orthodoxy cannot stand alone.
Fourth, the truest bond of any community is shared affections. Our deepest bonds are our loves, not our opinions. Our truest commonality is when we feel similarly towards things, and value them in the same ways. Sentiment is the true bond of community. Christians find their deepest communion with one another when they gather to commune with Christ. The Lord’s Table and how we administer it is the truest test of our fellowship. Certainly doctrinal statements are a starting point for unity. Granted, collaboration and ministry partnerships require agreement on ministry philosophy and practice. However, apart from shared ordinate affection, long-term fellowship and collaboration become impossible. Striving for Christian unity is grasping for the wind, if we do not love the same things in the same way.
The affections are at the heart of our religion. They are integral to a healthy Christian life. They provide moral judgement to apply the Word of God. They are the ultimate bond of Christian fellowship. Do these reasons make the case for viewing the affections as critical to Christian living?
I hope so, for unless we grasp the importance of the affections, we will live in the hollow shell of Christianity as it is popularly known and practised.