Conserving Ordinate Affection – 3

The second means of conserving ordinate affection is to understand what we mean when we use the term affections. We might even question the wisdom of resurrecting the fairly archaic meaning of a word used quite differently today. Today, affection refers to a happy, fun-loving kind of love: an affectionate kitten, a child showing affection with hugs and kisses, or a person’s affection for dark chocolate. However, because the original meaning of affection has been muddied and distorted by the term emotion, there is some merit to the idea of using the original term. It is easier to reawaken understanding of an archaic term, than it is to try and re-define a current word like emotion. In fact, that is where so much of the problem began.

The word emotion is a relatively new word, and its current connotations have emerged from a secular worldview. For a time spanning the ancient Greeks, Romans, and early Christian era into the eighteenth century, men spoke of the affections and the passions, not of the emotions. The Greeks spoke of the passions: the feelings that emerged from the “gut” or koilia. These were described as the impulsive, sensual and even animalistic urges and appetites. Amongst these might be lust, envy, cowardice, rage, hilarity, gluttony, laziness, revelry, and so on. For them, these were to be governed very strictly, and for later Christians – many of them mortified altogether. They also spoke of the affections that emerged from the chest, or steithos, and the affections that emerged from the spleen, or splanchna. For them, these were the noble and gracious feelings which produced nobility, courage, honour, reverence, joy, mercy, kindness, patience. The Greeks taught that the passions always won over the intellect in any contest, unless the intellect was supported by the affections. To put it another way: a man’s affections guide his mind’s decisions, a truth that the Bible teaches (Prov 9:10).

This understanding of differences of feelings prevailed for centuries. Certainly not all used the terms identically, but there was general agreement that the affections were to be differentiated from the passions, and that Christians in particular should seek to mortify ‘passions’ and ‘inordinate affection’ (Colossians  3:5 [note the 17th century terminology coming out in the KJV]), while pursuing affections set on things above (Col 3:2). Jonathan Edwards’ magisterial work Religious Affections brought a kind of cohesiveness to the discussion. For him, the affections were the inclinations of a person towards objects of desire. The type of object determined the type of desire. A man is moved in his will by his affections, which operate through a renewed mind. The passions, for Edwards, were the more impulsive and less governed feelings.

What the Greeks, Romans, and pre-modern Christians had in common was the belief that the affections corresponded to something in reality. There was a proper affection for each object, experience or person. In other words, affections had to do with truth. Something true in the universe, a fixed absolute, called for a corresponding affection in the human being. Truth, goodness and beauty merited approving affections. To pre-modern thinkers, fixed absolutes called for appropriate affections. Affections could be fitting – ordinate – , or unfitting – inordinate. To put it another way, your affections were true or false.

With the coming of the Enlightenment, secular philosophers sought to undermine any scheme which spoke of intrinsic truth, goodness or beauty. Therefore, their attack on the Christian view of the affections began. They sought to redefine the affections as merely biological, and purely subjective. William James (1842-1910) was especially destructive in this regard. If there is nothing true (in the absolute sense) in the universe, there can be no true affections corresponding to that truth. If there is nothing beautiful (in the absolute sense) in the universe, there can be no corresponding affections approving of that beauty. If there is nothing good (in the absolute sense) in the universe, there can be no feelings within a human that correspond to that goodness. In this scheme of thought, the affections are simply the internal psychological stirrings of human animals as they view a meaningless universe through their personalised worldview-lenses. Today, this is what people think of when they think of emotions. Sadly, many Christians are included in that number.

While evangelicals believe in absolute truth, most have not grasped the idea of affective truth: that our affections are truthful or untruthful responses to God’s universe. Questions of the use of music and art in worship will never be settled until Christians reach consensus on this point: that there is such a thing as ordinate affections.

Now this is not a subject that a single blog post can adequately deal with. It is only a starting point. In fact, you would be better served by giving yourself to some further study on this matter. I would suggest at least the following:

Kevin Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, gave a message on the Christian Affections which can be downloaded here.

C.S. Lewis’ book, The Abolition of Man is an excellent, straightforward, and short book that deals with the secularisation of the affections.

For the historical account, Thomas Dixon has traced the history of the affections from a matter of truth to a matter of brain chemistry in his book From Passions to Emotions.

Finally, one can hardly do better than to work one’s way through Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections, along with The Freedom of the Will.

These might not be light reading or listening, but upon completion your soul will feel like it is waking up from a stupor.


One Response to “Conserving Ordinate Affection – 3”

  1. Their God is the Belly | Mitchell Lewis Says:

    […] For other Greeks, the belly was the source of ignoble passions. According to one source, […]

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