Archive for July, 2011

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 18 – Doorposts, Frontlets and the Affections

July 29, 2011

The first and greatest commandment is to love God ultimately. Immediately after giving this command, God went on to insist that this kind of ultimate love be the most conspicuous reality in the homes of His people. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 are commands to structure the home and family life so that loving God is taught through conversation and life indoors and outdoors, at rest, at work, when the day starts or when it ends. God wanted this kind of love for Himself to be as prominent as one’s own hand, as visible as if something was stuck in front of the eyes. He wanted it to be something His people would know every time they entered or left their dwelling.

God’s intention was not that His people would go on to wear strips of leather on their forearms, tie boxes with the law between their eyes, or place tiny versions of the Shema in little receptacles and stick those on their doorposts. God was figuratively teaching that love for Him ought to saturate the home-life of His people.

Deuteronomy 6:6-9 gives us a helpful take on how the affections are shaped. Certainly, the Hebrew parents were to teach their children to love God, quoting the very words of Scripture and explaining them. There was a cognitive, intellectual aspect to shaping the affections of the Israelites. They needed to know that loving God ultimately was their obligation, and they needed to know why He was worthy of such love. What we love is very much informed by intellect, refection and learned moral precept.

However, God’s words reveal that the shaping of the affections is not an intellectual exercise in the strictest sense, at least not merely an intellectual one. God’s words did not mean that He wanted the Israelites to discuss nothing but loving Him in every situation and on every occasion. Rather, God was commanding that parents should structure the environment and atmosphere of their homes so as to cultivate a sensibility of love for God. It is not merely the cognitive instruction on loving God that counts, but the myriads of cultivating influences that express or explain what loving God means and why loving God is beautiful, sensible, wise, compelling and even obvious. It is one thing to gain an understanding of what is true. It is another matter to gain appreciation for that truth. It is one thing to know that something is worthy. It is another to sense the worth of it. The first category are matters of cognition, while the second are matters of affection.

How would a child of Israel gain not merely assent to the truth claim that Yahweh alone is God, but proper affections with respect to that truth claim? By hundreds of daily shaping influences. It would be cultivated through what the parents loved. What did the parents prioritize? Was the worship and service of Yahweh first? Did they embrace sacrifice and inconvenience to worship Him? How did their treatment of Him compare to their pursuit of food, or honor or wealth? What sort of time did they devote to God? How much pleasure did they express in God? When they spoke of Him, how did they speak of Him? When they spoke to Him, how did they speak to Him? In relating to one another, how did husband and wife display the meaning of being in a covenant relationship with a loving God? How did their authority, instruction, chastening and exhortation of their children reveal the meaning of knowing and loving God? In other words, the loves of the parents would inevitably be communicated to the children. Example is a major part of why we love what we do. The prejudices, sensibilities, priorities, pleasures and attitudes and tastes of our family, our peers, our church, and the wider culture tend to shape our own.

Beyond that, Israelite family life was filled with custom, ritual, and tradition. The parents were to be faithful to keep the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routines of prayers, feasts, celebrations, days of worship, days of assembly or other ceremonies, not to mention all the civil and ritual laws. Through these tangible routines and habits of life, the Israelite’s life was filled with analogies to explain not only who God is, but how His people respond to Him. They helped him know the difference between the holy and the common. They provided sensibilities about the truths he knew. In attending worship, he heard the prayers and songs of Israel, and was catechized as to how God’s people love Him. By hearing, seeing, touching, smelling and tasting Sabbath meals, slaughtered animals, Solomonic choirs, golden menorahs, Davidic poetry, priestly incense, accounts of the Exodus, unleavened bread, kingly authority, Jubilee celebrations and hundreds of other things, the Israelite gained living metaphors of truth that evoked and shaped his affections. The affections of Israel were shaped when they were exposed to forms used by God to help His people rightly respond to the truths they knew.

Apart from God’s Revelation, none of these forms would shape ordinate affection. But assuming its presence, faithful exposition, and Israel’s practical submission to it, these forms were a necessary part of shaping the religious imagination of the Israelites. And as Tozer said, what comes into your mind when you think about God is the most important thing about you.

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Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 17 – Cultivating the Affections

July 22, 2011

One of the most difficult tasks facing the conservative Christian pastor is teaching that the affections are shaped, and that Christians ought to give attention to what shapes them.

Once again, most Christians live with an incorrect view of the affections. They see the emotions as more or less reactions to various stimuli. In that sense, their focus is merely on controlling (or suppressing) emotional expression. They become oblivious to the whole discussion of shaping or molding the affections, and tend to regard such discussions as extra-biblical pontificating or even legalism.

However, if we see the affections as expressions of value or worth, or more simply, our loves, it becomes obvious that what we love or treasure or value can be shaped. We do not love all things immediately, but learn or acquire some loves over time. We can grow certain loves, and weaken others.

The problem we encounter is that the loves are not under our direct control. While some of our loves may have been pursued by an act of will, others have been picked up without our knowing why. Many of our loves are loves that grew because of what our family loved, what our peers loved, what was loved by people we respected. Some loves came very late in life, while some were there early. Some loves were hard to develop, while others seemed almost natural. Not many people can explain why they love what they love without some serous thought. The affections do not come by sheer acts of will.

The fact that we have a responsibility to shape our loves to be ordinate, alongside the fact that these affections are not all seemingly under our direct control, leads many to deny that such a responsibility exists. It is at this point that many call the affections mere expressions of personality, personal preference and varying tastes. And since no one wants to pass judgment on these things, the discussion is given up altogether. After all, God would only require us to change those things that we can directly change, right?

I sometimes wonder if this kind of thinking comes from imagining humanity as some kind of machine or computer. You hear this kind of language all the time: our brain is a ‘supercomputer’, the body is ‘an amazing machine’, thinking is allowing people to ‘process things’, to ask for people’s views is to look for ‘inputs’ or ‘feedback’, people tell you that they are just ‘wired a certain way’ and so forth. With this kind of idea forming the backdrop of our view of man, we can easily see sanctification as a matter of ‘entering the right information’ so as to ‘gain the right outputs’. To be honest, some biblical counseling material sometimes makes it sound that way. When you think of mankind like this, you believe every issue is a matter of finding the right Bible verse, programming it into the CPU, and looking for obedience as an output. This then, is sanctification. None of that elusive affection-shaping stuff. Just give me the “put off/put on” pair of verses, and I’m on my way.

Unfortunately for this theory, we cannot so lightly dismiss the place of the affections in the make-up of man. His nature will have its revenge on our mechanistic views of sanctification and prove them insufficient to replace inordinate loves (i.e. lusts), with ordinate ones. Nor can we deny that the affections must be shaped (Phil 1:9-10, 1 Thes 5:21). And we cannot deny that their shaping involves matters not under our direct control.

This then brings us to the sixth mark of a conservative Christian church: understanding and teaching the means of furnishing the inner life with those ideas and images that encourage these loves and affections. We turn our attention to that next.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 16 – Distinguishing Between Affections

July 15, 2011

A Christian understanding of the affections emphasizes the centrality of the affections in the Christian life, and distinguishes it from modern notions of emotion. Beyond that, restoring a Christian view of the affections requires distinguishing between the kinds of affections.

If the affections are our hearts’ expressions of value or response to the nature and worth of what we encounter, then it is possible for those affections to correspond or fail to correspond. When a magistrate enters the court, a corresponding – or appropriate – response is to stand out of respect. To break out into screeching, hysterical laughter, would not correspond to the office of a magistrate or the occasion. This would be inappropriate.

Our goal as leaders is to persuade people that the Bible is filled with examples of ordinate (appropriate) and inordinate (inappropriate) affections. When teaching through the Scripture, these can be pointed out, and questions for reflection can be asked. For example:

* What kind of joy was taking place in Exodus 32:6, 17-19? How is this different to David’s joy in 1 Samuel 6:14?

* What sort of fear is encouraged in Proverbs 8:13? How is this different to the fear of 1 John 4:18?

* What kind of anger did Jesus display in John 2:14-16? How is this different to Ephesians 4:30-31 anger?

* Paul contrasts two kinds of sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7:10. How are they different, and why?

* Contrast the kind of love the Pharisees had with the kind of love that Jesus had in John 12:43. How are these loves different?

* How did Paul want the love of the Philippians to grow, as recorded in his prayer in 1:9-11? Why or how would this result in “approving the things that are excellent”?

* Explain the difference between revelry (Rom 13:13) and rejoicing (Phil 4:4).

* Explain the difference between sober worship and sombre worship.

Another helpful start to this discussion is C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves. Here the reader is introduced to the idea that there are at least four kinds of love, loves which differ in nature, degree and object. I would recommend including this book in a church library, at least as a conversation starter. Beyond that, tackling Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections will also help explain the difference between appropriate and inappropriate affection.

As communicators, pastors would do well to work on finding the right word for the right affection. What kind of joy? It could be flippant, hilarious, jolly, amused, playful, satisfied, exuberant, raucous, exultant, relieved, triumphant or many other kinds. What kind of fear? It could be horror, terror, despair, dread, timidity, panic, trepidation, intimidation, awe, caution, sobriety, reverence or many other kinds. Our goal is not merely to be experts in synonyms, but to find precisely the right nuance of affection. For this is the very point we are trying to make: there are kinds of ‘joy’ that are appropriate for some situations in life, but inappropriate for worship. There are some kinds of ‘love’ appropriate for some situations in life, but inappropriate for worship. Once again, the object determines the nature of our response, and the response can correspond of fail to do so.

And here is why we believe this to be so important: in the long run, inordinate affection is not only an incorrect response, it ultimately leads to idolatry. To respond to God with the kind of love you give a soft toy is not only an egregious error in itself, it ultimately leads to imagining God in just that way. It cannot be otherwise: the Christian who imagines God as dreadful, majestic and beautiful does not express that view of God with nursery rhymes and cutesy songs. The Christian who keeps speaking to God like an intimate lover cannot help imagining Him that way.

To put it another way, ordinate affection is essential to knowing the truth. When people love the wrong things, or love the right things wrongly, it begins a process of warping their understanding and perceptions. This is clearly seen in Romans 1:18-32, where the choice to love creature rather than Creator resulted in increasing foolishness. We end up becoming like whatever we worship (Ps 115:8).

Positively speaking, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the beginning of knowledge (Prov 9:10, 1:7). When we love God ordinately, and express it in obedience, the result is increasing knowledge (John 7:17) and discernment (Heb 5:14).  This is why the matter of ordinate affection is essential to Christianity. This is why churches that want to conserve Christianity care about it.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 15 -The Centrality and Nature of the Religious Affections

July 8, 2011

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 characterise 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, or 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.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 14 – The Religious Affections

July 1, 2011

Probably the greatest difference between a thoroughly conservative Christian church and more nominally conservative Christian churches will be found in differences over the religious affections. Conservative Christian churches want to conserve a Christian understanding of the religious affections. In the next few posts, I hope to suggest some ways that churches may recover a right view of the affections.

In my view, for all the areas in which the modern evangelical church fights against secularization, the matter of the affections is its most outstanding blind spot. Evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) combats the post-modern denial of absolute truth, with its consequent pluralism and incoherent view of ‘tolerance’. It wrestles against the moral relativism of our time, with its situational ethics and redefinitions of moral good. In other words, most modern Christians largely fight the battle for the True, which must be believed, and for the Good, which must be obeyed. They see these as absolutes, transcending immanent reality. However, when it comes to the third transcendental, the Beautiful, which must be loved, all bets are off. Here the consensus breaks up, and people start muttering about “the eye of the beholder and all that” or “entirely subjective”. Beauty, which is at the heart of this matter of the affections, cannot be an absolute, according to many Christians, even those who consider themselves ‘conservative evangelicals’ or even fundamentalists. In their view, widely differing tastes and preferences among people is proof positive that beauty is purely a matter of individual likes or dislikes. It cannot be a transcendental which exists apart from human opinion.

For the conservative, this represents an unambiguously secular view, a vestige of the Enlightenment revisions, and the fact that it is found on the lips of professing Christians displays just how profoundly secularized the church is.

A conservative argues for appropriate and inappropriate affections, because he believes affections correspond to something in reality. A certain kind of love ought to be given to a beautiful object. An ugly object deserves a certain kind of response. This is because such things are beautiful or ugly, not merely that they seem that way to different people. The religious affections are expressions of value for the beauty of something. This means that depending on our ability to correctly perceive beauty, our affections may be more or less correct, more or less appropriate. Just as our beliefs can conform or not conform to the True, and just as our actions can conform or not conform to the Good, so our affections can conform or not conform to the Beautiful. This is simply light-years away from how most people think about beauty, love and the affections.

The secular Christian sees his ’emotions’ as having no reference beyond himself. They are just his internal reactions (or worse, his ‘brain chemistry’). He cannot imagine that he could have a ‘wrong’ emotion, because he has no category for such a thing. He is too afraid to judge a song or piece of music as ugly, and therefore inappropriate for the God of all Beauty. He has lost all grounds to discern between right and wrong expressions of love for God in corporate worship or beyond it. He must tenaciously fight for the True and the Good, and tell himself that the Beautiful is a Romans 14 issue.

The battle to recover a right view of beauty and ordinate affection is the toughest battle that conservatives must fight, and as I said before, it is largely an abandoned battleground. However, if it is not fought, we lose far more than an argument over which hymns we prefer. We may lose the very way we are to know and love God.