On Christian affections

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

On Christian affections

Oct. 6, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
tparham@flumc.org     Orlando {0380}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

A traditional word that describes the emotions of the Christian life is "affections." It is an apt word because everyone who accepts the gospel of Jesus Christ is affected by the gospel. The affections are the attitudes and emotions we feel as a result of the invasion of the presence of the living God into our lives through faith in Jesus Christ.

The famous Congregationalist preacher and religious philosopher in colonial New England, Jonathan Edwards, published an essay in 1746 titled "Concerning the Nature of the Affections, and Their Importance in Religion." Edwards demonstrated the truth that "If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart." In 1773 John Wesley was so impressed with this essay he published an abridgement of it for the Methodists, leaving out what he called "so many curious, subtle, metaphysical distinctions."

Wesley appreciated Edwards' essay because it confirmed his own teaching. Wesley knew that accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ produced powerful new feelings in the lives of believers. In "The New Creation" Theodore Runyon explains that Wesley helped to nurture the new feelings of Christians because he saw "the importance ... of conscious participation in the reality of God as the way toward the realization of the purpose and goal of human life."

Preachers like Edwards during the Great Awakening in America and like Wesley during the Methodist Revival in Great Britain were often criticized for stirring up the emotions of people. The same criticism is made today against evangelicals and Pentecostals. Those who emphasize the Christian affections are derided as "emotionalists" who put emotions ahead of the intellect or the moral will. Of course, this charge was misguided as far as Wesley was concerned because he managed to hold together the affections, reason and moral endeavor as being integral to the Christian life.

It is an error to assume that an emphasis on the affections is an innovation of evangelicals or Pentecostals. That emphasis in the Christian life has always been an integral part of the understanding of the Christian life in the whole Christian tradition. Perhaps this has been understood better by Eastern Christians than some Western Christians.

Wesley may have been more sensitive to the role of the affections in the Christian life as a result of his apparent knowledge of the Eastern Fathers of the ancient church. The 20th century Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky articulated the tradition in "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church" when he wrote, "But if all this [receiving the Holy Spirit] happens within us without our having any experience or consciousness of it, then it is certain that we shall not know the eternal life which comes thence, that we shall not see the light of the Holy Spirit; that we shall remain as dead, blind and insensible in the life of eternity as we are in this present life." Of course, Lossky adds, "But it is not thus in truth, it is not thus." Our participation in the life of God by faith in Jesus Christ necessarily involves our experience and consciousness of it.

It is true that the affections need to be ordered rightly. It is possible for preachers and others to manipulate the affections. It does happen that some Christians confuse faith, our relationship with God with our feelings, and the ways we are affected by our faith. So then we have to help one another to know how to keep the affections in perspective.

The greater danger is that we shall neglect the affections. This is a problem for those of us who are intellectual in our primary constitution as persons.

Music of praise and small group sharing provide wholesome opportunities for us to express our affections and to nourish them.

There are many different kinds of affections: awe, humility, remorse, fear of God, joy, compassion, peace. They are new affections that enter our consciousness as we respond to the gospel in faith. Sometimes they overwhelm us, especially in the beginning of the Christian life. But experiencing the affections awakens our whole emotional life, makes us alive, and binds us to God who comes to us with immeasurable gifts.


This article relates to Christian Formation.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.

Contact Us

The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church

450 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33815

(863) 688-5563 or toll free (800) 282-8011