The Christian Affections – Emotions, affections, appetites

Tim Chester has written an interesting series of short articles looking at the issue of the Christian affections.

He begins with with an examination of the place of the affections in the theology of Aquinas (Aristotle) and Luther (Augustine).  It is a really fascinating piece and worth reading in full, particularly with regards Luther’s view of the will (and its bondage to sin).  Here’s a snippet:

God reveals his glory and grace to us through the Holy Spirit and this revelation of God captures our hearts and therefore reshapes our wills. Frost summarises: ‘The will is enslaved by self‐love that defies God.The enslavement is only overcome in the elect by the regenerating disclosure of God’s love and goodness.’

The second article concerns the place of the affections in Puritan thought.  As you might expect, Chester focuses in on the work of Jonathan Edwards:

Jonathan Edwards offers perhaps the sharpest exposition of a Puritan view of the affections in The Freedom of the Will. Edwards argues that the will is not independent. It is integrally bound up with our understanding and affections. In particular, the acts of the will arise from the affections. We always do what we want to do.

Again, Chester shows how heart and will are bound together in our human experience:

Because of sin our affections are disoriented; they no longer want to do what is right. We do not sin because of some natural necessity. We are not made to sin against our will. There is no gun against our head or hand over our hand forcing us to sin. But we do sin out of a moral necessity because our will always follows our affections and our affections are misplaced. So the freedom of our will, and our bondage to sin, are entirely compatible.

The final article in the series concerns emotions, affections and appetites in our experience today.  Helpfully Chester shows how our idea today of ’emotions’ is closely aligned with the Puritan idea of ‘passions’.  For the Puritans, ‘affections’ were more stable, internal values of the heart more akin to the way we use the term ‘motives’ today.  Our emotions then are the product of our affections together with our environment.  Here’s Chester’s illustration:

if I desire the approval of the people (an affection) and my work is well received then I’ll feel happy (an emotion). But if my work is not well-received (a change of circumstance) then I will feel sad (an change of  emotion). My affection (the desire for approval) does not change, but it produces different emotions under different circumstances.

This distinction is helpful for us today.  God the Holy Spirit shapes my affections according to His Word.  And so, as my heart is transformed into the likeness of Christ’s, my emotions will increasingly be good and godly, whatever my circumstances.  These are distinct too from my appetites which are my bodily drives for food, sex, sleep, etc.  God promises me that by His Spirit He will transform my heart so that my new regenerate affections will direct my emotions and rule over my appetites.

In all this, we are reminded that God’s transformation of us is from the inside out:

43 ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. 45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Luke 6)

It is as God transforms my heart – my values, my motives, my affections – that in turn my emotions and behaviour change.