Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

1 Apr 2024

The Role of “Passion” in Christian Experience

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The use of the term passion has seen a huge uptick in conservative evangelical life in the past 25 years or so, roughly paralleling the sharp rise in influence of Reformed Charismatism in conservative evangelical theology and hymnody. The term passion is used in an overwhelmingly positive sense as the antidote to lethargy and ambivalence toward God and spiritual things—a problem that young, restless Christians seem perpetually to discover in previous generations.

But is Christian “passion” the correct antidote? I’m not so sure that it is. My first exposure to diversity in our “psychology of feeling” came in 1993, when I first read Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections. In this little volume Edwards distinguishes sharply between feelings that are unbridled, euphoric, ecstatic, and otherwise unrestrained (which he viewed as poisonous to the religious awakenings of his day) and feelings that are informed, cultivated, measured, and deeply felt (which were capable of sustaining genuine awakening).

My next exposure to this distinction came in my reading of William G. T. Shedd, whose Dogmatic Theology was assigned reading in my systematic theology classes at DBTS. Shedd is easily the most articulate defender of divine impassibility I have ever encountered. Passions, for Shedd, correspond largely to the troublesome emotions cited in Edwards, and flow from the ignorance of the human condition. Because humans lack omniscience, we react impulsively to circumstances and especially to unexpected stimuli—and because of depravity, we tend to react poorly. God, in his omniscience, has no passions. He never reacts; instead, he responds with perpetually measured, proportionate, and righteous affections: inclining toward what is good and withdrawing from what is evil in the outworking of his eternal decree. It’s not that God lacks feeling (indeed, God feels more deeply than we can possibly imagine), but his feelings are better expressed as inclinations and affections rather than passions. Of course Jesus, in his humanity, DID experience passion (in fact, we commemorated his passion just last week), but always chastely. That is, he immediately and aggressively domesticated his passions so that they were always expressed temperately and in righteousness. He serves as a model for our sanctification.

My third major encounter with this distinction was a read of Thomas Dixon’s dissertation, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge, 2008). His argument is that modern psychology (and esp. Freud) conflated passions and affections into the amorphous term emotion, effectively endorsing (or at a minimum permitting) all expressions of feeling as unavoidable aspects of an undifferentiated human psyche. The idea of actively suppressing wicked passions or cultivating chaste affections disappeared entirely from secular psychology. As Freudian psychology has leaned into Christian discipleship, I would suggest that it has supplanted Christ’s model for the sanctification of our feelings.

  • First, it results in the validation of all feeling. We simply need to find correct objects for our culturally-informed feelings. If our feelings are romantic (even erotic, according to one recent video clip), we can simply make God the object of our romantic impulses. If we value cheerfulness and excitability, we can make all of our religious expressions celebratory and fun. If our feelings run toward rage against cultural injustice, we can do worship that way, too. Of course, this also means that no worship music qua music can possibly ever be questioned—as a purveyor of feeling, music can never be invalidated.
  • Second, it places unwarranted emphasis on the simple release of passions as an indicator of spiritual health and less on the suppression of wicked affections and the cultivation of chaste ones. Zeal is prized above all else. This has long been the scourge of charismatism. 
  • Third, it diverts debates about worship from their central concern. The “worship wars” that churches experience are rarely biblical vs. unbiblical. Some are, but most pit one prevailing generational passion against the next as the dominant worship expression of a given church. 
  • Fourth, it largely ignores the patterns of Scripture in defining our expressions of religious affection. The disconnect between the worship of the psalms and contemporary worship never ceases to amaze me. While the psalms surely include some celebratory elements and Gospel references, they are dominated by lament, biblical-theological instruction, and the relentless theme of divine providence in the outworking of history and in the lives of God’s people. I would hazard that these themes are essential to a balanced expression of Christian affection—but very often, they are wholly absent.

In summary, I find largely unhelpful and even dangerous the unqualified appeal to passion in the outworking of the Christian experience. Much more important to the believer’s sanctification is the cultivation of biblically-informed, chaste, and measured affections.  

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