Monthly Archives: June 2019

A Short History of “Emotion”

Some might be surprised to learn that the word emotion is perhaps only 200 years old. Thomas Dixon has documented the history of the term “emotion” in his book From Passions to Emotions. He shows that what was originally a moral category in Christian thought named affections or passions became a psychological category termed emotions. What used to refer to the inclination of the will or the presence of appetites became subsumed into an idea of passive bodily or neurological responses.

Of course, people have been discussing this topic for centuries, even though the term emotion is a newcomer. In the Christian tradition, writers distinguished between the higher, volitional part of the soul that expressed love in the form of affections and the lower part of the soul (the involuntary or irrational part) which did so in the form of appetitive passions. For Christians, affections were movements of the will in the direction of desire, not whimsical and involuntary bodily experiences.

One sees this thinking very early. For example, Augustine united desire (cupiditas), fear (timor), joy (laetitia), and sorrow (tristitia) under the single principle of love (amor). Augustine clarifies that the important matter in judging the morality of an “emotion” is its chosen and willed object. “In our ethics, we do not so much inquire whether a pious soul is angry, as why he is angry; not whether he is sad, but what is the cause of his sadness; not whether he fears, but what he fears” (City of God, IX, v). In other words, the object of desire determines the moral quality of the love. Love, according to Augustine, is a matter of inclination towards desired objects. Love is a moral response of positive inclination towards an object. Therefore, the kind of love may vary significantly when the objects desired vary significantly. Put simply, the love corresponds to its object.

Thomas Aquinas similarly saw love as the direction or inclination of the will towards an object, not as an irrational psychological feeling. In fact, Aquinas saw all “emotions” as love of some form: “Hence love is naturally the first act of the will and appetite; for which reason all the other appetite movements presuppose love, as their root and origin. For nobody desires anything nor rejoices in anything, except as a good that is loved: nor is anything an object of hate except as opposed to the object of love” (Summa Theologica, I, xx, Art. I).

For Jonathan Edwards, “affections” were movements of the will informed by the understanding, while passions were more related to appetite: “The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same; and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference; and affection is a word that in its ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination; but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more overpowered, and less in its own command. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:98).

In the premodern Christian tradition, love as an affection could therefore be appropriate or inappropriate, since love could be rightly or wrongly directed. The object of desire determined if it was right to desire such a thing, and necessarily dictated the moral quality of the affection.

This changed in the 1700s. In eighteenth-century Germany, a third faculty of the soul, in addition to understanding and will, was introduced—that of feeling. This was endorsed in works by Kant and Schopenhauer, who promoted the idea of irrational and involuntary feelings. British moralists of the same period began departing from a will-centred affective psychology and tacitly introduced a three-faculty psychology (understanding, will, and feelings) rather than a two-faculty one (understanding and will).

Thomas Brown (1778–1820) baptised the term emotion in his 1820 Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind. For Brown, only intellectual states were active, while emotions were mere feelings that were passively experienced. This concept would then be co-opted by influential writers such as Thomas Chalmers and later materialists such as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and Alexander Bain, culminating in its use by William James in 1884, which corresponds somewhat to its use today.

Contemporary Evangelicals tend to conflate the concepts of affection and emotion. To do so is very dangerous, for at least three reasons. First, such a move conflates moral actions for which we are responsible with bodily appetites over which we often have little control. Second, it elevates what should be largely ignored (bodily moods), and ignores what should be controlled (affective responses). Third, it becomes dismissive toward the quality of our moral affections and what shapes them. These dangers are each worth investigating.


Ten Mangled Words – “Emotion”

Perhaps few words are as mangled as the word emotion. In this word is a cacophony of confusion. For some, emotion is nothing more than the superficial states of the body: neither moral, nor important. For others, emotion is the gold standard of sincerity: if you feel it, then you mean it, and lack of feeling is a lack of sincerity. For some, feelings never lie; for others, they nearly always do.

Misunderstanding this word can have catastrophic effects. The ideas associated with emotion lie at the very heart of worship. They enter our understanding of counselling, discipleship and biblical change. Misunderstanding this word leads to the extremes of stoicism and hedonism, to brutality and sentimentality, to abuse of the body and idolatry of the body. It can lead us to place the emphasis on the mind instead of the heart, or it can lead us to being controlled by bodily appetites instead of the soul’s reason.

As with the other words we have studied, much of the problem is equivocation. Emotion means different things in different contexts, and the same person may mean different things by the the use of the term, even in the same sentence. In fact, I would say that this particular word has been saddled with the burden of about three or four other ideas.

One of them is motive. What moves or inclines people to action or thought is sometimes called emotion or feeling. “He just doesn’t feel very interested in the topic.” “She has mixed feelings about speaking in front of those people.” “He feels strongly about this cause.” Here, emotion or feeling describes how strongly, weakly or ambiguously someone is inclined to an action. Here, emotion is actually referring to what someone loves or hates.

A second idea which emotion subs for is responses of desire or dislike, in many forms. The various species of desire are often called emotions: joy, anger, sorrow, fear, disgust, or surprise. Of course, each of these may come in further species. Anger could be fury, irritation, rage, frustration, or bitterness. Joy could be contentment, hilarity, happiness, satisfaction, amusement, pleasure, and so on. Each of these is not simply a difference in degree, but a difference in kind- in actual form. Anger comes in different forms, as does fear, sorrow and  surprise. These may be more or less rational, more or less voluntary, more or less pleasing to God. If you consider the lists of virtues and the lists of sins that the New Testament gives us, you will find on those lists several words which would be named “emotions” by moderns (Mark 7:21-22; Ro. 1:29-31; 1 Co. 6:9-10; 2 Co. 12:20; Gal. 5:19-24; Eph. 5:3-6; Phil. 4:8; 2 Tim 3:2-5; James 3:14-17; 2 Pet 1:5-7).

A third idea that moderns mean by emotion is mood or temperament. One’s mood can refer to a bodily state of lethargy or excitement, fatigued lowness or anxious alertness, giddy expectation or cold-sweat dread. General temperament is a strange mix of inherited traits, bodily constitution, unique personality and learned character habits. As embodied souls, or ensouled bodies, we are beings whose spiritual desires have bodily effects and manifestations, and whose bodies produce effects upon our souls.

Untangling this word will mean separating out these meanings and suggesting some synonyms.

A Theology of Equality

When God made humankind, He made them male and female, both equally in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). According to Peter this makes men and women co-heirs of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). He chose to do so in a staggered fashion, however, creating the male first, followed by the female. In so doing, God created and exemplified an order: the man would be the spiritual leader (1 Timothy 2:12-13).

The Fall introduced depravity into the male-female relationship (Gen. 3:16), men dominating women through sheer strength, and women desiring to usurp men’s role of leadership. When in Christ, the abuses and enmity between the sexes can be erased, with both finding their fullest identity in Him (Gal 3:28). By the grace of Christ, husbands can again be chivalrous, loving leaders, and women can be strong, supportive companions (Ephesians 5:22-33).


All ethnicities are ultimately one race: the human race (Acts 17:26). God allowed and even separated different nations as an act of simultaneous judgement and mercy (Gen. 11:6-9; Acts 17:26-27). The development of these different ethnic groupings both retarded the depravity and rebellion of the human race, and allowed the common grace of God to work separately in each (Acts 14:16-17; 17:27). To the degree that each ethnicity rebelled against the light given to them explains the relative distance of the resulting cultures from biblical norms and truths. Some were closer in morals and practices to biblical ideals, some were much further away (Rom. 1:18-32). Ethnicities that were exposed to the Gospel and responded positively to it had the privilege of shaping their norms and practices around revealed truth.

In Christ, ethnic hatred, pride, and partiality is a thing of the past (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; Jas. 2:1-10). Though Israel retains its place as a chosen ethnicity for God’s own purposes (Rom. 9:5-6; 11:1-6), believers now partake of a new, shared identity as one new humanity in Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). Just as male and female difference do not disappear in Christ, nor do ethnic idiosyncrasies and traits, which even Paul noted about the Cretans (Tis. 1:12-13). The point is, these will either be transformed by Christ, or become part of the glorious variety that makes up the redeemed (Rev. 5:9). Believers can no longer use ethnic differences as point of division or separation within the body of Christ.


When God made man, He instructed man to spread His glory throughout the Earth by subjugating it to intelligent and orderly design (Gen. 1:26-28). This would require a vast variety of abilities, gifts, and talents. Even after the Fall, this variety is not lost, with men specialising in agriculture (Gen. 4:20), music (4:21), and metallurgy (4:22). Men chose leaders, kings and priests as far back as we can tell. Systems of government and societal structure were, once again, as good or bad as they were close or distant from God’s truth. Brutal and inhumane systems emerge very early.

The stratification of society is not regarded as an evil, though. Israel’s law makes room for leaders, elders, judges, priests, and kings. It allows for indentured servanthood to pay off debts. It predicts that poor people will remain a fixture of society and calls for compassion and generosity for those poor willing to work. It predicts that some Israelites will be wealthy, and insists that their wealth is not to give them an advantage in the law courts. It does not penalise them for being wealthy, but it prevents their wealth from perverting justice.

In the New Testament, Paul accepts as a reality the fact that the church may be composed of the lower classes (1 Cor. 1:26-27). He tells the Corinthians that it is God’s plan to have a Body composed of members very different in function, ability, and presentability (12:11-27). He cautions them against coveting another’s position, denigrating their own, or being puffed up about themselves. But he does not call for uniformity in status or position. All are to be cherished and loved, but some are worthy of double honour (1 Tim. 5:17). Some are to be esteemed very highly in love for their work’s sake. Christian servants must work for their masters, even the cruel ones, with submissive, honest, zealous labour (1 Pet. 2:18-19). Believing masters must rule without harshness (Eph. 6:9). Paul does not call for the societal abolition of slavery, but tells Philemon to treat Onesimus like a brother, not a slave, thereby implicitly undermining the institution.


As we can see, a biblical theology of equality shows that equality is a word that cannot be used to mean the same thing in all contexts. Are humans equally in God’s image? Yes. Are humans equal? No: not in ability, intelligence, perceptiveness, appearance, or even opportunity. Some equality is good and should be fought for: equality before the law, and equal access to the Gospel. Some equality is impossible and is like chasing rainbows: equality of outcome for all, equal pay for all people, equal education for all aptitudes, equal roles for different sexes, ages, and abilities.

Some forms of equality are justice. Some forms of inequality require redress to obtain that justice.

Some forms of inequality are not unjust; they are simply the form of creation. Some forms of enforced equality are unjust and produce the very opposite of what they claimed to pursue.

8. Beauty and Knowing

Beauty does not only encourage a pursuit of reality, but beauty encourages a Christian epistemology. It teaches how we know what we know.

The Enlightenment project involved pursuing certainty without relying on revelation or authority. If a thinking, knowing subject could be “neutral”, pure reason would lead to truth. This resulted in a general suspicion of any elements of knowledge and human experience that could not be verified through empirical means. Beauty would be one of the casualties of this project.

There are always reactions to reactions, however. After the pure rationalism of the early Enlightenment came the aestheticism of the eighteenth century, trying to find a place for beauty in a world of reason, even if it meant art for art’s sake. After the dust settled, Immanuel Kant carried the day, trying to rescue both fact and value, objective and subjective, empirical and transcendental, by separating the two. This has come to be called the fact/value distinction. You can put science and reason in one box, and beauty and morality in another, but the rule is that the boxes cannot touch.

Most would say that this idea of neutral knowing has largely had its time in the sun. Postmodernity’s intellectuals delighted in pointing out the situatedness of all knowers, of the interpretive nature of all knowledge, of the permanence of our personal commitments when seeking to understand.

Some of Christianity’s early responses to the Enlightenment quest for “objective, rational, value-free facts” included defending the faith on the terms set by its critics. When attempting to defend Christianity on scientific or empirical grounds alone, Christians were conceding to a false theory of knowledge. Since no lie can be brought into the service of the truth, attempting to validate Christianity by a false standard was doomed to failure.

But the church was doomed to find itself, once again, becoming expert in the world’s fashions only when the world had already discarded them. Postmodernity and post-secularism was shaping a society that was becoming indifferent  to supposedly empirically verified truth-claims.  A new, sensuous spirituality was charming the modern consciousness, and a thirst for beauty had returned. Some church goers were more interested in beautiful architecture, ancient traditions and artistic liturgy than they were in historical evidences for the faith.

Christian responses to this postmodern epistemology have been varied. Some retreated back into modernity, loudly emphasising a scientific and rational basis for the truth of the Bible in opposition to the “no truth except personal truth” approach. Others sadly embraced the deconstructionism of postmodernism. But to deny the reality of any of Christianity’s metaphysical claims is crippling oneself before you have even begun the race.

Beauty offers us a Christian way of knowing reality. It does something unexpected: it accepts as true what postmoderns say about the Enlightenment view of knowledge, but it simultaneously rejects postmodernism’s nihilism. Beauty concedes both the subjective aspect of human knowledge and an objective basis for that knowledge in reality outside of the subject.

The world continues to deny that truth can be known. Beauty comes to the rescue. Beauty’s claim is that it exists undeniably outside individual knowers (two people can see a rainbow a both remark on its beauty)  while making demands on subjects that they shape their judgements to perceive and experience it rightly (a warped person might find rainbows ugly).

Beauty provides the link to knowing objective reality through the correct subjective postures. Beauty is the merger between objective reality and subjective perception. It is correspondence between affection and reality.

For Christians, beauty should be primary when pursuing knowledge. After all, beauty foregrounds the use of imagination in perception. Since faith and imagination are inseparably connected, beauty insists that we foreground faith to rightly perceive the world. While we treasure reason, Christians ought to believe that the aesthetic dimension of man is needed for his broadest and most encompassing grasp of reality.

Slowly, the church is beginning to jettison the Enlightenment, realising that relegating beauty to nothing more than the preferences and pleasures within a subject is an Enlightenment revision, not a biblical or Christian view at all.

Beauty is at the heart of how one knows the world, and how you know that you know.

Equality and Necessary Hierarchy

The current proponents of social justice have little idea of what they may be creating in pursuit of their goal. Their goal is a just society, but the pursuit of radical egalitarianism won’t provide them with that.

Richard Weaver, writing in 1948, describes how radical egalitarianism provides nothing that traditional societies already produced, and may actually be producing a cancerous envy that will destroy society from within. It promises a fiction, and the frustration from pursuing a non-existent and impossible order creates growing angst and unhappiness.

“Equality is a disorganizing concept in so far as human relationships mean order. It is order without a design; it attempts a meaningless and profitless regimentation of what has been ordered from time immemorial by the scheme of things. No society can rightly offer less than equality before the law; but there can be no equality of condition between youth and age or between the sexes; there cannot be equality even between friends. The rule is that each shall act where he is strong; the assignment of identical roles produces first confusion and then alienation, as we have increasing opportunity to observe. Not only is this disorganizing heresy busily confounding the most natural social groupings, it is also creating a reservoir of poisonous envy. How much of the frustration of the modern world proceeds from starting with the assumption that all are equal, finding that this cannot be so, and then having to realize that one can no longer fall back on the bond of fraternity!

However paradoxical it may seem, fraternity has existed in the most hierarchical organizations; it exists, as we have just noted, in that archetype of hierarchy, the family. The essence of co-operation is congeniality, the feeling of having been “born together.” Fraternity directs attention to others, equality to self; and the passion for equality is simultaneous with the growth of egotism. The frame of duty which fraternity erects is itself the source of ideal conduct. Where men feel that society means station, the highest and the lowest see their endeavors contributing to a common end, and they are in harmony rather than in competition. It will be found as a general rule that those parts of the world which have talked least of equality have in the solid fact of their social life exhibited the greatest fraternity. Such was true of feudal Europe before people succumbed to various forms of the proposal that every man should be king. Nothing is more manifest than that as this social distance has diminished and all groups have moved nearer equality, suspicion and hostility have increased. In the present world there is little of trust and less of loyalty. People do not know what to expect of one another. Leaders will not lead, and servants will not serve.

It is a matter of common observation, too, that people meet most easily when they know their position. If their work and authority are defined, they can proceed on fixed assumptions and conduct themselves without embarassment toward inferior and superior. When the rule of equality obtains, however, no one knows where he belongs. Because he has been assured that he is “just as good as anybody else,” he is likely to suspect that he is getting less than his deserts, Shakespeare concluded his wonderful discourse on degree with reference to “an envious fever.” And when Mark Twain, in the role of Connecticut Yankee, undertook to destroy the hierarchy of Camelot, he was furious to find that serfs and others of the lower order were not resentful of their condition. He adopted then the typical Jacobin procedure of instilling hatred of all superiority. Resentment, as Richard Hertz has made plain, may well prove the dynamite which will finally wreck Western society…

It is generally assumed that the erasing of all distinctions will usher in the reign of pure democracy. But the inability of pure democracy to stand for something intelligible leaves it merely a verbal deception. If it promises equality before the law, it does no more than empires and monarchies have done and cannot use this as a ground to assert superiority. If it promises equality of condition, it promises injustice, because one law for the ox and the lion is tyranny.”

(Ideas Have Consequences, pp 42-44)