Emotions and Affections

Last week we looked at the intersection between music, singing and emotions. Today we look at the difference between emotions and affections. Is there a difference between the two? If so, what is the difference? Does it matter?

Gerald McDermott, a Jonathan Edwards scholar, notes that Edwards understood affections as “strong inclinations of the soul that are manifested in thinking, feeling and acting” (Seeing God: Jonathan Edwards and Spiritual Discernment (2000), 31). To clear away the fog that often exists between affections and emotions, McDermott summarizes the differences in an extremely illuminating chart (p. 40).

Affections
Emotions

Long-lasting
Fleeting

Deep
Superficial

Consistent with beliefs
Sometimes overpowering

Always result in action
Often fail to produce action

Involve mind, will, feelings
Feelings (often) disconnected from the mind and will

To explain these differences, he notes the following (32-33):

Emotions (feelings) are often involved in affections, but the affections are not defined by emotional feeling. Some emotions are disconnected from our strongest inclinations.

For instance, a student who goes off to college for the first time may feel doubtful and fearful. She will probably miss her friends and family at home. A part of her may even try to convince her to go back home. But she will discount these fleeting emotions as simply that—feelings that are not produced by her basic conviction that now it is time to start a new chapter in life.

The affections are something like that girl’s basic conviction that she should go to college, despite fleeting emotions that would keep her at home. They are strong inclination that may at times conflict with more fleeting and superficial emotions.

A few questions:

1. What are the problems of equating the two?
2. What are the problems of denying “religious affections” (to use the title of Edwards’ book)?
3. How does this sharpen your thinking on this important theological matter, and how might you use this to instruct others?

(HT: Justin Taylor)

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