“Emotion” Is a Virtually Worthless Word

Scott Aniol

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An understanding of who we are as human beings is one of the areas of thought most negatively impacted by Enlightenment rationalism and Darwinian evolution, and this is especially true with our modern conception of “emotion.”

The term “emotion” is a relatively recent term, only entering common discourse about 200 years ago. Prior to that, people didn’t use the term, and consequently, they had a far more nuanced understanding of human sensibility.

Thomas Dixon traces the creation and evolution of this idea in his very helpful book, From Passions to Emotions. He demonstrates how the idea of emotion “is little more than a hundred years old. Darwin’s Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1872) and William James’ “What is an Emotion” (1884) are the first studies of the emotions using scientific methodology.”1Thomas Dixon, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 8.

Premodern thought used more nuanced terms that expressed a distinction between kinds of emotion. At the time of the writing of the New Testament, common Greek thought articulated a distinction between the splankna—the chest—and the koilia—the belly. The splankna was the seat of the affections, things like love, joy, courage, and compassion. The koilia was the seat of the passions, things like appetite, sexuality, fear, and rage. The affections were to be nurtured, developed, and encouraged, and the passions were to be held under control. The passions were not evil (in contrast to Gnosticism)—they were simply part of man’s physical makeup; but in any contest between the passions and the intellect, the passions always won unless the intellect was supported by the affections.

This was the common way of articulating things in Greek culture, and NT authors wrote with such distinctions in mind. For instance, Paul says in Philippians 3 that enemies of Christ worship their koilia—their “belly,” their passions. In Colossians 3 Paul tells Christians to put on splankna—the “chest,” affections—of mercy, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and longsuffering. In other words, this distinction is not explicitly defined in the New Testament because the original readers would have already understood it, but the distinction is clearly evident. Enemies of Christ serve their passions while God-pleasing Christians nurture noble affections. This distinction has been lost in our day, largely because of the influence of secularism and especially evolutionism, but premoderns understood it.

This kind of distinction was maintained for thousands of years. Even as the categories were changing in the wake of the Enlightenment, Jonathan Edwards articulated this distinction in The Religious Affections. Edwards defined affection as the “inclination of the will.” It is what moves us to do what we know is right. Edwards defined the affections as part of the mind, the immaterial part of man. On the other hand, he defined passion as the agent which immediately affected the “animal spirits,” the physical feelings and impulses we share with animals in terms of physical composition. He wrote,

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. Affection is a word that in the 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 over powered, and less in its own command.2Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections, 1746, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:98.

Both affections and passions can drive a person to action. The affections are the inclination of the will (the moral component of the spirit), while the passions drive physical impulses.

What is important to remember is that a Christian must never be governed by his passions. The Bible calls this part of man his “belly”—his “gut,” and reveals an unbeliever to be a slave to it (Philippians 3:19). A Christian should never allow his gut to control him. These passions and feelings are not evil; they are simply part of the physical makeup of mankind. To assign morality to them would be like assigning morality to hunger. Jesus Himself experienced the passion of anger, and yet without sin.

The physical passions are not evil in themselves, but they must always be kept under control. Left unchecked by the spirit, passions always lead to sin. This is why the Bible must warn, “Be angry, and yet do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Anger is not wrong, but it will lead to sin if not controlled. Likewise, appetite is a good thing, but left unchecked it results in gluttony. Sexuality is a wonderful gift from God, but uncontrolled it turns to lust. Fear is a necessary part of the survival instinct of man, but if it controls a person, he can not operate properly. You can distinguish between affections and passions because you can never have too much affection, but it is possible to have too much passion.

The problem is that when the passions are set in conflict with the mind, the passions will always win. A man may know that it is wrong to hit another man, but if he is angry, that knowledge alone will not stop him from reacting wrongly. It is only when his knowledge is supported by noble affections that he can overcome his passions. As C. S. Lewis says, “The head rules the belly through the chest.”3C. S Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 24.

This is true for faith. Faith is not mere belief in facts. That alone would not move a person to a righteous life. Faith is belief combined with the affection of trust. When belief is supported by trust, a person will be able to overcome his sinful urges. Christians, therefore, should strive to gain more right knowledge and nurture more right affections so that they act rightly. They must also beat their bodies and make them their slaves (1 Corinthians 9.27).

“Emotion” is an entirely secular category, while understanding a distinction between affections and passions has a long history rooted in New Testament Scripture.

In other words, “emotion” is an entirely secular category, while understanding a distinction between affections and passions has a long history rooted in New Testament Scripture. As Dixon notes,

To speak of “passions and affections of the soul” was to embed one’s thought in a network of more distinctively Christian concepts and categories. In contrast, the category of “emotions” was alien to traditional Christian thought and was part of a newer and more secular network of words and ideas.4Dixon, From Passions to Emotions, 4.

It wasn’t until reason was raised as the ultimate arbiter of truth and man was considered a mere animal that these more nuanced categories were lumped together into the unhelpful category of “emotion”:

It was the secularization of psychology that gave rise to the creation and adoption of the new category of “emotions” and influenced the way it was originally and has subsequently been conceived. . . . Influential figures in secular science and psychology in the mid-nineteenth century, such as Charles Darwin, Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer, were among these early “emotions” theorists.5Dixon, From Passions to Emotions, 4–5.

So today, when people talk about emotion, they are speaking of a category that may include the affections, passions, or the resultant feelings. As Dixon notes,

The over-inclusivity of our modern-day category of emotions has hampered attempts to argue with any subtlety about the nature and value of the enormous range of passionate, affectionate, sentimental, felt, and committed mental states and stances of which we are capable.6Dixon, From Passions to Emotions, 3.

This is why we must be more specific when discussing these things — “emotion” is just too broad a term. Most people are thinking of “feelings” when they say “emotion,” but not always. Joy, fear, and “butterflies” are all “emotions,” but they are very different from one another.

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1 Thomas Dixon, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 8.
2 Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections, 1746, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:98.
3 C. S Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 24.
4 Dixon, From Passions to Emotions, 4.
5 Dixon, From Passions to Emotions, 4–5.
6 Dixon, From Passions to Emotions, 3.
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Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.