“What do you mean by ‘affective theology?’ I’ve never heard of it before I met you.”
It’s a fair question. I first found the label in Heiko Oberman’s The Dawn of the Reformation where he wrote of fourteenth-century Christians whose “suspicion of speculation” led them away from prior theological streams. They preferred “an affective theology in its place’’ that while not being anti-intellectual was more heart-based. It reflected Franciscan reforms and “a new longing for a comprehensive system of thought” (pp. 7-8). Older traditions were broken: reform was needed. Oberman viewed this impulse as a continuing element in later reforms.
In taking up this reform I also prefer the term “spirituality” rather than the more generic “theology” because the former underscores the Spirit’s role in the Spirit-to-spirit bond of regeneration. And the church today still needs a more comprehensive system of thought that receives the Bible as the guiding Christian resource for sound faith and practice.
Affective Spirituality has three prominent features. A simple Biblicism for one. In John chapter eight Jesus called on those who are “truly my disciples” to “abide in my word” by embracing the truth he offers to a capsized world. Second is the recognition that hearts rather than the human will or volition explain every action. This dismisses the Greek-Stoic anthropology that makes autonomous choice—the “free will”—a basis for human identity. And third, the reality of God’s Triune relational existence is central: we have been born of the Father, Son, and Spirit who pours out his inherent love “in our hearts” by the Spirit. So that a transforming love for God and neighbor is active in all who know him.
Let me touch on each of these very briefly.
First, the Bible comes to us as God’s gift of self-disclosure. And our hearts must respond to him for faith to exist. I’ll offer my own story to illustrate this. I grew up in a Christian home with sound church training. But it was simply moral and creedal content; and that didn’t move me. By the time I reached my middle teen years I was ready to leave it all behind. Yet at the same time I wanted to hear from God! So I finally tried reading the Bible despite my skepticism. Then in reading the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew the text came alive! I met Jesus there as a living voice speaking through the written words.
While conversion through immediate Bible reading isn’t normative it is suggestive. Faith comes by hearing words about Christ; yet the same words can be barren for one reader and lively for another. And if we presume God—whose Spirit awakens the soul to “hear” the Scriptures in a life-giving way—isn’t being arbitrary, we’re left to locate the problem in “hard” and skeptical human hearts. And addressing that is another conversation!
Second, we need to recognize the heart as God’s locale for communing with us—where his Spirit lives after our conversion. But despite the huge weight of heart-focused references in the Bible the default view of the soul in most churches is that love is an act of our will rather than a response of the heart.
Listen, for instance, to the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing—an influential fourteenth century guide to spirituality: “Will is the faculty by which we choose good after it has been approved by reason, and by which we love God … and ultimately dwell in God” (Penguin, 138). It sounds lovely but it’s not what the Bible actually teaches. The truth is that none of us seeks after God like that.
The Bible says the opposite: we only love God because he first loved us. So here’s a bold challenge: read the entire Bible through in just a few weeks and mark each reference to the heart and to the will. See where the real weight lands.
Third, we have the Trinity: God’s singular being with his three eternal distinctions. And his eternal loving communion is the basis for both creation and redemption. Yet we won’t have a sound grasp of these two actions if we haven’t explored the Bible’s Trinitarian roots.
In my own experience it was the seventeenth-century Puritan Richard Sibbes who turned on the lights for me—his fascination with the Trinity as explained by the early Church Fathers and as applied in the relational insights of Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin was invaluable. Michael Reeve’s lively summary, Delighting in the Trinity—or, in the UK, The Good God—is a good starter for filling in this blind spot.
If we summarize the whole we have this: affective spirituality is a faith that arises in those who are assured by the Spirit’s personal witness to our hearts of God’s Scriptural promises: he loves us personally and he’s invested in transforming us into the likeness of the Son in order to share God’s love with us through all the ages to come. And as Jesus prayed in John 17 love among believers will show a skeptical world that God is alive and well.
Finally, if you aren’t there already I encourage you to open your heart to Christ’s affective ambitions. He looks for those who have a heart like his own.