Affective Theology

“I tried to find a definition for ‘affective theology’ in the dictionary but it wasn’t listed—so where does it come from and what does it mean?”

That question was posed to me a number of times when I was a seminary teacher. Students wondered why I used the phrase regularly in my classes while it wasn’t used by any of the other faculty members, save one.

My answer? “I made it up!” That’s not really true—I found it elsewhere, as I’ll share below—but it’s true enough in that I still use it freely even if others don’t.

The adjective-noun combination labels, mainly, the spiritual tradition of Augustine, the fifth century Bishop of Hippo. It could be called Augustinian Theology but that label is too narrow and misses its real source. Augustine developed his views from his Bible studies; and it was the same reading of the Bible that others embraced. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, and Jonathan Edwards—to name a few—were all affective theologians.

In each case they treated the biblical “heart”—the affective center in any person—as the compass of the soul and the source of all our activities. When God changes a heart, a transformation of desires is birthed; and so, too, a transformation of conduct. The mind only serves as an instrument of the heart, and the will goes wherever the heart directs.

This understanding is anchored in concrete reality: we do whatever we do because we desire to do it. And desires are affections stirred by someone or something outside us. In other words, we all operate as responders rather than as independent (“self-moved”) agents: always.

Our standard language for this is, “I do what I want to do”—without pausing to realize that someone or something made us “want” to do it. It may have been advertisements, movies, a social mentor, an iconic figure, a family tradition, a photo, the urgings of a friend, what we’ve read: something always influences us to make our choices. And our hearts regularly need to pause in order to weigh and compare our competing affections until a given desire wins the moment. We may use the language of “Let me think about it” but it’s really a desire-sampling moment.

Support for this understanding abounds throughout the Bible. For instance, as Christians we love God because he first loved us and not because we first decided to love him. This, then, sets up our bond to God as a response rather than as a duty or a responsibility to be met. We grow spiritually only as much as the “eyes of our hearts” are stirred by a clearer, stronger vision of God. Faith, then, is always experiential.

Satan similarly rules people by stirring selfish desires with a host of devices and not by some magical power. He also works hard to portray God as unlovely and selfish—as a God who refuses to give us what we want when we want it—while also obscuring the biblical portrayal of a selfless God who gave up his Son to death in order to save us and to draw us to himself to enjoy, more and more, a holy and blameless manner of life in our love for Christ.

My students would follow up, “Are you talking about our emotions, then?”

Yes, affections are, indeed, emotions. But the former label is preferred for two reasons: 1. It uses the adjective that most often describes this tradition; and, 2. Emotions are viewed as the frothy part of the soul—never to be trusted. To speak of an affection, then, avoids pejorative rhetoric and has broader traction among readers.

Let me illustrate the connection and the distinction of affections and emotions. The Bible warns against the “love of money”: an affective motivation that traps many. Yet most people who love money feel safe because it’s not an “emotional” issue—hence, they reason, it’s not something they love. What’s more, chasing wealth is a challenge that calls for logic, effort, and tedious devotion.

Are they safe, then, from the charge of loving money? No. The “emotional” side of that love shows up as soon as money is lost or stolen. Or when a lottery ticket proves to be a winner. Emotions are simply the lively aspect of the affections; and the affections can employ logic, effort, and tedious devotion in the pursuit of whatever we desire the most. It’s all one and the same.

Who, then, launched my own adoption of this affective labeling and its underlying insights? It was the late Dutch scholar, Heiko A. Oberman. This historian was a guide and teacher as I, the student, explored what led to Luther’s reforming activism. In his work, The Dawn of the Reformation, Oberman wrote of a late-medieval-era movement away from the empty theological speculations of scholasticism in favor of “the programmatic call for an affective theology in its place” (p. 7).

That movement towards a programmatic call to affective theology still serves as an invitation today for us to join some good company—the band of Augustinian lovers of God. An affective theology, birthed in Christ’s love for us, is what we are all invited to enjoy. So let’s all go there!



  1. Gretchen

    I spent the nearly 40 years trying to “will myself” to love and follow the Lord. Surprise…it doesn’t work! But as I discover the Lord’s love for me through His Word, my heart is drawn into love for Him, which radically changes my will, my motives, my desires….all of who I am. That is the reality of what Ron calls “affective theology.” It IS about where our affections lie. What, or whom, do we find most compelling?

  2. David

    I was trying to get the main points about affective theology across last night in homegroup as I led a discussion on John 12, and was really surprised when almost everyone disagreed and thought I was in grave danger! Reading this piece has confirmed what I was trying to say, thanks Ron.

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