The fashion for passion

The Charismatic movement is notable for the fashions through which it regularly passes, both in praxis and vocabulary, and as I noted in my piece on the Christian music industry, that is reflected in fashions in the subject matter and vocabulary of worship leaders and their songs.

The last few years, for example, have seen a great emphasis on the concept of “passion,” and you might well have come across this in a church or a worship song near you. It is used by worship leaders either to describe their passion for the Lord, or as yet another aspirational desire, to unlock, release, or otherwise acquire, “Holy Spirit passion.”

It seems that the theological understanding of this is as a reflex of the infinite passion of God himself for us, motivating him to undergo the Cross, bring heaven down to earth, and so on. Passion language has been around a few years now, but is perhaps best encapsulated in the blurb for Bethel Redding’s execrable “translation” of the Bible, given to the lone translator by special revelation rather than by any great skill in the original languages:

Bethel’s 2020 Edition of The Passion Translation
The Passion Translation® is a modern, easy-to-read Bible translation that unlocks the passion of God’s heart—merging emotion and life-changing truth.

The problem to me is that what has become a central tenet of some people’s Christianity has no biblical counterpart whatsoever. Or rather it has, but with virtually an opposite meaning. Coining new words in theology usually means coining new doctrine – a dangerous adjustment to “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints,” but perhaps quite consistent with people who go along with Bible translation by special revelation.

For a start, “passion” is never once attributed to God in Scripture, the single exception being Acts 1:3, where it refers to the (inflicted, though willing) suffering of the Lord on the Cross. This is from the verb pascho from which comes the term “paschal Lamb,” and of course the descriptive term “The Passion.”

Brief aside: some may remember the “rock oratorio” The Passion by musician Adrian Snell, which happens just to have been performed live again after many years. I was privileged to hear it in its earliest form, when Adrian was still at school, because his sister Julia was my wife’s best friend, through whom my wife was converted.

The noun pathos and its cognates is also pretty uncommon in the New Testament, and its meaning is always the fleeting emotions to which, as weak and mortal sinners, we are passively subject (hence the connection to “suffering”). As Vines New Testament Words puts it:

Used by the Greeks of either good or bad desires, it is always used in the N.T. of the latter.

The most sympathetic use is in James 4, where Elijah is described as a man of “like passions” to us, and yet prayed effectively for a three and a half year drought. The sense is that his divine faith outweighed his human passions, not that it was formed by them.

Otherwise, passions are just bad. In Romans 1:26, “evil passion” is what God gave mankind over to, in judgement of their idolatry. In Colossians 3:5 it is, along with all the sins of the earthly nature, what believers must put to death. In 1 Thessalonians 4:5 it is the “passionate lust” the godless heathen indulge in, which needs to be sanctified out of Christians.

In the plural, they are what Romans 7 says were the works of the sinful nature, to which we have died by the Spirit (not to which the Spirit initiates us!). In Galatians 5:24 they are what Christians have crucified along with the sinful nature. Titus 2:12 and 3:3 make similar contrasts between worldly enslavement to passions and godly self-control, denying our sinful nature through the Holy Spirit. And that’s all the New Testament says on the matter.

You would have thought that such a bad rap for passion would at least have given folks pause for thought. But the truth is that the current “new thing” that God is supposed to be doing always tends to outweigh any serious control from the word of Scripture.

But to be charitable, it could be that they have slipped into the modern usage of “passion” as active enthusiasm for something (“The environment is my passion!” etc), whereas its very derivation from pathos, “suffering,” shows that passion is something that happens to us passively (Duh!), not an act of will. The theological importance of this is in failing to understand that the Bible regards our emotions as a very deficient, flesh-nature, guide to what is true and what is important.

Perhaps the word they really want is “zeal,” which is indeed an active word closely related to (actually linguistically identical with) “jealousy,” meaning an intense desire for something. There are a dozen or so uses of this word-group in the NT, some quoting OT references to the zeal of God in accomplishing his goals. And yet even this word is ethically neutral rather than purely positive, being meritorious only when directed at the right object. In a good half of the cases, “zeal” in the NT has negative connotations, from the ignorant zeal of the unbelieving Jews in Romans 10, through the persecuting zeal of the unconverted Paul in Acts 22, Galatians 1 or Philippians 3, to the perverting zeal of the Judaizers in Galatians 4.

Galatians 4 also says that zeal is fine, provided that the purpose is good. Yet in Romans 12, the teaching is not to lose zeal and “spiritual burning,” the assumption being that this is a foundational feature of Christian life, not something needing to be striven to attain.

The bottom line is that however you slice it, the biblical teaching is that emotions are extremely vulnerable to the flesh-nature, and are a poor centre on which to focus faith. This cuts across the whole “passion” movement, in which such strong emotion is a major part of the goal of faith and, particularly of “worship” (understood as what happens in services, contra my last post). Moreover, as the Bethel Bible tagline above shows, such emotions are attributed even to God (and in kenotic theology actually do reflect his volatile mood changes leading to changes of mind on his part).

In the Bible, emotion is not denied, but is strictly downstream of cultivating right belief, thought and practice through the teachings of the gospel. As the (Jewish) man said, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” But that’s not a fashionable position for today’s world, and therefore for Christians with one foot in the world.

This critique could extend right back to the “experiential religion” of Wesley and the Moravians (thus showing that it’s a nuanced criticism, not a complete condemnation, for the blessings of the Methodist revival cannot be denied – I speak as one whose maternal ancestors were not just Methodists, but Primitive Methodists). It is clear that when “experience” is placed front and centre of faith, there is a real danger of emotions (and therefore worldly passions) trumping the biblical criteria for conversion, assurance and so on. I referred to Jonathan Edwards’s observation of this during the Great Awakening itself here.

The criticism by Charismatics of traditional Evangelicals and others is that they are “suspicious of emotion,” and therefore resistant to the Holy Spirit. But I think the scriptural material I’ve cited demonstrates that we ought to be suspicious of emotion, though neither dismissive of it nor resistant to it. It is, after all, just as much a part of being human as being warm or cold is, and indeed, as in physical comfort, warmth is much to be preferred to coldness, and still more to lukewarmness. It was the Puritan Samuel Rutherford who said, centuries before the Charismatic Movement, “Do not seek for warm fire under cold ice.”

So how can one achieve a healthy experiential faith, if not by spiritualising passion? The immediate trigger for this piece was considering the words of that old hymn, Lead us heavenly Father. I noticed it is a great Trinitarian hymn, with a verse for each member of the Trinity. It was actually written by an architect and surveyor, James Edmeston, who wrote around 2,000 hymns (one each Sunday), yet never made a penny from a CCLI licence or recording contract. And the highest church post he ever held was as a churchwarden.

The hymn was written for the children of the London Orphan Asylum, so it is actually a children’s song. Since his orphan children were clearly more literate than we are, I realised I’ve never quite understood these lines from verse 3:

Spirit of our God, descending,
fill our hearts with heavenly joy;
love with every passion blending
pleasure that can never cloy;

The key to a tricky poetic word order lies, it seems, in the punctuation – note the lack of a comma after “blending.” So my prosaic paraphrase would be:

Spirit of our God, descending, fill our hearts with heavenly joy; love blending pleasure, that can never become tedious, with every passion.

This is a profound thought in connection with my theme. Edmeston here is using “passion” for every passing emotion that an orphan might feel – loneliness, worthlessness, pain or hunger on the one hand, and gratitude, pleasure, fulfillment, or peace on the other (if the school was doing its job). What the Holy Spirit can do in our lives then is, by imparting the love of Christ, to transform every emotional high or low into something of divine value, and therefore of lasting pleasure. That, I think, is what James is getting at when he writes:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…

James 1:2

So love from the Holy Spirit makes sense of my grief, my anger, my shame, my fear, my desire, my mirth, my aesthetic pleasure and every other feeling by transforming fleeting passions into “solid joys and lasting treasure.”

That, I think, is a far better theology of passion for a troubled world.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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