It seems that evangelical preachers and writers have become passionate about being passionate. This might be one of the most common buzzwords of the day. We are urged to have a passion for God, to be passionate about winning souls, to be passionate in worship etc. ad nauseum. If you aren’t passionate, you probably are not really living as a Christian should-or so it would seem to be implied. But it seems to me that there is a problem with the use of this language, and it ought to cause us to reconsider our terms.
Today, ‘passion’ is generally thought to be good. It is used to describe powerful emotions, or deep and profound commitment. These things may be very good in themselves. The problem is, however, that we Christians inherit an older sense of the term that is utterly contradictory to anything good.
If you look at most conservative translations of the Bible-for example the New American Standard Version or the New King James Version-you will find that when ‘passion(s)’ is used in the New Testament, it always has a sinful connotation: Romans 1:26 “God gave them up to vile passions;” 1 Cor. 7:9 “It is better to marry than to burn with passion;” Gal. 5:24 “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires;” we are even told in Col. 3:5 “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and
covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Isn’t it confusing to preach to people, telling them to be passionate about something good, when all that they read about passion(s) in the Bible is evil? What do they think when they read the scriptures?
And making matters even more confusing for serious minded believers, our Confession tells us that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” This is an important theological point, often misunderstood. While we speak somewhat simplistically of emotions, our tradition spoke more specifically, not about emotions, but about affections and passions. Affections are righteous attributes which have their source within God; passions are unrighteous attributes which have their source outside of God. Our Triune Lord has true affections, but he has no passions. Preachers who understand and subscribe to our Confession should comprehend this point and think through its implications for their communication with their people. Isn’t it confusing to urge people to strive to be passionate about imitating God when we rightly confess that God has no passions?
Language changes over time, this is certain. And it may be that we are witnessing a change in the use of ‘passion’ and its derivatives. But it seems to me that Confessional Christians who are serious about the Scriptures ought to be careful in their use of language. We need to avoid confusion or confusing terms. It might be better for us to refrain from using this term in a positive sense, finding another to replace it. This would avoid the difficulty of telling our people to be passionate even when the Scriptures tell us to mortify our passion.Are you passionate? Maybe you need to repent!
Then, later in the day, Bob Gonzales, Dean and Professor at Reformed Baptist Seminary, responded to Dr. Renihan's post in the following comments. Here is his post in its entirety:
Since you and I have recently interacted over this theme on the RBF group discussion list, I felt compelled to offer the readers a balancing perspective. Before I do, let me begin by affirming some areas where I agree with certain points of your post. First, I agree that many preachers today, myself included, use the term “passion” or “passionate” in a positive sense, usually to underscore the need to be fervent, devoted, and enthusiastic about Christ, the gospel, missions, etc. Second, I agree with you that “today, ‘passion’ is generally thought to be good.” A look at any modern dictionary reveals that the term “passion” does not usually carry the freight of negative connotations unless there are some accompanying negative modifiers. For example, the 2006Unabridged Random House Dictionary offers the following 12 definitions:
1. any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate.2. strong amorous feeling or desire; love; ardor.3. strong sexual desire; lust.4. an instance or experience of strong love or sexual desire.5. a person toward whom one feels strong love or sexual desire.6. a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything: a passion for music.7. the object of such a fondness or desire: Accuracy became a passion with him.8. an outburst of strong emotion or feeling: He suddenly broke into a passion of bitter words.9. violent anger.10. the state of being acted upon or affected by something external, esp. something alien to one’s nature or one’s customary behavior (contrasted with action).11. (often initial capital letter) Theology.a. the sufferings of Christ on the cross or His sufferings subsequent to the Last
Supper.b. the narrative of Christ’s sufferings as recorded in the Gospels.12. Archaic. the sufferings of a martyr.
Of these definitions, #3, #8, and #9 seem to carry negative connotations though I don’t believe all “sudden outbursts of strong emotion or feeling” are necessarily sinful. But when preachers or theologians today speak of having a “passion for God” or being “passionate about winning souls” or “worshiping God passionately,” they obviously are using the terminology in keeping with uses #1, 2, 6, and/or 7. And thanks to Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion” and Piper’s book The Passion of Christ, sense #11 has been somewhat revived and used for the sufferings of Christ. Third, I agree that the term “passions” when predicated of God in our Confession carries a negative connotation. If, as you claim, the Puritan framers of our Confession understood “passions” as “unrighteous attributes which have their source outside of God,” then, by definition, it is inappropriate for us to apply the term in this sense to God. Finally, I agree with you that language changes over time, which leads me to express some caveats regarding the general thrust of your post.
To begin with, the undeniable fact that the primary meaning of “passion” has evolves and is more commonly used within Christian circles in positive ways today invalidates the force of your argument. The English term “nice” used to mean "ignorant” or “stupid,” but I would never censure a 21st century person for
using that term to describe someone or something that was “pleasing, agreeable, or delightful.” Context, not etymology or historical usage, is the decisive factor. Take, for instance, the Greek term epithumia, which is normally translated “lust” and used negatively in Bible. The basic meaning of the term is “strong desire,” but it is predominantly used to describe sinful human desires. Nevertheless, this fact did not prevent Jesus or the apostles from using the term positively. Accordingly, Jesus says to his disciples, “I have earnestly desired [epithumia epethumesa; literally, ‘with lust I have lusted’] to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15 NAS). In Philippians 1:23, Paul writes, “I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire [epithumion] to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.” At the risk of an ad nauseam repetition, I’ll add one more example: “but we, brethren, having been bereft of you for a short while–in person, not in spirit– were all the more eager with great desire [polle epithumia] to see your face” (1 Thessalonians 2:17, NAS). Obviously, these examples endorse the use of a word in a positive sense that might otherwise have a predominantly negative idea. Once again, context decides. Conversely, as many preachers often overlook, the common Greek terminology for “love” (agape/agapao) can be used to predicate sinful lust (2 Sam. 13:1, 4, 15). So context, context, context is Lord, not Shakespeare, the KJV, or the 1689.
Of course, you did not merely argue from historical usage. You appealed to the way the New American Standard Bible uses the term. First, you cite Romans 1:26 where Paul tells us that “God gave [sinful and idolatrous people] up to vile passions.” The Greek term translated “passions” is pathos, and, like epithumia, its basic meaning is “strong desire.” The reader should not miss the fact that Paul places the noun translated “passions” in genitive construct with another noun meaning “dishonorable or vile,” indicating the kind of strong desire he has in view: pathe atimias; “passions of dishonor.” So it is not passions per se but dishonorable passions that Paul censures. Next you cite 1 Corinthians 7:9, which reads in full, “But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Interestingly, the final phrase “with passion” does not occur in the KJV or the original NAS. It is added in the Updated NAS and placed in italics since there is no corresponding Greek terminology behind it. But here the dynamic equivalent is warranted since the context makes clear that Paul has in view inappropriate sexual passions (see NLT, NET). In Galatians 5:24, Paul informs believers, “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (NAS). Here, Paul uses the term pathos (“passions”) in parallel with epithumia (“lusts”) and, most importantly, describes them as expressions of “the flesh” or sarx, which in Pauline usage definitely carries negative ethical connotations. So once again, it is not the mere words pathos or epithumia that constrain a negative meaning but their attachment to sarx or “the flesh” that circumscribes their semantic domain. By the way, I can understand why you chose to cite the rendering of the NAS rather than that of the KJV for this verse. The latter reads, “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” So apparently even the term “affection” could carry negative connotations in the 17th century. That doesn’t seem to sit well with the hard fast theological dichotomy you’ve drawn above! Finally, you quote Colossians 3:5: “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Here it appears that you’re citing the New King James Version. Once again, this serves your purpose well since the original KJV uses the term “affection.” Of course, the 17th century Christian knew that Paul had a negative kind of affection in view. So the translators of the KJV wisely add the qualifier “inordinate” even though the Greek simply reads pathos. In doing so, these 17th century translators teach us an important lesson: an individual lexeme may have a semantic range that includes both positive or negative elements and context must decide the particular sense in view. And since the list of other terms accompanying pathos in this context are referring to sinful actions or impulses, then I agree with the decision of the KJV translators to add “inordinate” as well as the that of the NET translators, who translate pathos here as “shameful passion.”
I can appreciate your expertise in historical theology. It may be true that 17th century preachers and theologians preferred to use the term “affection” over “passion” when referring to God’s emotivity. That’s fine and well. But we no longer live in the 17th century. Therefore, I don’t think it right to bind the conscience of preachers or Christians to use theological terms whose meaning was not only capable of various senses in the 17th century but has changed over time. True, we should be aware of what the Puritans meant when they described God as “without passions.” But that doesn’t require us to parrot their terminology especially when it makes little sense to 21st century believers or non-believers. Indeed, your post has only served to strengthen my conviction that the language of our Confession needs to be updated to modern English in order to insure the clarity and intelligibility of the faith we confess (LBC 1.8). So I respectfully demur when you write,
“It might be better for us to refrain from using this term in a positive sense, finding another to replace it. This would avoid the difficulty of telling our people to be passionate even when the Scriptures tell us to mortify our passion.”As you point out, “We need to avoid confusion or confusing terms.” But it better serves our people to teach them sound rather than artificial linguistic principles. Most people are smart enough to detect the difference in significance between the statements, “I love God” and “I love ice-cream.” Can’t we accord them enough intelligence to differentiate between being “passionate” for God and being “passionate” for illicit sex? Moreover, I fear that a post like yours will unfortunately bias the linguistically naïve to distrust otherwise sound preaching and teaching that speaks of things like, say, God’s Passion for His Own Glory. In my opinion, there has been too much oversimplified, backhanded Reformed Baptist polemics of this kind and it needs to stop. It is those who are not “passionate for God” who need to repent, not necessarily those who don’t form their language to the sometimes archaic usages of the 17th century.
In closing, Jim, I want to affirm my love and respect for you and your scholarship (which probably excels mine in many respects). Moreover, I would probably agree that the kind of “passion for God” or “passion in worship” some have in view today is simply shallow emotionalism. If that’s the beast you’re trying to shoot, then I’m with you. But I hate to see a good cause (i.e., preaching against spurious emotionalism, weak theology, or anti-confessionalism) injured by a poor argument. So I felt compelled to file a caveat.
Respectfully yours,Bob Gonzales, Dean Reformed Baptist Seminary
I not only found this exhange very interesting, but I think it exhibits some of the real issues we have to grapple with as we seek to be confessional people in our current cultural milieu. This is why I reproduced the discussion here for this blog's readers.
Also, for what its worth, I definitely agree with Bob Gonzales. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.