Be Passionate As Your Heavenly Father Is Passionate

Dr. James Renihan published on his blog an entry entitled, “Are You Passionate?” (June 3, 2008). In that article Renihan argues that Reformed Christians should avoid employing terms like “passion” or “passionate” to predicate God or the believer. Other websites republished his article earlier this year,1 so I responded with a friendly rejoinder (Jan 8, 2013). Since then, I’ve updated and expanded my response. In what follows I challenge Renihan’s thesis and argue that Christians not only may but also should be passionate because God himself is passionate. 

Renihan begins his article with the remark, “Evangelical preachers and writers have become passionate about being passionate.” “We are urged,” he says, “to have a passion for God, to be passionate about winning souls, to be passionate in worship etc. ad nauseum.”Though Renihan acknowledges that those who use this terminology are employing it in a positive sense, he alerts the reader to a potential problem. “The problem is,” he asserts, “that we Christians inherit an older sense of the term that is utterly contradictory to anything good.”

The Case Against “Passion”

To illustrate his concern, Renihan notes that the term “passion(s)” when used in the NT “always has a sinful connotation.” Drawing from the New American Standard and New King James translations, he cites four texts that use the term “passion(s)” negatively to support his observation: Romans 1:26; 1 Corinthians 7:9; Galatians 5:24; Colossians 3:5. With these passages in view, Renihan suggests that the modern employment of terms like “passion” or “passionate” is at best confusing.

But the problem is potentially worse for the self-consciously Reformed believer because, as Renihan points out, “our Confession tells us that God is ‘without body, parts, or passions.’” According to him, “We [modern Christians] speak somewhat simplistically of emotions,” but “our tradition spoke more specifically, not about emotions, but about affections and passions.” He then expands on what he believes to be a crucial theological distinction:

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.

So the modern usage of terms like “passion(s)” or “passionate” is problematic not only in light of the NT’s usage of that terminology but also in view of our Reformed creed’s disavowal of “passions” as a divine attribute. “Isn’t it confusing,” reasons Renihan, “to urge people to strive to be passionate about imitating God when we rightly confess that God has no passions?” Of course, he concedes, “Language changes over time.” Nevertheless, he argues, “Confessional Christians who are serious about the Scriptures” should “refrain from using this term in a positive sense, finding another to replace it.” He concludes his article with an exhortation to the reader: “Are you passionate? Maybe you need to repent!”

Toward a More Balanced Perspective on “Passion”

How should the reader respond to Dr. Renihan’s exhortation? Should those of us who have used terms like “passion” and “passionate” in a positive sense repent? Do the Scriptures and our Confession constrain us to find other vocabulary to replace these terms? Though I consider Jim my friend and share his concern for theological precision and choosing the right vocabulary when we engage in religious conversation or the proclamation of divine truth, I cannot go along with his basic argument. In other words, I would argue that the use of terms like “passion(s)” and “passionate” are entirely appropriate on linguistic grounds. So I feel compelled to offer the readers a balancing perspective.

Points of Agreement

Before I offer my “counterpoint,” however, let me begin by affirming some areas where I agree with certain points of Renihan’s article. First, I agree that many Christians 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 Renihan when he notes, “Today, ‘passion’ is generally thought to be good.” Indeed, 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 2012 Unabridged 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 letterTheology
      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 John Piper’s book The Passion of Christ, sense #11 has been somewhat revived and used for the sufferings of Christ. Third, I agree with Renihan that the term “passions” when predicated of God in our Confession carries a negative connotation. If, as he claims, 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 him that language changes over time.

Some Linguistic Caveats

This leads me to express some caveats regarding the general thrust of his post. To begin with, Renihan’s argument is invalidated if the primary meaning of “passion” has evolved and is more commonly used within Christian circles in positive ways today. 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.

Covet vs Desire/Lust vs Love

Take, for instance, the Greek term επιθυμια, which is normally translated “lust” and used negatively in the 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 [επιθυμια επεθυμεσα; 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 [επιθυμιον] 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 [πολλη επιθυμια] to see your face” (1 Thess. 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” (αγαπη/αγαπαω) can be used to predicate sinful lust (2 Sam. 13:1, 4, 15). So contextcontextcontext is what really matters!

Is the older sense of “passion(s)” always bad?

But what about the term “passion(s)”? As it turns out, there is reason to question the thesis that the older sense of the term “passion(s)” was “utterly contradictory to anything good.” According to The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term “passion” was used as early as the 13th century A. D. to refer to “strong emotion, love” (see usage #8). At the beginning of the 16th century, it could denote, “enthusiasm or zeal.” Usage #8 in the OED describes the term “passion” as “strong affection, love.” These older senses of the term, like the modern usages, are perfectly consistent with what is virtuous and good. So what’s the beef?!

God and Passion

It may be true that 17th century preachers and theologians preferred to use the term “affection” over “passion” when referring to divine 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.

On the other hand, I’m not sure if I agree with Renihan’s construal of the older theological usage of “affections” in contrast with “passions.” He asserts, “Affections are righteous attributes which have their source within God; passions are unrighteous attributes which have their source outside of God.” It may be that some Reformed and Puritan theologians preferred the term “affections” over “passions” in describing divine emotivity positively. But this is by no means uniform. For example, John Owen, who was not merely a Puritan but a precise theologian, does not appear to make the same clear distinction between “passions” and “affections” that Renihan suggests was characteristic of Puritan confessional theology. In his polemic against the Socinians, Dr. Owen treats “passions” and “affections” as synonymous and denies that God has “affections,”2 which Renihan argues are “righteous attributes” (!).

Of course, Renihan might reply that Owen was using “affections” in a negative sense, whereas other Puritan theologians distinguished “affections” from “passions,” using the former positively and the latter negatively. That may be true.3 Yet it only serves to prove my point—the terms “affection,” “affectionate,” “passion,” or “passionate,” have been used in the 17th century and may be used today both positively and negatively depending on the context. Not surprisingly, in a paper defending impassibility, Kevin DeYoung stresses, “To be impassible is not to be passionless.”4 Thomas Weinandy, a staunch defender of classic theism and divine impassibility, asserts, “God is absolutely impassible because he is absolutely passionate in his love.”5 Similarly, the Reformed theologian and philosopher Paul Helm can write,

A person may be so passionate about truth telling that he takes extreme care to speak the truth himself. A detective may be so passionate about solving a crime that he is utterly careful and scrupulous about assembling and weighing the evidence. If God in himself is said to be passionate, then this is how it must be with him. We must think of him as essentially impassioned, full of feeling, utterly engaged in the most clear-eyed way possible.6

Humans and Passion

Indeed, not only does Owen use the term “affection(s)” negatively when speaking of God, but he also uses the term “passionate” positively when speaking of human sanctification. In his treatise, “On the Mortification of Sin,” we read the following:

Being thus affected with thy sin, in the next place get a constant longing, breathing after deliverance from the power of it…. Longing, breathing, and panting after deliverance is a grace in itself, that hath a mighty power to conform the soul into the likeness of the thing longed after. Hence the apostle, describing the repentance and godly sorrow of the Corinthians, reckons this as one eminent grace that was then set on work, “Vehement desire,” 2 Cor. vii. 11. And in this case of indwelling sin and the power of it, what frame doth he express himself to be in? Rom. vii. 24. His heart breaks out with longings into a most passionate expression of desire of deliverance. Now, if this be the frame of saints upon the general consideration of indwelling sin, how is it to be heightened and increased when thereunto is added the perplexing rage and power of any particular lust and corruption! Assure thyself, unless thou longest for deliverance thou shalt not have it (emphasis added).7

One can glean similar examples from esteemed writers in the post-Puritan era. Describing the effects of the revival in his “Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival in New England,” Jonathan Edwards asserts, “There was a most vehement and passionate desire of the honour and glory of God’s name; a sensible, clear, and constant preference of it, not only to the person’s own temporal interest, but to his spiritual comfort in this world [emphasis added].”8 One should also note David Brainerd’s positive use of the “passion/passionate” terminology:

To a special friend.
The Forks of Delaware, July 31, 1744.
Certainly the greatest, the noblest pleasure of intelligent creatures must result from their acquaintance with the blessed God, and with their own rational and immortal souls. And oh how divinely sweet and entertaining is it to look into our own souls, when we can find all our powers and passions united and engaged in pursuit after God, our whole souls longing and passionately breathing after a conformity to him, and the full enjoyment of him! (emphasis added)9

And an entry from his Diary of 1744,
Monday, Aug. 22. Spent most of the day in study; and found my bodily strength in a measure restored. Had some intense and passionate breathings of soul after holiness, and very clear manifestations of my utter inability to procure, or work it in myself; it is wholly owing to the power of God. O, with what tenderness the love and desire of holiness fills the soul! (emphasis added).10

Robert Murray McCheyne loved to read The Life of David Brainerd and longed to imitate his piety. Not surprisingly, a tribute paid to McCheyne just after his death described him in Brainerd-like language: “A striking characteristic of his piety was absorbing love to the Lord Jesus. This was his ruling passion [emphasis added].”11

Finally, let me provide a modern example. As Dr. Renihan notes, the terminology “passion(s)” and “passionate” has become quite popular, so I could multiply examples. But I thought it might be helpful if I cited two of Jim’s colleagues. John Giarizzo is a Reformed Baptist pastor and member of the administrative counsel of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA), of which Dr Renihan is a member. In a recently published booklet entitled The Lord’s Day Still Is, Pastor Giarrizzo laments the shift away from a sabbatic view of the Lord’s Day among American Christians and identifies the reason behind this change:

The Sabbath has disappeared from our land (and from many of our churches) because it is no longer convenient to our lifestyle. Our problem is not a lack of biblical or theological support for the Sabbath. It is a lack of interest and a lack of passion.12

So while Renihan is calling his readers to repent of being passionate, his friend and colleague, Giarrizzo, is calling his readers to repent for failing to be passionate!

In light of these examples, isn’t it stretching the data to say, “We Christians inherit an older sense of the term [“passion”] that is utterly contradictory to anything good.” Moreover, in light of Owen’s negative use of “affections” with reference to God, isn’t it somewhat artificial to restrict the semantic range of “affections” to “righteous attributes which have their source within God.” Even the OED doesn’t restrict the word so. Affections, like passions, can be used positively or negatively depending on the context.

Clearly, modern preachers and believers who use terms like “passion” or “passionate” and circumscribe the semantic range by placing it in syntactical relation with prepositional phrases like “for God” or “in worshiping God” or “for lost souls” are well within biblical and lexical grounds of propriety and should not be censured or called to repentance.

On the other hand, I would argue that we should be careful to clarify and qualify such seventeenth-century theological expressions as “God is without passions” (WCF 2.1). True, the expression, as used by Reformed and Puritan authors, conveys important biblical truth.13 But to insist that we can’t employ such terminology in positive ways when speaking of God is linguistically naïve. Indeed, in light of the positive uses of the terminology today, Renihan’s argument contradicts the Bible’s and Confession’s own mandate to make God’s word (including theology) intelligible to God’s people (Deut. 30:11-14; 1 Cor. 14:3, 5, 9, 15-17, 26-28; WCF 1.8).

What about its usage in Bible translations?

Of course, Renihan does not argue merely from historical usage. He appeals to the way modern conservative translations of the Bible, like the New American Standard Version and New King James Version, use the term.

First, he cites Romans 1:26 where Paul tells us that “God gave [sinful and idolatrous people] up to vile passions” (NAS). The Greek term translated “passions” is παθος, and, like επιθυμια, 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: παθη ατιμις; i.e., “passions of dishonor.” So it is not passions per se but dishonorable passions that Paul censures.

Next Renihan cites 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 New Living Translation [NLT], New English Translation [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 παθος (“passions”) in parallel with επιθυμια (“lusts”) and, most importantly, describes them as expressions of “the flesh” or σαρξ, which in Pauline usage definitely carries negative ethical connotations. So once again, it is not the mere words παθος and επιθυμια that constrain a negative meaning but their attachment to σαρξ or “the flesh” that circumscribes their semantic domain.

By the way, I can understand why Dr. Renihan chose to cite the rendering of the NAS rather than that of the KJV for Galatians 5:24. The latter reads, “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts [emphasis added].” So for the 17th century KJV translators even the term “affection” could carry negative connotations. That doesn’t seem to sit well with the hard fast theological dichotomy Renihan has drawn above!

Finally, he quotes 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 he’s citing the New King James Version. Once again, this serves his 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 παθος. By adding the qualifier, these 17th century translators teach us an important lesson: an individual lexeme (i.e., word) may have a semantic range that includes both positive or negative elements and context must decide the particular sense in view.14 And since the list of other terms accompanying παθος in this context are referring to sinful actions or impulses, I agree with the decision of the KJV translators to add “inordinate” as well as the that of the NET translators, who translate παθος here as “shameful passion.”

One should also note that modern versions like the NET (referenced above) sometimes employ the term “passion” in a positive sense. The NET employs the term “passion” in parallel with “love” in the Song of Solomon 8:6, which reads,

Set me like a cylinder seal over your heart,
Like a signet on your arm.
For love (אהבה/αγαπη) is as strong as death,
Passion (קנאה/ζελος) is as unrelenting as Sheol.
Its flames burst forth,
It is a blazing flame (emphasis added).

In this context, term “passion” has an obviously positive meaning, denoting the fervent and exclusive affection of a bride for her bridegroom. I don’t think those expositors are off base who see in this expression of ardent human affection a picture of the love Christ has for his church-bride (Eph. 5:28-32). So passionate worship refers to zealously affectionate or affectionately zealous worship. And this is precisely the kind of devotion and service the Scriptures prescribe: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5, ESV)!

As it turns out, neither the older nor the modern usage of “passion(s)” or “passionate” support Renihan’s thesis. Context rules, not Shakespeare, the 1611 KJV, or the 1689!

Yes, We May Be Passionate!

So I respectfully demur when he writes, “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.” Certainly, we should make every effort to “avoid confusion or confusing terms.” But it better serves our people to teach them sound rather than artificial linguistic principles.15 Most people are smart enough to detect the difference in significance between the statements, “I love God” and “I love my wife” 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 Dr. Renihan’s post 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.16 Is this a kind of backhanded polemic against the teaching of some “New Calvinists” like John Piper who employ the terms “passion” or “passionate” in a positive sense? If so, this kind of oversimplified polemic needs to stop. It is those who are not “passionate for God” who need to repent, not necessarily those who don’t conform their language to the archaic usages of the 17th century. Indeed, even some the 17th century Puritans weren’t so linguistically restrictive as Renihan suggests. Richard Baxter, for example, sounds a lot like John Piper when he writes,

Passions are not sinful in themselves; for God hath given them to us for his service…. Passions are holy when they are devoted to God, and exercised upon him or for him…. Turn all your passions into the right channel, and make them all Holy, using them for God upon the greatest things.17

Perhaps Dr. Renihan’s post was actually aiming at shallow emotionalism, weak theology, or anti-confessionalism. If that’s the beast he’s trying to slay, then I’m with him. But I hate to see a good cause undermined by a poor argument. So I felt compelled to file a caveat.

Are you passionate for that which is contrary to God’s revealed will? Then you do need to repent. Are you passionate for God, his worship, and the advance of his gospel? If so, please don’t repent! Instead, pray for more passion in order that you might be passionate as your heavenly Father is passionate.

B.G.

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  1. On the Reformed Baptist Fellowship blog here (Jan 5, 2013) and the Aquila Report here (Jan 8, 2013). []
  2. The Works of John Owen, 12:108ff. []
  3. But see Stephen Charnock who, like Owen, treats the terms “affections” and “passions” as synonymous and denies either may be properly predicated of God. The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:340-42. In correspondence predating this post, Dr. Renihan appealed to Richard Muller, a historical theologian and expert on the subject of Reformation and post-Reformation dogmatics, for the distinction between “affections” and “passions.” Muller’s portrayal of this theological distinction among Reformed and Puritan theologians, however, is qualified. Remarks Muller, “An affection is usually favorable or positive, whereas a passion is usually negative [emphasis mine]. Post-Reformation Dogmnatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 3:553. A reading of the subsequent context shows that Muller was aware of Owen’s portrayal of “affections” as synonymous with “passions” and, therefore, when used in a certain sense, as inappropriate to God (3:554ff.). So it seems tenuous to disallow any semantic overlap between the two terms and to assign one word an entirely positive meaning and the other an entirely negative meaning. []
  4. Emphasis mine. “Tis Mystery All, The Immortal Dies” (accessed Jan 06, 2014). []
  5. Emphasis mine; Thomas Weinandy, “Human Suffering and the Impassibility of God,” Testamentum Imperium II (2009): 12. []
  6. “B. B. Warfield on Divine Passion.” Westminster Theological Journal 69 (2007): 102. []
  7. The Works of John Owen, 6:59-60. []
  8. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 1:377. []
  9. Ibid, 2:436-37. []
  10. Ibid, 2:336. []
  11. Memoir & Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne, 172. []
  12. Emphasis added; The Lord’s Day Still Is (Reformed Baptist Publications, n.d.), 26. I should note that I added this example several months after originally posting my reply, as it only recently came to my attention. []
  13. I don’t believe the Puritans intended to deny that God experiences something analogous to human emotions. They intended, rather, to deny that God has anything like involuntary or passive emotional experiences. As James Packer notes, “God has no passions—this does not mean that He is unfeeling (impassive), or that there is nothing in Him that corresponds to emotions and affections in us, but that whereas human passions—especially the painful ones, fear, grief, regret, despair—are in a sense passive and involuntary, being called forth and constrained by circumstances not under our control, the corresponding attitudes in God have the nature of deliberate, voluntary choices, and therefore are not of the same order as human passions at all.” Knowing God, 20th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1993), 121. []
  14. Examples above drawn from the 17th century King James Version plainly demonstrate that the term “affection” or “affections” could denote either virtue (1 Chron. 29:3; 1:31; 2 Cor. 7:15; Col. 3:2; 2 Tim. 3:3) or vice (Rom. 1:26; Col. 3:5; Gal. 5:24). []
  15. The discipline of lexicography (def. “the science or practice of defining words”) is primarily descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, the lexicographers who compile a dictionary do not meet together, choose a word, assign its meaning or meanings, and then prescribe that meaning on society. Rather, lexicographers observe the usage of a given word in various contexts and offer a description of how that word is used in said contexts (contemporary or historical). That description, in turn, becomes the definition or definitions of the word found in a dictionary. A good theologian will choose a word from his own cultural time and setting whose observed and described semantic value accurately communicates the biblical concept that the theologian wishes to communicate to a given audience. For those interested in gaining a better grasp of linguistics in relation to biblical interpretation and theology, I would recommend the following resources: Donald A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Baker Books, 1996); Moises Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (Zondervan, 1983). For the more advanced student, see James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford University Press, 1961). []
  16. The title of an excellent book authored by John Piper on the theology of Jonathan Edwards. []
  17. Christian Directory (Reprint, Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), 273, 275. []
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