The affections in the Reformation

In this post we look at the centrality of the affections in the Reformation. In future posts we’ll explore the importance of the affections in Puritan spirituality.

In a helpful article Ronald Frost argues that the heart of Luther’s Reformation was a return to Augustine’s view of humanity and a rejection of Aquinas’ view (which was shaped by the Greek philosopher Aristotle).

In the view of Aristotle and Aquinas the will is self-moved. Indeed the will is at its most virtuous when it’s not corrupted or distorted by our affections. Aquinas recognised the will is damaged by sin, but he believed God’s grace restores it so that we have the freedom to choose God. In this way we co-operate with God in our salvation. In this view love for God is an act of the will and therefore one which deserves merit.

In the view of Augustine (and Luther) the affections are primary. Where love leads, the will follows. In other words, we always choose what we love or we find most desirable. So we are saved when we choose God, and we choose God because we love him. But we only love him because he first loved us, and because he reveals himself to us as the desirable one. In this view love for God is a response and so carries no intrinsic merit.

Augustine believed that we act through our wills. But he believed the will is entirely held captive by sin. Luther says: ‘Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.’ In Augustine the will is free in the sense that the mechanism works. We still make decisions. But the will is biased by sin. The will is like a balance which operates correctly, but which has a large weight on one side so it only ever tips in one direction. The will functions effectively in that it tends to that which it deems to be good. The problem is that sin has corrupted our sense of what ‘the good’ is.

But God recaptures our affections and therefore our wills. Augustine says: ‘It is certain that it is we that act when we act; but it is He who makes us act, by applying efficacious powers to our will.’ Or again: ‘When the martyrs did the great commandments which they obeyed, they acted by a great will,—that is, with great love.’ Frost comments: ‘Augustine’s point … is that love—seen as will and affections—is the motive centre of the soul. Thus, it is through the illumination of the soul by God’s love that the soul moves, by response, out of its imprisonment of self‐love.’

Augustine argued that the Holy Spirit is the source of the love that shapes the believer’s response. In other words, God reveals his glory and grace to us through the Holy Spirit and this revelation of God captures our hearts and therefore reshapes our wills. Frost summarises: ‘The will is enslaved by self‐love that defies God. The enslavement is only overcome in the elect by the regenerating disclosure of God’s love and goodness.’

This is a radical view of sin. In Aristotle both the outward act and the inward motivation were meritorious. Indeed the outward act came to be the more important since in Aristotle it could create a habit which in time would affect the inward motivation. The direction was outward to inward. In contrast in Augustine and Luther an outwardly pious act can be sin if the motive is self-love (which it always is without the regenerating work of God). ‘A person may think their own ways are right, but the LORD weighs the heart.’ (Proverbs 21:2)

Luther says: ‘We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.’ The direction in Augustine and Luther is inside-out. The outward act is only really changed when the inner man is renewed by the Spirit’s revelation of God’s love.

Ashley Null summarises the theology of Thomas Cranmer (and Augustine and Luther): ‘What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.’ (Ashley Null, ‘Foreword,’ Our Common Prayer: A Field Guide to the Book of Common Prayer, Winfield Bevins, Simeon Press, 2013, 13.)

And ‘we love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19)

Ronald N. Frost, ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’, TrinJ 18:2 (Fall 1997) is available online here.


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