More Than a Feeling: The Emotions and Christian Devotion


Evangelicals love emotions. They evaluate church services based on whether or not they provide a transcendent experience. They chastise preachers for being too dry or heady because they want someone who speaks from the heart. They value authenticity and sincerity and abhor anything resembling formalism.

But this isn’t the first time in history evangelicals have so valued the emotions.


One of the ironies of twentieth-century American Protestantism is that renowned scholar J. Gresham Machen, the leading voice of conservative Presbyterians during the tumultuous decades of the 1920s and 1930s and a staunch defender of historic Protestantism, mustered only a very small group of conservative Presbyterians to join him in founding the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936.

Why did Machen win so few followers? The answer lies, at least in part, in the fact that many evangelicals of his day wrongly valued emotions over doctrine, which left them at least partially insensitive to his charges against liberalism.

Many church members in Machen’s own communion, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., failed to be persuaded by his arguments because other evangelicals in the church did not regard liberalism as a threat. For these evangelicals, empathy and zeal for Christ were indications of genuine religion. Since liberals often exhibited this kind of emotional attachment to Christ and Scripture, the evangelicals assumed they could not be the threat that Machen alleged.

By the same token, these same evangelicals did not treat doctrine or formal expressions of Christian truth as reliable guides to Christian devotion. After all, a person could affirm the Nicene Creed, it was observed, and still not be a true Christian. A better way to discern whether someone was truly devoted to Christ was to consider his or her love and experience with Christ, not his or her ability to explain Christ’s deity or the significance of the crucifixion. As long as pastors, missionaries, or church officers displayed the right emotion, they could be regarded as sound. Critiquing their faith was a form of character assassination.

Yet these evangelicals failed to engage a fundamental point in Machen’s critique. Machen contended that liberalism misidentified the relationship between doctrine and feeling. Liberals regarded creeds and doctrines as the product of Christian experience. As such, they considered the truth or falsity of a sermon or church decision to be less important than whether the person giving the sermon or the committee responsible for the decision had the right feelings and the best intentions. Machen, on the other hand, believed that Christian experience should flow from the truth conveyed by doctrine, so that the subjective aspects of faith were rooted in the objective. As Machen argued, “if religion consists merely in feeling the presence of God, it is devoid of any moral quality whatever.”[1] He added that if Christian experience was the basis for truth in the church, “how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established?” One option was to put all matters before the church to a majority vote. But because the individual experience of Christians was “endlessly diverse” the church could never have unanimity on any point of faith and practice.[2] In short, liberals had an unhealthy regard for human emotion over and against Christian truths. Machen rightly saw that this not only destroyed Christian truth, but also made Christian unity and fellowship impossible.


Some conservative Protestants today may agree with Machen’s point regarding liberalism, but they do not regard the liberal overemphasis on emotions as a threat that they face, since, by and large, evangelicals love their Lord and seek to honor and serve him. But, as historical theologian Carl Trueman has pointed out, such a response to the problem Machen noted would be short sighted. Trueman detects a Schleiermacherian emphasis on feeling and emotions among contemporary evangelical Protestants—that is, an undeservedly high estimate of experience in relation to Scripture and doctrine. Trueman detects this imbalance particularly in current discussions about evangelical worship. Any attempt, he writes, to make “human psychology and human experience the basis of worship” will ultimately distort the truth of Christianity, the character of Christian devotion, and even the church’s ability to communicate across cultures. “Let’s focus on the simple, straightforward message of reconciliation in Christ,” Trueman exhorts, “not our own experiences of church or whatever, as the core of our church worship.”[3]

This tension between emotions (subjective) and doctrine (objective) is nothing new. At the time of the Reformation, some Protestants objected to formal standards for worship and fellowship because they believed the Holy Spirit’s work was so strong among them that such norms were actually barriers to authentic Christianity. Although the magisterial Reformation safeguarded Protestantism from the dangers of such a view, the priority of emotions over doctrine resurfaced again at the time of the First Great Awakening in both Great Britain and the English colonies in North America. Incautious proponents of revivalism stressed the importance and efficacy of the conversion experience—and geared services to produce these experiences—to such an extent that many Protestant communions split between those who emphasized the immediate experience of the Spirit (pro-revival) and those who insisted that experience could not be divorced from right doctrine and faithful practice (anti-revival). Thanks to moderate positions like those advanced by Jonathan Edwards, who attempted to distinguish genuine from spurious “religious affections,” evangelicals emerged from the First Great Awakening with a commitment to the importance of both the objective and subjective.


What then is the proper balance between the objective and the subjective? How are Christians to rightly regard the emotions? In brief, we should understand that the subjective depends on the objective. Right emotions depend on, and derive from, sound doctrine.

Yet, evangelical Protestants have been in continuing danger of construing the relationship between experience and doctrine in a way that puts emotions on the same level as biblical instruction. It is relatively easy to see why. Evangelical Protestants always want to avoid the error of formalism or nominalism, that is, the danger of simply going through the motions of Christianity. For too many Christians, the logic goes, reading the Bible, reciting a creed, singing a hymn, or going to church is too easy and so is an unreliable indication of the posture of a person’s heart toward Christ. What turns Christian formalities into genuine expressions of faith, evangelicals argue, is a heart that is “on fire” for the truths conveyed in the religious forms of devotion. This understanding of the relationship between experience and doctrine (or other formal expressions such as listening to a sermon or partaking of the Lord’s Supper) can easily turn into an affirmation of the priority of emotions. Only after a believer clears the hurdle of experience can the believer move on to formal teachings or practices that bear fruit.

Of course, the danger of this way of understanding the objective and subjective sides of Christian faith is exactly what Machen warned against. Over time, the import of experience becomes so one-sided that the objective marks of Christianity—teaching, worship, and rightly ordered churches—take a back seat to good intentions that spring from a right emotional regard for Christ. Proponents of experiential Christianity rarely see that emotions can easily turn into sentiment. When this happens, the believer’s feelings for Christianity are disproportionate to the person’s understanding of the object to which he or she is emotionally tied.

One way to illustrate this problem is to consider love in marriage. A man may love his wife or he may be in love with the feeling of being in love. Too often the desire for the feeling of being in love leads men to look for new romances. The emotions generated by another woman convince him that the old attachment to his wife is no longer true. Of course, evangelical Protestants would say that such feelings are illegitimate and that love for one’s wife actually matures over the course of a marriage, so that the love is still “true” even if it does not run red hot with emotion. A husband’s love for his wife must take more ordinary or routine forms than the rush of emotion that accompanies wooing and courtship.

A similar dynamic is at work in the lives of Christians. The first flush of trusting in Christ becomes ordinary and routine over time as one matures in the faith and as the practices of personal devotion, family worship, and corporate worship become familiar and habitual. One way to maintain a proper balance between the objective and subjective aspects of Christian faith is to cultivate ordinary, routine expressions of emotion in the same way that husbands and wives do throughout their marriages. This means that a Christian worshiper on any given Sunday may not be moved to the brink of ecstasy, yet he or she can still express genuine love and devotion to Christ. In other words, intense emotions are not always the best measure of Christian experience.

Another important factor in balancing the objective and subjective aspects of Christian faith is to recognize that Christian experience arises from truth. Emotions proceeds from doctrine, not the other way around. This is a lesson Machen tried to teach the church of his day. He appealed to the example of the apostle Paul, who told Christians in Philippi that no matter what the motives of the preacher, as long as the gospel was proclaimed he “rejoiced” (Phil 1:18). As Machen argued, Paul was far more concerned about the doctrine that was preached than the experience or emotions that went into the preaching.[4]

To be sure, an emphasis on the objective aspects of Christianity can lead to the neglect of genuine zeal for Christ, just as an emphasis on experience can breed indifference to the content of the Christian message. But the ultimate solution to this tension does not depend upon Christians striking the balance just right, but upon the Holy Spirit’s work. He alone can create a clean heart characterized by godly emotions. And the particular means which God has promised to bless with the presence of his Spirit are those that rightly declare the good news of Christ and the salvation he has made possible through his death and resurrection.

Thus, the role of emotions in the Christian life find their proper place when the church acknowledges that salvation begins and ends with God.

1. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923), 54.

2. Ibid., 78.

3. Carl R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin (Geanies House, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications), 74.

4. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 22.

D. G. Hart

Darryl G. Hart is a religious and social historian and a Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

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