Emotionalism vs. Intellectualism

Are emotional good feelings, however valid and beneficial, any match for the likely moment when logical and hard intellectual questions surface? That is, are emotions more valid, more credible, more durable, than our use of the mind?

By Ralph D. Winter (compiled and edited by Beth Snodderly)

Editor’s Note: Today Beth Snodderly continues her four-part series in which she explores Ralph Winter’s Four Seeds of Destruction by compiling and condensing material from a number of Winter’s essays. You can read the first installment here: Are We Building an Enduring Christianity or Not?

Are we building an enduring Christianity or not? In one sense this question outranks all other mission frontiers, including the Unreached Peoples Frontier. That is, what is the wisdom of avidly building a widespread movement to Christ, which is going to collapse tomorrow into Gospel resistance? Is Christian faith blossoming around the world today only to fade tomorrow when it faces the hard questions of today’s anti-religious onslaught?

Adding Intellectual Insight to Emotional/Experiential Awareness

Christianity has clearly succeeded among rural populations and among uneducated people all over the world, but it is facing increasing opposition from the educated world because of religious teachings, which may have no foundation in the Bible whatsoever.

The reality of rejection of biblical faith accompanying increased education casts quite a shadow over Philip Jenkins’ rosy picture of the future of Christianity in the Global South. Even long before Jenkins’ book, The Next Christendom, appeared, mission leaders had been hailing the splurge of growth on the mission field. My own thoughts about the dread paradox of wild success leading on into desperate failure are as follows: There are at least two dimensions of knowing God in Christ. There is an emotional awe in worship and daily life, call it an awareness of God. And there is an intellectual insight into who he is. Is it possible to be aware of God with very little accurate insight into who he is? Yes. Is it possible to possess a lot of insight into the nature of God with little hour-by-hour awareness of Him? Yes.

Awareness arises in worship and in daily devotions and in hour-by-hour God-consciousness, in “practicing the presence of God.” It is the result of “praying without ceasing.” It flourishes in times of true revival and awakening. It is fair to say that the hallmark of the Evangelical movement in its early days was its stress on authentic, emotional experience. A central feature of the Evangelical Awakening of the 18th Century (which produced Evangelicalism), was an “assurance of salvation,” and, for many, “a second work of grace,” that was highly emotional in its manifestation. And yet that Evangelical Awakening eventually collapsed, largely due to English Evangelicalism’s serious weakness: anti-intellectualism (Rice 2004).

Today, that stress on “experience” (not intellectual knowledge) has moved on into the Pentecostal, Charismatic and Apostolic spheres, while older Evangelicals look on askance, holding tight to their less emotional forms of worship and their lists of doctrines. We are well acquainted with seminaries that have become cemeteries, hoarding massive information in their libraries about God’s nature but handling all that holy information with a professionalism that can easily replace any real awareness of the living God.

So what is the answer? We must begin by recognizing the all-important necessity of both awareness and insight. We must be willing to suspect insight without awareness and also to suspect awareness without insight. Clearly God calls us by heart and mind, not heart or mind. Yet the predominant character of much of the rapidly spreading “faith” around the world today consists of multitudes being entranced by the availability of the promises of God unrelated to a true and thorough insight into the nature of God and his creative handiwork.

Why have many Evangelicals been slow to add insight to awareness? Are emotional good feelings, however valid and beneficial, any match for the likely moment when logical and hard intellectual questions surface? That is, are emotions more valid, more credible, more durable, than our use of the mind? Or, are mind and heart both important? As crucial as it is that we hang on to the historic Evangelical awareness of God, we must seriously and even urgently add a competent intellectual grasp of God’s glory in the much larger world known to modern man.

For example, huge obstacles exist for anyone who would seriously attempt to evangelize in a scientifically-oriented society. If we recognize the existence of the “unreached people” of the scientifically educated community of, say, Hyderabad, we quickly face the frontier of “the religion of science” (Winter 2004c, 36-37). Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, asked, “Is it any wonder that many sadly turn away from faith concluding that they cannot believe in a God who asks for an abandonment of logic and reason?” (Collins 2003, 112). Most scientists will consider that the Bible is clearly of no value as long as they think it baldly teaches that the universe is only 6,000 years old. It is absolutely tragic that millions of keen thinkers are truly awed into a quasi-religious scientism through their contact with God’s Book of Creation without acknowledging the God of the Bible, while still other millions are caught up in God’s Book of Scripture to the point where they elevate it as a magical object which must somehow provide an explanation for all later scientific exploration of the universe.

We, as Christian leaders, must take the initiative of knowing both the Book of Creation as a revelation of God and the Book of Scripture as a revelation of God. Otherwise, we are planting a superficial and temporary kind of Christianity all around the world. The Unfinished Task is very nearly finished, if in fact we measure that task by geographical or even sociological penetration of the Christian faith. But all such gains are temporary where a population will soon become influenced by the dominant form of education today, which is highly secularized both in science and history—unless the Church does something to bring added insight.


Winter, Ralph. 2004c. Twelve Frontiers of Perspective. In Frontiers in Mission: Discovering and Surmounting Barriers to the Missio Dei. 4th ed, 28-40. Pasadena, CA: WCIU Press.

Collins, Francis. 2003. “Can an Evangelical Believe in Evolution?” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 20, no. 4 (Winter): 109-12. Accessed April 29, 2016. http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/20_4_PDFs/109_Collins.pdf.

Rice, Jonathan. 2004. “The Tragic Failure of Britain’s Evangelical Awakening.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 21, no. 1 (Spring): 23-25. Accessed April 29, 2016. http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/21_1_PDFs/23_25_Rice.pdf.

Photo Credit: YellowDog/Flickr  -  Josa Júnior/Flickr

Ralph D. Winter (12/8/24 – 5/20/09) founded the Roberta Winter Institute.

Beth Snodderly is the RWI's Theologian in Residence and Chair of the Board.