Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dr Sean Lucas's friendly correction

Dr Sean Lucas has posted some comments on the last piece on Jonathan Edwards on Helm's Deep. I thought that a brief response to what he wrote might be worthwhile before the trail went cold. The post that follows is in place of the usual mid-month Taking a Line, though it does take a line, and a little earlier than usual. I hope that in May normal service will be resumed. But who knows?

I thank Dr Lucas for going to the trouble of offering a correction to the view expressed in the last post on Edwards, 'Edwards on True Religion'. His comments have subsequently been retailed as clearing away misconceptions about Edwards's Religious Affections, accompanied by covering fire from some 'big names'. So let's see.

There’s little if any disagreement on Dr Lucas’s first point, that for Edwards affections are the outcome of beliefs and desires. A holy affection is the outcome of beliefs and holy desires. Did my post which Dr Lucas takes exception to claim or imply anything other than this? If so, then it was not as clear as it ought to have been. The second claim, that Edwards did not argue that true religion consisted in emotion expressed in a public, visible way, has more to it. I think that Dr Lucas misses Edwards emphasis and the point of his book. As I shall try to show.

On Dr Lucas’s view of Edwards, anything that affects the mind is an emotion, for (according to him according to Edwards) anything that is any expression of a habit or disposition moved by a sensation that someone has is one. Dr Lucas says 'When he [Edwards] said, then, that affections are "sensible exercises of the inclination," he meant that affections are the exercises of habit or disposition that have been moved to act by sensation (not emotion)'. Suppose that, having eaten several sausages, I change my mind about whether I can eat another one, and don’t eat it. That is certainly an effect of a sensation on my mind, to use Dr Lucas's terms. We might even get away with calling it, in a rather older-fashioned way, an affect. But is it an affection? Is such a change of mind and behavior an affection? Somehow that doesn’t seem right, does it?

But if in fact this were to be the correct interpretation of Edwards, then this is how I would now put my point: Edwards did not identify true religion with affects or affections, but with a certain strength or register of affections. That's a simple matter of fact, as we shall shortly see. Despite Dr Lucas’s proffered correction, I still think that that's what Edwards thought, and still think that he was wrong to do so. That's my view. A word on each of these matters.

What are the facts?

Religious Affections is a long, repetitive book. In writing it Edwards was not only upholding a ‘doctrine’ about true religion, he was also denying one, or many, others. But if, as according to Dr Lucas is the case, any obedient response in a person’s life as a result of the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a true religious affection, why does Edwards not simply say this? Why go to the trouble of writing this big book? Why, for example, do we find him stating the following at the outset of his discussion, in Part I?

There are some exercises of pleasedness or displeasedness, inclination or disinclination, where the soul is carried but a little beyond a state of perfect indifference. And there are other degrees about this, wherein the approbation or dislike, pleasedness or aversion, are stronger; wherein we may rise higher and higher till the soul comes to act vigorously and sensibly, and the actings of the soul are with that strength that…the motion of the blood and animal spirits begins to be sensibly altered; whence oftentimes arises some bodily sensation, especially about the heart and vitals that are the fountain of the: fluids of the body: from whence it comes to pass, that the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, perhaps in all nations is called the heart. And it is to be noted, that they are these more vigorous and sensible exercises of this faculty, that are called the affections. (96-7)

It is some of these vigorous and sensible exercises of the faculty, namely holy ones, which, according to Edwards, we should possess and cultivate as an essential and an important part of true religion. So on the strength of passages such as these I don’t think that it is an adequate defence of Edwards simply to say, as Dr Lucas does, that for Edwards every expression of true Christian obedience is an affection. To suggest this would simply iron out what Edwards took to be the distinctive teaching of his book.

Should we accept Edwards's doctrine?

Let us now suppose that these statements (just quoted) about what an affection is, which are fundamental to the approach of the book, are factually correct. What entitles Edwards to maintain his central doctrine, that ‘true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections’? It is one thing to say that true religion is a matter of the heart, and that it expresses itself in the cultivation of Christian virtue. These are the central affirmations of the dominical and apostolic teaching. It is quite another thing to say that true religion must have a particular emotional colour, that it must go 'higher and higher', revealing a ‘raised’, ‘more vigorous’ character, in order to be genuine. (That's rather like saying that true patriotism largely consists in flying the flag on the lawn.) Edwards goes on and on about this in the book. So, for example, in the course of a few pages, he writes of true affections being ‘disposed to flow out’ (247), to be heightened (248), of ‘sweet and ravishing entertainment’ (250), and of ‘great spiritual affections’ (252), without which there is no true religion. Or, as he cannily suggests, to possess any other aspect of genuine religion, but lack this aspect, is a sign that a person is ‘very low in grace’ having ‘fallen into a dead, carnal and unchristian frame’. (193)

Why did Edwards make this mistake? No doubt partly because of his preoccupation with the excitements of the revivals and their various phenomena. But chiefly, I suggest, the source of the difficulty Edwards got himself into lay in him thinking that it is possible to say in a short sentence or two what true religion is. (Dr Lucas does not mention this, but it is clearly important to the doctrine and structure of the book.) By contrast, the New Testament suggests to us that the fruit of the Spirit are quite diverse, the circumstances in which men and women are placed are very diverse, and their characters and temperaments, moods, ages, and relationships, likewise. In offering tests or signs of true religion the wise pastor will, as best he can, recognize such diversities. But Edwards took it that one size fits all, and so he rather high-handedly (some may think) narrowed the ways in which true religion may express itself. What he attempted to do was to distil most of the essence of true religion into a sentence, and then to offer it to us. He was a very clever man, who could perform high wire acts seemingly at will, but in offering a definition or epitome of true religion in a few words, and in offering the particular definition that he did, and then in writing a long book defending that, he made a serious strategic error, one which has strongly coloured subsequent evangelicalism.

I think we should thank him for the offer, but decline it.

Friday, April 01, 2011

God and the Limits of Explanation

The mainstream Christian view is that God is exists eternally, that he is not subject to time, and that he is free. Free to create or not, or at least free to create some alternative world to the actual world. Free to elect John or not, free to send more than twelve legions of angels to support the Mediator in his sufferings, free to save us ‘by a word’ or through the self-offering of the God-man and our union with him, and so on.

Such a view has been widely challenged by modern panentheists, who have been scared out of their wits by the spectre of a ‘God in general’ raised by Karl Barth. So for them the immanent trinity, the triune God in himself, is the economic Trinity, the triune God who plans and executes a plan of salvation. The one is nothing other than the other. Obviously such a God is not free, or not as free, as in classical theism; not free not to redeem, not free to redeem in some other way. There may be varied strengths of such a position, I suppose, the strongest being that what God does economically is what he could not but do, down to the last detail. The modern panentheists, who in another lobe of their brains usually commit themselves to some form of libertarian freedom, do not seem fazed by the thought that such theology, close to a form of ontological determinism, might be at odds with libertarian anthropology. (Of course Jonathan Edwards – if I might dare to mention him again – is decidedly not fazed by such a prospect, believing that there is no such prospect, since any other account of action, divine or human, than a deterministic account is logically incoherent. For the display of God’s glory, this is how it had to be, and God cannot but create this universe as the theatre of that glory).

Readers may be relieved to know that what they have just read is only the preamble, a warm-up, and I am not here at least going to rehearse such issues further. Instead, I wish to consider, in connection with this issue of divine freedom, a general question about the nature and limits of explanation.

Expressing divine freedom

How might we express such divine freedom, the freedom that (the mainstream tradition claims) God possesses to create, or not, to elect, or not, and so forth. I shall consider two ways of doing this, which may not be the only ways, but they are ways that are historically significant ways.

Logical contingency

One way is to distinguish between the logical necessity or essentiality of God’s being, wand the contingency of his actions. God is good, necessary, essentially good. He is love, he is light, necessarily in him there is no darkness at all. All the long list of what we call the attributes of God, sometimes dividing them into the incommunicable and the communicable attributes, a division which becomes inoperable if God in his wisdom chose not to create at all, are possessed essentially by God. For what he does, or at least what he does ad extra, that is, in connection with the existence and history or whatever is other than himself in his triune glory, is not part of his essence. Though, of course, whatever God thus creates must, one may assume, be in accordance with his essence, since one of his essential features or characteristics is immutability, nevertheless that he creates is up to him. He would still be God in all his glory and self-sufficiency had there been no universe ad extra. God is necessarily good but only contingently the creator of the universe.

So suppose we uphold this idea, that God’s freedom may be expressed in terms of logical contingency. This is a widespread idea in medievalism. For example William Ockham, in arguing about the eternity of the world, and of creation, writes of God’s power in terms of what he can contingently be thought. Expressions such as ‘It does not involve a contradiction; therefore, it could be brought about by God’, and ‘I maintain probabiliter that God could have made the world from eternity in virtue of the fact that no manifest contradiction appears [in that claim]’ are typical. (These expressions are taken from Norman Kretzmann’s article ‘Ockham and the creation of the Beginningless World’ (Franciscan Studies, 1985)) So, if p is a possibility, then God could have brought p about, have caused what is expressed by p to be true. All things are possible with God.

But such logical contingency can only be a necessary condition of God’s freedom. It delineates a logical feature of God’s freedom, or at least Ockham and many others think that it does. Neither Ockham nor any one else who makes this point believes that this amounts to an explanation of divine freedom. But what else is required?

Synchronic contingency

A currently-favoured alternative is an idea that appears to have been derived mainly from Duns Scotus, that of synchronic contingency (SC). This addresses the issue of God’s freedom explicitly; his power, his freedom, consists in his possession not merely of logical contingency, but of synchronic contingency. This means that for one moment of time, there is a true alternative for the state of affairs that actually occurs. Given a choice at a moment, there could have been an alternative choice at that very moment.

An oddity about this that immediately springs to mind is that Scotus applies a temporal adjective to the activity of a non-temporal being. How is this to be understood, I wonder? How can a timelessly eternal God possess the power of acting synchronously otherwise that what he in fact decides? One answer offered by those who favour SC is to encourage us to think in terms of logical or structural ‘moments’ where a moment is understood as a distinction drawn by our reason, a structural rather than a temporal moment. Reformed types are familiar with this idea from debates about the ordering of the decrees, where that order is understood in terms of an eternal logical or rational ordering of the decrees in the eternal divine mind. This point about the nature of these ‘moments’ should never be forgotten, though sometimes it is. If we forget it, then we begin to anthropomorphise God, to ‘psychologise’ the eternal mind of God along the pattern of those of us who make up minds over time. (This is not a problem for open theism, or perhaps for……., for whom God does or may make up his mind over time, but it is a problem for classical theists). Distinctions of reason, applied to God, offer a logical partition, but nothing temporal.

Similarly, we might attempt to parse synchronic contingency along the following lines: at the same eternal ‘moment’, given that God chose to bring about X he could (in exactly similar circumstances) have chosen Y. This is divine freedom it is said. But then, do ‘circumstances’ apply to God as they do to us mortals? Surely not. God does not find himself in sets of circumstances, as we do, and so he does not the task of coping with them, as we do. When you think about it, SC does not seem to differ materially from our first candidate, logical contingency. For what an eternalist who stresses that God’s creation is contingent means is that God might have chosen otherwise that he has, which )as far as I can see) precisely what Scotus is saying.

Neither suggestion, then, gets us very far in understanding what God’s freedom is, though each of them seems to be a coherent thing to say, at least if you are not an Edwardsean.


I’m not sure that I ought to write what now follows. Scholastic philosophy and its influences upon Christian theology offers very great benefits. It provides analytical skill and analytical techniques which help us to negotiate a large number of misunderstandings about the Christian faith and to lay out its pattern. I would not wish to put up objections or obstacles to anyone who wishes to benefit from reading scholastic theology, whether pre-Reformation or post-Reformation, including of course the notable work of the Reformed Orthodox. The Christian community badly needs the vitamins that scholastic theology, or analytic theology as it nowadays coming to be known, can provide.

But such an approach can, if we are not careful, generate an illusion. Let’s call this ‘scill’, the scholastic illusion. A love for such theology leaves one open to infection by scill. I don’t myself believe that the scholastics themselves suffered greatly from this affliction, but to be honest I have not attempted an induction that proves this. The illusion is the belief that because a robust and worthwhile intellectual distinction can be drawn, to suppose that the distinction can be defined or at least established pretty clearly, then this distinction in and of itself amounts to an explanation of some feature or features of that regarding which the distinction is made. So that if, following the tradition, we say that the Trinitarian persons in God are distinctions in the godhead, but not divisions, we certainly make a cogent point. But I do not believe that by deploying this distinction we have an explanation, or even the beginnings of an explanation, of the three-in-oneness of the Trinity. To believe otherwise is to show that one is somewhat afflicted by scill.

The illusion gets a grip on us when we forget that in order to achieve an explanation is not sufficient to come up with a formalism. Explanation is an epistemic notion: a successful explanation conveys understanding, and its success depends on what the one offered the explanation already knows or believes. It is an instance of scill, I believe, to suppose either that the notions of logical contingency, or of synchronic contingency, explain us to the nature of the divine freedom that is central to the classical Christian theism, or even begin to.

More on this next month.

Edwards on True Religion

We end the series of posts on aspects of the thought of Jonathan Edwards by reflecting on the central claim of his work Religious Affections, that ‘True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections’.

Earlier we noted that this work has a political character. Edwards was concerned not to repudiate the strange and in some cases disruptive and distracting phenomena of the Great Awakening, much less to repudiate the people who had such experiences. Instead he argued that, as far as ‘true religion’ is concerned, such phenomena were neither here nor there, if not accompanied by experiences that bore other signs, signs that they betokened the supernatural enlightening and vivifying agency of the Holy Spirit.

It was also political in a further sense. Edwards was keen to show to the pastors and congregations of New England that this approach, and many elements in it, was in line with the much-esteemed views of the puritan clergy of old and New England – Stoddard and Shepherd and Flavel and Owen, and so on.

But what of the central thesis itself? What of the idea, the ‘doctrine’ that it is ‘evident. That true religion, in great part, consists in the affections’? I shall try to show that this too is in line with the political purpose of the work. It will be argued that this statement, on which Religious Affections turns, is both exaggerated and unclear.


I take it that if X consists in great part in Y then Y is an essential feature of X, a property or characteristic without which X would not be X, but be something else. So that in announcing his ‘doctrine’ Edwards is arguing that holy affections are an essential part of true religion. And perhaps more than that. For in saying that true religion consists, in great part, in holy affections Edwards is calling attention to his conviction that the distinctiveness, even the uniqueness, of true religion consists in having and expressing these affections. No doubt there are essential properties that true religion possesses that many other human conditions possess; but maybe there are only a few human conditions that consist in possessing holy affections, and (according to Edwards) perhaps only one human condition, namely the condition of being truly religious. Upholding the claim that holy affections are essential to true religion in a strongish sense is the central focus of the entire work.

But let us suppose that not Edwards, but another Christian author, wrote a book maintaining one of the following claims

True religion consists in great part in belief in sound doctrine.

True religion consists in great part in godliness

True religion consists in great part in the expression of selfless love

True religion consists in great part in doing the right thing

True religion consists in great part in engaging in corporate worship

True religion consists in great part in spreading the good news

True religion consists in great part in union with Christ

True religion consists in great part in faith in Christ

True religion consists in great part in self-denial

True religion consists in great part in patient perseverance

True religion consists in great part in humility

0r even

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world’

It would not be difficult to make a good case for the truth of each of these statements by appealing to data from the New Testament. One statement is a a New Testament datum. Besides, it is scarcely credible that Jonathan Edwards himself would be prepared to deny any of these claims, though perhaps he would hold them in a weaker sense. For example, perhaps for him true religion consists in some part, but not in great part, in humility. Yet one cannot imagine him saying, for example, that belief in sound doctrine is of secondary importance, or that it does not matter much one way or another, as far as the maintenance of true religion is concerned. Why otherwise would he write extensively upholding what he takes to be the true doctrine of the will, or the true doctrine of original sin, say, and with demolishing views that are opposite to his? The posthumously-published sermon series on I Corinthians 13, Charity and its Fruits, is evidence of the high value he placed on Christian virtue, the virtue of love.

But this is not his method in the Religious Affections. Rather it is to focus on one important, even essential feature of true religion, an important essential feature, as he judged it, to the exclusion of others. That, at least, is his intention.

So what is going on? What is going on, I suggest, is that when Edwards announces the ‘doctrine’ of the book he is offering a persuasive definition of true religion. He is not telling us what according to Scripture, ‘true religion’ means, though he may think that he is, and we may think that he is. Despite the fact that he seems to be making a factual claim in saying that it is ‘evident’ that true religion in great part consists in the affections, he is in effect trying to convince us that this is so by his definition of true religion, if that is what it is. This strongly rhetorical, persuasive character of his language is also part of the political character of the work.


But ought we to be persuaded? To try to answer this question we briefly turn to what Edwards has to say in Part I about the nature of a true religious affection. What is an affection? In answering this question in the way that he does I believe that Edwards pays the price for the exaggeration that we have just been noticing.

He bases his argument on I Peter 1.8, ‘Whom having not seen, ye love: in whom, though now you see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory’. This becomes the controlling Scriptural text in the entire work

In order to get where he wants to go, to establish that true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections, I think it is fair to say that Edwards is forced to considerably widen the scope of what ‘affection’ means. An affection is, after all, nothing more or less than an affect. In the text, there is a contrast between faith and sight, and references to love, and faith (or belief) and joy. Belief is obviously the key. Christians believe in one whom they do not see, and they love him, rejoicing in him with great joy. Their belief affects them in certain ways, for they feel intense love and joy, and perhaps publicly express these feelings. The joy that they feel is the expression of, perhaps a public expression of, being affected by what and who is believed and loved.

Faith and love are virtues, theological virtues, as they used to be called, the fruit of the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Gal. 5 22-3) An overlapping list is also provided by Paul in Colossians. ‘Put on, then, as God’s chosen people, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another…forgiving each other....above all these put on love…’ (Col. 3. 12-4) Here we must remember that such virtues may lead to expressions of affection, in the sense of passions of emotions, but they may also be present, strongly present, in the absence of ‘sensible’ affection. The emotions or affections that express patience, or kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control may be very varied, as varied as the circumstances in which they are called forth. One can easily conceive of situations in which , for example, kindness, is expressed in dogged determination. Think of a daughter whose life is consumed with the care of an invalid mother, or the behaviour of caring parents with an autistic child.

In fact, some of these virtues listed by Paul - kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, patience or self-control, seem to be the exact opposite of affections as Edwards would have us understand them, in which ‘the blood and animal spirits are sensibly altered’. They are, or similar to, what Edwards’s contemporary David Hume referred to as the ‘calm passions’. It may even seem that the Apostle is contrasting these virtues, the calm ones, with those that are often publicly expressed in an agitated way, for the lists we have noted have a distinctly 'calm' feel to them. A person may be affected by the work of the Holy Spirit, possessing his fruit, in ways that are focused and undemonstrative, which lead to restraint and constraint, which lead to the development of an undeviating routine. They need not be ‘raised’ as Edwards puts it. In his definition and his defence of affection and its place in true religion Edwards fails to remind us of this, but appropriates the term for his own political purposes. Putting the matter bluntly, his definition is an attempt to press the hysteria button.

So when he writes of ‘the religious affections of love and joy’ (95) he is, I suggest, taking liberties with these central Christian virtues in order to advance his thesis. In telling us that ‘the affections are no other, than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclinations and will of the soul’, he is equating vigour and sensibility with self-consciousness and exhibitionism. That is a mistake. Paul tells us that true virtue may consist in self-forgetfulness. It is impossibly hard to derive Edwards’s claims about true religion, that it in great part consists in holy affections, from Galatians 5 or Colossians 3 without requiring that every effect of the work of the Holy Spirit in the promotion of virtue is 'vigorous and sensible'. Had he taken these other passages of Paul as his text Edwards would have been forced to write a different book.

Vigor and sensibility are essential to Edwards’s basic idea of an affection. Having established, in a way that will be familiar to readers of his work The Freedom of the Will, that the inclination or will is moved by either pleasedness or aversion, he goes on to claim that there are degrees of such aversion or pleasedness, rising to such a height ‘till the soul comes to act vigorously and sensibly, and the actings of the soul are with that strength that (through the laws of the union which the Creator has fixed between soul and body) the motion of the blood and animal spirits begins to be sensibly altered; whence often time arises some bodily sensation, especially about the heart and vitals, that are the fountain of the fluids of the body…..and it is to be noted, that they are these more vigorous and sensible exercises of this faculty, that are called the affections’. (95-6) But Edwards cannot have it both ways. A holy affection cannot both be a vigorous and sensible affect in this sense and it also be the case that true religion consists in them, not at least according to Paul, or James.


The Religious Affections is an important book, but in my view it would be unwise to take its teaching on what true religion consists in very seriously. It is a book about the importance of emotion, expressed in a public, visible way, being the measure of true religion. Its significance lies in its influence upon the evolving character of Protestant evangelicalism, as a phenomenon that identified itself (as David Bebbington has pointed out) partly by activism and conversionism: revivalism, massed choirs, large gatherings of people, the penitent bench, the centrality of the public testimony, and so on. Edwards’s Protestantism was of an older kind, but it nevertheless contained elements which, in other hands, contributed to developing the distinctive features of modern evangelicalism.