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.