Friday, April 01, 2011

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.