Thursday, April 26, 2007

Jonathan Edwards on 'Religious Affections'

Rev. Jonathan Edwards, a leader of the Great A...
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Edwards,leader of the Great Awakening
Jonathan Edwards defends the nature and importance of religious affections in Christianity in his treatise by that name. Edwards defines affections as “exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”

Edwards takes a laudable approach to affirming religious affections. He turns his argument from the controversial revivalist topics of the day, showing the shallowness of their controversial roles in awakenings. He points the reader to a higher plane, one which is fixed on Christ and the Scripture, one which promotes Christian perseverance in obedience as a chief end of the affections. “True religion,” Edwards affirms, “lies very much in the affections.”

First, Edwards appeals to Scripture, Christ’s example, and the church ordinances in defending affections. Second, Edwards takes religious affections out of the twilight zone by contrasting the subjective notions of religious affections with more objective ideas, the most important being the practice of Christian obedience.

Third, Edwards does not succumb to Enlightenment dichotomous thought in forcing an either-or. Edwards neither condemns nor condones the more subjective signs characterized by fervent and abundant religious speech, strange bodily effects, remarkably received Scriptural texts, ecstatic experience, or acts of piety. He chides both those who flatly dismiss all religious affections and also those who revel in ecstatic exuberance and emotional heebie-jeebies.

While Edwards attempts to distance himself from the controversial aspects of religious affections, he betrays a partiality for them in blessing the desire for affections and rebuking those conservatives who toss the baby out with the bathwater. While the affections were sometimes counterfeited or abused, the rejection or poverty of spiritual affections indicated for Edwards a lack of real conversion to Christ.

Fourth, Edwards offers a more objective set of signals of “true and gracious affections” in Part 3, including the character of the Trinity, the work of salvation in a believer’s heart, the fruit of the Spirit and growth of humility and balance in a believer. He crowns his argument with the practice of Christian obedience as the chief evidence of “saving sincerity in religion.” Edwards wisely contrasts these true affections with their counterfeits, bringing greater clarity through the use of foil to aid his argument. Fifth, Edwards appeals to the twin arbiters of reason and the Word of God to defend the place of affections in the Christian life. His point? The Bible teaches the efficacy and usefulness of affections and common sense confirms it.

However, Edwards can be criticized in two areas. First, in an effort to bring more empirical, objective affections to the table, Edwards brings several immeasurable, similarly subjective arguments. Thus, he is hampered in his attempt for a more objective, measurable set of signs for distinguishing religious affections as either spiritual or carnal. Instead, he offers a number of arguably subjective signs such as an increasing hunger for Christ, fruit of the Spirit, and balance. For example, Edwards argues that true affections arise from a believer’s inward conviction of the reality and truth of divine things. Is such a conviction more valid than the quite subjective comfort and joyful release following conversion? Edward dubs the latter indistinguishable as either spiritual or carnal.

Second, Edwards definition of spiritual affections is only slight (“The affections are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”), and his examples of the affections are scattered. The only affections he clearly denotes are his “false signs.” Edwards does not directly define his distinctive affections, instead preferring to discuss the derivation and effect of true affections, not focus on their identity, to some frustration.