What was Jonathan Edwards really saying?

Sean Lucas
Ref21 friend Paul Helm has just finished a fascinating series of posts on Jonathan Edwards and his thoughts on true religion. His conclusion was this: "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."

Obviously, I am not close to the scholar that Helm is and I feel it somewhat presumptuous to correct this. But as someone who has spent a great deal of time with Edwards--now stretching over twenty years--and has a book forthcoming on Edwards' theology of the Christian life, I feel some need to say that this conclusion (especially the second sentence) is simply not correct.

It is not correct on two counts. First, it is not correct to identify "religious affections" with emotions. Edwards said that "the affections are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul." This definition ties back into Edwards' prior ontological commitments: fundamental to being are the habits or dispositions that move when some sensation is brought to bear upon them. When he 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). 

Following Lockean idealism, sensation was a more original kind of knowing than speculative or abstract thought. As the understanding and will evaluated certain sensations, reactions (or judgments) develop: approval or disapproval, approbation or disapprobation. When the sensation affects the judgment to such a degree that the will is engaged, then there is action.

For Edwards, sensation did not necessarily mean a "passionate" or "enthusiastic" reaction. Preaching produced sensations that could be quite "rational" and "unemotional" and still affect the individual to fear or love or worry and move the will to action. However, it is definitely the case that the will does not act unless it has been affected or exercised in some way. Again, this does not mean that the individual must experience intense "emotions," but he must experience a spiritual or religious sensation that brings about the exercise of one's will (or habit or disposition) in such a way that the individual obeys God. 

This segues to the second point: it is not correct to claim that Edwards' argued that true religion consisted in emotion expressed in a public, visible way. Rather, for Edwards, true religion consists in obedience to God, in holy practice. However, the only way an individual's will can be moved to obey is to be affected. Or to put it differently, only as the individual loves--the chief of all affections--will the individual obey. And the only way someone can love--which is an affection--is for the Spirit of God to dwell in his or her heart and shed abroad his love. We must have a "new sense of the heart," a new sensation or disposition that motivates and moves to holy obedience. As Thomas Chalmers put it, it is the power of a new affection that drives out sin and motivates obedience.

Certainly, there are a range of answers within the Reformed tradition to how we should live the Christian life. And certainly, historical figures like Jonathan Edwards are open to criticism for their models of the Christian life. But in order to claim that Edwards is not the answer, we have at least to understand and state accurately what his answers are first. 

For myself, I have gone from thinking that Edwards' answers were not sufficient or helpful for Reformed faith and practice to thinking that they are. And that has come from the hard, twin tasks, first of understanding what Edwards actually said; and second of dealing with my own and my people's hearts and pointing them to a deeper love for and obedience to the Savior.