A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections Summary

Jonathan Edwards


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

An early convert to Calvinism, Jonathan Edwards was ordained minister of First Church, Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1727, and through such provocative sermons as “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence” (1731), “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (1733), and “Justification by Faith Alone” (1734) became a central figure in the religious revival in New England that came to be known as the “Great Awakening.” Among his other important works are Freedom of the Will (1754), The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758), and The Nature of True Virtue (1765).

In the preface to his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Edwards contends that there is no more important question than that concerning the distinguishing features of those who are truly religious and pious. The practical problem of distinguishing the truly pious from the fervent pretenders to piety arose in the spiritual excitement of the Great Awakening, during which it became difficult, if not impossible, to separate the truly holy from those whose emotional intensity and frenetic activity gave them the appearance but not the reality of virtue and piety.

Edwards was troubled, both spiritually and intellectually, by the confusion of emotionalism with true virtue. “There is indeed something very mysterious in it,” he writes, “that so much good, and so much bad, should be mixed together in the church of God.” Mysterious as it is, however, the coexistence of the true and the false in religion is something that must be acknowledged. “’Tis no new thing,” he adds, “that much false religion should prevail, at a time of great reviving of true religion; and that at such a time, multitudes of hypocrites should spring up among true saints.” The problem for Edwards, then, was that of distinguishing true religion from false, genuine piety from the counterfeit, sainthood from hypocrisy, and Christian spirituality from religious zealousness.

Edwards begins the task of resolving the problem by remarking on the love and joy of the Christian victims of religious persecution to whom Peter (in 1 Peter 1:8) wrote (with reference to Christ), “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory.” Although the persecuted Christians did not see Christ, they loved him; although they suffered, they knew the joy of loving the divine. These religious affections—love and joy, founded in the divine—sustained and spiritually transformed these early Christians and thus were signs of their true piety, arising from the grace of God. Edwards’s reflections on Christian love and joy lead to the statement of his central proposition: “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”

In writing of the “affections,” Edwards was not referring to sentiments, feelings, or passions; he was writing of the “inclination and will” of the soul, the active tendency to embrace some things and turn away from others. He conceived of the spiritual affections pragmatically; he regarded them as dispositions to act, as established inclinations showing themselves in action.

A distinction is drawn by Edwards between the soul’s understanding, which is dependent upon perception and speculation, and the soul’s inclination, its capacity and tendency to approve or reject, to like or dislike, to be for some things and against others. When an inclination determines action, it may be called “will,” and when the mind is affected by inclinations, it may be called “heart.” The religious affections, then, are active inclinations affecting the will and the heart; and when they do so under the influence of the divine, they are true religious affections.

Since the affections are either positive or negative—either inclinations to approve or inclinations to reject—they involve either a “cleaving to . . . or seeking” something or, on the other hand, being averse to or opposed to something. Of the inclinations for something, Edwards gives as examples love, desire, hope, joy, gratitude, and complacence; as examples of inclinations against something, he cites hatred, fear, anger, grief, and the like. Some of the affections, Edwards points out, involve both positive and negative inclinations. Pity, for example, involves a positive inclination toward the sufferer and a negative inclination toward the suffering.

Although the religious affections are often of the mixed sort, involving love of the divine and hatred of sin and of Satanic influences, the love of God—that is, love directed toward the divine—is “the chief of the affections, and fountain of all other affections.” The two commandments given by Christ—to love God and, accordingly, to...

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A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Crisp, Oliver D. Jonathan Edwards and the Metaphysics of Sin. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2005. Chapters include “The Divine Decrees,” “Adam’s Fall,” “The Authorship of Sin,” “The Secret and Revealed Will of God,” “Temporal Parts and Imputed Sin,” and “Inherited Guilt.” Bibliography, index.

Edwards, Jonathan. Freedom of the Will. Edited by Paul Ramsey. Vol. 1 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, edited by Perry Miller. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957. First published in 1754, this is Edwards’s philosophical masterpiece. In it, he argues for Calvinism against Arminianism and for the doctrine that freedom of the will is not only compatible with determinism but also requires it.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Nature of True Virtue. Foreword by William K. Frankena. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960. First published in 1765 (written in 1755), this statement is consistent with Edwards’s Treatise Concerning Religious Affections; here he argues that true virtue consists in benevolence to being in general, that is, “love to God,” and consequently that “virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart.”

Gura, Philip F. Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005. A full biography of Edwards from the early years to Princeton. Illustrated; bibliography, index.

Larsen, Dale. Jonathan Edwards—Renewed Heart: Six Studies for Individuals or Groups with Study Notes. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002. Offers six lessons on Christian living based on Edwards’s life and passages from Scripture.

Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. Introduction by John F. Wilson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. Wilson’s introduction sets the stage for students of Edwards. Bibliography, index.

Simonson, Harold P. Theologian of the Heart. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974. A careful, detailed, and rewarding study of Edwards’s conviction that virtue requires a “sense of the heart” as affected by the grace and glory of God.