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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