Below is an excerpt from Chapter 18 of The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology , by Kyle Strobel. Dr. Strobel is Associate Professor of Spiritual Theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is the author of Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation and co-author with Oliver Crisp of Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought.
The Nature of Affection
One of the major difficulties with a text like the Religious Affections is holding in mind what an affection actually is. But Edwards is clear: ‘the affections are no other, than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul’ (Edwards 1957: 96). An affection, for Edwards, is not an emotion, but is a certain kind of willing (i.e., a vigorous and sensible willing). (For the most well-developed account of affections in relation to emotions, passions and willing, see Martin 2019.) The soul is capable of perception and speculation, which he names as the understanding, and the soul inclines or is averse to what is beheld, which he names as an act of inclination or will. While he freely uses the term ‘faculties’, it is a mistake to think of the understanding and the will as ‘faculties’ that understand and will respectively; a person does not have an understanding and a will as distinct entities in the soul. Rather, persons understand and persons will. One of the important implications of this focus, Edwards claims, is that there cannot ‘be a clear distinction made between the two faculties of understanding and will, as acting distinctly and separately, in this matter’ (Edwards 1957: 272). Furthermore, the difference between a normal act of the will and an affection is simply ‘the degree and manner of exercise’ (p. 97). As an act of willing, an affection can be negative or positive, but to qualify as an ‘affection’, it must be a vigorous inclination of the will. (On the union of the body and the soul, and the bodily response to affections, see Edwards 1957: 98.) Affections are not synonymous with passions, therefore, because passions are more sudden and violent to the body (i.e. violence to the ‘animal spirits’ and the ‘motion of fluids’ according to Edwards’ understanding of human physiology), whereas affections are a more abiding movement of the will. According to John E. Smith, unlike the overpowering nature of the passions, the affections ‘require instead a clear understanding and sufficient control of the self to make choice possible’ (Smith 1957: 15).
The Nature of Religious Affection
The preceding description narrates the nature of affection, but Edwards’ work is not an exposition of affection as such, but religious affections—an affectionate knowledge of God. To get to the heart of his argument, it is important to consider his understanding of the Spirit’s work in the soul, and how his religious psychology gives an account of the nature of affectionate knowledge. Edwards’ view of religious affection is moored to his understanding of regeneration, spiritual knowledge, theosis, and anthropology, at the very least, all of which are governed by his doctrine of God. (For an account of how these all fit together in Edwards’ thought, with a particular emphasis on what a Reformed doctrine of theosis entails, see Strobel 2016: 371–99.) The decisions he makes in each of these areas lead him to say, in a statement he considers inherently obvious, ‘That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull and lifeless wouldings, raising us but a little above a state of indifference’, as well as ‘for who will deny that true religion consists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart’ (Edwards 1957: 99). At the centre of his theory of religious affection is the notion that true religion entails a ‘vigorous and lively’ willing. This is not just any willing, it is willing God and the things of God that makes an affection a truly religious affection, which is, by necessity, an act of the Spirit of God in the regenerate alone.
Because religious affections are only possible through the infusion of the Spirit in the soul, when issues of discernment arise, one cannot simply address the teleology of an affection, but must attend to the inner movement of the heart. In Edwards’ words, ‘True religion is evermore a powerful thing; and the power of it appears, in the first place, in the inward exercises of it in the heart, where is the principal and original seat of it’ (Edwards 1957: 100). As a movement in the heart, and because the fount of this work is the Spirit in the soul, Edwards turns to the language of sense and perception to articulate the phenomenology of this event. The problem this creates for discernment concerns the nature of this new sense of the heart given in regeneration. He claims that there is a ‘new inward perception or sensation of their minds, entirely different in its nature and kind, from anything that ever their minds were the subjects of before they were sanctified’, and argues that this ‘new sensation’ is discovered in the ‘faculties’ of the soul but is available only through the work of the Spirit in the elect (p. 204). Key to Edwards’ phenomenological description is his theological aesthetics, once again grounded in God’s beatitude and made available to the Christian through God’s self-revelation in Son and Spirit. In doing so, he distinguishes mere ‘notional’ understanding of God with the regenerate’s spiritual knowledge of God:
There is a distinction to be made between a mere notional understanding, wherein the mind only beholds things in the exercise of a speculative faculty; and the sense of the heart, wherein the mind doesn’t only speculate and behold, but relishes and feels. That sort of knowledge, by which a man has a sensible perception of amiableness and loathsomeness, or of sweetness and nauseousness, is not just the same sort of knowledge with that, by which he knows what a triangle is, and what a square is. The one is mere speculative knowledge; the other sensible knowledge, in which more than the mere intellect is concerned; the heart is the proper subject of it, or the soul as a being that not only beholds, but has inclination, and is pleased or displeased.(Edwards 1957: 272)
Edwards uses the example of someone who knows everything about honey except its taste. (For an overview of the nature of this new ‘sense of the heart,’ see Smith 2005: 103–14.) For Edwards, this is missing everything that truly matters about honey—missing out on its glory—and is therefore only speculative knowledge. To know God is to know him, not only speculatively, but sensibly (or, maybe better, personally), through a partaking in his self-giving as one receives the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit. To receive the invisible God, one must come to see Christ, the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), through the illuminating work of the infused Spirit, such that seeing this image is seeing the beauty of God. This act of sight in conversion, for Edwards, is read through his theological aesthetic, such that recognizing the beauty of God in Christ is the first act of a regenerate soul: ‘Spiritual understanding primarily consists in this sense, or taste of the moral beauty of divine things; so that no knowledge can be called spiritual, any further than it arises from this, and has this in it’ (Edwards 1957: 273).
The Spring of Affection
True religion, for Edwards, is a not simply a creaturely response to God’s work, however true that is, but is a participation in God’s own goodness. It is not that God gives over a sight of his glory and beauty, but rather, in the Son and Spirit, God ushers the believer into his glory and beauty. The ‘inward principle’ of religious affection ‘is something divine’, Edwards claims, ‘a communication of God, a participation of the divine nature, Christ living in the heart, the Holy Spirit dwelling there, in union with the faculties of the soul, as an internal vital principle, exerting his own proper nature, in the exercise of those faculties’ (Edwards 1957: 392). A good action, on this line of thinking, must have a good source, or to use his preferred terminology, a good principle of action. But the Christian is called to be holy as God is holy, therefore true religion must derive its principle of action from God’s own holiness. Therefore, God puts the Spirit of his holiness in the heart of his elect, who functions according to ‘his own proper nature’ (i.e. as holiness and love), not as a new faculty, but as a ‘vital principle in the soul’ (Edwards 1999: 208).
Fundamental to Edwards’ theological impulse is that true religion requires God’s immediate action in the soul: ‘For there can be no one virtuous choice, unless God
immediately gives it’ (Edwards 1743: §43). This immediacy does not undermine the mediation of the means of grace, but the Spirit uses these means for his immediate activity in and upon the soul. This immediacy is necessary for the believer to have true virtue and holiness. As Cochran rightly notes, ‘For Edwards, we acquire the virtues by receiving them. True virtue and its corollaries are received through the direct intervention of God’s converting grace, which bestows a spiritual sense upon the regenerate’ (Cochran 2011: 167). The natural person does not have the necessary holiness by which to live holy lives, although they have the capacity for natural virtue. This leads to the problem and necessity for discernment. An unregenerate person can habituate aspects of religion that mimic true religion, even to the person themselves, and fail to have the love and holiness of God as their foundation. Once again, it is the problem of discerning true from false religion that Edwards seeks to address.
So while affection is necessary, it is insufficient for discerning true religion. Questions of discernment must attend to the nature of the affections as true or false, and therefore must focus on the principle or spring of the affection in the soul. It is not enough to look at a person’s action to discern true religion; one must face the difficulty of attending to the inner-movement of the heart (and the Spirit’s role in that movement). Religious affections are deeply abiding realities in the Christian, and therefore a key element of false affections is that they ‘don’t go deep enough, to reach and govern the spring of men’s actions and practice’ (Edwards 1957: 393). Whereas false affections don’t penetrate deeply into the soul, true gracious affections ‘go to the very bottom of the heart, and take hold of the very inmost springs of life and activity’ (p. 393). Because of this, there is a close relation to the inner movements of the regenerate soul and Christian practice. True grace is not an inactive thing,’ Edwards avers, ‘for ’tis life itself, and the most active kind of life, even spiritual and divine life’ (p. 398). In his practical sections, this inclination will do a lot of work, but will also raise questions for later Reformed theologians on whether or not this kind of impulse is helpful.
From The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Copyright © 2020 by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.