Thursday, April 21, 2011

Religious Affections and Evangelicalism

Helm describes Religious Affections as of central importance to evangelicalism:

[RA's] significance lies in its influence upon the evolving character of Protestant evangelicalism, as a phenomenon that identified itself (as David Bebbington has pointed out) partly by activism and conversionism: revivalism, massed choirs, large gatherings of people, the penitent bench, the centrality of the public testimony, and so on. Edwards’s Protestantism was of an older kind, but it nevertheless contained elements which, in other hands, contributed to developing the distinctive features of modern evangelicalism.

Is this fair? Can we draw a line from Edwards to Finney to Osteen?

I would argue not. First, Edwards believes that genuine affections are centered on the objective truths of Scripture. Affection for its own sake is of no value in Edwards' treatment. Affection that is accompanied by "God language", however effusive, is of no value to Edwards.

Further, Edwards distinguishes sharply between affection that is generated by the Spirit and affection that is generated by the methods of men. He is clearly aware of the dangers of "living on experiences."

Even when he seems to encourage affections, it is through the means of grace. That True Religion consists chiefly of holy affections appears from the nature and design of the ordinances and duties, which God hath appointed, as means and expressions of true religion. (RA, 242 I.2.9). Indeed, tellingly, he begins RA with Leviticus 9 and 10, the passage that forms the backbone for the regulative principle in worship.

We should not gloss over this point as simple old-fashionedness on Edwards' part. There is a huge fault line between Edwards and later revivalists. The "penitent bench" would not have been, for Edwards, a mere novelty or change in fashion. It would have been a man-made attempt to generate affections outside the God-appointed means of true religion.

Likewise, Edwards wrote " is no evidence that religious affections are of a spiritual and gracious nature, because they are great. It is very manifest by the Holy Scripture, our sure and infallible rule in things of this nature, that there are very high religious affections which are not spiritual and saving."

That is, he places no stock in the strength of affection; only in its movement of the will towards christian practice and the development of the character of Christ. It is hard to see how he can be held responsible for those who value "being on fire for the Lord"!

So evangelicals cannot really claim Edwards, unless they are willing to admit his criticisms at the same time.

And therein lies the value of Religious Affections. Even with its flaws, RA focuses the reader's attention on this question: Which evidences are legitimate tests of the work of God?

It cannot be but beneficial for a young Christian to discover that strong feelings, or spontaneous verses of Scripture, or much external zeal and piety, are no evidences of true religion; and that the fruit of Christian practice *is*. Even if we dispute Edwards' view of true religion (and we do!), and fault him for failing to consider faith and the Law in his account of affections -- still and all, he is much closer to genuine Reformed piety than he is to pietism or evangelicalism.

For this reason, I view Religious Affections as a flawed-but-helpful gateway out of excessive pietism and towards a spiritual life grounded in faith in the work of Christ for us. Edwards is not the answer; but he is on average a far better answer than one usually gets.

JRC

Religious Affections and the Law

One of the striking features of Religious Affections is that Edwards ties affections to law-keeping but fails to carry this thought to its conclusion.

In favor of his thesis that True Religion, in great part, consists in holy affections, he cites Deut 10.12, 6.4 - 5, and many other passages that show that it is our duty to have right affections towards God. In this way, Edwards is echoing Augustine, who taught that God's justification of us is accompanied by the implanting of divine love, charity, so that we desire to fulfill the Law. (cf. Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 4). For both men, a true work of God will result in love.

So this raises an important question: Does Edwards cross the Law/Gospel line? Is he, in effect, telling his readers to become law-keepers in order to validate the genuineness of their faith?

No -- but he's not as clear as he might be.

Religious Affections is a polemical theological treatise. Much like Thoughts on the Revival (which contains many of the same arguments), Edwards' aims are (a) to defend the legitimacy of religious affections in principle, and (b) to criticize pernicious practices that have arisen when people have placed undue weight on affections.1

In short, Edwards aims to be a friend to the good and a critic of the bad. His intended audience includes those who view outward expressions of affection of any sort to be works of Satan. Against them, Edwards emphasizes the necessity of the fruits of the Spirit (love, hope, patience) as a legitimate and necessary part of true religion.

But it would have been far clearer, I think, if Edwards had explored more thoroughly the connection between affections and Law. What happens if a Christian has but a meager love for God? What if his affections are weak? Does this mean he has sinned, perhaps having hardness of heart? Or does it mean that he needs to be strengthened in his faith? Would it not be fair to say that a meager love for God is failing to keep the Law to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?

And in that case, we have well-worn theology concerning Christians who fail to keep the Law (cf. WCoF 17, 18, 19).

Indeed, Edwards' failure to put things in terms of law-keeping meant that he had to roll his own objections to legalism. The Puritans struggled mightily with legalism in the form of demanding dramatic conversion experiences from each other (cf. Tennant's Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry). In Thoughts on the Revival, Edwards takes great pains to criticize those who condemn others as "unconverted" on the basis of their lack of outward affections. Based on these criticisms, I think we can clear Edwards of the charge of placing his readers under the law.

But, if he had more clearly thought about religious affections as a species of keeping the Law, this would have been unnecessary and even obvious.

Next Post: Religious Affections and Evangelicalism -->

1. Helm views RA as a political treatise, aimed at defending the revivalists. It's an intriguing take, but the difficulty is that Edwards thinks of himself as laying down doctrine while defending the revivalists. And it's a strange "defense" that, like Thoughts on the Revival, sharply criticizes those whom he is defending. If Edwards is playing the politician, he is particularly inept at it. Perhaps it might be better to say that Edwards sees himself located on one side (the revivalists), but concerned to be both a friend to the good while opposing the bad.

Religious Affections and Faith

Edwards' Religious Affections consists of a preface and three main parts. The first is a defense of the thesis that True Religion, in great part, consists in holy affections. He then goes on to distinguish between those signs which do not provide evidence of true religion, and those that do.

What is an affection, anyway? Edwards thinks of affections as movements of the will. For Edwards, an affection properly considered is that which moves the will towards an action. Love, hope, zeal, fear of the Lord: these are all religious affections. They all contain an element of emotion in them, but the chief thing is not the strength of that emotion, but rather that the will is moved towards the certainty of divine things, the development of the character of Christ, and Christian practice. What makes an affection sufficiently affective is that it moves one above indifference and towards a definite action. Indeed, Edwards believes that there is scarcely a difference between an affection and an exercise of the will.

Whether this is a Lockean conception of the will is beyond this writer; but what is clear is that Edwards has a particular view of the psychology of man, and he incorporates this view into his doctrine of Religious Affections (cf. Edwards' Freedom of the Will). For Edwards, the affections are bound up in the will so that genuine affections lead ultimately to action; whereas inclinations that carry us but little beyond indifference are "weak, dull, and lifeless wishes."

At this point, one pauses to ask the question: Should we accept Edwards' particular theory of psychology as part of our doctrine of religious affections? Even granting Edwards' basic observation that Scripture enjoins love and hope and joy upon us, still and all, must we go further and accept that our affections are identical to exercises of the will?

I think not.

The glaring absence in Edwards' description of religious affections is the role of faith. Nowhere mentioned by name, faith is the anti-elephant in Edwards' room of affections. Is faith one of the religious affections? If not, then is it not an action of the will? Or is faith prior to all of these affections? Surely faith is a part of true religion?!

And this omission is notable because the Shorter Catechism speaks of the work of the Spirit in this way:

Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.

Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God's Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

There it is: the work of the Spirit on our wills is to persuade us to embrace Christ; that is, to work faith in us. Faith would therefore seem to be, on Edwards' account, a motion of the will -- and yet it is absent.

So the question now is, why did Edwards omit faith? What does he mean by it?

Two points help us sort out the puzzle. First, the purpose of Religious Affections is to help the reader sort out evidences. Faith is ultimately invisible, and Edwards is clear that he is not providing us with a rule by which one may infallibly read the heart of another (RA 262-263, Section III preface). So part of our answer is that faith is simply not an outwardly expressible affection. It is outside the scope of Edwards' question. Though faith is an exercise of the will, it is not an affection in the sense in which he is speaking.

This is confirmed by a read through Edwards' Justification by Faith Alone. In this piece, it becomes obvious that Edwards does not see the affections as salvific, but as fruits of a salvation that is acquired by faith alone, apart from any virtue in us.

But why then does Edwards make holy affections the very definition of True Religion? Clearly he understands that faith is central to our justification? What is doing?

And here, we are stymied for a simple reason. Edwards assumes that his reader already has a clear idea of what "True Religion" is supposed to mean! As careful as he is to define "affections", he gives us no inkling as to what "true religion" means, other to say that it consists of holy affections.

Putting all this together charitably, it seems safe to say that "true religion" is supposed to be something like "the fruit of genuine faith."

But the omission of faith, not merely in justification but also in the ongoing Christian life, is a profound flaw in Edwards' account. It goes to the heart of the Halfway Covenant controversy and the perennial Puritan question of "Am I really, really, really, really, really really saved?" What does one do if one assesses oneself to believe the Gospel, but not be practicing true religion as expressed by "vigorous" (i.e., will-influencing) affections? Edwards gives no answer.

Next Post: Religious Affections and the Law -->

Jonathan Edwards and Religious Affections

Paul Helm has recently written several articles on Edwards' A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. His conclusion is that Edwards vastly oversimplifies true religion, offering a confused definition of both affections and religion. Helm views Edwards' confusion as significantly influential on subsequent evangelicalism, giving theological cover to conversionism. Sean Lucas has joined the fray, along with our Californian Pennsylvanian Delawarian Michiganian correspondent.

In the space below, I would like to offer two arguments in support of Helm's thesis and one against. In the end, Religious Affections is a confused document because it does not address the role of faith (!) in religion, and because it does not thoroughly address the connection between affections and the Law in the Christian life. The reader of Religious Affections walks away unsure of whether one is saved by having the right affections, or one is shown to be saved by having the right affections. Likewise, a reader who experiences little in the way of high emotions is unsure of whether this is a problem, and if so, what the solution might be.

But RA provides little cover for modern evangelicalism and emotionalism. Instead, it is a useful pivot point for those coming out of evangelicalism. For though Edwards affirms the role of affections in religion, in the end he directs the reader away from subjective assessments of affections, and towards affections grounded in the objective work of God, communicated by God-ordained means of grace.

The interested reader is encouraged at this point to leave this post and read Edwards:

A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections
Justification by Faith Alone

and then Helm:

Part I
Part II
Part III

Next Post: Religious Affections and Faith -->