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.


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