Thursday, April 21, 2011

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.

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