Jonathan Edwards and Religious Affections

[Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on February 27, 2013.]

I recently came across a wonderful, brief introduction to the life and literary legacy of Jonathan Edwards by Joel Beeke and Randall Peterson. The essay, which is available online, is reprinted from Meet the Puritans (Reformation Heritage, 2007), which Beeke and Peterson co-authored. In the essay, the authors provide a basic summary of Edwards’s biography and theological convictions. They also provide an annotated bibliography to reprinted editions (scholarly and popular) of Edwards’s written corpus.

My chief interest in Edwards concerns two interrelated topics: his spirituality and his theology of revival. For this reason, my favorite of Edwards’s works is A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746). I have frequently required Religious Affections in my Church History II class. More than one student has told me that being required to read Religious Affections for my class changed his or her spiritual life. Read what Beeke and Peterson have to say about Religious Affections in the aforementioned essay:

This work is often regarded as the leading classic in American history on spiritual life. Edwards here presents a more mature reflection of revival than in his Faithful Narrative, reflecting upon the strengths and weaknesses of the Great Awakening after it crested. Fundamentally, Edwards grapples with the questions: What makes a person a Christian? What is it about a person that would move others to recognize him as a Christian? What is the difference between true and false Christian experience? Edwards first considers the nature of affections and their importance in religion, answering the charges of Charles Chauncy. He views affections as the desires of the heart based upon intellectual reflections, and argues that true religion consists in the affections.

In the second part of his work, Edwards describes twelve signs of gracious affections that may not necessarily indicate saving faith. These include intense feelings; experiences that produce physical effects; fluency in spiritual matters; not causing one’s own affections; having verses of Scripture impressed upon the mind; the appearance of being loving; experiencing a variety of affections; being moved by affections to spend much time in religious matters; affections that move one to praise God; affections that lead to a strong sense of assurance of salvation; affections that lead one to act in ways that are accepted by the godly. Edwards goes on to argue that external signs motivated by religious affections neither deny nor confirm genuine religious experience. He takes a middle position between those who claimed the phenomena that took place in Northampton proved the revival true and those who said the phenomena showed it to be false.

In the final section, Edwards explains the true marks of genuine conversion, noting that they all arise from the illumination of God’s Spirit. He describes twelve true signs of gracious affections:

• A new birth, or regeneration
• A new transcendental perspective in daily life that focuses on God’s glory
• A love for the loveliness of divine things
• A “new taste” that combines “heat with light”; understanding is essential but insufficient by itself
• A deep conviction of an immediate sense of divinity and total control of self by the truths of the gospel
• An evangelical rather than legal humiliation
• A radical change of nature that results in conversion
• A genuine love for and meekness toward others
• A Christian tenderness toward others
• A kind of symmetry or proportion of all the foregoing affections
• A desire for a growing relationship with God
• A gracious love that manifests itself in behavior

If you haven’t read Religious Affections before, I would encourage you to do so. A paperback of the Yale University Press critical edition, which includes a scholarly introductory essay by John Smith, has recently been published at a very affordable price (pictured above). You can also read the critical edition for free online at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. There are also many popular reprints of Religious Affections available on the market. The one I read while in seminary (my first introduction to Religious Affections) was the edition published by Banner of Truth. It’s also fairly easy to find free PDF versions of Religious Affections on the internet.

If the idea of reading Edwards scares you a bit, check out Sam Storms’s Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Crossway, 2007), which is a wonderful modernization of the original work (pictured left). Another helpful modern updating of Religious Affections, this one written by Gerald McDermott, is titled Seeing God: Jonathan Edwards and Spiritual Discernment (Regent College Publishing, 2000). Craig Biehl has also written a study guide to the book titled Reading “Religious Affections”: A Study Guide to Jonathan Edwards’ Classic on the Nature of True Christianity (Solid Ground Christian Books, 2012).

(Note: This post was first published at Christian Thought & Tradition on February 25, 2013.)


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