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Jonathan Edwards and Religious Affections




The revivals of 1734 and 1740 were the immediate context of E’s reflections giving rise to RA.  RA is an analysis of the role of experience in Christian life and understanding. The book appeared in 1746, two years after E declared that the revival was over.


E can’t be understood if we espouse a traditional head/heart dualism.  E insisted, rather, on a unitary self, e.g., concerning his understanding of “affection.”


[1] Affection is not the same as emotion.

Affection is a felt response to an object called forth by an understanding of the nature of the object.  Plainly, where there’s no understanding there can be no affection, regardless of how much emotion is present.  (There was no shortage of emotion during the revivals.)


[2]  Affections differ from passions.

Passions (a) are inclinations that overpower an individual, thus diminishing self-control

(b) captivate people.  To be captive to a passion is to be passive.  Such passivity is a denial of the active response-aspect of an affection.  Whereas passion enslaves the will, affection is an exercise of the will.  An affection is a response of the total self as the nature of something (someone) is apprehended.


In the course of the revivals E met people who admitted that previously they had assented to gospel-truth, but who with a new “sense” born of spiritual understanding could “see” the truth and committed themselves to it (Him).  [Note the empiricist/intuitionist vocabulary from the Enlightenment: “sense”, “see”.]  These people apprehended the nature of God (gospel), were seized by its truth or “excellency” (a favourite word of E’s), and their conviction generated their commitment.

Note the shift from assensus to fiducia, born of apprehending the nature of God.  A “sense” or affection was a concomitant of the apprehension.

Note that for E “affection” includes understanding and will.  (Here he differs from the older “faculty” notion that understanding, will and affect are related but distinct.)



E wishes to provide people with criteria for exposing counterfeit piety (bodily contortions or jerks, imaginings or visions as such — what he called “negative signs.”

E sought to identify “enthusiasm (in Wesley’s sense), superstition and intemperate zeal.”

E insisted that experience as such was an insufficient criterion; experience must always be measured by scripture.

In RA E identifies true piety with the fruit of the Spirit or holy affections.  Positive religion consists in holy affections; these in turn are a means of “testing the spirits.”


E maintains that love (here he has in mind love for God) is (a) the paramount affection, (b) the fountain of all the affections.

Note E’s subtle discernment: Satan is to be seen in both the revivals and in those who oppose revivals.  In the revivals, false affections are the tares among the wheat; in those who oppose revivals there is the denial that affections are essential to the Christian life.  In other words, since affect-less Christian life is impossible, affect-less revival is equally impossible.


Note E’s two further qualifications:

(i)               the Spirit doesn’t everywhere follow the same order of operations.  E.g., it mustn’t be assumed that people must first be terrified to the point of despair before they can embrace JC in faith.  (Here E differs from much Puritanism.)  In the same way, not all fear of judgement is holy; some is mere self-preservation and therefore a manifestation of selfism.  (Wesley made this point in Catholic Spirit.)

(ii)              other people cannot judge someone’s spiritual state.  We can only assess our own, under the God who alone is the ultimate searcher of the heart.




FIRST SIGN: a new inward perception, a new sense of the heart (lacking in unbelievers.)

Here there is a realm or sphere of affection that is not naturally generated.  The holy affection is now the new basis to the understanding and will.  Genuine believers are aware of the sphere of the spiritual, of the Divine-human encounter as reality.  This new inward perception or sense affects the self as a unity: the new self will manifest itself in all that a person thinks, feels, does.


SECOND SIGN: a pure love for God without any utilitarian consideration.

This affection arises entirely from the perception and contemplation of God’s glory.  I.e., believers mature beyond loving God for what he has done for them to loving God for who he is in himself; better, what he does for us is an expression of who he is in himself.


E insists that regardless of what Satan can counterfeit, Satan cannot counterfeit an “intrinsic nature”; i.e., Satan cannot counterfeit the intrinsic nature of God or of a holy love to God.  Satan cannot simulate holy love just because he has none.


THIRD SIGN: a sense of, “taste” of, the beauty of God’s holiness.

(E understands God’s holiness as God’s “goodness” or “moral excellency”.  Is he right in this?)

Not to apprehend the beauty of God’s holiness is to declare oneself spiritually obtuse.


FOURTH SIGN: gracious affections arise from a spiritually enlightened mind.

Spiritual understanding is a spiritual “sense” that apprehends the nature of God in that the one is now a participant rather than an observer.  Because of one’s being a “participant”, such understanding is qualitatively different from all natural knowledge.


Definition of “spiritual understanding”: “a sense of the heart for the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness of moral perfection of divine things, as well as the discernment and knowledge of things of religion that depends on and flows from such a sense”  — e.g., the person of JC, scripture, obedience, prayer.  We can apprehend the nature and significance of these only as we have a heart-sense for God’s holiness.  E likens this (in a naturalistic analogy) to someone with a musical ear.  Such a person can judge spontaneously without making any deductions or hearing any arguments.  Such spontaneous judgement is “taste”, and “taste reacts immediately and anticipates all reflection.” Such taste is “a relish of the heart.”  This relish means that spiritual understanding already contains inclination and judgement.


FIFTH SIGN: gracious affections “are associated with historical evidence and true conviction.”

The emphasis here is on the conviction that arises from the apprehension of the excellency of God. Conviction arises from a direct (non-speculative, non-balance of probability) apprehension of truth; i.e., there is a “mystical” immediacy.

E uses “historical” in a peculiar way: he means that conviction doesn’t arise from visions and raptures but rather from the spiritual understanding’s grasping God’s glory in the scriptures; i.e.,, the conviction is internal an intrinsic to the gospel itself.


SIXTH SIGN: gracious affections flow from deep awareness of personal insufficiency.

Here E moves beyond Puritan “legal humbling” (the unbeliever’s self-renunciation arising from one’s inability to keep the Law of God) to “evangelical humbling” (the believer’s “sense” of the majesty and awesomeness of God.)


SEVENTH SIGN: gracious affections change us to be more Christ-like.

E emphasizes change of nature; he does not emphasize identifiable moment of conversion.

This new nature perdures.

The unregenerate may be restrained from (outward) sin; the regenerate is restrained from sin because turned toward a life of holiness.  [cf. Thomas Chalmers, “the expulsive power of a new affection.”]


EIGHTH SIGN: gracious affections have Christ-like gentleness.

Here E has in mind not spinelessness but rather the biblical meaning of “boldness: strength exercised through gentleness.  (The wild horse now tamed and therefore useful but whose spirit remains unbroken; the victorious general who spares a conquered people.)

E opposed “brutal fierceness”, displayed too often by the “fleshly” people in revivals.  Such “brutal fierceness”, said E, is (a) indulgence of our depravity, (b) pride.

Zeal is to be exercised against evil, but never against people.

Fervour is always to manifest itself as fervent love.

“An ugly, selfish, angry and contentious spirit” is no sign of the Spirit.


NINTH SIGN: gracious affections soften the heart in Christian tenderness.

Horror at sin (past and present) is a sign of such tenderness; such horror must never recede.

After conversion one’s sense of guilt may be removed, but one’s sensitivity to sin will be intensified.

Here E, like all spiritual counsellors, distinguishes between servile fear and reverential fear.  [Ronald Ward: “If we fear God we shall never have to be afraid of him.”]


TENTH SIGN: gracious affections are consistent and constant.

These gracious affections display “beautiful symmetry and proportion.” I.e., the Christian life is balanced.

Counterfeit graces of hypocrites give rise to a “monstrous disproportion in affections.”

E.g., we are to exemplify both love for God and love for neighbour.  Our love for neighbour is to embrace both spiritual concern and material concern.

At the same time E is not suggesting perfectionism: the godliest remain “unsteady”, and ultimately aspire to constancy.


ELEVENTH SIGN: gracious affections intensify spiritual longings.

Ever-increasing spiritual appetite is a sign of true piety.

Believers exemplify a hunger for holiness for its own sake.


TWELFTH SIGN: holy practice.

(E discusses signs 1-11 in 200 pages, the 12th sign in 80 pages.)

(i)               the believer’s conduct is always to be governed by Christ’s claim

(ii)              holy practice is the Christian’s chief business

(iii)            obedience to Christ’s claim betokens the genuineness of conviction.

In other words the chief evidence of grace is holy practice, not vivid inner experiences.