Wrestling with Edwards

At the risk of stirring up controversy I wanted to share a few private thoughts I have had over the last few years dealing with the theology of Jonathan Edwards.  The proper caveats are in order here.  I know I am out of my league disagreeing with him and he has done far more in the kingdom than a thousand guys like me.  Still, I have come to find his overall theological project of the religious affections difficult, and I thought I would vent and open up to some constructive feedback.

When Edwards says that true religion consists largely in the affections I worry that he is causing us to look inward rather than outward to Christ for our assurance.  In my own mind, Luther is an effective sparring partner here with Edwards because Luther was constantly reminding us to look outside of ourselves to Christ, for everything.

In short, it seems that Luther, and Calvin, and the overall emphasis of the Westminster Confession, teaches we should look outside of ourselves to Christ for evidence of God’s love and favor.  Our assurance as Christians is tied to the efficacy and fulness of His works.  It seems to me that Edwards has us look inward to judge whether we are looking to Christ.  I realize that is a subtle thing,  but Edwards seems to have us looking within for evidence of faith within ourselves, Luther has us looking out as an expression of faith. Or another way, Edwards seems to call us to look to the quality of our faith, Luther calls us to look away from ourselves to the quality and qualities of the person and work of Christ.  This outward look, thinking not of oneself or any spiritual qualities within oneself constitutes the act of faith.

James Swan, at Beggars All, quotes John Gerstner on Edwards and assurance:

According to Gerstner, for Edwards there needed to be signs or “distinguishing marks” of regeneration in order to have assurance (p. 166). Gerstner quotes Edwards saying, “Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination as by action” (p. 167). Edwards, held very few people would actually be saved (p. 161). He was concerned that those who claimed to be Christians gave actual proof of their regeneration by good works. Gerstner states, “The difficulty is in detecting such signs [of spiritual conversion]. Edwards, having taught its possibility, urged the saints to get assurance. However, he raised so many problems that it became a byword that very few of his closest followers, if any, ever got it it.”

Let me issue another caveat here.  Darryl Hart, over at Old Life, makes no secret of his opposition to Edwards teaching on the affections.  I’ ve lost the reference, but in a comment on one of his posts on Edwards, an Edwards defender quoted Edwards at length advocating for objectivity in our search for assurance, i.e. a looking away to Christ.  Hart’s complaint to that, and I see the point, is that the whole “religious affections” project is one of introspective self-examination.  But, taking Gerstner at his word here and assuming I don’t misunderstand, it is instructive that few, if any of Edwards followers got assurance.

And yes, I will admit that there is a personal aspect to this.  With physical ailments, emotions also crash.  Edwards argues for increasing sensible and vigorous affections as evidence of true faith, I have found in my own life that sensible and vigorous anything  is hard to come by.  I, and many like me, who suffer from chronic illness are also continually emotionally depleted and many of us struggle daily with chronic sadness and depression.  Yet, we still believe that Jesus saves.   Many of us are holding on for dear life to Jesus, as are many ordinary people who don’t have chronic illness.  But though we don’t feel much in the affection department, we still believe that we will see the goodness of God in the land of the living.  Is our “insensibility” to vigorous affections –  i.e. we don’t “sense” a real spiritual vigor in ourselves (though we continually feel a deep dependence on Jesus – a sign that we don’t have true faith, or that we have a lesser quality of faith?

So, I believe that Edwards puts too great a burden on us with his emphasis on religious affections, but more importantly than that, I don’t see that the Scripture requires such religious affections.  I think its the words “sensible” and vigorous” that get me with Edwards.  It seems to me, in looking at the parable of the sheep and the goats, that “Godward” activity is largely insensible to the one engaged in it (see particularly Matthew 25:37-40).  In other words, those who are doing something for God aren’t aware of its Godward nature.  Could that apply to the internal mechanisms of the soul that Edwards calls the affections?

For those who have vigorous and sensible affections, that is a great icing on the cake, and I will confess that on my good days I can sense them in myself.  But the heightened affections are not anything for which I can take comfort.  I can take comfort though, from the thought of Christ crucified for me, for the promise that He will never leave me nor forsake me, from the realization that if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.

So, what do you think?  Have I just completely misunderstood Edwards?  Am I making excuses for myself?  Or is there in truth, as I suspect, a better means of assurance and a better way of spirituality than we have been offered in the religious affections – the way of objectivity as embodied in the teachings of Luther and Calvin, as opposed to the subjectivity embodied in Edwardean religious affections?

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11 Responses to Wrestling with Edwards

  1. pgepps says:

    I really think you are quite right. Should not our assurance be in the Christ who offers it, rather than in the quality or experience of our receiving it? Put differently, though, is not an increasing awareness of our dependency on Christ, and willingness to depend on Him, something Edwards would (or should) recognize as an “affection”?

  2. Terry says:

    God bless you as you struggle with assurance. Certainly I hope you find comfort in many and various ways that God offers it to you. May he use Luther, family and the Cross of Christ to bring you comfort.

    I am posting over on my blog since my post is a bit lengthy for a comment.


  3. I do think you’re misunderstanding him a little. Edwards’ emphasis on the affections is just about responding appropriately to things. We should love the things God loves and hate the things God loves. We should be angry at the things that make God angry. Such responses are demonstrated for us in the psalms, and there are plenty of outright commands to have certain emotional responses.

    Also, I know of no claim by Edwards that emotions are the basis of anything. He simply says we ought to have respond appropriately to things, and part of that means have proper attitudes inwardly, just as part of it means having proper actions outwardly. He certainly wouldn’t mean that we should fail to place our trust for our salvation in Christ, who is outside of us, as if the affections are the basis of our salvation. That, in fact, is the attitude he was writing against that he saw so prominently in the revivalism of his day, and it’s his diagnosis of why so many of the conversions in the Great Awakenings were not genuine.

  4. Pingback: Assurance « The Wanderer

  5. Richard says:

    I think you are right on, and I think some of this criticism applies to John Piper as well and his “Christian hedonism.” Paul Helm has developed a critique of this as well.

  6. J. Eric says:

    Jollyblogger, it is great to read that you are feeling well enough to blog again. And posting a thought about Edwards and faith.

    I was studying for my High School Sunday School Class this evening and I was thinking on Romans 7 and Paul’s struggle with sin. I believe that Paul was inspired to write this to communicate the TRUTH that “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NO NOT ONE.”

    I too find Luther an encouragement here. Here is a brief quote by Luther from his Preface To The Letter of St. Paul to the Romans –

    “But to fulfill the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly and freely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live well and in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law or punishment. It is the Holy Spirit, however, who puts such eagerness of unconstained love into the heart, as Paul says in chapter 5. But the Spirit is given only in, with, and through faith in Jesus Christ, as Paul says in his introduction. So, too, faith comes only through the word of God, the Gospel, that preaches Christ: how he is both Son of God and man, how he died and rose for our sake. Paul says all this in chapters 3, 4 and 10.”

    I think you answered yourself well when you said, “we should look outside of ourselves to Christ for evidence of God’s love and favor.”

    Why do I now think of the guilty, dying, helpless thief on the cross looking at Jesus and asking Him to remember him when He came into His kingdom?

    It’s because true faith has an object.

    And that Divine Object of the thief’s faith answered saying, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

    Have a great weekend and Lord’s Day.

  7. Jack Brooks says:

    Is it possible that Edwards was combating widespread church nominalism and Stoddardism? In other words, Edwards’ ideas in this area don’t help our modern feelings-drunken era, because the his solutions don’t match our problem?

  8. Mike says:

    Thanks for this encouraging and thoughtful post. In my own life, the Lord used some severe trials to bring my focus back to the gospel and to get my eyes off of myself and my own tainted performance and back on to Jesus and what he has done for me. While our trials are different, it sounds like our destinations are the same. May I post this on my blog with a link back to you? I’m at journeyingrace.com.

  9. Pingback: Wrestling with Edwards « Journey in Grace

  10. Susan says:

    Thank you for this blog. This is right where I am at. When you said “With physical ailments, emotions also crash,” my heart jumped. So many people don’t understand this. While my “ailments” aren’t the same as yours, the struggle with sadness and depression are.
    I loved when you said “Is our “insensibility” to vigorous affections – i.e. we don’t “sense” a real spiritual vigor in ourselves (though we continually feel a deep dependence on Jesus – a sign that we don’t have true faith, or that we have a lesser quality of faith?” My soul gets this! I have struggled with assurance because I don’t seem to have ‘real vigor’, but I do feel a deep dependence on my Jesus like never before!
    Thank you for stating so beautifully what I have been struggling with.
    God Bless you.

  11. Pingback: Wrestling with Edwards « A Quiet Knowing

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