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.
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?