Jonathan Edwards, Emotion, Ecstasy, and Experience

Edwards and the Puritans can teach us much about the place of emotion in the Christian life:

My title is a mouthful to be sure – and fully alliterated at that. But there are a few reasons for this piece. I recently penned an article on Edwards on true and false revival. And in my next article I looked at the place of anger in the Christian life. And as I was rearranging my library, I came upon a few volumes I did not know I had, including a good one on the Christian and emotions.

So I might as well tie all these things together. And the first thing to mention is this: It should go without saying that the Christian is not to live his life by feelings and emotions alone. Highs and lows will come and go, but we need something more stable and durable to run with.

Yes, there is certainly a place for emotions, as Edwards and others have made clear. But they are not to be the main driver in our walk with God. So how then are we to understand emotions? What role do they play? This is a large topic, but a few thoughts can be offered.

In times of revival everything can be ramped up, including emotions. But just as no revival lasts forever, so too, any feelings or experiences that may go with it will be transitory. The mountaintop experience is always followed by the more or less normal walk in the plains, dealing with daily life and its problems.

And sometimes Christians go through tough times where God seems silent or absent. Just as these times of the dark night of the soul last for only a season, so too the elation and joy we can have with the Lord as we experience the deep things of God, his pruning work in our lives, and times of personal revival. Both highs and lows are temporary, as mentioned, so the feelings of each need not be our sole arbiter of where we are at with the Lord.

If the Christian life has a place for emotions – but not gushy emotionalism – it also has a place for the intellect – but not arid intellectualism. The mind and the emotions – along with the will – are to be used in a balanced way as we move in a God-pleasing Christian life.

As always, the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards can offer us so much here. The Puritans – known as physicians of the soul – made much of all this. A volume I had picked up 6 years ago but sort of got lost, until my recent library reshuffle, is the 2012 collection of essays edited by Sydney theologian Michael Jensen. True Feelings: Perspectives on Emotions in Christian Life and Ministry (Apollos).

This is a very useful book indeed. Let me refer to the chapter by Keith Condie on “The Puritans, Theological Anthropology and Emotions”. A few brief quotes are worth running with:

“Recognizing that the New Testament emphasized the eternal significance of the human soul, Puritan divines wrote at length about the soul and how the faculties should operate in pursuit of the godly life.”

“Due to the God-ordained role of the affections in directing human behaviour, Puritan pastors believed that simply informing people of what is right and commanding them to pursue the same was an inadequate means to promote godly living. What was required was that the affections be won over to the cause of Christ.”

Let me conclude this section with a quick remark about a passage I mentioned yesterday: Ephesians 4:26, which says: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Surprisingly – according to the index at least – this text is nowhere mentioned in the Jensen volume.

So just what was Paul getting at there? Clearly some anger is permissible. Let me offer the thoughts of just one commentator on this: Tom Wright. Examining Eph. 4:25-5:2 he says this:

Living as a Christian demands that we grow up in our thinking: you have to learn to identify your own moods and behaviour patterns, to see which ones are going in the right direction and which ones in the wrong direction. You have to learn consciously to choose to follow the first and reject the second. It simply won’t do to go with the flow of whatever you happen to feel at the time. Some people think that, by doing that, they are being ‘free’, or are ‘being themselves’; but that’s usually an excuse for selfish behaviour and the lazy thought which sanctions it. Rather, we should regard our moods, and the speech which flows from them, as we might a strong but wilful horse, which needs to be reminded frequently of the direction we’re supposed to be going in.

Edwards on Religious Affections

In my remaining time let me just say a few words about how the great American theologian, philosopher, pastor and revivalist thought about such matters. His classic work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections was published in 1746.

The book offers a short introduction in Part 1; 12 signs of questionable spirituality in Part 2; and 14 signs of genuine religious affections in Part 3. Distinguishing between questionable signs and genuine signs was also a feature of his Distinguishing Marks that I discussed here:

Some of the signs of what may or may not be true marks of God include:

-The religious affections are very great, or raised very high.
-They have great effects on the body.
-There is an appearance of love in them.
-Comforts and joys seem to follow awakenings and convictions of conscience, in a certain order.
-They much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God.

And some of the genuine signs of the real work of God include:

-Arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural, and divine. (197-239)
-Primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things; a love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections.
-Attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things.
-Tend to, and are attended with, the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy, as appeared in Christ.
-Soften the heart and are attended to and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit.
-The higher gracious affections are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments increased.

Image of A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards
A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards by Piper, John (Editor) Amazon logo

All of these are of course explained in great detail. But his term “affections” is not quite identical to “emotions” as we tend to think of them. In A God Entranced Vision of All Things edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2004), Mark Talbot has a chapter on Edwards and emotions. He writes:

But for Edwards our affections involve a lot more than just our emotions. They have to do with the whole side of us that values and desires and chooses and wills as well as feels. . . . In claiming, then, that true religion consists very largely in holy affections, Edwards means that those who have been truly converted will manifest the fact that God has regenerated their hearts by their having godly desires and emotions, such as the sort of Christian love and joy that Peter sees in his persecuted readers.

Let me finish with what a few others have said about this vital work by Edwards. In his 2007 book Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections (Crossway), Sam Storms says this:

Jonathan Edwards’ treatise Religious Affections is, in the opinion of many (myself included), the most important and accurate analysis of religious experience ever written. Edwards’ primary concern in this work was to determine, as much as is possible, “what are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards. Simply put, he endeavored to identify what constitutes true and authentic spirituality. Or, to put it in the form of a question: Are there certain features or characteristics in human thought and behavior that serve as “signs” of the saving activity and presence of the Spirit of God?

Stephen Nichols says this about the Edwards’ work: “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections is the kind of book that transcends its own generation. It is, in every sense of the label, a classic, a literary and theological masterpiece. The book earns this label because it addresses numerous problems that, generation after generation, plague Christians and the church.”

Condie calls it “the most thorough treatment of the place of emotions in Christian life within the Puritan corpus.” Also writing in the Jensen volume, Rhys Bezzant says this:

Affections represent the deepest part of a person. All of me is drawn towards God or is repelled from God. All of me is impacted by sin, including mind, will and feelings, and all of me needs rescue. Edwards’s great work, Concerning the Religious Affections is not simply a handbook on healthy church life but rather a philosophical tool of analysis to determine the roles played by reason, will, emotions and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of revival.

Gerald McDermott praises this work as follows:

Religious Affections is arguably Edwards’s greatest theological work. Written in 1746, long after the fires of the Great Awakening had turned to cold ashes, it represents the American theologian’s deepest reflections on the anatomy of true religion. I would call it one of the most profound works of spiritual discernment in the history of the church. Its analysis of unreliable signs of true spirituality and then its much longer depiction of reliable signs of living faith constitute Edwards’s thick description of the soul’s redemption.

Lastly, some words from John Piper must be included here. He has done as much as anyone to popularise and champion the life and teachings of Edwards. He had only read a little of Edwards prior to his three-year study period in Germany from 1971-1974. In God’s Passion for His Glory he writes:

The last work of Edwards’s I read in Germany was his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. For several months it was the meat of my Sunday evening meditations. I can remember writing letters week after week to former teachers, to friends, and to my parents about the effect this book was having on me. Far more than The Nature of True Virtue, this book convicted me of sinful lukewarmness in my affections toward God and inspired in me a passion to know and love God as I ought. The thesis of the book is very simple: “True religion, in great part, consists in the Affections.” Perhaps the reason the book moved me so deeply is because it was Edwards’s effort to save the best of two worlds—the very worlds in which I grew up and now live, and the two worlds implied in the title of this chapter: “A Mind in Love with God.”

Hopefully all this is enough to spur you on to read more of Edwards – or to read him for the very first time. This great doctor of the soul will help you more fully understand the whole of the Christian life – emotions included.

(Australians will find most of the books mentioned here at Koorong.)

[1894 words]

8 Replies to “Jonathan Edwards, Emotion, Ecstasy, and Experience”

  1. This is one of your best posts, Bill.

    There is so much here to take in and ponder.

    Thank you for continuing to share with your readers the sound teachings of Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans.

  2. Contemplation and study of our spirit, soul, and body is fascinating to me. We want to be led by the Spirit but it seems the Spirit manifests through our body, our soul area, our mind and emotions and is under the influence of our will. So the manifestation of the Spirit, or being led by the Spirit, is under our control? We can “choose” to do what is right and then as our mind is transformed through study of the Word and Christian growth, those choices become more true to who we are as Christians as our character is transformed. And those moral and right choices become a part of who we are. I just keep reflecting on this and appreciate this essay. Thank you. I have always been concerned for the high level of emotionalism often seen in revival atmospheres and have realized learning to be led by the Spirit comes by some degree through trial and error. Learning to hear and discern His Voice (and not be moved by our emotions and calling it His influence on us) is all part of our transformation as Christians. Hope I haven’t been too confusing here, but I am enjoying this discussion. And again, appreciate this essay.

  3. Wow Bill – Wow…

    So as a complete novice in this area…

    Do I start with Religous Affectations?

  4. Can of the puritans here too. I have several books about them. Sometimes I feel like a relic from a different era based on my faith. I’ve never felt like I belong.

    I sometimes worry about certain denominations, I don’t think I have to name them, that seem much more experience based. Discernment often seems lacking in them. Trances, falling down when touched, flying in the air at a touch, insistence on christianizing the devils music as the only way to reach/retain young people. Some want too much feel good, and good vibes, to feel groovy to be able to truly know God.

  5. Thanks for a very good treatment of an imporatant area of our being. Have also been reading on the Moravians of the 18th Century their affections were soundly based in the Word of God , worship and prayer and their devotion to Christ outflowed in love for people and many sent to other mission fields globally . Influence on Wesleys was significant .

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