Religious Affections: A New Synthesis of Cotton and Shepard
This American Puritan context shaped Edwards’ moves in Affections. What Edwards developed in Affections was a new synthesis, one which united the emphases of Cotton’s sense of union with Christ and Shepard’s Christian practice as ways to assurance. Edwards wedded the two emphases together—his argument in Affections was that the new spiritual sense infused by the Holy Spirit infallibly produces Christian practice. As unnatural as it would be to divorce body and soul, so, in Edwards’ development, would it be unnatural to divorce the new sense, the “divine and supernatural light,” from new practice.
Affections was originally a sermon series, preached to Edwards’ Northampton congregation during the winter of 1742-43. Hence, he was not responding directly to Chauncy in the sermons on Affections (although it seems clear that he did respond to the Boston minister in the published version). Rather, he was dealing with spiritual pride and apathy within his own congregation, trying to defeat both Northampton antinomians and Arminians with one blow.
He gave a hint of his congregations’ difficulities in a letter to Thomas Gillespie of Scotland. Gillespie, in a previous letter, had expressed shock at Edwards’ dismissal from his Northampton congregation. Edwards’ reply, written 1 July 1751, explained to his far-away correspondent that his dismissal was tied to two major spiritual problems within the congregation. First, he charged his Northampton congregation with spiritual pride: “The people...are become more extensively famous in the world, as a people that have excelled in gifts and grace, and had God extraordinarily among them: which has insensibly engendered and nourished spiritual pride, that grand inlet of the Devil into the hearts of men, and avenue of all manner of mischief among a professing people. Spiritual pride is a monstrous thing.”
In fact, he blamed the spiritual pride of the people on his Faithful Narrative which described the awakening of 1734-35: “There is this inconvenience attends the publishing of narratives of a work of God among a people: such is the corruption that is in the hearts of men, and even of good men, that there is great danger of their making it an occasion of spiritual pride.” And so, when he spent the entirety of the sixth positive sign in Affections on the proposition that “gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation,” it is probable that he was pointedly rebuking his people’s spiritual hubris.
The second spiritual issue was the congregation’s misunderstanding of the workings of salvation. Edwards claimed that “another thing that evidently has contributed to our calamities is, that the people had got so established in certain wrong notions and ways in religion, which I found them in and never could beat them out of.”
In particular, he cited two areas where the people had a wrong understanding. First, the congregation had as “their method to lay almost all the stress of their hopes on the particular steps and method of their first work, i.e. the first work of the Spirit of God on their hearts in their convictions and conversion, and to look by little at the abiding sense and temper of their hearts, and the course of their exercises, and fruits of grace, for evidences of their good estates.” Some people thought that unless their “preparation” and “closing” with Christ went according to steps that served as the pattern for generations, they were not truly regenerated. The second area of misunderstanding was their inability “to distinguish between impressions on the imagination, and truly spiritual experiences.” When he came to Northampton in 1727, he found the people ready “to declare and publish their own experience; and oftentimes to do it in a light manner, without any air of solemnity.”
Hence, throughout Affections, he dealt repeatedly with impressions, immediate revelation, and like experiences, trying to assist his people to distinguish between their own day-dreams and genuine spiritual experience. And so, in Affections, Edwards responded to issues within his own congregation, issues that demanded a pastoral response from the pulpit. In response to the spiritual pride and confusion of his people, he developed the thesis that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” could be traced along two thought lines: first, holy affections arose from a new spiritual sense in the heart; second, the new sense produced holy actions.
The New Sense of the Heart
Many interpreters of Edwards considered his development of the new sense of the heart to be the height of his creative powers. Though the idea of the “new sense” had precedence in earlier Puritan theology, he took the idea in new directions, demonstrating that the Holy Spirit caused the individual to feel, perceive, and think in different ways than previously possible. He believed that “in those gracious exercises and affections which are wrought in the minds of the saints, through the saving influences of the Spirit of God, there is a new inward perception or sensation of their minds, entirely different in its nature and kind, from anything that ever their minds were the subjects of before they were sanctified.” He called this new sense “a new principle” that produced “an entirely new kind of exercises.” While he stressed that “this new spiritual sense, and the new dispositions that attend it, are no new faculties, but are new principles of nature,” yet the new sense was infused into the individual so that it became “a natural habit or foundation for action.”
This new principle became the basis for other internal changes to develop. The new principle enabled the saint to love God in a disinterested manner. There was a change in the person so that she could “apprehend a beauty, glory, and supreme good, in God's nature, as it is in itself.” Edwards insisted that the new spiritual sense would provide “the first foundation of a true love to God” that was found in “the supreme loveliness of his nature.” Saints would “first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious, and their hearts are first captivated with this view.” Afterwards, they would understand that God loved them and had shown them great favor in the Gospel. He developed this further by summarizing the supreme character of God in the word “excellency”: “A love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency, is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections.”
This moral excellency, within the argument of Affections, was holiness: “Holiness comprehends all the true moral excellency of intelligent beings; there is no other true virtue, but real holiness.” All internal moral virtues were comprehended in the idea of holiness. Edwards believed that “this kind of beauty is the quality that is the immediate object of this spiritual sense: this is the sweetness that is the proper object of this spiritual sense. The Scripture often represents the beauty and sweetness of holiness as the grand object of a spiritual taste and spiritual appetite.” By virtue of the new sense of the heart, the believer saw that God was holy and loved God because of the beauty of divine holiness.
The new spiritual sense resulted in a new understanding. Edwards reminded his readers that “holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge. The child of God is graciously affected, because he sees and understands something more of divine things than he did before.”
First, spiritual understanding produced a new appreciation for divine holiness. He argued that this new spiritual understanding “consists in a sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things, together with all that discerning and knowledge of things of religion, that depends upon, and flows from such a sense. Spiritual understanding consists primarily in a sense of heart of that spiritual beauty.”
Second, spiritual understanding “opens a new world to its view” as the Christian understood the doctrines of God’s Word in a way never before contemplated. Third, spiritual understanding produced spiritual conviction concerning the reality and certainty of divine things. Because there was a new principle operative within believers that enabled them to apprehend the beauty of God’s holiness, saints would in turn have a real conviction regarding unseen realities.
As a result, spiritual understanding produced evangelical humility in the believer. This humility “is from a sense of the transcendent beauty of divine things in their moral qualities” and from “a discovery of the beauty of God's holiness and moral perfection.” A sense of God’s perfections rebuked all spiritual pride that one could take in spiritual discoveries or experiences; the rule that Edwards set forth was that “we must take our measure from that height to which the rule of our duty extends: the whole of the distance we are at from that height is sin.” The standard was divine perfection; Christians, recognizing that perfect standard, understood the greatness of their remaining corruption, humbling their overweening pride. This movement from spiritual pride, which marked the unregenerate, to humility demonstrated an essential change of nature. The change occurred because “all spiritual discoveries are transforming; and not only make an alteration of the present exercise, sensation and frame of the soul; but such power and efficacy have they, that they make an alteration in the very nature of the soul.”
For Edwards, this was an important observation because nature was abiding. With a change in nature, though the Christian may fall into sin, yet he hated sin; and by the transforming power of the Spirit, he would conquer sin. This change in nature was the transformation of the individual from the character of the devil to the character of his new master, Christ. As a result, the individual’s character “will be attended with the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; or in other words, [he] naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ.” The soul took on the tenderness and meekness of Christ as its very character.
Moreover, the character of the saint was balanced; it had “beautiful symmetry and proportion.” And so, not only was there a hope of heaven, but there was also a fear of displeasing the King of heaven. Not only was there joy found in Christ, but there was also sorrow over the sin that offended him. There was love for Christ and for his excellencies, coupled with a hatred of sin. This interworking of opposing affections caused the saint to pursue Christlikeness. The saint would never be satisfied with current spiritual attainments, but rather would press on to be more like Christ.
There were, then, parallels between the new sense and Cotton’s discussion of the spiritual light that the Holy Spirit gave, causing the regenerate to see the free promise via union with Christ. Just as Cotton was concerned with gaining Christ, for Christ’s own sake and not for any benefit found in Christ, so with Edwards there was a major concern for a disinterested love for Christ, a love for Christ on his own terms. Even more, there was a parallel between Edwards and the “party” that Cotton represented in America: the Spiritual Brothers. For example, Puritan Richard Sibbes had observed that “there is a sweet relish in all divine truths, and suitable to the sweetness in them, there is a spiritual taste, which the Spirit of God puts into the soul of his children.” One can find echoes of this emphasis upon the infusion of a new spiritual taste in Cotton, John Owen, and John Davenport as well. Therefore, in developing the new sense of the heart, Edwards was developing an essentially Puritan theme, one which used the language of sensation long before John Locke.