In Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections we find his list of “Twelve Distinguishing Signs” of God’s authentic work in transforming souls. Every Edwards biography will supply context for this work—as in George Marsden’s, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, chapter 17. Our aim here is simply to review Edwards’ call to an affective and effective Christian spirituality.
This post takes up his first item, and the foundation for all the signs that followed. He wrote, “Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural and divine” [p197, original italics].
Edwards was writing in the middle of the 18th century as pastor of the Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was a widely read and prolific writer in the transitional era between the founding Puritan fathers of New England and the soon-to-come American revolution. Enlightenment ideas from England and continental Europe were sweeping across the Atlantic Ocean and American Congregationalism was splitting into competing wings, one defined by creedal reasoning while another, with Edwards as a leader, was experiential.
Again, church issues are a separate story, but the local turmoil offered context for what Edwards believed. He recognized that anyone in his day who professed Christian faith would fall anywhere on a faith spectrum between being wholly spiritually devoted on the one hand, to being mostly indifferent on the other. It was, in other words, not much different than what we find in churches today.
The italicized words in Edwards’ first sign—”spiritual, supernatural and divine”—pointed to his view that genuine spirituality is based on “the indwelling and holy influences of the Spirit of God in them” (198). Edwards anchored this biblically by citing 1 Corinthians 2:13-14, a text that distinguished the “natural man” from authentic Christians because only the latter have “the indwelling and holy influences of the Spirit of God in the heart” (199). His assumption looked to the Spirit’s work in forming a true spirituality—and not to human initiatives. Only God produces such changes, and he did it in keeping with human capacities.
But how does it work? The sequence of change, Edwards held, starts with the Spirit’s entry as a transforming presence in a believer’s heart. The heart is the motive center of any soul where the Spirit-to-spirit bond is made. This involves neither audible nor visual cues. Instead it is a newfound “influence.” The Spirit will now “dwell” in a soul as an inward presence, “so united to the facilities of the soul, that he becomes there a principle or spring of new nature and life” (200). The holiness of God’s life, along with his beauty and joy, are spontaneously shared with the believer, “as heat is the nature of fire” (201).
This transforming process, Edwards believed, is assured to all genuine Christians, but not to those in the church who were still “natural”—that is, un-Spirited: “But the Spirit of God never influences the minds of natural men after this manner. They might be influenced by God but not from within their hearts—only externally, as “when he acts on inanimate things” (202).
All this reflected Edwards’ view of spirituality as a true participation in God’s life as found in 2 Peter 1:4, where Peter promised that saints are “made partakers of the divine nature” by having God dwelling in them by the Spirit. This, Edwards added, ensured saints of “having God’s love dwelling in them (John 17:26), having his joy fulfilled in them (John 17:13), seeing light in God’s light, and being made to drink of the river of God’s pleasures” and more (203).
Edwards was wary of having this spiritual participation linked to claims made by radical mystics who promoted a fusion of the human soul with God’s essence—“Not that the saints are made partakers of the essence of God, and so are ‘Godded’ with God, and ‘Christed’ with Christ…” Instead he insisted, in line with Ephesian 3:17-19, that all believers are promised to be “made partakers of God’s fulness, that is, of God’s spiritual beauty and happiness, according to the measure and capacity of a creature…” (203).
Edwards continued to elaborate the distinctions between this newfound inward life and the forms of religion found among those who had never been united with Christ’s life by the Spirit. Critics, in other words, were speaking honestly—from their absence of this experience—when they questioned the claims of truly “spiritual” believers. But the genuinely transformed saints shouldn’t be bothered. Instead, they had new and “gracious affections” for God and for others that signaled true communion with Christ.
But are Edwards’ essentially experiential claims for regeneration sound? He used an experiential analogy, the sweetness of honey, to challenge sceptics and reassure believers. “…as the sweet taste of honey is diverse from the ideas men get of honey by only looking on it, and feeling of it …” so the rich spiritual sense of conversion will never be felt by those who live with natural versions of religion (206). The impact of God’s presence in a soul is undeniable to those who experience it. And those without it can only wonder if it’s true.
In his second sign Edwards turned to the “first objective ground” of God’s work in a soul. We will take that up next time.