Miscellanies. Jonathan Edwards’s Lockean Theology of the Affections

On the Edwardsean reification of Lockean ‘sensations’ and how that created a theology of affections for Jonathan Edwards and the evangelical outlook. The following quote will be less a post and more a bookmark for my future reference. If you find it beneficial, then good! If you have read me at all it might remind of how ‘affective theology’ has been an impetus for me in my own theological development as I was introduced to that by Ron Frost and his development of affective theology in a Sibbesian key. Maybe I’ll try to draw other connections later—between Edwards’ affective theology, Luther’s, and Sibbes’ (one thing I find, maybe pregnant, is a kind of parallel between Luther and nominalism and Edwards and Locke)—here’s the quote (you can check the bibliographic info in the footnote):

The Great Awakening marked the triumph of sensation over ratiocination. To understand supernatural grace, Edwards did not resort to the language of theology and logic but to aesthetics and, again drawing on Locke for his own purposes, what he termed a “new sense of the heart.” I his classic 1734 sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (much more the essential Edwards than his better known sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), Edwards employed a sensory visual vocabulary to describe the essence of regeneration as a “divine light,” an evangelical enlightenment. At its essence, the divine light was a new sense of the heart. Drawing on a vocabulary grounded in aesthetics and Locke, rather than medieval logic, Edwards described the new sense of the heart, not as a set of theological propositions dutifully memorized and endorsed, but as a new perception of beauty:

This spiritual light primarily consists . . . in a real sense and apprehension of the divine excellency of things revealed in the Word of God. A spiritual and saving conviction of the truth and reality of these things, arises from such a sight of their divine excellency and glory; so that this conviction of their truth is an effect and natural consequence of this sight of their divine glory. There is therefore in this spiritual light a true sense of the divine and superlative excellency of the things of religion; a real sense of the excellency of God, and Jesus Christ, and of the work of redemption. . . . There is a divine and superlative glory in these things; an excellency that is of a vastly higher kind, and more sublime nature, than in other things; a glory greatly distinguishing them from all that is earthly and temporal. He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He don’t [sic] merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing; but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness. There is not only a speculatively judging that God is gracious, but a sense of how amiable God is upon that account; or a sense of the beauty of this divine attribute.

If you were counting, you will have noticed that Edwards repeated the word “sense” ten times in this paragraph. By understanding grace aesthetically as a “new sense of the heart,” rather than logically, Edwards represented regeneration or the “new birth” in ways to be visually pictured rather than logically deduced. By shifting the ground to aesthetics, Edwards participated directly in the Enlightenment project in ways that would usher in a new spirit of romanticism.

In addition to speaking of regeneration as a new sense of the heart, Edwards revolutionized the traditional “faculty psychology” that had governed theology by giving primacy to reason and the understanding over the heart and the affections. Edwards reversed the priority, giving primacy to the affections and, in the process, again turned Locke on his head. As summarized by Miller: “Edward’s great discovery, his dramatic refashioning of the theory of sensational rhetoric, was his assertion that an idea in the mind is not only a form of perception but is also a determination of love and hate. . . . For Edwards, in short, an idea became not merely a concept but an emotion.” This would lead to a radical definition of grace as “a new simple idea” supernaturally implanted.

In so framing his argument in this context of love and hate, or in Locke’s term “delight or uneasiness,” Edwards, more than any other eighteenth-century theologian, would anticipate Freud. In his Treatise on the Religion Affections, Edwards collapsed the distinctions of the faculty of the will and the affections, asserting that “the will, and the affections of the soul, are not two faculties; the affections are not essentially distinct from the will, nor do they differ from the mere actings of the will and inclination of the soul.” In his new ordering of the senses, Edwards again borrowed from the Enlightenment to say that humans do not act in response to rational calculations but in response to their emotion predispositions of love or hatred. There was no possibility of a “perfect indifference” to anything. The difference between Edwards and Locke was Edwards’s emphasis on overweening supernatural grace. For the affections to be redirected toward their proper spiritual objects, God had to intervene.[1]

The discussion on the transformation of “faculty psychology,” is something to keep your eye on; even if in our contemporary period we have moved on from developing theological-anthropology this way, there remains a serious usefulness to grasping this. A serious usefulness because even if we don’t consciously think theological anthropology this way, these days, it nevertheless, the force of it remains present in forming the way the evangelical psyche functions before both God and people in general.

For me, as an Evangelical Calvinist, there is resonance here with Edwards’s affective theology because of the primacy he places on relationality; this type of emphasis works well with a focus on Trinitary theology (and the kind of relational understanding of God we glean from this reality grounded in his life). These are the types of themes I seek to integrate into the broader project that we are calling Evangelical Calvinism; attempting to resource this type of “love-grounded” mood that has permeated the theological history of the church ever since the beginning.

There are other interesting things to reflect on with reference to this quote; for me, maybe how nominalism and Lockeanism work together in regard to developing an epistemology. Or more minimally how these constructs implicated Luther’s and Edwards’s theologies, respectively; to wonder if there might be any constructive way to bring these types of ostensibly disparate periods of theological development into mutually implicating and flourishing discussion around a theology of the affections.

[1] Harry S. Stout, “What Made the Great Awakening Great?,” edited by Heath W. Carter and Laura Rominger Porter, Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 13-15.

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One Response to Miscellanies. Jonathan Edwards’s Lockean Theology of the Affections

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