In order to get where he wants to go, to establish that true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections, I think it is fair to say that Edwards is forced to considerably widen the scope of what ‘affection’ means. An affection is, after all, nothing more or less than an affect. In the text, there is a contrast between faith and sight, and references to love, and faith (or belief) and joy. Belief is obviously the key. Christians believe in one whom they do not see, and they love him, rejoicing in him with great joy. Their belief affects them in certain ways, for they feel intense love and joy, and perhaps publicly express these feelings. The joy that they feel is the expression of, perhaps a public expression of, being affected by what and who is believed and loved.
Faith and love are virtues, theological virtues, as they used to be called, the fruit of the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Gal. 5 22-3) An overlapping list is also provided by Paul in Colossians. ‘Put on, then, as God’s chosen people, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another…forgiving each other….above all these put on love…’ (Col. 3. 12-4) Here we must remember that such virtues may lead to expressions of affection, in the sense of passions of emotions, but they may also be present, strongly present, in the absence of ‘sensible’ affection. The emotions or affections that express patience, or kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control may be very varied, as varied as the circumstances in which they are called forth. One can easily conceive of situations in which , for example, kindness, is expressed in dogged determination. Think of a daughter whose life is consumed with the care of an invalid mother, or the behaviour of caring parents with an autistic child.
In fact, some of these virtues listed by Paul – kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, patience or self-control, seem to be the exact opposite of affections as Edwards would have us understand them, in which ‘the blood and animal spirits are sensibly altered’. They are, or similar to, what Edwards’s contemporary David Hume referred to as the ‘calm passions’. It may even seem that the Apostle is contrasting these virtues, the calm ones, with those that are often publicly expressed in an agitated way, for the lists we have noted have a distinctly ‘calm’ feel to them. A person may be affected by the work of the Holy Spirit, possessing his fruit, in ways that are focused and undemonstrative, which lead to restraint and constraint, which lead to the development of an undeviating routine. They need not be ‘raised’ as Edwards puts it. In his definition and his defence of affection and its place in true religion Edwards fails to remind us of this, but appropriates the term for his own political purposes. Putting the matter bluntly, his definition is an attempt to press the hysteria button.
So when he writes of ‘the religious affections of love and joy’ (95) he is, I suggest, taking liberties with these central Christian virtues in order to advance his thesis. In telling us that ‘the affections are no other, than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclinations and will of the soul’, he is equating vigour and sensibility with self-consciousness and exhibitionism. That is a mistake. Paul tells us that true virtue may consist in self-forgetfulness. It is impossibly hard to derive Edwards’s claims about true religion, that it in great part consists in holy affections, from Galatians 5 or Colossians 3 without requiring that every effect of the work of the Holy Spirit in the promotion of virtue is ‘vigorous and sensible’. Had he taken these other passages of Paul as his text Edwards would have been forced to write a different book.
Vigor and sensibility are essential to Edwards’s basic idea of an affection. Having established, in a way that will be familiar to readers of his work The Freedom of the Will, that the inclination or will is moved by either pleasedness or aversion, he goes on to claim that there are degrees of such aversion or pleasedness, rising to such a height ‘till the soul comes to act vigorously and sensibly, and the actings of the soul are with that strength that (through the laws of the union which the Creator has fixed between soul and body) the motion of the blood and animal spirits begins to be sensibly altered; whence often time arises some bodily sensation, especially about the heart and vitals, that are the fountain of the fluids of the body…..and it is to be noted, that they are these more vigorous and sensible exercises of this faculty, that are called the affections’. (95-6) But Edwards cannot have it both ways. A holy affection cannot both be a vigorous and sensible affect in this sense and it also be the case that true religion consists in them, not at least according to Paul, or James.
The Religious Affections is an important book, but in my view it would be unwise to take its teaching on what true religion consists in very seriously. It is a book about the importance of emotion, expressed in a public, visible way, being the measure of true religion. Its significance lies in its influence upon the evolving character of Protestant evangelicalism, as a phenomenon that identified itself (as David Bebbington has pointed out) partly by activism and conversionism: revivalism, massed choirs, large gatherings of people, the penitent bench, the centrality of the public testimony, and so on. Edwards’s Protestantism was of an older kind, but it nevertheless contained elements which, in other hands, contributed to developing the distinctive features of modern evangelicalism.
Does this make Helm a high-church Calvinist? Or is it simply the case of someone spotting the difference between the quest for visible and outward piety and the inward and less showy sort that attends faith?
Another possibility — the date. Do the Brits observe April 1?