Previous | Next

Spring 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 1 · pp. 63–75 

Jonathan Edwards and Emotional Knowledge of God

Myron Penner

One dimension to the multifaceted legacy created by Dr. Walter Unger throughout his tenure as a college professor and president is his commitment to modeling and teaching Christian spirituality that displays both academic and existential depth. Whether giving formal lectures on sixteenth-century Anabaptist spiritualism or twentieth-century existentialism, or simply holding forth regarding current academic and ecclesiological trends, Unger measures Christian spirituality according to a biblical model that places subjective spiritual passion within an objective theological and ethical framework. 1 This type of union between subject and object is given extensive treatment by the eighteenth-century pastor and scholar, Jonathan Edwards.

The church needs shepherds who are empowered in their ministry by experiencing the reality of true religion through religious affections.


Interest in Jonathan Edwards is flourishing. It has become virtually an article of faith among North American Evangelicals that Jonathan Edwards is “the greatest theologian America ever produced” and perhaps the greatest philosopher as well. The rise and influence of neo-Pentecostalism and the corresponding preponderance of observed “blessings” has, in part, contributed to renewed interest in Edwards. 2 J. I. Packer comments that “Edwards’s last-century admirers quite overlooked Edwards’s most original contribution to theology: namely, his {64} pioneer elucidation of biblical teaching on the subject of revival.” 3 Commendably, this has changed. Edwards’ theology of revival is considered by many to be a premier resource for placing contemporary phenomena of revival within a theological context. 4

However, the appeal of Edwards goes beyond his instructive theology of revival. A growing chorus of scholars views Edwards as a helpful resource for advancing discussion on various aspects of human consciousness. 5 One of these dimensions is the relationship between sense perception and the will. Edwards’ keen reflection on the role of perception in informing one’s “affections” regarding God is instructive for a host of issues pertaining to contemporary Evangelical spirituality. This paper will demonstrate how Edwards’ treatment of perception and affection was a needed charism, or gift of God’s grace, for eighteenth-century Evangelicalism, and how recovering this charism today would assist both personal and corporate Evangelical spirituality.


The bulk of Edwards’ career was spent as pastor to the church in Northampton, Massachusetts, where his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, ministered for sixty years. Edwards assisted his grandfather for two years before assuming the lead pastoral role following his grandfather’s death in 1729. Edwards served an additional twenty-two years before failing to receive congregational affirmation. The latter was due to disagreement between Edwards and his flock on the acceptable requirements for church membership and communion. Edwards observed two distinct movements of religious revival throughout his tenure in Northampton. The first occurred during 1734-1735 and is captured in Edwards’ A Narrative of Surprising Conversions (1736). The second outbreak occurred during 1740-1742 and is recorded in Edwards’ An Account of the Revival of Religion in Northampton (1743).

Edwards’ intellectual acumen, theological insight, pastoral concern, and immediate proximity to a widespread increase in religious devotion combine to give him a unique vantage point from which to observe the relationship between human perception and the inclination of the will. As a scholar immersed in the Enlightenment, Edwards was concerned to document the empirical data of revival phenomena. 6 Deep affective outbursts, irregular bodily manifestations, and uncommon spiritual maturity among children and youth are recorded dutifully. As a Calvinist theologian, Edwards was careful to process revival in terms of the sovereign agency of God. As a pastor responsible for the care of souls, Edwards was motivated by a desire to discern and encourage a genuine turning {65} toward God. Edwards is aware of the danger of being misunderstood when chronicling and analyzing conversion narratives, and states:

I am very sensible, how apt many would be, if they should see the account I have here given, presently to think with themselves that I am very fond of making a great many converts, and of magnifying the matter; and to think that for want of judgment, I take every religious pang, and enthusiastic conceit, for saving conversion. I do not much wonder if they should be apt to think so; and, for this reason, I have forborne to publish an account of this great work of God, though I have often been solicited. But having now a special call to give an account of it, upon mature consideration I thought it might not be beside my duty to declare this amazing work, as it appeared to me to be indeed divine, and to conceal no part of the glory of it; leaving it with God to take care of the credit of his own work, and running the venture of any censorious thoughts, which might be entertained of me to my disadvantage. 7

For Edwards, potential benefit others might gain from a true account of the work of God’s Spirit outweighs the potential danger of misrepresentation. Edwards’ accounts of the Northampton revivals provide the raw data for his subsequent thought on the relationship of perception and the inclinations of the will.


Edwards’ major work on affections is found in his Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections (1746), and is divided into three main sections. 8 Part I introduces the general relationship between affections and religious belief. Part II identifies certain criteria that neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of a “religious” affection. Part III identifies certain criteria that indicate authentic religious affections.

What are the affections? Edwards answers that “the affections are the more vigorous and practical exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.” 9 Religious affections are fundamentally an application of will toward an external object, God. 10 The soul, states Edwards, has two related faculties: perception and inclination. Perception refers to the human ability to receive and interpret data. Inclination refers to one’s affective response to received data and is either positive or negative. “The soul,” {66} states Edwards, “either views things with approval, with pleasure, and with acceptance, or it view things with opposition, with disapproval, with displeasure, and with rejection.” 11 Naturally, one’s response to various perceptions is expressed in varying degrees of intensity. The affections are the “vigorous” responses, either positive or negative. Thus, Edwards writes:

Indeed, the liking or inclination of the soul to something, if it is intense and vigorous, is the very thing which we call the affection of love, and the same degree of dislike and disinclination is what we mean by hatred. So it is the degree to which the will is active, either toward or against something, that makes it an affection. 12

Affections, then, are the forceful expressions of the will, either positive or negative, toward an external object. 13

Edwards’ theological concern shines through when he states that “true religion consists largely of the affections.” 14 For Edwards, true religion is expressed in strong and vigorous exercises that reveal the inclination of a person’s will. 15 This is so because the affections are the ultimate seat for all human actions, including religious devotion. Scripture affirms the necessity for affective response to God through terms such as fear, hope, joy, etc., and by portraying the heroes of biblical narrative, including Christ himself, as possessing strong religious affections. Love is the primary affection, and all other affections are ordered by one’s primary response of love. Affections of hope, sorrow, and gratitude are all defined in reference to one’s chief affective disposition of love. In terms of religious affections, all affections are related subordinately to one’s love for God. Religious affections will persist in heaven, further indicating their appropriateness in the present. “Ordinances and duties” such as prayer, praise, and reading and expounding Scripture are beneficial due to their ability to quicken the affections. The opposite of a heart engaging the religious affections is a “hard heart,” which Scripture blatantly portrays as sin.

However, not all affective responses, even in a religious context, indicate that the affective response is actually drawing one nearer to God. “For just as we should not reject all affections as if real faith does not consist of them,” Edwards cautions, “we ought not to sanction them all, saying everyone that is religiously affected has true grace and is therefore subject to the saving influences of the Spirit of God.” 16 The intensity or shape of an affective experience is no intrinsic marker for {67} true religious affection, i.e., one that is a positive response to God.

Rather, one distinguishes true affections through the character of their object, God. 17 True affections stem from the illuminating influence of God on the will and acknowledge the unparalleled merit of all things pertaining to God. True affections balance certainty of conviction with humble response to the awesome majesty of God. 18 The result is that true affections will actually lead to change in one’s nature. Because affections are grounded in God, it is natural that true affections will cause one to be more like God. Therefore, affections facilitate one’s sanctification. This change, while proceeding in diverse areas and at differing rates through one’s life, nevertheless is “consistent and constant,” and is more balanced than not. An important and necessary dimension to the influence of the affections in one’s life is the relationship between the affections and Evangelical activism. True religious affections are not fulfilled in the experience itself, but bubble over and affect various expressions of one’s life. The change in one’s nature resulting from the affections leads to change in one’s behavior.


Edwards portrays a unified and necessary relationship between cognitive perception and religious affections. Necessarily, religious affections are a response to perceptual data. Here Edwards demonstrates his dependence on John Locke. Locke (1632-1704), one of the progenitors of British Empiricism, highlighted the relationship between sensation and knowledge. Sensation is the primary source of knowledge by illuminating “simple ideas” to the knower. Locke views simple ideas to be irreducible “raw materials out of which our knowledge is made.” 19 For Edwards, spiritual knowledge is based on a new “simple idea,” the irreducible reality of encountering God. 20

True religious affections, then, are the proper response to data being perceived correctly through the illumination of divine guidance. John E. Smith fleshes out the process of response by stating that a true religious affection is “a response, not a reaction made by the whole person to a reality—God, Scripture, neighbor—whose nature and ‘excellency’ have been properly understood by that person through the Bible, reason, and experience, or what [Edwards] called ‘spiritual understanding.’ ” 21 Affections require both perceptual data and a proper framework for interpreting the data and incorporating it into one’s experience.

Alvin Plantinga describes Edwards in this regard as requiring the right phenomenology for spiritual knowledge, a phenomenology only available to the regenerate. {68}

In the fall into sin, Edwards thinks, we human beings lost a certain cognitive ability: the ability to apprehend God’s moral qualities. With conversion comes regeneration; part of the latter is the regeneration (to a greater or lesser extent) of this cognitive ability to grasp or apprehend the beauty, sweetness, amiability of the Lord himself and of the whole scheme of salvation. And it is just the cognitive ability that involves the new simple idea. And one who doesn’t have this new simple idea—one in whom the cognitive process in question has not been regenerated—doesn’t have spiritual knowledge of God’s beauty and loveliness. 22

Religious affections depend on the proper function, i.e., regeneration, of human cognition.

John Hick either ignores or misreads Edwards at this point when he appeals to Edwards as evidence that both religious realists and religious nonrealists may agree about certain penultimate issues. In his An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Hick sets forth his pluralistic hypothesis of religion. Hick’s view is that all religions with a salvation concept are equally well placed, both ethically and epistemologically, responses to God, or in Hick’s terminology, the Real. Hick argues against nonrealist interpreters of religion who assert that while religious discourse may have some value, there is no real object of belief; religious statements are held to be without cognitive content.

Hick states that at many penultimate points, nonrealists and realists may agree. For example, Hick observes that nonrealists such as John Herman Randall find that religious language is able to express aesthetic qualities of human existence in vivid detail. As such, religious language may still find purpose for expression, if not a cognitive purpose. Hick proceeds to concur with Randall’s parallel between religious perception and aesthetic perception, noting:

Randall’s analogy between religious and aesthetic perception parallels a good deal of traditional realist discourse concerning the new appreciation of the natural and human world which faith can evoke. This kind of transformation of consciousness is exemplified in a number of classic reports of conversions. Jonathan Edwards (quoted by William James) 23 tells how “The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s {69} excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, and trees; in the water and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind.” It is, I think, evident that the religiously transformed mind is frequently able to discern new dimensions of meaning and value in the natural world and in human life; and that this is something which can be fully acknowledged and appreciated by religious realist and nonrealist alike. 24

Hick equates the language of Edwards’ heightened aesthetic awareness of “the natural world” following his conversion with a nonrealist sense of aesthetic perception to the beauty of nature.

Surely Edwards would vigorously disagree with the parallel. For Edwards, religious affections have meaning precisely because they have cognitive meaning. The source of Edwards’ renewed aesthetic consciousness is personal encounter with an external agent. This is not paralleled in a nonrealist’s aesthetic paradigm. For nonrealists such as Randall, the only external object stimulating a particular response to nature is nature. Though nonrealists may couch this encounter in realist religious language, in their view it remains a purely nonrealist exercise. The language of Edwards’ new aesthetic is an entirely different affair. Edwards’ conversion narrative speaks of a transforming encounter with God. Edwards is so changed by this personal encounter (meaning personal agent with personal Agent) that his other sensory faculties are overwhelmed by his sense of the divine. 25 The ultimate cause for Edwards’ perceptual shift is external; contrarily, the nonrealist finds the source of aesthetic consciousness from within.

It is clear then, that for Edwards, the religious affections are not to be equated with an existential leap into the great unknown. True religious affections are a divinely illuminated response of the will through a regenerated cognitive faculty that, above all, recognizes the greatness of its divine object. While possessing an emotive dimension, true religious affections are not simply an emotional release of aesthetic awareness. True affections do not contradict interpretive controls such as reason and experience, but operate in concert with them; or better, through them. As W. Jay Wood observes, “Right affections don’t manufacture evidence, on Edwards’s view, nor do they motivate belief where evidence is lacking; instead they bolster our powers of reason, allowing us to see and correctly evaluate already existing evidence.” 26 Similarly, Smith correctly sees Edwards’ connection of the affections to an external object as a {70} means for overcoming current “skepticism and subjectivism that pervade virtually all of our current thinking about judgments of value and importance.” 27


Edwards in His Time

Maintaining the unity of perception and affection was an essential component to sensitive spiritual leadership during the heady whirlwind of the Northampton Revivals. Edwards’ reasoned voice was a gift of grace needed for charting the course through a “surprising work of God.” Edwards’ insight regarding the nature and importance of the affections for the practice of true religion had significant implications for eighteenth-century Evangelical spirituality.

First, Edwards promoted a holistic spirituality that allowed room for a creative work of the Spirit. Throughout Religious Affections as well as The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Edwards is careful not to legislate the form or pattern of behavior associated with the Spirit. Edwards warns his readers not to authenticate either the affections or a general work of God by positive or negative appeals to a specific pattern of behavior.

Second, Edwards’ epistemological framework affirms the necessary relationship between freedom and boundary. Enthusiasm or sincerity in itself was not an indicator of true religion. The intoxicating and freeing experience of religious affections is not self-validating. True affections must maintain conformity to their external object; the freedom of affective experience must be interpreted according to the canon of Scripture. Thus, Edwards could state that true religious affections must esteem Christ and motivate the fruits of Christian practice.

Third, Edwards’ balanced approach to the affections provided the philosophical and theological undercarriage for the Evangelical emphasis on a personal Christianity. 28 Edwards and his Evangelical contemporaries preached the necessity of personal conversion and the possibility of knowing that one’s sins were forgiven by God. Edwards defends Evangelical conversionism 29 by reminding his audience that true religion is based in the affections, or the inclinations of the will. Christianity is vicarious atonement but not vicarious salvation; each must be born again. 30

Edwards in Our Time

The wisdom of Edwards’ balanced view of affect and intellect is a charism worthy of recovery for today’s Evangelicals. Edwards is a rich {71} resource for nurturing both personal and corporate spirituality at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

First, and perhaps most significant, Edwards’ emphasis on the affections is a necessary corrective to any form of dry, cerebral orthodoxy. Edwards challenges people of faith by setting the standard of spirituality at a level of vigorous response. In this way, Edwards correctly identifies the affections as indicators of what an individual holds to be significant. If one’s Christian faith does not reside in the affections, Edwards would say it is neither Christian nor faith. The church of Laodicea in the book of Revelation was chastised for deeds that were “lukewarm.” Edwards would agree. 31

Second, Edwards provides a response to introspective, self-focused religion with his awareness that true affections are a response to an object. One may be tempted to analyze one’s spirituality through constant subjective analysis. However, introspective analysis with the self as the guide is unable to achieve its intent. Edwards’ view of the affections supports the notion that Christ is the author and perfecter of faith. 32 They are both a response to Christ (author) and an ongoing, necessary influence in sanctification (perfecter).

Evangelicals will do well to draw on Edwards in order to enhance corporate dimensions of Christian spirituality. For example, much confusion in today’s “worship wars,” a chronic issue for the church, is due to confusion over the relationship between affect and intellect. Many, it seems, find security by positing a false dichotomy between affective and cognitive corporate worship. It is held that corporate worship must either be affective at the expense of cognition, or cognitive at the expense of affection. Edwards’ answer is two-fold. First, because true religion is expressed through religious affections, corporate worship should engage worshipers’ affections. Second, true affections are not divorced from cognition, but rather are expressed in harmony with one’s cognitive faculties. The object, God, to whom the affections respond is perceived, interpreted, contemplated, and encountered in conjunction with cognitive awareness. The defining question for leaders of corporate worship through the arts, in an Edwardsean schema, would be “what does it mean for this group to be challenged, through the arts, to perceive and encounter the reality of God, in order to be well-placed for affective response.” Edwards reminds today’s worshipers that the object of worship is God; not music, sentiment, or knowledge.

Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon see in Edwards a model of pastoral leadership lacking today. Hauerwas and Willimon cite Edwards as an example of pastoral integrity through his unflinching {72} willingness to speak the truth. 33 It is obvious that Edwards’ view of the affections influenced the shape of his pastoral ministry. Edwards not only preached a vigorous Christian life, he lived it through his office as pastor. Hauerwas and Willimon lament the absence of spiritual vitality of the kind that Edwards displayed in the pastorate, and state, “We believe that the pastoral ministry today is being robbed of its vitality and authority by participating in a charade of protecting people from the truth that is the gospel, which is our true empowerment.” 34 The church needs shepherds who are empowered in their ministry by experiencing the reality of true religion through religious affections.


Jonathan Edwards was himself one of God’s gracious gifts to the church. Edwards left a theological and philosophical legacy that continues to be a rich resource for one’s journey of faith. However, Edwards would be the first to argue that one’s greatness is not measured by the amount of one’s books or the originality of one’s ideas. For Edwards, true greatness is measured by the degree of appreciation for the greatness of God. In this regard, Edwards too was a great man. Edwards lived his defining theological motif of acknowledging the glory of God. He continues to be a helpful model for Christian scholarship and a rich resource for Evangelical spirituality through his insight into the relationship between human perception and the will.


  1. See Unger’s “Balanced Spirituality,” Christian Leader (August 1997): 4-6, for a summary of his balanced approach to the role of experience in Christian spiritual expression.
  2. Widespread awareness and manifestation of phenomena such as those associated with the famed Toronto Blessing have caused the term “blessing” to become a playful descriptor for the strange and frenzied. Thus, five people inadvertently falling down in a coffee shop could come to be known as the “Starbucks Blessing.”
  3. J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 315.
  4. Packer (316) identifies five works of Edwards (A Narrative of a Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton and the Neighbouring Towns and Villages [1735]; A History of the Work of Redemption [1744]; The Distinguishing {73} Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God [1741]; Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England in 1740 [1742]; and Treatise on the Religious Affections [1746]) that present “a fairly complete account of revival as a work of God—in other words, a theology of revival, perhaps the most important single contribution that Edwards has to make to evangelical thinking today.”
  5. See Sang Hyun Lee and Allen C. Guelzo, eds., Edwards in Our Time: Jonathan Edwards and the Shaping of American Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999) for a rich survey of essays using Edwards as both springboard and resource for a host of philosophical issues. See also Leon Chai’s Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 294-321; W. Jay Wood’s Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 190-91; and Norman Fiering’s Jonathan Edwards’ Moral Thought and Its British Context (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).
  6. Though scholars disagree as to the level of influence the Enlightenment had on Edwards, there is widespread consensus as to Edwards’ familiarity with, and indebtedness to, John Locke. See David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 48. Similarly, Alvin Plantinga notes that Edwards was conversant in “the epistemological language of the mid-eighteenth century,” (Warranted Christian Belief, 298).
  7. Edwards, “A Narrative of Surprising Conversions,” in Jonathan Edwards on Revival (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 21-22.
  8. I will be using the abridged text from the “Classics of Faith and Devotion” series, James M. Houston ed., entitled Religious Affections: A Christian’s Character Before God (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996). See also John E. Smith ed., Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959).
  9. Ibid., 5.
  10. Chai observes that Edwards must defend the external nature of stimuli for religious affections in order to avoid imploding the affections into pure subjectivity (Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy, 35).
  11. Religious Affections, 6.
  12. Ibid., 7.
  13. Edwards does allow for the notion of “mixed affections” where an {74} affection such as zeal entails both a positive response (to the object of zeal) and a negative response (to anything opposed to the object of zeal). This, however, seems like an unnecessary category, as all positive responses to a particular object entail certain negative responses to competing objects (for example, my affection for my wife entails a certain affection against a threatening rapist). But surely Edwards does not mean to say that all affections are “mixed.” As his subsequent argumentation does not require this category, it seems best to omit the terminology of “mixed affections” altogether.
  14. Religious Affections, 8.
  15. The remainder of this paragraph summarizes Edwards’ ten supporting arguments (ibid., 8-25) for placing the essence of religion in the affections.
  16. Religious Affections, 33.
  17. The remainder of this paragraph summarizes Edwards’ twelve signs for distinguishing truly gracious affections (ibid., 73-178). For a contemporary application of Edwards’ signs, see Gerald R. McDermott’s Seeing God: Twelve Reliable Signs of True Spirituality (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995).
  18. Note the necessary relationship between two seemingly dissimilar inclinations. The greater one’s own certainty regarding one’s knowledge of the greatness of God, the greater one’s humility and awe in relationship to God; epistemic certainty in this regard seems proportional to existential humility.
  19. Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy, 6th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999), 250.
  20. Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 299.
  21. John E. Smith, “The Perennial Jonathan Edwards,” in Edwards in Our Time, 3, Smith’s emphasis.
  22. Warranted Christian Belief, 299.
  23. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Mentor Books, 1960), 248.
  24. John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 203.
  25. See n. 20 above, where Plantinga attributes the cognitive ability to perceive the “beauty and sweetness” of God to regeneration. Edwards’ conversion account illustrates how other sensory faculties may be regenerated. For examples of Edwards’ regenerated aesthetic, see Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulder’s Famous Conversions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 67-70.
  26. W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, 191. {75}
  27. Smith, “The Perennial Jonathan Edwards,” 5.
  28. I mean “personal” in the sense of human personal free agents being saved by God who is also a Person, and not personal in the sense of a private and secret religion.
  29. One of Bebbington’s four defining priorities of Evangelicalism. See Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain.
  30. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore Edwards’ moderate Calvinism regarding free will and election. Suffice it to say that Edwards views personal salvation to be a gracious work of God. This, however, does not diminish the role of the affections for true religion in Edwards’ view.
  31. Rev. 3:15-16.
  32. Heb. 12:2.
  33. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, NT: Abingdon, 1989), 168-69.
  34. Ibid., 169.
Myron Penner is a graduate student at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, and an alumnus of Columbia Bible College. He has taught as Walter Unger’s teaching assistant.

Previous | Next