Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy

By Leon Chai | Go to book overview
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Religious Affections

AT THIS POINT IN TIME, it is hard to imagine what might have made something like the Great Awakening possible. With some effort, we can reconstruct the relevant sequence of events and even the general external circumstances. 1 With further effort, we can even speculate about the motives of those principally involved. What is hardest to recapture is, of course, the emotion itself. Passion, once spent, tends to leave no traces. Especially, perhaps, the sort of emotion whose intensity produced marked excesses. Hence the difficulty of arriving at some sense of what the Awakening would have meant to those whose lives it transformed and who had come to feel, in greater or lesser measure, its dominant impulse. Nevertheless, this difficulty does not pertain to us exclusively. From the commencement of its decline, its participants would no doubt have faced a similar situation. With that moment comes the necessity of trying to rescue from the Awakening some glimpse of what had made it meaningful. To this necessity we owe Jonathan Edwards's magisterial work on the nature of religious piety: A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.

Religious Affections is normally taken as a defense of the Great Awakening. Yet it is, in some respects, a curious defense. For one thing, it waives the value of religious emotion per se. Instead, it works to distinguish true piety from various false look-alikes. 2 Given its immediate context, such caution is perhaps natural. Nevertheless, caution alone does not quite explain what Edwards elects to emphasize. Of the twelve "distinguishing signs" of true piety discussed, the first is particularly suggestive: "From hence it follows, 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" ( Religious Affections, p. 205).

Here one might wonder what exactly an "inward" perception or sensation consists of. The "Personal Narrative" had stressed a similar characteristic: "From about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ,


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