From the JEC Blog

Dissertation Note: “‘A Soul Inflamed with High Exercises of Divine Love’: Affections and Passions in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards.”

Martin, Ryan Jared. “’A Soul Inflamed with High Exercises of Divine Love’: Affections and Passions in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards.” PhD diss., Central Baptist Theological Seminary, 2013. 

This dissertation is concerned with alleged confusion in the secondary literature regarding Edwards’s concept of religious affections and how it relates to the modern day concept of emotions. Martin writes, “The goal of this dissertation has been to describe Edwards’s affective psychology, and to find its points of contact and discordance with modern emotions” (297). Both scholars and ministry leaders have suggested that when Edwards encouraged Christians to have high affections he meant Christians ought to be emotional. In his view, John Piper has contributed perhaps more than any other person to the perpetuation of this conflation of affections and emotions.

Martin argues that this understanding is confusing and unhelpful for accurately interpreting Jonathan Edwards. Martin writes, “By replacing affections with emotions (often done to make Edwards more intelligible and contemporary), interpreters have left readers with a distorted Edwards. Edwards did not conceive of affections as corporeal feelings at all, but as strong movements of the will” (300). Edwards distinguished between the lower, animal passions which are rooted in bodily appetites and the affections which can be gracious or natural. Affections refer to a person’s inclinations and aversions. A person with holy affections will possess supernatural, godly inclinations and aversions. A person with natural affections will possess sinful inclinations and aversions.

Few if any have written more than article length treatments on this subject; however, as Martin shows there has been no shortage of authors sharing their opinions regarding Edwards and the affections. He argues against scholars such as Perry Miller, Conrad Cherry, D. G. Hart, and K. Scott Oliphant who believe that Edwards invented a new psychology that was deeply rooted in John Locke. Even though Edwards appreciated Locke, Martin contends that Edwards’s distinction between affections and passions can be found as early as Augustine. In other words, Edwards was not as novel nor as dependant upon Locke as some have suggested. Martin also disagrees with scholars such as Miller, Jeremiah Day, Henry Tappan, Joseph Haroutunian, and more recently James Blight and Paul Helm when they equate affections with emotions.  Martin also notes that he is not alone in his position, and he finds agreement with regard to Edwards on the affections in the work of Gordon Clark, Robert Jensen, Mark Noll, John Smith,  John Hannah, Michael Haykin, Sean Michael Lucas, Michael McClymond, and Gerald McDermott.

Chapter one introduces the study and describes the ways in which scholars and evangelicals have understood or misunderstood Edwards on the affections. Chapter two highlights some ways in which the concept of affections has been used in church history in the writings of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the Reformers, Descartes, Pascal, and the Puritans. Chapter three discusses the concept of affections in the early writings of Jonathan Edwards. Martin surveys Edwards’s notebooks, sermons, and revival writings. Chapter four discusses Edwards’s understanding of the affections in context with his debate with Charles Chauncy during the Great Awakening. Chapter five discusses Edwards’s later thought in The Life of David Brainerd, Freedom of the Will, Original Sin, and Two Dissertations. Chapter six offers conclusions regarding the study explaining the significance of affections for understanding Jonathan Edwards and that affections should not be equated with emotions.

This dissertation is well executed and will be of interest primarily to specialists who need to understand Edwards on the affections, emotions, and faculty psychology.  This dissertation represents the first book length treatment of a vital topic in Edwards studies and an opportunity to secure a clearer and fuller understanding among Edwards specialists on Edwards and the affections.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary (Vol. 3)

Cotton Mather, Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary, a Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, Volume 3: Joshua – 2 Chronicles, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013)

Ken Minkema’s volume of Cotton Mather’s magnum opus has finally made it off the press.

For those who have not yet heard, this is the second volume published–though the third in the series–of what will be a ten-volume edition of Mather’s largest work. Drafted over the course of 35 years (1693-1728) on 4,583 sheets (double-columned, folio), eventually bound in six volumes, Mather’s “Biblia Americana” proved too large, until now, to attract a publisher. Nonetheless, it represents the oldest commentary on all of the Protestant canon in America.

Reiner Smolinski, who teaches American literature at Georgia State University, has given much of his life to poring over this hidden treasure at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  He leads a team of scholar-editors in Germany and the U.S. committed to realizing Mather’s dream of publishing this summa. Volume one, on the book of Genesis, was published in 2010. Now volume three, on Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, transports us even further into Mather’s erudition, showing that biblical higher criticism began in North America long before the well-known inroads made by modern German scholars.

Though this is not a book on Edwards, it is part of the most important scholarly project on early American biblical study ever produced. Appearing as it does at a time of renewed historical interest in the Bible in America, this edition will spark new insights into American religious, cultural, and intellectual history. It has become essential reading for anyone interested in Edwards’ place in American exegesis.

Every first-rate scholarly library should own this set.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination

Kathryn Reklis, Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination: Jonathan Edwards and the Making of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Kathryn Reklis has written a fascinating study of the manner in which Edwards’ accounts of “revival ecstasies” in eighteenth-century New England created space for a corporeal way of understanding the self that countered the disembodied self of early modern Cartesian thinkers and the excessively rational self of his “Arminian” opponents. Edwards offered such accounts as an alternative to the usual kinds of theological history, “one that lives not in written doctrine and theological treatise so much as in bodily gesture and movement” (20). In so doing, he paid respect to the theological importance of people other than elite white males.

As one can tell from the preceding, this book is not for the faint of heart, the casual reader, or for those who prefer traditional modes of theological discourse. It will prove to be most useful to those invested rather heavily in late-modern theology.

A constructive theologian teaching at Fordham University, Reklis uses Edwards mainly to retrieve embodied experience, desire, and physical beauty as sources for theological reflection and Christian practice.

As Reklis summarizes the methodological import of her project, “the bodily ecstasy of the revivals can be read as a kind of kinesthetic imagination that carried, through bodily gestures, alternative ways to understand and imagine oneself as a self. . . . Interpreting the ecstatic gestures of the revivals as forming and expressing a kind of kinesthetic imagination is one way to rethink the relationship between embodied religious experience and theological meaning. Or, to put it another way, the concept of kinesthetic imagination allows one to explore how theological belief manifests in embodied experience and how embodied experience conveys and shapes theological meaning” (14).

As used in Reklis’s book, “kinesthetic imagination” is a way of referring to the transmission of meaning (remembered meaning) through bodily gesture. “What is conveyed in physical gesture, when described as kinesthetic imagination, is not simply the same thing twice, but the attempt to both remember and reinvent the original gesture and its meaning as it is imagined or desired” (4). In Edwards’ context of revival, “parishioners around the Atlantic had a way of knowing in their bodies what it meant to be swallowed up in God, to convey that truth to others, and to recognize in others the same consummation” (97). Edwards promoted this way of thinking about the experience of ecstasy as he described and valorized it in his writings on conversion (especially the Faithful Narrative of 1737). “The bodily gestures of the revivals became the means by which people were inserted into the scenario of universality such that they experienced it as both spontaneous and natural, while it also partook of the same repeatable, predictable patterns as in different places on the circum-Atlantic map. Despite significant theological and ecclesiological diversity in the congregations attesting to awakenings, the revival narratives report a remarkable coherence of experience. What these uniform narratives attest to is a powerful kinesthetic imagination that allowed circum-Atlantic subjects to enact alternative ways of being (acting and thinking) in the early modern world” (97-98).

I am not persuaded that Edwards intended to promote such communication, but I am persuaded of the utility of Reklis’s own effort to use Edwards’ revival writings to promote this kind of theology. For a constructive theologian such as Reklis, success in demonstrating the latter is more important than proving the former.

It might be worth mentioning here (as Reklis grants on p. 14) that Edwards classed bodily ecstasies among what he called the “negative signs” of a work of the Spirit of God, telling people not to focus much attention on such things when they were seeking to discern the work of God within their world. Reklis is reading and using Edwards in a way that he would neither have understood (right away) nor embraced. As Edwards wrote in Religious Affections (1746), “‘Tis no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they have great effects on the body” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:131). Edwards discouraged people from using bodily ecstasies to transmit theological meaning. He taught that bodily ecstasies often accompany the work of the Spirit in one’s life, but do not convey reliable knowledge of God.

Nonetheless, specialists today will find Reklis’s book a catalyst for thinking about the role of bodily movement and physical memory in theology. I’m glad to see that all kinds of theologians find Edwards a useful conversation partner.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Spider in a Tree

Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree: A Novel (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2013)

Spider in a Tree

Whenever I teach a survey of American religion, I require students to read historical novels. My goal for this assignment is to awaken the historical imaginations of my charges, helping them sense what it was like to be a common religious person in the communities we study. This is not an easy task. I do not have a time machine, and cannot transport them personally to the places I describe. Most of the standard survey texts inform them mainly of megatrends and the concerns of Christian elites. So in an effort to help them see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the worlds of most religious people, I ask them to read a major work of historical fiction.

I decided this afternoon to add Susan Stinson’s latest to the list of historical novels from which my survey students may choose. It seeks to recreate Edwards’ lost eighteenth-century world, from the early years of his ministry to his firing and removal to the Stockbridge Indian mission. Told mainly from the perspective of people like Edwards’ wife, Sarah, Edwards’ first slave, Leah, Edwards’ cousins, the Hawley boys (who for a season were his enemies), even the spiders, beetles, and other bugs in Edwards’ house and yard, it is a fascinating tale about the mystery and humanity of Edwards’ daily life. Well informed by recent scholarship in American social history, especially social history on colonial Massachusetts, it is anchored from beginning to end in things that really happened–to Edwards and those around him.

Some readers will object to some of Stinson’s creative embellishments. They will find it hard to imagine Edwards writing in a tree, or spiders preaching silent sermons. They will wish for more of Edwards’ own biblical theology, and less of Stinson’s musings on the vagaries of nature. I, for one, regret the suggestion that Edwards was fired for requiring a public profession of godliness (he required no such thing).

But those who ignore this lovely book due to objections such as these have only themselves to blame for the loss. This is not a simple history. It is fiction, good fiction. It will take you places history by itself can never go.

Though not for young children (it depicts adult themes), this book is highly recommended.