Saturday, March 9, 2013

Edwards on "Affectionate" Preaching

In Part 3 of Jonathan Edwards’ work Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival of Religion in New England,[1] he answers criticisms of the revival. This part is entitled “Shewing in Many Instances Wherein the Subjects or Zealous Promoters of This Work Have Been Injuriously Blamed.”[2]

The first criticism Edwards answers involves the accusation that ministers were addressing themselves to the affections of their hearers instead of their understandings.[3] I shall quote the criticism restated by Edwards and then at length much of Edwards’ response to this first of ten criticisms.

The criticism:
One thing that has been complained of, is ministers addressing themselves rather to the affections of their hearers than to their understandings, and striving to raise their passions to the utmost height, rather by a very affectionate manner of speaking and a great appearance of earnestness in voice and gesture, than by clear reasoning and informing their judgment. . . .
Edwards' answer:
To which I would say, I am far from thinking that it is not very profitable, for ministers in their preaching, to endeavor clearly and distinctly to explain the doctrines of religion, and unravel the difficulties that attend them, and to confirm them with strength of reason and argumentation, and also to observe some easy and clear method and order in their discourses, for the help of the understanding and memory; and ’tis very probably  that these things have been of late, too much neglected by many ministers; yet, I believe that the objection that is made, of affections raised without enlightening the understanding, is in a great measure built on a mistake, and confused notions that some have about the nature and cause of the affections, and the manner in which they depend on the understanding. All affections are raised either by light in the understanding, or by some error and delusion in the understanding; for all affections do certainly arise from some apprehension in the understanding. . . .
Therefore the thing to be inquired into is, whether the apprehensions or notions of divine and eternal things, that are raised in people’s minds by these affectionate preachers, whence their affections are excited, be apprehensions that are agreeable to truth, or whether they are mistakes. If the former, then the affections are raised the way they should be, viz. by informing the mind, or conveying light to the understanding. They go away with a wrong notion, that think that those preachers can’t affect their hearers by enlightening their understandings, that don’t do it by such a distinct, and learned handling of the doctrinal points of religion, as depends on human discipline, or the strength of natural reason, and tends to enlarge their hearers’ learning, and speculative knowledge of divinity. The manner of preaching without this, may be such as shall tend very much to set divine and eternal things in a right view, and to give the hearers such ideas and apprehensions of them as are agreeable to truth, and such impressions on their hearts, as are answerable to the real nature of things: and not only the words that are spoken, but the manner of speaking,[4] is one thing that has a great tendency to this.
I think an exceeding affectionate way of preaching about the great things of religion, has in itself no tendency to beget false apprehensions of them; but on the contrary a much greater tendency to beget true apprehensions of them, than a moderate, dull, indifferent way of speaking of ’em. And appearance of affection and earnestness in the manner of delivery, if it be very great indeed, yet if it be agreeable to the nature of the subject, and ben’t beyond a proportion to its importance and worthiness of affection, and there be no appearance of its being feigned or forced, has so much the greater tendency to beget true ideas or apprehensions in the minds of the hearers, of the subject spoken of, and so to enlighten the understanding: and that for this reason, that such a way or manner of speaking of these things does in fact more truly represent them, than a more cold and indifferent way of speaking of them. If the subject be in its own nature worthy of very great affection, then a speaking of it with very great affection is most agreeable to the nature of that subject, or is the truest representation of it, and therefore has most of a tendency to beget true ideas of it in the minds of those to whom the representation is made. And I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection. I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. I know it has long been fashionable to despise a very earnest and pathetical way of preaching; and they, and they only have been valued as preachers, that have shown the greatest extent of learning, and strength of reason, and correctness of method and language: but I humbly conceive it has been for want of understanding, or duly considering human nature, that such preaching has been thought to have the greatest tendency to answer the ends of preaching; and the experience of the present and past ages abundantly confirms the same.
Though as said before, clearness of distinction and illustration, and strength of reason, and a good method, in the doctrinal handling of the truths of religion, is many ways needful and profitable, and not to be neglected, yet an increase in speculative knowledge in divinity is not what is so much needed by our people, as something else. Men may abound in this sort of light and have no heat: how much has there been of this sort of knowledge, in the Christian world, in this age? Was there ever an age wherein strength and penetration of reason, extent of learning, exactness of distinction, correctness of style, and clearness of expression, did so abound? And yet was there ever an age wherein there has been so little sense of the evil of sin, so little love to God, heavenly-mindedness, and holiness of life, among the professors of the true religion? Our people don’t so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched; and they stand in the greatest need of that sort of preaching that has the greatest tendency to do this.[5]

[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival of Religion in New England, And the Way in Which It Ought to Be Acknowledged and Promoted, Humbly Offered to the Publick, in a Treatise on That Subject, in Five Parts,” in The Great Awakening, ed. C. C. Goen, vol. 4 of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University, 1972), 289-530.
[2] Ibid., 384-408.
[3] Ibid., 385.
[4] Italics are mine for emphasis, and so throughout.
[5] Ibid., 385-388.

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