Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

What about those Enthusiasts?

A last look at Jonathan Edwards's Treatise Concerning Religious Affections

by Pastor Kevin Hartley

In a concluding look at Jonathan Edwards's monumental work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, we shall deal with one of the most hotly contested issues of the modern church. Are bodily excitations a valid proof of one's spirituality? When Benny Hinn strikes a person upon the head and that person falls, supposedly 'slain in the spirit', are we seeing a true manifestation of God's holiness or just a sideshow of a most detestable display by a charlatan? The matter is not new to Christianity, but has time and again raised an eyebrow throughout Protestant history. America movements like the Quakers, the Pentecostals, and the Charismatics, have championed the external evidences of true religion. In our day, the airwaves are filled with countless examples of visible displays of supposed spirituality, and therefore it is a branch of American religion that cannot be ignored. A common response among the less visibly enthusiastic saints of our day is to deny out of hand the validity of these movements. For example, John MacArthur in his book, Charismatic Chaos, strives to invalidate the movement from an exegetical approach, at times perhaps overstating the case of scripture. Which of us can deny that we have used 1 Corinthians 13: 10, "But when the perfect thing comes, then that which is in part will be caused to cease," as a proof text against the enthusiast, even if it meant sacrificing context? MacArthur, does a commendable job from the vantage of the text of scripture, yet, as is often the case, his argument is most influential among those outside the enthusiast movement. It is difficult to debate a movement that equates experience with scripture as a rule of faith.

Perhaps there is another approach to assessing the true nature of the movement [by different I do not mean less biblical, I just mean from a different biblical approach]. One may examine the issue by turning to the witness of history. These movements are not new; in fact, they were preceded in American history by the debate of the Great Awakening. In assessing the validity of these movements in our day, we can learn a great deal from the discussion of the 18th century. A debate arose in Puritan New England concerning the great display of enthusiasm accompanying the revival of Jonathan Edwards's day. What we are seeing in our day among the so-called revivals of Brownsville and all such movements is not new to this nation. During the 1740s, in New England, a supposed great outpouring of the Spirit of God was accompanied often by, "outcries, faintings, and other bodily effects." Edwards wrote of his experience in Northhampton, "It was a very frequent thing to see a house full of outcries, faintings, convulsions, and such like, both with distress, and also with admiration and joy." We find then that outward excitations of the body are not germane to a particular movement or theology. Calvinism has had its share of charismaticism in previous days. There are even charismatic Calvinists in our day.

We may examine outward displays of religion as Edwards's did, from an understanding of the affections. An impetus behind Edwards's Treatise Concerning Religious Affections was his intent to defend much of the enthusiastic displays during the Great Awakening, while at the same time checking those groups that were taking enthusiasm to its extreme. Unlike MacArthur, Edwards approached the issue as an 18th century New England Puritan. Reformation theology and piety were the framework for Edwards's assessment of outward displays of religion. It was a different day and the debate was argued from a different presupposition. Edwards's work provides us with an unusual insight into the enthusiasm of our day, where we might assess visible displays of religion with less dogmatic and exclusionary practice.

It may surprise many to find that the great evangelist and Puritan stalwart, Jonathan Edwards, did not out of hand exclude visible displays simply by their degree of enthusiasm. While the preacher is perhaps best remembered for the caricature sketched by scholarship in this century, he was not an anti-enthusiast. He is sadly best known in our day as the hell-fire preacher of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, who stopped his sermon to silence the congregation that was crying out in agony, 'what must we do to be saved?' He is the preacher that supposedly would drolly read from his notes without a degree of bodily response. The caricature is just that, exaggerated and not particularly accurate. Edwards was not so cold and unaffectionate in his preaching and Puritanism was not anti-emotionalism. It may surprise many to find that Edwards stood to defend much of the outward demonstration of religious affection in his day. While he understood that such displays often led to abuse and impropriety, he did not discard them out-of-hand simply because they were visible. Edwards's understanding of the soul would not permit such an assessment.

The simple question facing us all then is this, can we discern a man's Christianity by his bodily posture, or, should we discount a person's bodily excitation or agitation as an invalid religious experience, simply because it is emotional? In Part II, Section 2, of Edwards's Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, he writes concerning "what are not signs to test religious affections," and, "that great affects on the body are no sign." He began his discussion of the assessment of bodily demonstrations writing, "ALL affections whatsoever, have in some respect or degree, an effect on the body. (Pt. 2 Sect. 2)." Affections can either be natural affections or true religious affections. Both have an affect upon the body. Edwards notes, "So subject is the body to the mind, and so much do its fluids, especially the animal spirits, attend the motions and exercises of the mind, that there cannot be so much as an intense thought, without an effect upon them. (Pt. 2 Sect. 2)." The Puritan saw regeneration as an introduction of a holy habit into the soul. It was a vivification of the will. The new disposition of the soul would have a correspondent effect upon the body. Just as a man will naturally possess affection that results in the excitation of the body, so then does a man in the new disposition of his soul find a resultant affect upon his body. Edwards notes, "Yea, it is questionable whether an imbodied soul ever so much as thinks one thought, or has any exercise at all, but that there is some corresponding motion or alteration of motion, in some degree, of the fluids, in some part of the body. (Pt. 2 Sect. 2)." In other words, affection as an exercise of the disposition of the soul is never devoid of some bodily agitation. Edwards's conclusion then is this, "And therefore, seeing there are very great affections, both common and spiritual; hence it is not to be wondered at, that great effects on the body should arise from both these kinds of affections. And consequently these effects are no signs that the affections they arise from, are of one kind or the other. (Pt. 2 Sect. 2)." The body can be equally affected by either the exercise of the natural or new principle of the soul.

The logical and necessary conclusion to the matter then was, "Great effects on the body certainly are no sure evidences that affections are spiritual… (Edwards)." In other words, when we see the body moved, we cannot with certainty say what is the motive behind its movement. When a tear falls from my eye during a sermon, it is no evidence in and of itself that it is a truly religious tear, or just a natural response to natural means. Tears, cries, faintings, shrieks, and such displays are in and of themselves no sure proofs that a person is having a true religious experience. Remember that a true religious affection has as its object the holiness and amiableness of God and of his Christ. Therefore, the only way to possibly discern whether a bodily reaction is truly religious would be to examine the affection and its impetus. True religious affection is truly responsive to the display of God's glory.

When a person is moved to tears at the hearing of Christ, if it is a true religious experience, it is affection for his holy beauty. Edwards wrote, "The knowledge which the saints have of God's beauty and glory in this world, and those holy affections that arise from it, are of the same nature and kind with what the saints are the subjects of in heaven, differing only in degree and circumstances: what God gives them here, is a foretaste of heavenly happiness, and an earnest of their future inheritance." Thus Edwards deduces, "I know of no reason, why a being affected with a view of God's glory should not cause the body to faint, as well as being affected with a view of Solomon's glory." He therefore concludes, "That such ideas of God's glory as are sometimes given in this world, have a tendency to overbear the body, is evident, because the Scripture gives us an account, that this has sometimes actually been the effect of those external manifestations God has made of himself to some of the saints which were made to that end, viz., to give them an idea of God's majesty and glory." At one moment then Edwards is denying the sure validity of enthusiasm as an evidence of true religion, while the next affirming that it may be evidential of an exercise of true religion. In simple terms, a bodily response may or may not be an evidence of true religion.

Such an understanding of the soul means that we cannot out of hand deny that a person is truly religious simply because he has a particular external display. Neither can we assume that he is properly affected by a true response to God's glory, simply because of his bodily response. The response of the body is just that, a response of the body to some affection, which may or may not be truly religious. Thus the conclusion for Edwards, "Great effects on the body certainly are no sure evidences that affections are spiritual…." From his writing on revival, Edwards asserts:

A work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength. The influence persons are under is not to be judged of one way or other by such effects on the body; and the reason is because the Scripture nowhere gives us any such rule. We cannot conclude that persons are under the influence of the true Spirit because we see such effects upon their bodies, because this is not given as a mark of the true Spirit; nor on the other hand, have we any reason to conclude, from any such outward appearances, that persons are not under the influence of the Spirit of God, because there is no rule of Scripture given us to judge of spirits by, that does either expressly or indirectly exclude such effects on the body, nor does reason exclude them. (Edwards Concerning Revival, Sect. I., II)

Here Edwards affirms that scripture does not necessarily exclude or include any particular bodily display as evidence that a man is having a true religious response. Nowhere does scripture base assurance upon bodily displays and nowhere does it command us to seek such responses. The body is the vessel that is moved by affection, but it is nothing more than an instrument of the affections.

What then would Jonathan Edwards have to say about the current frenzy of enthusiasm among the seemingly religious in our nation? Perhaps he would ask what is the sense behind their enthusiastic display. Are they affected by, "a true sense of the glorious excellency of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of his wonderful dying love, and the exercise of a truly spiritual love and joy…?" Surely he would conclude, "The root and course of things is to be looked at, and the nature of the operations and affections are to be inquired into, and examined by the rule of God's word, and not the motions of the blood and animal spirits." Looking at the body is to look at the effect, which is no sure indication of its cause.

Here then is a valid assessment of today's enthusiasm. Its fault does not lie so much in the fact that it is a movement accompanied by great displays of bodily excitation, rather its fault lies with its ground for such enthusiasm. The movement lacks a proper, biblical understanding of the holiness of God. Absent from the majority of enthusiastic teaching is a biblical view of the awfulness of justice and the heinousness of sin. Absent is the great evangelical humility of the soul as a response to the great grace of our Lord Jesus Christ dying for his elect. Missing is the ingredient of holiness, that of righteousness, and that of the greatness and majesty of God. Thus we fault the movement not so much because of its enthusiasm, but rather due to the impetus behind its enthusiasm.

Surely we are left to ask, "what are the sure, distinguishing Scripture evidences and marks of a work of the Spirit of God, by which we may proceed in judging of any operation we find in ourselves, or see among a people, without danger of being misled." Here are Edwards's suggestions:

  1. "…if the spirit that is at work among a people is plainly observed to work so as to convince them of Christ…to confirm their minds…that he is the Son of God, and was sent of God to save sinners; that he is the only Savior, and that they stand in great need of him; and if he seems to beget in them higher and more honorable thoughts of him than they used to have, and to incline their affections more to him; it is a sure sign that it is the true and right Spirit…"
  2. "…the spirit that is at work amongst a people after such a manner as to lessen men's esteem of the pleasures, profits, and honors of the world, and to take off their hearts from an eager pursuit after these things; and to engage them in a deep concern about a future state and eternal happiness which the gospel reveals, and puts them upon earnestly seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and the spirit that convinces them of the dreadfulness of sin, the guilt it brings, and the misery to which it exposes must needs be the Spirit of God."
  3. "The spirit that operates in such a manner as to cause in men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divinity is certainly the Spirit of God."
  4. "And therefore, if by observing the manner of the operation of a spirit that is at work among a people, we see that it operates as a spirit of truth, leading persons to truth, convincing them of those things that are true, we may safely determine that it is a right and true spirit."

If then we are to assess and make a determination about the flood of enthusiasm in our day, here is a valid assessment. Their enthusiasm provides us with no strong proof to either discount or affirm their validity. However, we can make these observations, 1) in general the enthusiasts of our day have a low and mean view of Christ. 2) They have a general regard for the benefits and pleasures of this life. 3) They have a poor estimation and valuation of the power and need for the word of God. 4) And they are tossed about by every wind of doctrine having a poor understanding of the truth. What the enthusiasts of our day need are what each of us needs, a true revival of religion! We need the word of God raised up in our souls, we need affection for a holy God and his Christ, and we need a recovery of truth. True revival, when and if it shall come in our day, will meet with these criteria of the great preacher of the Great Awakening. "…let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let everyone fly out of Sodom: "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you. Escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed." (Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God, Jonathan Edwards).


Kevin Hartley

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