Criticizing Edwards On Religious Affections Does Not Lead To Dead Orthodoxy: There Is Another Way

In the wake of my latest essay, which cautions readers regarding Jonathan Edwards, has come questions about the role of affections and emotion in the Christian life. These questions signal how deep the Pietist tradition (see the resources below) runs in American Christianity. Any criticism of Edwards’ use of religious affections almost invariably brings some version of the question, “are you opposed to religious experience?” To quote Richard Nixon: “let me be perfectly clear:” no, I am not. My criticisms of Edwards’ use of religious experience does not signal an antipathy to religious experience. This is why I began the previous essay with a quotation of Heidelberg Catechism 1 and summarized some of the points I made in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

Since the so-called First Great Awakening, for many Christians the choice has been simple: either one supports the religious enthusiasm of the so-called First Great Awakening or one is advocating dead orthodoxy. This is a false choice. There is another way and that way is signaled by the piety of the Reformed Churches and reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Westminster Shorter Catechism for example. Do they represent “dead orthodoxy”? May it never be said! By definition orthodoxy cannot be dead. Orthodoxy entails theology, piety, and practice. Is it possible to mouth orthodox words and to deny the faith by one’s practice? Yes. Scripture has a word this: hypocrisy. Jesus rightly railed against the religious authorities for their hypocrisy:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, Honor your father and your mother,’ and, Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’ (Matt 15:1–9; ESV)

What the Scribes and the Pharisees lacked, however, was not the proper affections. What they lacked was the gift of new life. They needed to be regenerated by the sovereign grace of God. They needed, by the grace of God alone, to be given the gifts of true faith, union with Christ, and adoption as sons. True religious affections flow from the benefits of Christ, given freely, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

As in RRC, I tried to make clear that there are better and worse approaches to religious experience. Edwards’ had a Platonic ideal which he used as the norm to measure religious experience. The Apostle Paul sets up a norm for fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–26). The fruit of the Spirit is the thing we should be chasing, not Edwards’ Platonic ideal of religious experience. The distinguishing marks of faith are the fruit of the Spirit not a set of emotional experiences. The marks of faith are the virtues of hope and love.

One of the ironies of this discussion is that Edwards himself got into hot water over the Lord’s Supper. He had a higher view of the Reformed call “the means of grace” (the preaching of the gospel, the two holy sacraments, and prayer) than most American Christians in his wake have had. This is, in part, because the so-called Second Great Awakening more or less replaced the two sacraments  instituted by our Lord: holy baptism and holy communion with the altar call and the quiet time. One of the ways, however, Reformed piety is distinct from Pietism and American revivalism, is its theology, piety, and practice of the sacraments and the means of grace. We are convinced that God has promised to operate through the preaching of the gospel to bring his elect to new life and true faith. We are are convinced that he has ordained to work through the holy sacraments to strengthen that faith and that he uses prayer to accomplish his purposes.

In other words, Reformed piety cannot be judged by revivalism. To the revivalists, Reformed piety may look cold because of its emphasis on the outward means but this only illustrates the gulf between the two traditions. The Pietists gave us the quiet time and the Revivalists gave us the altar call but the Lord has nowhere instituted the altar call or the quiet time as means of grace—the moment I say this, the Pietist will reply: “See, there he goes again attacking prayer!”  Not at all. The question is not whether prayer, but why, where, when, and under what understanding. As always, the Heidelberg Catechism helps us here:

116. Why is prayer necessary for Christians?

Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them.

The Lord has promised to use prayer but we may not assume that prayer and the quiet time are the same thing. When the catechism was written, the first act of devotion of the Christian was to attend to public worship. When the Pietist hears this, he recoils because has re-prioritized private devotions and public worship. For him, private devotions are worship. Gathering on the Lord’s Day is good, as far as it goes, but it has second place. This is not the piety of the Reformed churches or the Heidelberg Catechism. This is why I keep saying that the Reformed and the Pietist operate according to two distinct paradigms. The Reformed counseled private prayer (not everyone in the 16th century could read or necessarily owned a copy of Scripture) as an act of gratitude, not in place of or before public worship. For the Reformed, private devotions, which are useful and necessary, are the outflow of public worship. The Reformed have different priorities than the Pietist.

We are utterly convinced that God uses prayer, that prayer is quite necessary, but we do not replace the objective (e.g., the preaching of the gospel and the use of the holy sacraments) with the subjective (prayer). We order them differently.

But What About “The Puritans”?

A correspondent writes to ask how I reconcile the language of “the Puritans” regarding “affections” and my warning about Edwards. I respond by defining and distinguishing.

First, the category of “Puritan” is to be doubted. It is beyond difficult to define meaningfully. Consider William Perkins (1558–1602). According to some scholars he is the father of “English Puritanism.” According to others, he was no Puritan at all. This is because, contra the popular assumption, there is no agreed definition of Puritan. It is as elusive as evangelical. There is no agreement as to who the Puritans were, i.e., who was in and who was out, what they believed, where they went to church, or how they practiced their faith.

Second, we should stop thinking about English Reformed (whether Congregational, Anglican, or Presbyterian) as a unique movement. It was not. It was part of the broader development of Reformed theology, piety, and practice. The Reformed in the British Isles were not special or unique in their devotion to Christ or in their religious fervor. They did not think of themselves as unique in that way and their European brothers and sisters did not think of them as unique. Thus, in Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant I characterized Olevianus as a German Puritan but I could have written that of any of the Reformed in Europe.

Third, we may not simply assume that what Edwards meant by affections is what, e.g., Owen, Ames, or Perkins meant by affections. Further, we should not assume that affections means simply emotions. An affect is a change. A piece of music may be very affecting. To affect (as distinct from effect, to cause to be) is to change. Emotion may be a part of affection but it is not the whole of it. Further, when the older Reformed orthodox, in the British Isle and in the Dutch Reformed Church (especially in the Nadere Reformatie, where the influence of the English Reformed was so strong), there was plenty of concern to cultivate vital religious experience but they were not Platonists and they were not proto-Edwardseans.

We must not assume that Edwards marked just another step in the Reformed movement. In crucial ways, he marked a departure from Reformed orthodoxy. This is why it is so problematic to use him as a baseline. We should think of Edwards as a complicated, even exotic jazz artist, who sometimes got lost in his own artistry rather than as a normative guide to Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

Here is a brief catechism:

Do Christians have religious affections? Yes, most certainly.

May I set up a norm by which to measure your religious experience? No. This was the mistake made by the Pietists.

Should I set a bar of religious affections for you to achieve? No.

Does Scripture establish a bar by which to measure one’s religious affections? No.

Do the Reformed churches, in their confessions and catechisms establish a norm by which to measure one’s religious affections? No.

The pattern of the Christian life is articulated very clearly in Heidelberg 88–90: sanctification is mortification and vivification.

88. In how many things does true repentance or conversion consist?

In two things: the dying of the old man and the quickening of the new.

89. What is the dying of the old man?

Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.

90. What is the quickening of the new man?

Heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works.

The Spirit does this for his elect, to whom he has give new life (regeneration), to whom he has given true faith, whom he has, through faith, justified, united to himself, and adopted. According to James 2:14, true faith produces good works. The problem James was facing was that of people professing faith and living like the dickens. Nothing James wrote changes the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone but it does speak to the necessity of the evidence of true faith.

The Reformed followed the Heidelberg Catechism in writing about a warm-hearted, genuine faith and piety. This is why I write so frequently about “theology, piety, and practice.” They all belong together but they belong together in a way that does not fit the Edwardsean and Pietist paradigms.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


  1. How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
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  3. Recovering the Reformed Confession
  4. Caspar Olevianus and the Substance of the Covenant
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  6. Crisp: Edwards Was A Panentheist
  7. More On Edwards, Affections, Romanticism, And Pantheism
  8. Paul Helm on Edwards’ Religious Affections
  9. Helm Replies to Lucas on the Nature of “Affections” in Edwards
  10. Office Hours With Craig Troxel On With All Your Heart
  11. Resources On Defining Reformed
  12. The QIRE Distilled To Its Essence
  13. Discussing QIRC And QIRE On Presbycast
  14. In Case You Weren’t Sure What QIRE Means
  15. Review of J. I. Packer, Puritan Portraits
  16. Prayer, Privacy, And Piety
  17. Office Hours: The 21st Century Reformed Pastor And Piety
  18. One Great Difference Between A Covenantal Piety And The American Conversionist Alternative
  19. What Is Conversion?
  20. Did Calvin’s Theology, Piety, and Practice Need To Be Rounded Out With Müntzer’s?
  21. Anti-Scholasticism, Revival(ism), Pietism, Or The Reformed Theology, Piety, And Practice?
  22. The Resurrection, Piety, And Pietism
  23. Bavinck’s Critique Of Pietism
  24. Another Downside Of Pietism: Christ’s Bodily Resurrection Is Marginalized
  25. Tillich: Pietism And The Enlightenment Both Fought Against Orthodoxy
  26. Wilhelmus À Brakel On Pietism
  27. The Afscheiding and Pietism
  28. An Appreciation Of J. I. Packer And A Dissent

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  1. You’ve used the expressions, “heartfelt joy in God through Christ…” and “… the Reformed follow[ing] the Heidelberg Catechism in writing about a warm-hearted, genuine faith and piety…” in your post above. Another relatively new and very worthwhile read on matters of the “heart,” what Scripture says about in relation to the mind, and how heart-felt faith is necessary for the Christian, contra a revivalistic, subjective “experience” may be found in Craig Troxel’s “With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ,” Crossway, 2020.

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