Sunday, May 20, 2012

Signs that Are No Signs

Jonathan Edwards begins his Religious Affections by stating that he wants to distinguish the saving, gracious operations of the Holy Spirit from the common workings of the Spirit or any other operations in the human mind that do nothing to effect salvation. In other words, his goal is to show “wherein true religion does exist.” Soon afterwards, he presents his general thesis: “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” From there, his plan falls into three parts: defining affections (a section I posted about last week), pointing out features of the affections that indicate neither the presence nor the absence of the Holy Spirit’s gracious operation, and pointing out features that do indicate the Spirit’s grace.

Part II of the book presents a series of attributes of religious affections and arguments for each one – arguments both from reason and from Scripture – showing that the affections of both the saved and the unsaved can display these attributes. To begin with, the great intensity of religious affections is no sign of either true belief or mistaken belief. And sure enough, we’ve all witnessed or taken part in religious arguments between people of contrary views (at least one of which logically must be wrong) in which both parties displayed intense passion. Edwards goes on to speak of other attitudes and actions equally irrelevant to truth: the tendency to talk often of religious matters, the seemingly spontaneous appearance of religious experience, the appearance of love, the progression from sorrow to joy, zeal for worship rituals, confidence, and so on.

By detailing everything that doesn’t serve the main thesis, this section outlines the negative space that surrounds the subject, and as it goes on and on, it eventually appears that the canvas has very little room left for its central picture. But this empty passage does deliver a positive message: all these things we treat as solid actually have no depth. Reading through the litany of signs that are no signs has the same effect as walking on to a stage in the middle of the day with all the lights on and a theater full of empty seats: all the sets that last night seemed three dimensional and rich with history now prove flat and hastily constructed. But every attribute Edwards discusses reminds me of someone I have known (sometimes of myself), usually someone who comes off as trying too hard. Ah, we all mean very well, don’t we.

At the end of this section and the beginning of part III, Edwards backs off some from his original goal by saying that the distinguishing marks of the affections wherein true religion does exist can only be described, not demonstrated. In fact, one of the ambiguous signs listed in part II is the acceptance of a person’s religious activity by a multitude of true believers. Well, Edwards can’t very well explain how to discern the real thing when one of his tenets is that not even the experts can discern the real thing. At first, this reneging seems disappointing. But he can’t possibly have an ultimate answer, because if he did, humans would have the ability to judge the eternal state of other humans. So I’m actually relieved to have been disappointed.

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