Subjectivity in The Religious Affections

Rufus McCain
Jonathan Edwards Seminar
Winter 1990
Prof. Simonson

1. Subjectivity and Faith

In the present discussion of “subjectivity” in The Religious Affections, I want to veer away from a strictly psychological and emotional definition of the term, as Edwards veers away from a strictly emotional definition of “affections.” Perry Miller correctly points out that to call Edwards a subjectivist according to such a definition “is to leap with Chauncy to the facile conclusion that he was only a jesuitical sort of enthusiast.” I apply the term, rather, according to its more ontological root form, sub jacere, which literally means “throw under” and implies subjection to the authority or control of another.

In this sense of the word, the application to Edwards is readily apparent. Man is, in Edwards’s view, infinitely “thrown under” God’s “terrible majesty, infinite holiness and hatred of sin.” The theme of Edwards’s first published sermon is in fact the basic premise of his entire life’s work: “Man was dependent on the power of God in his first estate, but he is more dependent on his power now.” In his original state of innocence, man was at every moment subject to God for his sustenance and being. Yet even under such favorable conditions, God was in no way obligated to maintain man’s existence. Under the curse of Adam’s sin, however, man’s subjection to God becomes an even more tenuous and terrifying one. The unregenerate self hangs like a spider, as Edwards so unforgettably drew the image, “by a slender thread, with flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready at any moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.” Following from this same premise of man’s radical subjectivity and dependence, The Religious Affections is Edwards’s grand exposition of the nature of faith.

Edwards comes at the issue of faith indirectly and subtly, making no explicit mention of it until near the end of Part II. When he finally does refer directly to the question of “doctrines of faith,” his strategy becomes apparent:

And here I cannot but observe that there are certain doctrines often preached to the people which need to be delivered with more caution and explanation than they frequently are; for, as they are by many understood, they tend greatly to establish this delusion and false confidence of hypocrites. The doctrines I speak of are those of “Christians living by faith, not by sight”; “their giving glory to God, by trusting Him in the dark”; “living upon Christ, and not upon experiences”; “not making their good frames the foundation of their faith”; which are excellent and important doctrines indeed, rightly understood, but corrupt and destructive as many understand them (p. 103).

Edwards’s purpose in The Religious Affections is accordingly to lay a foundation from which to approach a correct understanding of the doctrines of faith. The text on which Edwards bases The Religious Affections affords him precisely the angle required to do so from the point of view of the affections: “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” (I Peter 1:80). Looming in the background of this text is the commonly quoted definition of faith from the 11th chapter of Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Also looming behind it are the questions raised by the rampant emotionalism which characterized the revivals of the early 1740s. Initially, Edwards sided with the emotionalists. Finally, however, Edwards used the experiences of the Awakening as a means of approaching the more fundamental question of man’s ontological status of which faith in God and Christ is the highest expression.

His defense of the emotionalist tendencies of the Great Awakening thus becomes, by the time Edwards sits down to write The Religious Affections, a defense of a certain “contention about the nature of man” and of faith, a corrective of rationalism and emotionalism alike. Both the Arminians and the antinomians tended to aggrandize man’s nature, the former in laying the stress on man’s rationality and the latter by laying the stress on man’s emotions. Edwards would bring the two sides together, thereby laying the stress on the self as an integrated whole existing in subjectivity to God. Faith originates therefore not in the soul’s ability to reach out to its object, either rationally or emotionally, but rather in the soul’s being grasped by God’s gracious operations upon it.

Here we come to that matter of central importance to Edwards’s thought, and certainly of central importance to The Religious Affections — namely the radical difference between the unregenerate and the regenerate self. In the first of his positive signs of gracious affections, Edwards clarifies the issue in the Pauline terms of spirit versus flesh. Spirit, as it is used in this context, is often misapplied to suggest a Manichaean denigration of the physical body. Edwards, however, reiterates the orthodox corrective of such an interpretation (p. 125). “Spirit” is subjectivity oriented towards God; “flesh” is subjectivity oriented towards the world and one’s self. Paul elsewhere states this dichotomy as that of faith versus sin; whatever is not oriented toward God, i.e. whatever arises not from faith, is sin. Both are acts of the total self. It is not a question of one faculty being more “spiritual” than another, but rather a matter of orientation.

Edwards describes this change in orientation as a “new spiritual sense” or even “a new simple idea” (p. 133), stressing however that it is nothing like the revelation of something new or secret to the understanding, nor some kind of Manichaean mystical dive into the divine. The regenerate self remains a completely human. The difference, as Edwards struggles to put it into words, is more like a new foundation which transforms and revitalizes the old nature:

This new spiritual sense and the new dispositions that attend it are no new faculties, but are new principles of nature. I use the word principles for want of a word of more determinate signification. By a principle of nature in this place, I mean that foundation which is laid in nature, either old or new, for any particular manner or kind of exercise of exercise of the faculties of the soul; or a natural habit or foundation for action, giving a personal ability and disposition to exert the faculties in exercises of such a certain kind; so that to exert the faculties in that kind of exercises may be said to be his nature. So this new spiritual sense is not a new faculty of understanding, but it is a new foundation laid in the nature of the soul for a new kind of exercises of the same faculty of understanding. So that new holy disposition of heart that attends this new sense is not a new faculty of will, but a foundation laid in the nature of the soul, for a new kind of exercises of the same faculty of will (p. 134).

Gracious operations upon the soul do not by any means relinquish man’s condition of subjectivity, but rather result in a new and transformed subjectivity.

2. Subjectivity and Indifference

Although Edwards is ultimately concerned with the total self as an integrated whole, he begins The Religious Affections by delineating the soul into two faculties: “one is that by which it is capable of perception and speculation, or by which it discerns, and views, and judges of things; which is called the understanding” (p. 24). According to the terms of the present discussion, what Edwards identifies as understanding might be termed the soul’s faculty for objective speculation. The other faculty is that of subjective involvement, “by which the soul does not merely perceive and view things, but is some way inclined with respect to the things it views or considers.” In this second faculty of the soul — to which Edwards proceeds to apply the terms will, inclination, and heart — consists the exercise of the affections; and in such exercise consists the essential life of the soul:

Take away all love and hatred, all hope and fear, all anger, zeal, and affectionate desire, and the world would be in a great measure motionless and dead; there would be no such thing as activity amongst mankind, or any earnest pursuit whatsoever (p. 29).

This is the further sense in which man’s condition might be described as essentially that of subjectivity. The self, whether regenerate or not, is subject not only to God’s will, but is also subject to everything it encounters in reality insofar as it is a responsive creature, responding in one way or another to whatever it encounters. Remove that capacity and what you have left over is stagnancy and death.

Objectivity is presupposed as a mere starting point, an initial and prerequisite capacity by which the self is able to perceive that which it then must respond to according to its will or inclination in an exercise of the affections. To stop at objectivity is, humanly speaking, to cease to exist.

Implicit in Edwards’s discussion of the two faculties of the soul, then, is an argument concerning man’s proper attitude toward reality. Is it properly an attitude of objectivity or one of subjectivity? Clearly Edwards answers on the side of subjectivity, though not the merely emotional subjectivity of the anti-intellectual romantic or emotionalist, but something more radically ontological. Norman Fiering is correct in saying that Edwards is “no Schleiermacher or Kierkegaard, writing out of disillusionment with rationalist metaphysical systems.” Nonetheless one cannot help but see in Edwards’s thought a foreshadowing of that disillusionment and a kinship with the existentialist strain of protestant theology which had its most pronounced beginning in Kierkegaard. We find nothing in Edwards that quite compares to Kierkegaard’s bitter scorn of the Privatdocent, or objective-minded man. Yet Edwards was capable of deriding the efforts on the part of “learned men” in eighteenth-century apologetics toward making the gospel objectively “reasonable”:

Learned men tell me these histories were so and so attested in their day; but how do I know that there were such attestations then? They tell me there is equal reason to believe these facts, as any whatsoever that are related at such a distance; but how do I know that other facts which are related of those ages are true? Thus endless doubts and scruples will remain …. There are at least nineteen in twenty, if not ninety-nine in a hundred, of those for whom the Scriptures were written, that are not capable of any certain or effectual conviction of the divine authority of the Scriptures by such arguments as learned men make use of (p. 230).

Kierkegaard, writing a century later under the pen of Johannes Climacus, said much the same thing — though with a with much greater vehemence toward what had become as he saw it a much greater peril — in terms of an “objective uncertainty.” Objectively, the individual always arrives at uncertainty which ultimately leads to the stagnancy and death of Edwards’s hypothetical purely objective world. Therefore, Kierkegaard formulates subjective man’s ability to grasp truth as follows: “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.” In Edwards’s terms, Kierkegaard’s “appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness” is roughly equivalent to that sense or relish of the heart in the exercise of gracious affections towards God. Such a subjective and intuitive engagement with divine excellency, in contrast to the “endless doubts and scruples” of objectivity, according to Edwards, goes “beyond all mere probability” (p. 231). The attitude of strict objectivity is that of indifference, whereas “that religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference” (p. 27).

3. Subjectivity and Hypocrisy

Edwards’s answer to the question of preparation for grace is essentially consistent with the Reformed orthodox position. As Pettit formulates it, “the Reformed understanding of St. Paul had led to an extreme emphasis on the utter depravity of man and his inability in any way to influence God or to predispose himself for saving grace.” Gracious operations are a matter of God’s inscrutable sovereign — and, to us, arbitrary — will. Yet the very fact that Edwards is writing The Religious Affections as a kind of manual for the prevention of hypocrisy (p. 124), suggests the possibility of a kind of negative preparation, if we can call it that. The preparation for grace is simply to be oneself and not pretend to be any thing else. It is the moral of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter: “Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” Paradoxically, both sin and grace inhere within the exercise of the affections; that is, in the subjective life of the individual. Therefore an attitude of subjectivity and sin become the paradoxical preparation for grace. One is reminded of Luther’s admonition to “sin boldly.” The gospel speaks to the soul is that is thus established subjectively.

Yet Edwards’s concern with hypocrisy suggests there is a kind of false subjectivity which can afflict the soul. When the soul turns towards the world of sensuality and pleasure, that is one kind of subjectivity which is sin — Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic damnation.” When the soul is converted and turns to God, it establishes a new subjectivity. In both cases the soul is responding to something external to itself. The false subjectivity of hypocrisy arises when the soul becomes enamored with its own responses:

The joy of hypocrites is in themselves…. What they are principally taken and elevated with is not the glory of God, or beauty of Christ, but the beauty of their experiences. They keep thinking with themselves, What a good experience is this! What a great discovery is this! (p. 177).

This, says Edwards, is a kind of bastardization of true experiential religion, wherein the experience itself — and not the thing experienced — becomes the object of affection. Hence Edwards’s distinction between “lively imaginations arising from strong affections, and strong affections arising from lively imaginations” (p. 217). The former suggests a subjectivity oriented outward, the latter a false form of subjectivity reflected in upon itself. In the worst case scenario, the result of such an orientation of the soul is a condition of hypocrisy which “is indeed deplorable, and next to those who have committed the unpardonable sin” (p. 124). The underlying point is that there is a distinction, even in the state of sin, between honesty and dishonesty, between a genuine and a false subjectivity.

4. Subjectivity and Humility

In diametrical opposition to the selfishness and pride which characterize hypocrisy, Edwards sets the humility of the true saint. Humility, in the terms of this discussion, marks the defining characteristic of genuine subjectivity. Edwards’s makes yet another distinction in this case, however, which is critical to his notion of the will. Humility can take one of two forms: legal or evangelical. The former has to do with conscience and the ultimate despair of the unregenerate, whereas the latter has to do with the voluntary abasement of the saint:

In a legal humiliation, the conscience is convinced, as the consciences of all will be most perfectly at the day of judgement; but because there is no spiritual understanding, the will is not bowed nor the inclination altered: this is done only in evangelical humiliation. In legal humiliation, men are brought voluntarily to deny and renounce themselves; in the former, they are subdued and forced to the ground; in the latter, they are brought sweetly to yield, and freely and with delight to prostrate themselves at the feet of God (p. 238).

In this passage, we discern what Breitenbach refers to as Edwards’s movement “toward an increasingly voluntaristic explanation of religious psychology.” Later, in his Freedom of the Will, Edwards was to present a monumental argument defending the Calvinist notion of necessity as not incompatible with what he states here as the voluntary abasement of the soul. The point I am stressing here, however, concerns the nature of humility itself, whether it be legal or evangelical. In either case, humility defines a condition of subjectivity as the self relates to God.

5. Subjectivity and Practice

Thus far we have defined subjectivity as it applies to The Religious Affections as a condition of the total self as it is situated in relation to God and the world. Subjectivity in this sense involves a fundamental unity and responsiveness of all of the functions of the self or soul. Thus at the outset of part I, Edwards stresses the absolute link between the affections and the will:

The will, and the affections of the soul, are not two faculties; the affections are not essentially distinct from the will, nor do they differ from the mere actings of the will, and inclination of the soul, but only in the liveliness and sensibleness of exercise (p. 25).

This definition lays the groundwork for what Edwards sees as the chief sign of gracious affections, that is “Christian practice” (p. 308). Edwards’s vision of the radical integration and subjectivity of the self leads directly to this conclusion. If man is essentially a responsive, integrated unit, then his outward practice if examined discerningly will reveal his inward inclination. In this sense, as David Jacobson convincingly argues, Edwards can be seen as a predecessor of American pragmatism: “His theory of affections adumbrates a pragmatic logic, which implicates the demands of reason and will in a broad theory of action.”

Edwards’s is preeminently a Christian pragmatism, however, originating in very words of Christ concerning false prophets: “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). Thus Edwards’s vision of man, though he may rely on Lockean terminology in articulating it, has its ultimate ground in the Bible and the image of man presented there. Hence Edwards’s insistence that gracious affections are not “heat without light” but rather originate in connection with some knowledge or “light” of revelation. So, too, in this connection does Edwards demand that true faith issues not merely in good works alone; profession of faith must also accompany those works. Making a complex allusion to Revelation and Exodus, Edwards shows how the relationship between profession and practice is typified in the pomegranates (knops) and flowers on the golden candlestick in the temple:

There was a knop and a flower, a knop and a flower: wherever there was a flower, there was an apple or pomegranate with it: the flower and the fruit were constantly connected, without fail…. So it is in the church of Christ: there is the principle of fruit in grace in the heart; and there is an amiable profession, signified by the open flowers of the candlestick; and there is answerable fruit, in holy practice, constantly attending this principle and profession (p. 322).

For Edwards this is finally the ultimate expression of man’s integrity and subjectivity, that when he is converted from a state of sin his entire self responds. A total expression arises from that “new sense” of the moral excellency and beauty of God and Christ. The new self feels, thinks, speaks, and acts as an expression of the radical alteration that has occurred at the very foundation of its being.

Part of the beauty of The Religious Affections is that the structure of Edwards’s argument reflects the image of man presented therein, moving as it does from the inner to the outer, finally to arrive at Christian practice as the chief outward signification of the inward reality. At the outset, insofar as he is able, Edwards goes to the very heart and soul of man to find the principles of unity and subjectivity there. The fundamental premise is that man is emphatically not the self-reliant creature Emerson would have him be, but rather totally reliant on God for everything. Nor is man merely an aggregate of his various roles and faculties, but rather an integrated whole whose ultimate purpose is to relate to God, not merely intellectually or merely emotionally, but with the fullness of his being. Man is by nature subject to, or “thrown under” God’s majesty; or, as Edwards was later to formulate it, man’s being is ultimately subject to Being in general. That condition of subjectivity can be man’s bane as he is crushed under God’s holiness and majesty; or man’s glory as his affections are transformed and he is made a participant in God’s glory.


Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (William Sloane Associates, 1949), p. 189.

It is this more ontological sense of the word that Niebuhr suggests when, commenting on Edwards’s conception of faith, he calls it “the activity of the whole man, of intellect and will, of mind and body.” H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row Torchbook Edition, 1959), p. 111.

Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), p. 84. Subsequent references to this edition are noted in the text.

Edwards, “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence,” in Selected Writings of Jonathan Edwards, Ed. Harold P. Simonson (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1970), p. 53.

Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in Selected Writings, p. 107.

Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards, p. 179.

The following quotation from a 20th-century American novel makes Edwards hypothesis sound more prophetic than hypothetical: “For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead. It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say.” Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Avon, 1960), p. 83.

Norman Fiering, “The Rationalist Foundations of Edwards’s Metaphysics,” Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. Hatch & Stout (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 78.

For example: “A ludicrous stiff solemnity and an air of paragraph-importance that gives a Docent a striking resemblance to a bookkeeper out of Holberg, is what the Docents call seriousness.” Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 250.

Kierkegaard, Postscript, p. 182.

Norman Pettit, The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 2.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (Indianapolis: Ohio State University Press, Centenary Edition, 1962), p. 243.

For a provocative discussion of the notion of news as a category of knowledge which depends upon man’s subjective situation, see Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), p. 119.

William Breitenbach, “Edwards and the New Divinity,” in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. Hatch & Stout (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 184.

David Jacobson, “Jonathan Edwards and the ‘American Difference’,” Journal of American Studies, 21:3 (1987) p. 384.

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