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May 27

Edwards on Preaching for Revival

2009 | by Ryan Kelly | Category: Clarus 09,Quote,Recommended Link

In our recent Clarus weekend, on “The Convergence of Doctrine and Delight,” several references were made to the thought of Jonathan Edwards and especially his work, Religious Affections (which you can read online for free, or purchase in hardcopy, or you can start with Sam Storms’ excellent summary of it).

Though less famous, Edwards several works on The Great Awakening (nicely combined in Vol. 4 of the Yale edition of his Works) are perhaps equally important for this themeespecially The Distinguishing Marks of Revival (1741) and Some Thoughts Concerning Revival (1742).

Here are a few exemplary paragraphs from the latter work on the relationship of “light” (truth) and “heat” (affections) for preaching:

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: by which means, it is objected, that the affections are moved without a proportionable enlightening of the understanding.

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 probable 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; and that apprehension must either be agreeable to truth, or else be some mistake or delusion; if it be an apprehension or notion that is agreeable to truth, then it is light 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 in 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, 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. An 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.

Though as I 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.

Some Thoughts Concerning Revival, Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 4, The Great Awakening (Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University, 2008), pp. 385-388.