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What is “true” religion?

[This is a guest post by Felicia Wetzel. Felicia is an M.A. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

Remember the context in which Edwards writes. In the wake of the revivalism of the Great Awakening, Edwards felt compelled to articulate the distinction between true and false religion in a much more thorough and pointed way than he had done in his previous works, such as in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Edwards outlines twelve signs that indicate genuine religious affections, those signs that indicate genuine conversion. Not only do they serve as tests or standards of genuine piety, but they are themselves the very substance of the religious life. Affections serve as a kind of sign post indicating the direction of one’s soul, whether it is toward God in love or away from God toward the world. These are as follows.

First, affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural and divine. Second, the objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest. Third, those affections that are truly holy, are primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things. Or (to express it otherwise), a love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency, is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections. Fourth, gracious affections do arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things. Fifth, truly gracious affections are attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things. Sixth, gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation. Evangelical humiliation is a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart. Seventh, gracious affections are attended with a change of nature. Eighth, truly gracious affections tend to, and are attended with, the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; or in other words, they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ. Ninth, gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit. Tenth, truly gracious and holy affections are beautiful in symmetry and proportion. In the truly holy affections of the saints is found that proportion which is the natural consequence of the universality of their sanctification. Eleventh, gracious affections, the higher they are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments increased. Twelfth, gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice. Their lives are universally conformed to and directed by Christian rules.

Edwards’ purpose in outlining these twelve signs is to test affections within one’s self, not to distinguish true from false affections in others. Further, he is primarily concerned with those operations of the Spirit which are saving in the heart of the individual.

One of the difficulties that I have encountered while reading Edwards is maintaining a clear understanding of what he means by his distinctions between such things as understanding, inclinations, will, heart, affections, etc. In all of his ability to maintain sharp distinctions between such concepts, it seems that he might run the risk of losing the unity and integrity of the human soul, or the self. This might not be that major of a point, however, considering the fact that throughout his argumentation these distinctions often times lose their sharpness.

Critical observations of Edwards aside, I am more interested in what you guys believe to be the signs of genuine “gracious affections.” In my paper, after I consider the twelve signs of genuine religious affections, I plan to describe them and then move to articulate what I believe to be the fundamental signs of a genuine believer. To begin our discussion, What do you believe to be the fundamental marks of a true believer? How would you answer the overarching question that Edwards sought to answer, “What is true religion?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

How’s your religious knowledge (aka Are you smarter than an atheist?)

By now you’ve probably heard about the survey that recently demonstrated that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most religious people do. (If not, you can read the full report here. NPR also discusses it here.) Now, you can take the quiz for yourself. Answer this brief 15-question survey and see how your religious knowledge compares to the population as a whole.

The 50 Most Influential Religious Figures in American History

Joe Carter has published his list of the 50 Most Influential Religious Figures in American History. I won’t reprint the list here, but it’s an interesting list. Unfortunately, he gives the list in alphabetical order. I would have liked to see him try to rank these people in order of influence/significance. That’s always an impossible task, but it’s fun to watch people try.

I did notice some surprising omissions.

  • American liberal theology was noticeably underrepresented. What about William Ellery Channing, Harry Ward Beecher, and Harry Emerson Fosdick?
  • And, since we’re talking about American religiosity in general, where are the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau?
  • What about U.S. Hispanic religious leaders? Certainly figures like Padre Martinez or Virgilio Elizondo are worthy of consideration.
  • And, of course, let’s not forget Gary Larson. I think my generation learned more about religion from the Far Side cartoons than any of the above combined.

Is there anyone that you would want to see included in a list like this?