Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, or some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge.

From the Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Part III, chapter IV.

Edwards has had the misfortune to be known almost exclusively for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which the public schools use to show what nut jobs the Puritans were. As with so many of the false teaching of our government schools, the case is quite different. Edwards is actually one of the more equitable and even-keeled thinkers in American history – besides being the best one.

Perhaps no where is his precise and unbiased thought better demonstrated than in the Religious Affections. He strives to find a middle way between the excessive, outlandish emotional outbursts of those caught up in the throes of the Great Awakening and the reactionaries who insisted that Christian practice go along without any religious zeal at all.

Part of the course Edwards charts is a distinction between the “holy affections” and the “affections” which are regular. The holy affections are those arising from true work of the Holy Spirit and affections are natural emotions caused by the fervor of revival or whatever other natural cause there might be.

In the quotation above Edwards shows that the Holy Affections come from understanding, which he earlier defines as a function of the reason. From this understanding. which he also calls spiritual instruction, light, or actual knowledge,  come forth the holy affections. Proper religious emotions, which are those manifested in loving others, in joy, in peace, etc., come from the mind.

So often in our culture, both Christians and unbelievers, set up the mind and heart against each other. They are bitter enemies; surely we would be happier with one dead and the other left standing. The scientist would, perhaps, choose the mind; and the lover or poet or artist would choose the heart.  The equitable Edwards reasonably pipes up: “Why not both? God made them both. Both are essential to the happy life.”

The way they work together is that the mind apprehends some insight. I suppose this would include both knowledge from reason and images. The first would be, say, an explanation of Substitutionary Atonement that would fire our hearts to love Christ more for His sacrifice. The second could be a picture of St. Francis caring for the lepers, St. Paul standing before Agrippa boldly for the Gospel, or Mary Magdelene anointing the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume. These godly thoughts and images create the holy emotions that characterize true Christian love and practice.

I, with Edwards, can see no ill coming from Christians today whose minds and hearts work in harmony to further the Kingdom of God in this earth. The image of a soul fighting against itself – heart vs. mind – must be elminated from the Christian consciousness and replace with the vision of the harmonious soul given by America’s best theologian, Jonathan Edwards.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Interesting … I haven’t read much of Edwards, but it appears I was totally mistaken about him.

    In contrast to Edwards I read this interesting article at the Mere Devotion blog … it seemed to say Dostoyevsky’s epistemology is the complete opposite of Edward’s.


  2. Do you think head and heart are necessarily opposed in the human soul, MakeLoveHappen? For Christians to flourish, do we need to decide, ultimately, between head and heart?

    I love Dostoyevsky. “Notes from the Underground” was a great read for me last year. He captures the angst of secularism quite well.



  3. There’s a big temptation to divide the rational, eternal categories of the mind from the feelings and immediacy of the heart … and then say, “That’s all there is.” And then people come and say, “Feelings are OK as long as they are led by rationality…” (See the Phaedrus and Lewis). And then the mind is equated to ‘what God bascially is’ (see Mere Christianity) … ‘I am my soul’ … and more nonsense like that.

    Insofar as the heart is the facilitator of feelings, it is deceitful above all things. Insofar as the mind is the facilitator of reason, it is the instrument Solomon writes that we should not lean upon.

    But God is spirit, and whoever lives by the spirit will succeed in bearing fruit and obedience toward God.

    The highest achievement of the mind is to think the very concept which cannot be thought (for surely mind has not conceived the extent of God’s love). And the highest achievement of the heart is not to direct itself partially here and partially there, but in entirity.

    The heart desires to relate, and the mind conceives the absolute, but the true obligation of God is spiritual: He requires an absolute relation to the absolute.


  4. I’m pretty sure you just dodged the question. Edwards, for instance, uses spirit and heart synonymously. He doesn’t think that there is a unique faculty of our souls that does spiritual stuff for us. Edwards actually thinks there are only two parts of the soul: the understanding and the heart (see the first few pages of Religious Affections).

    This discussion doesn’t seem able to go forward unless you can offer a more clear answer to my first question.

    Forgive me if I have misunderstood. But I beg you to clear up my misconception if this is the case.


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