Ryan Martin, regular contributor to Religious Affections Ministries, has successfully defended his dissertation. His Ph.D. will be conferred officially on May 11, but (for what it’s worth) he can already claim to be Dr. Martin. As with most dissertations, Ryan’s title was long and convoluted: “‘A Soul Inflamed with High Exercises of Divine Love:’ Affections and Passions in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards.” And as with most dissertations, the title is really the dissertation in miniature.
During recent decades, the authority of Jonathan Edwards has been invoked for all sorts of oddities. Perhaps the most egregious instance occurred when Guy Chevreaux used Edwards’s notion of religious affections to justify the excesses of the so-called Toronto Blessing. Chevreaux’s appropriation of Edwards, however, seriously misunderstands the Edwardsian categories of affection and passion.
At a lesser level, so do popular treatments of Edwards by John Piper, Sam Storms, and Mark Talbot. The flaw in these writers is that they largely equate the modern category of emotions with Edwards’s category of affections. The result is a confusion that imports far more into Edwards than he would have countenanced.
The category of emotion is, in terms of the history of ideas, relatively recent. It was largely invented by Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Brown in his Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind. A true modernist, Brown was attempting to find a way to explore scientifically the phenomenon of interior human experience. For Brown, emotions were not activities of the intellect, but merely passive feelings. What Brown brought together under a single category (emotion) overlapped but did not duplicate several earlier categories under which theologians and philosophers had examined the activities of the soul. Of course, to a materialist, any talk about “activities of the soul” is sheer nonsense: how can the soul engage in activities if there is no soul?
The result of Brown’s proposal is that a new category, emotions, rather quickly displaced a whole series of older categories that included both affections and passions. The history of this transition has been traced rather nicely by Thomas Dixon in his work From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge, 2003). Piper, Storms & Co. have taken over Brown’s category of emotions and superimposed it upon Edwards’s notion of affections. The result is that they have made a bit of an anachronistic hash out of Edwards’s own understanding and writing.
Where did Edwards get his categories? Some have suggested that he invented them ad hoc, perhaps to respond to Charles Chauncey’s attack upon the Great Awakening. Others have suggested that he adapted them from John Locke. What Ryan demonstrates is that Edwards was standing in the historic Christian tradition of understanding. In other words, the Edwardsian categories were nothing new: Edwards was simply repeating the consensus that Christian thinkers had shared for more than a millennium and a half.
Ryan’s argument is detailed and far-reaching. He begins his examination of passions and affections in the church fathers, travels through the Middle Ages, lingers over the theologians of the Reformation, devotes particular attention to the Puritan and Reformed theological tradition that Edwards inherited, examines Edwards’s collegiate reading, his exposure to Locke, and his argument with Chauncy, then surveys the concepts of affections and passions throughout the corpus of Edwards’s writings.
Ryan is taking his Ph.D. from Central Baptist Theological Seminary. For many years, Central Seminary has stressed the importance of including outside readers on dissertation committees. A competent outside reader who is an expert in the field can help to ensure the credibility of a doctoral dissertation. Ryan and the seminary were fortunate enough to be able to secure the participation of Kenneth Minkema, executive editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards and of the Jonathan Edwards Center & Online Archive at Yale University. Minkema also holds appointments as Research Faculty at Yale Divinity School and as Research Associate at the University of the Free State, South Africa. In the world of Edwards scholarship, few voices carry more weight than Minkema’s.
What Ryan has done is to correct a widespread but unfortunate misunderstanding of Edwards. He has restored the distinction between affections and passions and invested considerable effort in recovering the historical Christian understanding of both terms. One could certainly hope that his dissertation will provide a hedge against the too-facile applications of Edwards that some evangelicals, under the impression that Edwards was simply encouraging emotional expression, have made. Ryan’s dissertation has significant implications for ministry and methodology. Perhaps he can be coaxed to share some of that information in a more popular format.