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The Synod of Whitby

They Synod of Whitby (664) has long been held to be a watershed moment in the life of the Celtic church. Long the object of Roman evangelistic effort, Ireland finally fell sway to the call of the gospel through St. Patrick, a Briton enslaved amongst the Irish for years. Before the Synod of Whitby, two traditions existed side-by-side within Ireland. Though the same gospel and doctrine was preached, the rituals and monastic practices varied between those in the Roman tradition and the Celtic traditions of worship.

The spark that led to the Synod of Whitby does not seem to be a matter of grave importance to the modern Christian, especially if he is a Protestant. However, it was of chief concern to a country who was at odds with the rest of the world in matters of Christian practice. As such, there was a great deal of national pride and identity interwoven with doctrine, as the Celtic Fathers had a tradition at variance with that of Rome. To renounce the Celtic ways was, seemingly, a judgment upon the piety of their saints.

The two cornerstone issues debated at the Synod of Whitby were that of tonsures and the date of the celebration of Easter. The Celtic tonsure consisted of a straight line shaved between the ears, with all of the hair forward of the line shaved and the hair grown free to the back. The Roman tonsure was that of the traditional “monk” haircut, a pattern imitating a crown of thorns, thought to be derived from the traditional practice of Peter. As for easter, the Celtic church originally celebrated the day on the fourteenth of Nissan. This practice changed to being celebrated on the Sunday between the thirteenth and the twentieth of the same month. The Romans celebrated it on the Sunday that fell between the fourteenth and the twenty-first. This was a matter of importance to the church because the thirteenth was before the feast of the passover, and therefore seen as being outside of the boundaries of when the church ought to celebrate the resurrection.

The Synod of Whitby was called by King Oswy to settle the affair. Oswy’s wife Eanfled held to the tradition of the Romans, while the king himself followed the Celtic traditions. This was a cause of embarrassment to the royal family, for the household would find the Queen feasting while the King was still fasting for the sake of their overlapping calendars.

Leading the case for the Celtic Christians was Colman, the well-respected Irish bishop of Lindisfarne. Opposite him stood Agilbert, a Frankish bishop of some renown. The presiding King Oswy offered Colman the opportunity to speak first. Colman appealed to the tradition of the Irish fathers, which descended from John to Polycarp and later inscribed in a work known as the Liber Anatolii. How could, Colman argued, the apostle who was loved of Jesus and lay on his breast during the Passover have been mistaken in celebrating Easter on the fourteenth?

The floor was given to Agilbert, who shrewdly requested to have his protege Wilford present the case. Wilford, unlike Agilbert, spoke the language of the court and was not only a brilliant and ambitious theologian but a man with a flair for statesmanship. Like Colman, Wilford also appealed to the patterns and traditions set down by the Apostles, including John. In Wilford’s mind his opponents, though sincere, misunderstood the teaching of John.

Continuing to speak, Wilford delivered a devastating line of questioning accusing the Celtic church to be opposing the doctrine of the Apostolic See, upbraiding them for believing that the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch and Alexandria and Rome all erred in their celebration of Easter while the truth was maintained by a small ethnic group tucked away in the furthest reaches of the Empire. Though Columba, a revered saint amongst the Celtic church, taught a different Easter than the Roman church, it was not Columba who was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. When Peter and a local hero differ, it is Peter who ought to be given primacy.

King Oswy understood this line of reasoning clearly. Those who refused to submit themselves to the teachings of Peter might find themselves cast out of the kingdom of God for their intransigence. While Columba and the other revered Celtic fathers had observed Easter on the improper date, theirs was a sin of ignorance. For the listeners at Whitby, that ignorance had been lifted and could not be overlooked. Oswy issued his ruling with the words, “[Peter] is the door-keeper, who I will not contradict, and will as far as I know and am able, in all things to obey his decree, lest when I come to the gates of heaven, there should be none to open them, he being my adversary who is proved to have the keys.”

Oswy’s decision did not all at once shift the entirety of Ireland over to the Roman cause, though it broke the power of the autonomous Celtic tradition. Underlying the issue of tonsures and the date of Easter was the far greater clash of power between the Roman monolith and an independent Christian tradition. Even at this early date, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession was wielded with heavy hands, with the threat of being found opposing Peter being a terrifying proposition for King Oswy.

It was nothing new for the church to find itself in a discussion about the proper date of Easter. Polycarp found himself at odds with the bishop of Rome, with neither of them able to convince each other of the rightness of his own tradition. Though there was disagreement, the date of Easter was understood to be a tertiary issue of minor importance to the Christian faith. Polycarp and the bishop maintained a friendly relationship full of fellowship despite their differences. This example was not followed at the Synod of Whitby by Wilfred, who used intimidation and threat of Apostolic disfavor to convince those in authority of the rightness of his cause.

The wisdom of Oswy’s decision at the Synod of Whitby has been much debated by historians. Some see it as a necessary and good decision, unifying a fractured people under a common tradition. Others see it as a disastrous capitulation to the power of Rome, erasing any hope for an independent tradition outside the orbit of Roman authority. What cannot be argued is the damage done to the state of Celtic Christianity in its aftermath.

Colman understood his King’s decision guaranteed the ultimate death of an independent Celtic tradition. While many of his compatriots began to celebrate in the Roman manner, Colman assembled his monks and moved to the far western coast of Ireland. There he lived in simple seclusion, building a pair of monasteries for his English and Irish followers. The exodus of these spiritual leaders coupled with the onset of a plague which killed the majority of the remaining monks and bishops decapitated the spiritual leadership of the Celtic church and led to the decline of the Irish missionary movement.

Wilfred, though victorious, lost the affection of the public. He was ordained an Irish bishop, but returned to his native France for five years. Upon sailing back to Ireland to take up his post, he discovered another man had been ordained in his absence. Wilfred became an irritant to Oswy’s successors, and spent the majority of his time in exile or prison under the lead of King Egfried.


Edwards and Demons (Part V)

This is part five of a series on Jonathan Edwards’ thought regarding the active work of Satan in the world. 

Jump to:

Edwards and Demons Part I
Edwards and Demons Part II
Edwards and Demons Part III
Edwards and Demons Part IV

This satanic guidance of culture is not the primary battleground between good and evil in the physical, human realm. Culture exists as an amalgamation of a million individual persons. These million individual persons, for Edwards, are of chief importance, for though societies will be judged, it is individuals who are the responsible agents and bearers of that judgment. Societies are not cast into hell; individual men, women and children are.
The question of one’s own relation to God is the most important discussion a man may have with himself. As such, it is natural to expect that the greatest point of demonic influence in the soul consists of attempting to delude an individual of his or her relation to God. The Scriptures bear witness to the intentional work of the demonic realm in an attempt to counteract the work of the gospel inside the particular human heart. In Jesus’ parable of the sower, Luke identifies the “birds of the air” who came and snatched away the seed along the path as the devil, with the result that “they may not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). Paul charges the Corinthian believers to beware for, “In their case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4) Again Paul writes, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Edwards writes, “[T]he devil can counterfeit all the saving operations and graces of the Spirit of God . . .” (253). At the heart of the work of the devil is counterfeiting and deception. He is indeed the father of lies. Deception is a difficult concept to consider, for according to the very definition, those that are deceived do not know that they are indeed deceived. The moment deception is realized, it is no longer deception but insanity. Matthew 7:21-23 is a chilling passage bearing witness to the existence and eternal fate of those who are convinced of their own reconciliation before God, but who are not known by Him.
In order for deception to be a reality, the one deceived must be deceived through means. He must be given something that mirrors that which he is seeking in order to be convinced that he has the real thing, and that substitute must produce the happiness and assurance that he is expecting to derive from the real thing. Though a counterfeit will never be of the quality of the genuine object, to the individual who has never known the delight of the genuine, the benefits received from the counterfeit may very well convince them that they possess the genuine object.

Edwards writes,
[I]t must be observed, that a natural man may have religious apprehensions and affections, which may be, in many respects, very new and surprising to him; and yet what he experiences, be nothing like the exercise of a new nature. His affections may be very new, in a very new degree, with a great many new circumstances, a new co-operation of natural affections, and a new composition of ideas. This may be from some powerful influence of Satan, and some great delusion. (267)

A counterfeit gospel will always produce affections, otherwise it would have no power to first entice, and then retain. Natural men are always slaves to their own quests for happiness, whether Pascal’s man upon the noose or the shadowy sexual tryst. As we have noticed earlier, there are a thousand ways to remain in rebellion to the Lord, yet only one road that heralds a change of kingdoms. Satan does not care which one of the thousands paths his slaves travel, so long as they are blind to the highway that leads to freedom.

A man who converts from the predominant secular naturalism of American culture to Islam will have “religious apprehensions and affections’” that are indeed “very new and surprising to him.” And yet, that man still will have no greater grace within him after as before. Likewise, a man may believe himself to be converted to Christianity from the same cultural milieu, while having only transferred himself from one of the devil’s battlefield trenches to another, all the while believing himself to be liberated because of the change of scenery. The psychological effects of having a cause to fight for are a powerful thing, and to a man unacquainted with true Christianity may appear to be the same thing. One’s perception of reality does not necessarily equate to reality itself.

Edwards and Demons Part IV

This is part four of a series on Jonathan Edwards’ thought regarding the active work of Satan in the world. 

Jump to:

Edwards and Demons Part I
Edwards and Demons Part II
Edwards and Demons Part III


Any discussion about the work of Satan must first begin with the character and nature of Satan. Just as God’s activity is necessitated by his character, so too Satan’s activity is necessitated by his character. Edwards writes,

The true beauty and loveliness of all intelligent beings primarily and most essentially consist in their moral excellency or holiness. herein consists the loveliness of angels, without which, not withstanding all their natural perfections, they would have no more loveliness than devils. . . . But though the devils are very strong, and of great natural understanding, yet they are not the more lovely. They are more terrible, indeed, not more amiable; but on the contrary, the more hateful. The holiness of an intelligent creature, is the beauty of all his natural perfections. . . . Herein consists the beauty and brightness of the angels of heaven, that they are holy angels, and so not devils. (279)

Included in Edwards’ discussion of “devils” is the chief devil, Satan. He is loathsome because of his lack of moral excellency, as are the angels who followed him in his rebellion. By equating “holiness” with “moral excellency,” Edwards intones that opposition to God is indeed opposition to moral excellency and holiness. Satan’s chief work is the opposition of that which is holy or morally excellent. God himself is pure holiness, and those who are holy are aligned under the lordship of God and actively promoting his purposes. Those who are not holy, who oppose moral excellency, strive against all that is morally excellent. As God is allergic to sin, Satan is allergic to goodness. Satan’s greater knowledge and sight of the holiness of God does not drive him to repentance, but rather even greater rage and rebellion.

Consequently, there is no master plan for the universe in the mind of Satan. He is not a jaded rival ruler, ousted by weak allies and bad fortune. He is a usurper whose coup failed, whose eternal doom is sure. Satan desired to be god, and that plan failed; all that he has left now is the active opposition of God. Satan’s work is always destructive, against the plan of God. When the demons possessed the Gadarene, they drove him to self-mutilation. When they were permitted release into the pigs, they immediately cast the swine down the embankment to their watery deaths. Demon possessed children are cast into fire or water in an attempt to destroy them. When given power over Job, Satan immediately destroys all of his possessions, servants and family. The Lord specifically places an injunction that Satan cannot kill the man, demonstrating that Satan’s intent would have been to kill Job along with the rest, even though this would not have advanced his purposes of testing Job’s trust in Yahweh. Cultures untouched by Christian influence have historically been worlds of murder, violence, cannibalism, sexual predation, loneliness, rebellion, suicide and the affirmation of those who practice such evil.

Since Satan’s chief goal is the unraveling of the good, the avenues he may have his children travel are far greater than those available to the children of God. There may be only one way to wire a building according to electrical codes, but there are a thousand ways to do it incorrectly. While only the belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ for salvation will save a man, legalism and license may both damn a man. Satan’s kingdom is advanced by the homosexual, and by the woodsman who enforces his own self-conceived notion of frontier justice on the homosexual with his Remington SP-10 Magnum.

Edwards pictures the Devil’s work within “the world” as being a work in harmony with the prevailing winds of culture. The preceding years had brought the fire of revival into the life of New England culture, and Edwards had the opportunity to observe reactions to that great work of the Spirit. He writes,

If persons did but appear to be indeed very much moved and raised, so as to be full of religious talk, and express themselves with great warmth and earnestness…it was too much the manner, without further examination, to conclude such persons were full of the Spirit of God, and had eminent experience of his gracious influences. This was the extreme which was prevailing three or four years ago. (243)

The height of the Awakening brought with it a fringe element which came to see bodily and emotional effects as proof of a work of the Spirit of God. This fringe element sadly began to permeate the majority of the work and ultimately, according to Edwards, quenched it.

In response to seeing many of those who had demonstrated such great manifestations of what was supposed to be grace plunging headlong into ruin, the winds of culture shifted back to the opposite stream of thought, that such excitable responses to religious things could not be a mark of the Spirit. Edwards continues, “But of late, instead of esteeming and admiring all religious affections without distinction, it is much more prevalent to reject and discard without all distinction” (243).

Edwards clearly does not attribute this swing to a reactionary spirit, but to Satan:

Herein appears the subtilty of Satan. While he saw that affections were much in vogue, knowing the greater part were not versed in such things, and had not much experience of great religious affections, enabling them to judge well, and to distinguish between true and false; then he knew he could best play his game, by sowing tares amongst the wheat, and mingling false affections with the works of God’s Spirit (243).

Satan did not sail against the prevailing winds of culture in an attempt to hinder the Great Awakening, but rather set a parallel tack, using the existing thoughts, desires and sensibilities of the people as a medium for deception.

This pattern is seen throughout the pages of church history. The Christians who had seen prior generations be fed to the lions and used as human torches rejoiced when Constantine declared their religion to be permissible to practice. However, it was a scant amount of time before permission became obligation enforced by a sword. Likewise, the reforms of Luther and other theologians who dared defy Papal authority reintroduced the gospel to the German people.  However, this spirit of liberation quickly led to the bloody Peasant’s Rebellion, where thousands of Catholics and Protestants perished together.

Edwards does not expand this discussion to the prevailing winds in the culture outside of the church, perhaps because of the heavy ties between the church and government in New England and the centrality of the church in social life. In his context “the world” existed within the church, primarily due to the designs of church polity embrace by both his predecessors and, for a time, himself. However, the principles he has laid down certainly lend themselves to be expanded to the larger culture as a whole. The post-Enlightenment landscape of western thought decries any thought of the demonic as being superstitious. This is suitable to Satan, for wars are the easiest to win when one side denies the existence of the enemy. Meanwhile, the animistic religions of Africa see far greater direct demonic activity within the physical sphere. The faithful adherents to those religions are convinced of the deadly power of demons, and in this they are right; the world is “demon-haunted.” Satan will happily use this fear to bind animistic cultures under his dominion while using blindness to his reality to enslave the people of western cultures.

Edwards and Demons (Part III)

This is the third part of a series on Jonathan Edwards’ thought regarding the active work of Satan in the world.

Jump to:
Edwards and Demons Part I
Edwards and Demons Part II


Many of the specific signs which are presented as positive distinguishing marks are very similar to the ideas Edwards dismantled in Part Two. The below chart distinguishes three examples:

No Evidence (Part 2) Evidence (Part 3)
Persons did not excite them of their own endeavors (Sec 4) Arise from those influences and operations on the heart which are supernatural and divine (Sec 1)
Persons having religious affections of many kinds, accompanying one another (Sec 6) Naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy as appeared in Christ [Sec 8]
They make persons exceeding confident        (Sec 11) Attended with a conviction of the reality and certainty of divine things (Sec 5)

The distinguishing factor in each of these cases is one of motivation or object, and sometimes both. That a man did not have his affections excited by his own endeavors does not mean they are divine, for God is not the only supernatural being. Likewise, a man may be confident in himself by counterfeit grace as well as saving grace, but saving grace produces confidence that is founded in the person and work of Christ, not in the self.

Rounded out by the remainder of the factors, Edwards makes clear that grace which is counterfeit is naturally motivated by self-exaltation and personal gain rather than a response to the greatness of the person of God. This mercenary spirit is love to self, desiring blessings, rather than a love to God, desiring to magnify him because he is worthy of magnification. Thus, for example, true affections are attended by a self-abasing humility, while counterfeit humility desires to be seen and therefore have honor brought upon it.

This is a razor-thin trail of truth to walk upon. There is only one gospel by which we might be saved by, and it is a narrow and difficult way. The possibilities of delusion are very real, with catastrophic results for the blind traveller. We live in a culture that ignores the presence of the demonic, a spirit of the age that has heavily influenced the church. For the majority of believers, there most likely would be no little or no change in their practical Christianity if all of the references to the demonic element were deleted from the Scriptures. Even within “reformed” circles, we often focus upon self-deception to the exclusion of demonic deception, treating self-deception as though it was merely the construct of an individual mind isolated from any outside influence. Though self-deception ultimately is located in the self, that does not mean that there are no unseen powers pacifying the conscience and insulating that self-deception from opposition.

The Scriptures portray three broad categories which oppose the work of the Spirit. First is the intrinsic antagonism towards God within the fallen nature, inherited through Adam’s rebellion in the garden.  In Psalm 51:5 David laments that his own opposition to God began even before his own birth: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Peter urges those who have been saved and sanctified by Christ to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Pet 2:11). James likewise attributes the believers’ quarrels to “passions at war within you” (Jas 4:1). Though regeneration reverses the totally corrupt nature, it does not eradicate every rebel strand of thought and will. The fallen nature continues to wage guerrilla war against the conquering power of God. There is nothing external in this category, but rather it provides a friendly partner for the demonic cooperation.

The second category is the rather intangible concept of “the world.” The book of 1 John offers the most detailed treatment of this category in the Scriptures, making statements such as “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions – is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). There is a cunning power behind this system who constantly incites its continued rebellion against the Lord for, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).

Satan does not influence the world only as a catalyst but also as a ruler. He is evil and directly does evil, but he is also a mastermind conspirator moving all of his servants to cooperate with his opposition to Christ’s kingdom. Jesus does not dispute Satan’s authority claims over this world during the temptation in the wilderness. Paul writes of blinded unbelievers, “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers . . .” (2 Cor 4:4). To the Ephesians he writes regarding ungodly actions, “in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2).

The third category is the individualization of the second. Beyond being the governing authority (though illegitimately so) behind the world, Satan also is depicted in the Scriptures as a direct interactive agent in the world. The serpent encountered by Eve in the Garden was no mere reptile, but Satan Himself taking the body of a snake. Luke writes of the temptation of Christ as being a direct conversation between Jesus and Satan, though he does not elaborate if Satan appeared as a corporeal being or whether the conversation existed on a metaphysical plane. Perhaps most terrifying of all, Paul declares during a conversation about the existence of false apostles masquerading as righteous teachers, “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14).

Edwards and Demons (Part II)

This is part two of a series exploring Jonathan Edwards’ thought about Satanic delusion in the hearts of believers and unbelievers. All page numbers reference Religious Affections in Hendrickson’s The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1 (Jump to Edwards and Demons: Part I).

Part 2 of Religious Affections consists of Edwards detailing “what are no certain signs that religious affections are truly gracious, or that they are not” (245). Much of this material builds upon his Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, published in 1741. The rhetorical structure of each proposition discussed elucidates Edwards’ position as both a great supporter of the revival, and a great critic of the excesses to which the revivalist spirit was taken. A sampling of his subject matter reveals that Edwards is greatly concerned about the emphasis on flamboyant emotion and practices as proof that a work is produced by regeneration, or that such flamboyance is proof that it is not a work of the Spirit.

    • It is no sign, one way or other, that religious affections are very great, or raised very high (245).
    • It is no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they do not, that they have great effects on the body (246).
    • It is no evidence that religious affections are saving, or that they are otherwise, that there is an appearance of love in them (250).
    • It is no certain sign that affections have in them the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they dispose persons to spend much time in religion, and to be zealously engaged in the external duties of worship (255).

Central to all of Edwards’ considerations is a tremendous skepticism of the heart’s ability to discern its own state before the Lord. Because of the guilt incurred by man from the fall, every man is possessed by a desperation towards delusion in an attempt to justify himself before the tribunal of his own conscience. Natural man desires to believe himself either to be free from the claim of the law or to be justified before the Law. Add to this the malicious work of Satan, whose work is described in Scripture as work of deception and blinding, and there is ample reason for such skepticism.

Given that Edwards has defined true religion as “in the great part, consist[ing] in holy affections” (236) which are indistinguishable from actions as ordered by the affections-informed will, the conclusion of Part Two leaves us in a difficult position. Edwards has categorically and methodically argued against judging spiritual health by perception of religious affections, yet he speaks of affections as proved by the actions. To solve this dilemma we must understand that a man’s perceptions of reality and reality itself may be two very different objects. The role of Satan as a counterfeiter will be explored in the second half of this paper, but at this juncture we must understand that it is precisely this tension that Edwards is attempting to solve. The world is not a simplistic environment where all is as it seems. Actions are the greatest proof of affections, but in a world of counterfeits, a man must be willing to diligently study every facet of his actions to seize a glimpse of the nature of his affections.

It is in Part Three that Edwards turns to this, “showing what are distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections” (262). Edwards quickly places two caveats that the reader must keep in mind. His propositions are not infallible guides, for Edwards acknowledges that hypocrites will most likely twist anything to convince themselves of their own favorable state. He writes,

I am far from undertaking to give such signs of gracious affection, as shall be sufficient to enable any certainly to distinguish true affections from false in others; or to determine positively which of their neighbors are true professors or hypocrites. . . . No such signs are to be expected, that shall be sufficient to enable those saints certainly to discern their own good estate, who are very low in grace, or are such as have much departed from God, and are fallen into a dead, carnal, and unchristian frame (262, 263).

In our modern day, we typically think of assurance as a synonym for positive emotions confirmed by deep introspection. To be assured of something means to be at peace regarding it, to be convinced because of a lack of emotions suggesting the contrary. Emotions, not deeds, are proof of saving grace. While this model does positively guard against works-righteousness salvation, it also serves to convince those without grace that they possess it because they have no feelings to the contrary. Edwards finds this emphasis upon introspection as contrary to the way Scripture evaluates assurance.

It is not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way, than by mortifying corruption, increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it. And although self-examination be a duty of great use and importance, and by no means to be neglected; yet it is not the principal means, by which the saints do get satisfaction of their good estate. Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination as by action.

There is a violence in assurance that is not often bespoken of in contemporary thought. Mortification of sin is the principal demonstration of saving grace, as said in Proverbs 8:13, “The fear of Yahweh is hatred of evil.” Counterfeit will not be intent upon mortifying that which feeds it, for all false work is ultimately fed by evil desires. There may be the appearance of mortification in a false work by shifting sin from one category to another, but a work of grace will see mortification touch every category of thought and deed.

Edwards and Demons (Part I)

I’ve fielded a few requests to publish a paper I wrote as my final project in Jonathan Edwards class. Religious Affections has been a book that’s endured for a reason. Edwards wrote it that men may have assurance of their salvation through understanding the difference between authentic and counterfeit religious affections. I wrote my paper exploring the role of Satanic delusion in convincing men that they are saved when they are not. Writing this paper opened my eyes to see how pernicious, malicious, and vile Satan truly is. The first half of the paper investigates Edwards’ major themes throughout Religious Affections, and the second half is focused on Satan’s work in our lives and the lives of unbelievers. I’ll be posting this in several pieces over the next week.

Affections are tricky things. Since the Enlightenment, the domain of the word has continued to shrink, beaten back before the onslaught of scientific rationalism, utilitarianism and a natural humanism skeptical of metaphysics. A shell of what it used to be, “affections” remains within the English language as little more than a placard for romantic feeling. This is not the understanding Jonathan Edwards brought to the word “affections,” and we must come to terms with his further reaching use of it if we are to comprehend his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.

This weightier understanding is made clear from the very beginning of the treatise, as Edwards declares his thesis to be that “[T]rue religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (236).  Seeing that a great deal hangs in the balance with how the word is defined, Edwards writes, “Here it may be inquired, what the affections of the mind are?–I answer, The affections are no other, than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul. . . .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, but only in the liveliness and sensibility of exercise” (237).

While the connection between the will and the affections is primarily reserved for discussion in The Freedom of the Will, it is essential to grasp that “affections” are to be understood as all of the motivating factors that lead to action. Indeed, actions are proof of the reality and strength of the affections. Every action is the result of a cause, and the cause that motivates action is the sum of all the warring loves within the soul. A man will do what he loves and nothing else. Paschal agrees in his Pensees: 

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

If it be the sight of the excellency of Christ and the greatness of God that captivates the heart, a man will endure immense suffering because his love for Christ outweighs his love of avoiding pain. If his chief desire is self-preservation, a man will avoid doing any action or believing any principle that he perceives will bring upon him a great deal of risk to his person. What causes our highest delights will be that which we sacrifice all else to preserve.

To support his thesis that love to God is the essence of all true religion, Edwards cites a number of texts and inferences. The Shema and greatest commandment do not consist of knowledge or duty, but rather that “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh alone. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). The eventual exile was not predicated by a failure to adhere to the ritualistic sacrificial code (Amos 5:21-23), but rather by hardness of heart (Ezek 3:7), a theme repeated by Jesus in his continual rebuke of the Pharisees (Mark 3:5). While the Israelites’ cultic practices may have seemed to be authentic worship upon a superficial first glance, the deadness of their hearts unstirred by love to Yahweh rendered such actions moot. Though actions may be done by counterfeit, the motivation of the action determines if they are counterfeit or not, as love to God is the motivation behind all acts which are outworkings of genuine religious affections.

Restored and Restoring

The disciples did not know that it would be the last question they would ever ask of Jesus. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Many things had come to pass that this little band of dusty men would have never expected. The fresh wine of Jesus Christ had burst the old wineskins of their expectations. The Messiah was rejected. The Messiah was crucified. And the Messiah rose again. Now, with all of these unexpected detours finally accomplished, Jesus’ friends turn to him again and ask the one question that has dominated their thinking since the very beginning of their ministry with him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The answer is yes. The kingdom has been restored to Israel. But the identity of the Israel to whom the kingdom has been restored is different than the disciples imagined. They have put together some pieces of the puzzle correctly. As they walk away from the temple, fresh threats of the rulers and elders ringing in their ears, they quote David in asking “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?” (Acts 4:25). The lips breathing forth lies were not uncircumcised, but circumcised. The disciples identified the elders and the chief priests as Gentiles, as people in opposition to God’s purposes of redemption. The kingdom has been restored, but to the Israel of God, not the Israel of flesh.

The new identity of the kingdom is a work in progress for the early church. Ethnic enmities do not die quickly. Upon his return from the house of Cornelius, Peter finds himself immediately accosted by members of the circumcision party, contending that it was evil for him to have gone and eaten with the uncircumcised. Years later Paul would put into clear theological terms what those Jewish believers came to understand that day, that “we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3). Indeed the conversation between Peter and the rest of the apostles in Acts 11 marks a turning point in the book of Acts, for then it is discovered that, “[T]o the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

Not only did the disciples misunderstand the identity of Israel to whom the kingdom was being restored to, they also did not grasp the nature of the kingdom itself. As Pilate investigates Jesus regarding the Jews’ charge that he claimed kingship over Caesar’s domain, he receives the reply, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). It is telling that Pilate entirely believes Jesus’ words. He might be deluded, but he is not the kind of man who would lead an insurrection to overthrow the Roman empire.

But Jesus’ kingdom is not benign as Pilate would dream it. Though it is not of this world, neither is the ultimate kingdom behind Pilate’s own. When offered all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship, Jesus does not dispute Satan’s claim to dominion and possession of the nations. Satan is the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2) and “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). For the kingdom of God to advance, the kingdom of Satan must be beaten back. Jesus had given his followers a taste of their coming ministry in Luke 10. As they return triumphant from watching demonic oppressors melt before he declared, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Through the work of the person of Christ the kingdom of God has been guaranteed victory. Satan has been unmasked as usurper and deceiver. What the disciples finally came to understand was their role in this victory: Go therefore, and be restoring.