Religious Affections, the Fourth Sign
I found this chapter really helpful. I come from a non-reformed background, where the Scripture was used in just about every way imaginable, but seldom in the way in which God intended it to be used. This chapter has a lot to teach regarding everyday discernment, in the correct use of Scripture, in dealing with others, and our own hearts. It is often the case, within and without the Church, that we encounter people communicating with great passion, and as a result we can be moved, not necessarily by what is actually being said so much as by their forcefulness, and the variety of strong feelings evoked in us. It is critical that we be able to set aside, to the degree necessary for clear thinking, our strong emotional responses to communications that impact our lives, so that we can examine what is actually being said for its truth and value. It is also important to recognize that the people we interact with in our lives are often swayed by strong emotions, which may prohibit them from thinking clearly about any number of issues. We must be careful not to persuade, or be persuaded by, heavy-handed emotions. Strong emotion does not guarantee the rightness or wrongness of any idea or opinion, nor is it a reliable sign of true religious affection.
As Edwards says: "Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge. The child of God is graciously affected, because he sees and understands something more of divine things than he did before, more of God or Christ and of the glorious things exhibited in the gospel; he has some clearer and better view than he had before, when he was not affected.... Knowledge is the key that frst opens the hard heart and enlarges the affections, and so opens the way for men into the kingdom of heaven....
Now there are many affections which don't arise from any light in the understanding. And when it is thus, it is a sure evidence that these affections are not spiritual, let them be ever so high." In other words, if the emotion you are feeling isn't a direct result of a new or clearer understanding of God our Saviour, "the attributes or perfections of his nature", then those emotions/affections are not spiritual, just plain, run-of-the-mill fleshly feelings.
Now, to make this concept stand out more clearly, Edwards does what he so often does, provides contrasts. I often find it very helpful when he begins sweeping away the many things that are not true spiritual affections. As he clears those away it's easier to see what he's pointing at. Here are a a few examples: "...affections arising from texts of Scripture coming to the mind are vain, when no instruction received in the understanding from those texts, or anything taught in those texts, is the ground of the affection, but the manner of their coming to mind. When Christ makes the Scripture a means of the heart's burning with gracious affection, 'tis by opening the Scriptures to their understandings....it appears also that the affection which is occasioned by the coming of a text of Scripture must be vain, when the affection is founded on something that is supposed to be taught by it, which really is not contained in it, nor in any other Scripture; because such supposed instruction is not real instruction, but a mistake, and misapprehension of the mind". This speaks to any number of practices, but one that comes to mind is when a verse of Scripture "jumps out at someone" and is taken to be a promise from God speaking directly to the outcome of their specific circumstance. I read a book once by a woman who started her public ministry (which, by the way, would involve teaching mixed groups of women and men) on a certain date and month of the year because of a passage in the Old Testament which "jumped out at her" in which a certain event progressed on that day. She had taken that to mean that was a word from God as to when she should begin. That is clearly not what that passage was meant to be used for. As Edwards says, "...things be not to be learned from the Scripture any other way than they are taught in the Scripture."
Next is the one that really hit home for me, describing much of what used to keep me interested in my days as a false professor of faith: "...they ascribe many of the workings of their own minds, which they have a high opinion of, and are pleased and taken with, to the special immediate influences of God's Spirit; and so are mightily affected, with their privilege." This is the mindset of one who loves Shakespeare not because they love Shakespeare, but because of how smart it makes them feel that they can read and understand him. Then this mindset is applied to the Scriptures.
Further he says, "'Tis possible that a man might know how to interpret all the types, parables, enigmas, and allegories in the Bible, and not have one beam of spiritual light in his mind; because he mayn't have the least degree of that spiritual sense of the holy beauty of divine things which has been spoken of, and may see nothing of this kind of glory in anything contained in any of these mysteries, or any other part of the Scripture. 'Tis plain, by what the Apostle says, that a man might understand all such mysteries, and have no saving grace; 'And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing' (1 Cor. 13:2). They therefore are very foolish who are exalted in an opinion of thier own spiritual attainments, from notions that come into thier minds, of the mystical meaning of these and those passages of Scripture, as though it was a spiritual understanding of these passages, immediately given 'em by the Spirit of God, and hence have their affection highly raised; and what has been said shows the vanity of such affections."
So it is clear that Edwards goal here is discernment. He says, "...we come necessarily to this conclusion, concerning that wherein spiritual understanding consists; viz. that it consists in a sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things, together with all that discerning and knowledge of things of religion, that depends upon, and flows from such a sense.
At this point you may be getting the idea that this is all meant to be a cold, calculated, emotionless thing. Edwards anticipates that and moves on to quickly remedy that notion: "There is a distinction to be made between a mere notional understanding, wherein the mind only beholds things in the exercise of a speculative faculty; and the sense of the heart, wherein the mind don't only speculate and behold, but relishes and feels...more than the mere intellect is concerned; the heart is the proper subject of it....And yet there is the nature of instruction in it; as he that has perceived the sweet taste of honey, knows much more about it, than he who has only looked upon and felt of it."
Edwards then goes to some length to explain for us the right use of Scripture, which I found extremely helpful. Here's a snippet: "Spiritually to understand the Scripture, is rightly to understand what is in the Scripture, and what was in it before it was understood: 'tis to understand rightly, what used to be contained in the meaning of it; and not the making a new meaning.....This making a new meaning to the Scripture, is the same thing as making a new Scripture: it is properly adding to the Word; which is threatened with so dreadful a curse. Spiritually to understand the Scripture, is to have the eyes of the mind opened, to behold the wonderful spiritual excellency of the glorious things contained in the true meaning of it, and that always were contained in it, ever since it was written....Which things are, and always were in theBible, and would have been seen before, if it had not been for blindness, without having any new sense added by the words being sent by God to a particular person, and spoken anew to him, with a new meaning."
(all emphasis is mine)