The affections in Puritanism

In a previous post we looked at the centrality of the affections in the Reformation. In this post we explore the importance of the affections in Puritan spirituality. Future posts will explore the link between affections, emotions and change.

Richard Baxter considered love to be ‘the master passion of the soul’ and delight to be ‘the most powerful, commanding affection, and the end of all the other passions’. John Owen says: ‘Affections are in the soul, as the helm is in the ship; if it be laid hold on by a skilful hand, it turneth the whole vessel which way he pleaseth.’

Some of the early Puritans were shaped to some extent by Aristotle and so they had a strong emphasis on the will, habit and spiritual disciplines. But later Puritans were more shaped by Augustine and the Reformers so they gave a stronger place to the Spirit enlightening the heart to the glories of Christ. William Fenner explicitly distinguishes Puritan thought from that of Aristotle:

The affections are the forcible and sensible motions of the heart, or the will, to a thing, or from a thing, according as it is apprehended to be good or to bee evil … I know Aristotle and most of our Divines too, place the affections in the sensitive part of the Soul, and not in the will, because they are to be seen in the beasts. But this cannot be so, for a man’s affections do most stir at a shame or disgrace.

In other words, the affections are not mere animal passions subject to the will. They are integrated with the will. In The Practice of Piety Charles Hambrick-Stowe concludes: ‘Puritanism was as affective as it was rational.’ He cites the Puritan Thomas Shepard: ‘I have seen God by reason and never been amazed at God. I have seen God himself and have been ravished to behold him.’

Jonathan Edwards offers perhaps the sharpest exposition of a Puritan view of the affections in The Freedom of the Will. Edwards argues that the will is not independent. It is integrally bound up with our understanding and affections. In particular, the acts of the will arises from the affections. We always do what we want to do.

Because of sin our affections are disoriented they no longer want to do what is right. We do not sin because of some natural necessity. We are not made to sin against our will. There is no gun against our head or hand over our hand forcing us to sin. but we do sin out of a moral necessity because our will always follows our affections and our affections are misplaced. So the freedom of our will and our bondage to sin are entirely compatible.

This is essentially an Augustinian view of humanity. The difference (which is really no difference at all) is this: According to Augustine, we always choose what we love, while according to Edwards, we always do what we want to do.

The mind and the affections are in a dynamic relationship, each affecting the other. The affections are influenced by the mind in the sense that we desire what we perceive to be desirable. But the mind also justifies what the affections desire. We suppress the truth in our wickedness, for example (Romans 1:18). Together they drive the will. But ultimately the affections are supreme.


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