Every believer interested in making discerning judgments about spiritual experiences ought to read Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. It is a balanced, careful, and mature work by the man known as America’s greatest theologian. Edwards had defended the Great Awakening against its detractors, and then he had watched abuses and weirdness spread and had warned enthusiasts about the dangers of delusion. In The Religious Affections, having watched both extremes, Edwards stakes out a position of integrity from which he can provoke the frozen chosen and reject the flaming crazies. That takes time to develop. It takes lots of pages.
In fact, it takes 382 pages in the most affordable edition of The Religious Affections from Banner of Truth. In our great books cycle of readings here at Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, we read the whole book and discuss it socratically for six hours of class time. But if you can’t make time for the whole thing, here is a reading guide. It gets the reading assignment down to 125 pages, arranged in 7 bite-sized portions of about twenty pages each –ideal for book discussion groups. The page numbers refer to the Banner of Truth edition that we use in Torrey. The text is also available for free online here and here, which might work fine for private use, but for group discussion you really need to be literally on the same page.
1: Introduction. Pages 15-35. This is Edwards’ Preface, an argument “Concerning the Nature of the Affections,” and the first four lines of argument supporting Edwards’ contention that true religion lies very much in the affections. This section ends with the memorable passage, “they who would deny that much of true religion lies in the affections, and maintain the contrary, must throw away what we have been wont to own for our Bible, and get some other rule by which to judge of the nature of religion.”
2. Unreliable Signs. Pages 54-69. The first four things that are not reliable signs of gracious affections: That they are raised very high, have effects on the body, make you talk about religion a lot, or seem to come out of the blue. The remaining not-signs are also great, but these 20 pages give you a taste of how Edwards will handle the tricky issues of discernment.
3. First Sign: Divine Influence. Pages 120-138. Introduction to the positive signs, and the first sign: Gracious affections are brought about by supernatural and divine influence. These pages only give you about half of the first sign, but the second half is mostly illustration and elaboration of key points he has already made.
4. Second Sign: For God’s Sake, Not Self-Interest. Pages 165-179. The second sign is that gracious affections are oriented toward the excellence of divine things in themselves, not in relation to self-interest.
5. Third Sign: The Beauty of God. Pages 179-192. The third sign is that gracious affections are founded on the beauty or moral excellency of divine things.
6. Fourth Sign: Illumination. Pages 192-217. The fourth sign is that gracious affections arise from the mind’s spiritual illumination. (Signs five through eleven are great, and raise some of the most interesting epistemological questions, but if you have to choose, it seems to me that signs one through four get you to the heart of what Edwards is doing.)
7. Final Sign: Christian practice. Pages 308-327. The twelfth sign is the longest, covering 74 pages (308-382) if you read it in its entirety, and it is grievous unto me to cut some of it out (especially Edwards’ classic treatment of faith and works!). But these first pages state the principles, recapitulate and apply the previous eleven signs (!), and ground it in evocative scriptural proof.
(Aside to Torrey Honors students: Of course you’ll be reading the whole book, but you can get more out of it by focusing your energy on these 125 strategically important pages.)