Jonathan Edwards championed the idea of authentic Christianity as dis-interested, and he made the argument in one of his profoundest books, The Religious Affections. It took me years to grasp his reasoning, more years to appreciate why he belabored the point, and only recently have I picked up on his implications for the digital age.
The Enlightenment world Edwards inhabited was an age of practical sciences and groundbreaking discoveries. He lived through the early era of a coming technological jackpot. A science-driven pragmatic age was gestating, and Edwards could feel the fetal movements.
This pragmatic age would bring massive changes in how people read the Bible, applied the Bible, and Instagrammed the Bible.
Edwards was concerned that people would read promises like Luke 12:32, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” as if those words were “immediately spoken from heaven to them.” The words in the gospels would become “sweet” but only because “they think it is made to them immediately,” and “all the sense they have of any glory in them, is only from self-love, and from their own imagined interest in the words: not that they had any view or sense of the holy and glorious nature of the kingdom of heaven, and the spiritual glory of that God who gives it” (W2:221).
He arrives here by making the argument that no promise of Scripture was made to anyone alive today. We cannot embrace Scripture’s promises too quickly, and certainly not because someone else has said we are an inheritor of the divine promises. Edwards’s experiences in the froth of revival led him to conclude that even Satan can manipulate people to think the Bible is a book of blank banknotes of personal blessings to be grabbed, rendering down the glorious God of the universe into a Pez dispenser of gifts and blessings.
So is there ever a personal application of Scripture to a saint? Yes, Edwards affirms, but not because someone else makes the claim. This conformation is a distinct work of the Spirit, “a spiritual application of the promises of Scripture, for the comfort of the saints, consists in enlightening their minds to see the holy excellency and sweetness of the blessings promised, and also the holy excellency of the promiser, and his faithfulness and sufficiency; thus drawing forth their hearts to embrace the promiser, and thing promised; and by this means, giving the sensible actings of grace, enabling them to see their grace, and so their title to the promise” (W2:224–25).
Where the Spirit is active, the Promiser is always greater than the promise. This was a priority Edwards feared would be lost as preaching and revival moved toward man-centric themes and approaches.
This coming shift in pulpits was riding the wake of the Enlightenment, a social shift that changed how millions defined happiness and pursued it. Once considered in the hands of God and in fate, or a divine reward for obedience, Enlightenment thinkers came in and said no, grab for happiness, change the fate, “change these things — change ourselves — and we could become in practice what all were intended to by nature be” (McMahon, Happiness, 13).
But the foundational work of God in the soul is not discerned in the grab for a gift or even for a rescue, it’s found in a soul that apprehends the beauty of the promise and the glory of the Promiser. Aesthetic appreciation of the King precedes the joy of holding the title to the kingdom. “And this is indeed the very main difference between the joy of the hypocrite, and the joy of the true saint. The former rejoices in himself; self is the first foundation of his joy: the latter rejoices in God” (W2:249).
In other words, saints “first rejoice in God as glorious and excellent in himself, and then secondarily rejoice in it, that so glorious a God is theirs: they first have their hearts filled with sweetness, from the view of Christ’s excellency, and the excellency of his grace, and the beauty of the way of salvation by him; and then they have a secondary joy, in that so excellent a Savior, and such excellent grace is theirs” (W2:250).
On the other hand, hypocritical professors “take more comfort in their discoveries than in [the] Christ discovered” (W2:252).
The dichotomy is clear for Edwards: “The grace of God may appear lovely two ways; either as bonum utile, a profitable good to me, that which greatly serves my interest, and so suits my self-love; or as bonum formosum, a beautiful good in itself, and part of the moral and spiritual excellency of the divine nature” (W2:262–63).
Self-interested religion, that uses the gospel “to serve a turn,” to serve some felt-need or pragmatic purpose as an end in itself, falters and eventually fails to lead toward a life of self-sacrificing holiness. Self-interested religion contradicts selfless sacrifice, as Paul was aware (Phil. 2:21).
Thus, “what makes men partial in religion is, that they seek themselves, and not God, in their religion, and close with religion, not for its own excellent nature, but only to serve a turn [a purpose and end in itself]. He that closes with religion only to serve a turn, will close with no more of it than he imagines serves that turn: but he that closes with religion for its own excellent and lovely nature closes with all that has that nature: he that embraces religion for its own sake, embraces the whole of religion” (W2:394).
Faith as pragmatic expedience is empty and stunted.
Faith that is aesthetic is whole and embracing.
So what has Edwards to do with technology?
Only recently did I notice the connection here, made by Yale editor John E. Smith (in 1959!).
“As we contemplate the renewal of interest in religion, we must not fail to apply these criteria,” Smith says of this dis-interest, in the introduction to the Edwards volume. “What permanent change is taking place in the depths of the self and with what consistency will it show itself in practice? More likely than not the vast majority of cases will be unable to pass the test. And one of the principal reasons for the failure is to be found in our by now well-established tendency to view everything as a technique used by the human will to conquer nature and master history. Edwards had seen this source of corruptions, and he had attacked it through the doctrine of divine love as disinterested. Religion is genuine and has power only when rooted in a love which does not contemplate its own advantage. Religion becomes false at just the point when we attempt to make it into a device for solving problems” (W2:51).
The gospel is not good because it’s useful for fixing life. The gospel is glorious because it reveals the beauty of God. So if I mainly embrace God’s kingdom because it means I get a bigger house in the end, I don’t understand the kingdom, because I’ve missed the beauty of the King.
Tell me Edwards didn’t see Freud coming with a therapeutic model of understanding all things, indeed of validating all things to the standard of immediate personal applicability.
Tell me Edwards didn’t foresee a pragmatic gospel (“Believe because it works!”).
Tell me Edwards didn’t see me-centered worship music coming.
Tell me Edwards didn’t see the prosperity gospel coming.
Tell me Edwards didn’t see lifehacking apps coming.
Edwards (the postmillennial) celebrated social progress, economic development, trade, and he “welcomed technological advances” while also understanding that “selfishness — self-interest, self-promotion, self-centeredness” governs in a fallen world (Edwards Encyclopedia, 85).
Speaking of anything “serving a turn” was the 18th century lingo of lifehackery. In the age of micro-apps and our well-established tendency to view everything as a technique used by the human will to conquer nature and master history, and where we are addicted to shortcuts and technologies of simplicity and expediency that promise to order our lives, we are led to think of everything in life in functional and pragmatic terms.
In every generation you will find doubting Christians, who have a taste for God’s glory but who need pastoral help to embrace the promises of Scripture for themselves. Edwards’s counsel may prove counterproductive for such souls. But he’s on to something really important for us all to note.
We must resist the temptation to transpose spiritual truth down to mere use — techniques, technologies of expediency, shortcuts of self-interest. We must fundamentally pray for an appetite for God in his radiant and holy beauty, for it’s in the aesthetics where the genuine work of God’s Spirit is to be first discerned inside us.