Thoughts on "Thoughts on Religious Experience"?

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Having been thinking about "religious experience" and the Great Awakenings, I am curious as to your thoughts on Archibald Alexander's Thoughts on Religious Experience. I tended to notice among Edwards and his followers, like Piper, they tend to place a high view on the emotions and experience that at times it (if not always) becomes the defining mark of true conversion and piety. I am suspicious of such views and think, more often than not, that its pervasive influence on evangelicalism is destructive, especially among the charismatics. What are Dr. Alexander's views? Is he more restrained?
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
I have not read it, but my pastor told me recently that it’s one of the greatest books he’s ever read. I know that’s not helpful to you in terms of content, but my pastor’s recommendation means something, in my opinion.
 
Last edited:

VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
Having been thinking about "religious experience" and the Great Awakenings, I am curious as to your thoughts on Archibald Alexander's Thoughts on Religious Experience. I tended to notice among Edwards and his followers, like Piper, they tend to place a high view on the emotions and experience that at times it (if not always) becomes the defining mark of true conversion and piety. I am suspicious of such views and think, more often than not, that its pervasive influence on evangelicalism is destructive, especially among the charismatics. What are Dr. Alexander's views? Is he more restrained?
Low cost way to find out: https://www.monergism.com/thethresh...on_Religious_Experienc_-_Archibald_Alexan.pdf

I just saved it for my reading list.
 

jwithnell

Moderator
Staff member
Funny, I've been in discussions here locally on the topic. Dr. Alexander's work might be valuable reading.

Am I correct in assuming you've read Jonathan Edward's work on religious affections? Also, George Marsden does a good job at considering the awakenings in their historical context.
 

Brett

Puritan Board Freshman
A friend gifted this book to me recently. I've only read the first six chapters so far. However, I already feel like I need to reread what I've read so far to better understand it. As much as experiences like repentance, hope in Christ, joy in worship, etc. are foundational to the Christian faith, I think it's hard to understand or explain what exactly is the new heart the Holy Spirit gives us.
Each chapter of the book is organized by topic like spiritual effects in children, spiritual experiences of the depressed, how does witnessing others worship effect emotions, etc. Basically, Alexander usually explains some foundational principles, tells a story or a few, and then spends time psycho-analyzing the people of the story.
So far at least, Alexander hasn't gone into a dogmatic, systematic theological argument on how exactly emotions play into conversion or how his beliefs differ from Edwards. Alexander seems sympathetic to revivals as far as I have read so far. I would say he is restrained though, arguing that a lot of experiences people think to be holy are instead just inventions of the mind.
 

RPEphesian

Puritan Board Junior
It's an excellent book. Read and digest it.

Truth and emotions are to be close friends. In the Christian life, there should not be one without the other, as truth is meant to teach our emotions as well. It is right that we feel certain ways about certain things, and respond emotionally a certain way to certain things.

The chapter on depression was a great help to me years ago.
 

CathH

Puritan Board Freshman
Having been thinking about "religious experience" and the Great Awakenings, I am curious as to your thoughts on Archibald Alexander's Thoughts on Religious Experience. I tended to notice among Edwards and his followers, like Piper, they tend to place a high view on the emotions and experience that at times it (if not always) becomes the defining mark of true conversion and piety. I am suspicious of such views and think, more often than not, that its pervasive influence on evangelicalism is destructive, especially among the charismatics. What are Dr. Alexander's views? Is he more restrained?
In Recovering Mother Kirk, DG Hart presents Archibald Alexander as someone whose 'roots were in the revivals of eighteenth-century Virginia' (p192) and who himself 'led' a revival in winter 1814-15 (p191). (I knew I'd re-read this recently when I was looking in this book for something different, it's only taken me this long to hunt it down again to reply to this thread!)

This makes Alexander suspect in Hart's presentation because (as far as I understand Hart's position) he refuses to recognise a distinction between 'good revivals' and 'bad revivals' because for him 'revival' per se prioritises the unusual and dramatic over the ordinary, and puts emotions and experience in the driving seat. Hart pitches 'conversion' against 'catechism' and presents it as misguided to demand that before children who have been baptised and catechised can make a credible profession of faith, they must demonstrate that they have been through 'the crisis of conversion.' (p192)

However, in Thoughts on Religious Experience, Alexander comes across as balanced and thoughtful, and he speaks to many of the things that Hart is so concerned about.
* He warns that experience often degenerates into enthusiasm, and that the ardour/intensity of feelings is immaterial (pxviii, BOT 1967)
* He says it does not matter whether someone is brought into a state of grace gradually or suddenly (p15)
* He spends several paragraphs on the pitfalls of 'giving a testimony' (everyone within a denomination gives strikingly similar testimonies, people generally don't have either the discretion or the humility to give an accurate account of how God has worked in their souls, it remains impossible for anyone to judge on the basis of a testimony whether someone is genuinely converted, it tends to foster spiritual pride...) (p29-30)
* He has a chapter on 'sympathy,' or what we might call 'social contagion' - extravagant ecstatic or hysterical responses affecting whole congregations under emotional preaching - which he deplores (Chapter 5)
* He demonstrates that it is not necessary to go through a crisis conversion (p99) and instead places more value on things like resting on God's way of salvation by Jesus Christ and being attracted to God's ordinances (p102-105)

I have found a lot of value in DG Hart's critique of revivalism and the excessive emphasis on emotions and experience in Edwards and his putative followers like Piper. On the other hand, I have sometimes thought that Hart's polemics work best as a corrective, rather than something programmatic that you could implement to live by.

So If we do like Alexander, and anchor the treatment of experience to truth, this is a big safeguard against giving emotions/experience too high a prominence. We are in fact emotional creatures, we do have psychological experiences, and it would be unrealistic and irresponsible to airbrush this out of religion altogether. But it's the truth that matters, and the impact of the truth on our whole persons (including but not restricted to our emotions).

Alexander, pxviii: "... genuine religious experience is nothing but the impression of divine truth on the mind, by the energy of the Holy Spirit ..."
p105: "... holy affections thus produced by the contemplation of truth are the very opposite of enthusiasm, which always substitutes human fancies or impulses for the truths of God, which it uniformly undervalues."
 

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
I have found a lot of value in DG Hart's critique of revivalism and the excessive emphasis on emotions and experience in Edwards and his putative followers like Piper. On the other hand, I have sometimes thought that Hart's polemics work best as a corrective, rather than something programmatic that you could implement to live by.
I really appreciate your analysis! It sounds very balanced.

I also like Hart et al as a corrective at times but, I also wonder if he might steer and veer the other way with 'pietism' as a frequent pejorative. Though, I am beginning to understand how culturally we, the church at large, are infected with revivalist tendancies.
 

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Funny, I've been in discussions here locally on the topic. Dr. Alexander's work might be valuable reading.

Am I correct in assuming you've read Jonathan Edward's work on religious affections? Also, George Marsden does a good job at considering the awakenings in their historical context.
I had forgotten to reply to you. I have been perusing through it, yes. Now, I know Mardsens work on the liberal fundamentalist controversy and his bio on Edwards, that I have not yet gone through, but is his work on the Awakening in the latter?
 

jwithnell

Moderator
Staff member
I most re
I had forgotten to reply to you. I have been perusing through it, yes. Now, I know Mardsens work on the liberal fundamentalist controversy and his bio on Edwards, that I have not yet gone through, but is his work on the Awakening in the latter?
I most recently went through "A Short Life" again and he gives insight into the awakening. A good deal of thought is given to the influences of the enlightenment on Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin which I found somewhat contrived because the men never met. For a quick read or a younger audience this small book works. I'd have to look again at the large volume (it's been a few years) but I can't imagine Prof. Marsden skipping over the topic.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
I agree with Jonathan Edwards: there is a difference in understanding that honey is sweet and actually tasting it. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Our religion must be experiential.
 

RPEphesian

Puritan Board Junior
1 Peter 1:8 - Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory:

If anything, we often feel far too little.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
And the question that I have been basically asking is how much of it is emotional? Is lack of emotion a hallmark of 'dead orthodoxy.?
It is hard to judge the amount of emotion in another person. Or to even quantify it at all. I might be quiet, but I am clapping on the inside. But we know that believers delight and rejoice in the Lord, however that looks for them.
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
I agree with Jonathan Edwards: there is a difference in understanding that honey is sweet and actually tasting it. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Our religion must be experiential.

For those who might not accept this because it comes from Edwards, it bears pointing out that Hugh Binning used the same illustration and made the same point before Edwards did.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
I always have a laugh to myself when I read people complaining about experimentalism. Reading or listening to their comments is itself an experience, albeit not always a good one. Granted, the emphasis on experience may be taken too far but you cannot read the Bible - and especially the book of Psalms - and seriously believe that it does not advocate religious experience.
 

kodos

Puritan Board Junior
Have more heart and read less Hart. The psalms have already been mentioned, but the love of the disciples for Christ is palpable when you read the Word.

I hope every Child of God feels the following:

Song of Solomon 5:16: His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.
 

A.Joseph

Puritan Board Junior
Having been thinking about "religious experience" and the Great Awakenings, I am curious as to your thoughts on Archibald Alexander's Thoughts on Religious Experience. I tended to notice among Edwards and his followers, like Piper, they tend to place a high view on the emotions and experience that at times it (if not always) becomes the defining mark of true conversion and piety. I am suspicious of such views and think, more often than not, that its pervasive influence on evangelicalism is destructive, especially among the charismatics. What are Dr. Alexander's views? Is he more restrained?
Obviously affections are involved. But religious experience must be measured against scripture. As long as the portions and applications are direct or at least common to holy writ and not some type of psychoanalytical stretch of the imagination or formulaic prototype of what it periodically or extensively ’feels’ to be Christian. I think we need to be careful not to incorporate and thusly manufacture subjective experience. These types of things can start with us and end with us. I think our obedience is passive as much as it is active. It’s often the active part where we are easily tripped up. Good men should speak on these things as long as they don’t universalize it. Expounding is good when scripture speaks to it. But our sin backgrounds and experiences are so varied that our faith lives can vary and fluctuate to some extent on account of our cultural realities, personal histories and the shape of our dispositions. When this plays a role we must be careful not to place a universal stamp on it.
 
Last edited:

A.Joseph

Puritan Board Junior
“Hart pitches 'conversion' against 'catechism' and presents it as misguided to demand that before children who have been baptised and catechised can make a credible profession of faith, they must demonstrate that they have been through 'the crisis of conversion.'” (p192)

Im torn, yet very sympathetic to Hart on this point. Our youth are too often poorly served in these areas. From pressure to covert to pressure to legitimize conversion readiness - our kids are under a great deal of..... pressure.
 
Last edited:

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
While we shouldn't pit a catechetical piety vs. so-called "heart religion," catechetical piety will do far more for the training of youth than getting them to focus on a good experience. Of course, no one should reduce heart religion to a good experience, but that's often where it goes. Then a youth realizes that they aren't "feeling" hard enough, or their experience doesn't line up to the bar of evidence. This is similar to what gutted New England Puritanism.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
I'm not against good feeling. I've even prayed some of Augustine's confessions (a few lines in Latin, even). But it is spiritual death to take whatever you "feel" as a result and read a theology into it. I'm not saying Hodge did that. But I know many YRR types who do.
 

CathH

Puritan Board Freshman
I also like Hart et al as a corrective at times but, I also wonder if he might steer and veer the other way with 'pietism' as a frequent pejorative. Though, I am beginning to understand how culturally we, the church at large, are infected with revivalist tendancies.

Well, pietism is a real danger, but Hart does distinguish between pietism and piety, and this is very valuable. Reformed piety is (i) a whole-souled response to the truth, not a merely emotional response to either self-generated 'fancies and impulses' or emotive manipulation, and (ii) expressed in and shaped by the corporate means of grace primarily, and only secondarily in private, personal devotions. I would agree with your assessment about church culture - both these facets of piety tend to be thoroughly unfamiliar in the church at large. Even people who place a high premium on correct doctrine tend in practice to undervalue the public means of grace and have higher expectations of their quiet times than of, say, the sacraments. Still, as Alexander says, genuine experience is the impression of divine truth - our emotions must be produced by contemplation of truth. Once you have doctrine and liturgy securely in place, I can't help thinking it must be ok to go and emote boldly.

Revivalism... I haven't quite followed why in Hart's thinking a parallel distinction (to pietism (bad) and piety (good)) is unacceptable between revivalism (bad) and revival-full-stop (good, no?). I'll happily blame revivalism for undermining our confidence in the week-in-week-out steady recurrence of Lord's day worship and making us fear there's something wrong if we're not constantly getting a new and bigger buzz. It lifts a huge legalistic burden to realise that you don't always have to be feeling. But just as we credit the Spirit for the miracles of regeneration in the individual and sanctification through the due use of the ordinary means, while attributing to something else the tragedies of impenitence and apostasy, surely it must be at least theoretically possible to distinguish between revival-per-se and revivalism. Where there comes to be unusual levels of devotedness to the Lord in a wider than usual circle of people in the context of Scriptural doctrine, the most convenient term for this would seem to be revival, even while we repudiate the manipulative techniques and mass hysteria characteristic of revivalism.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
I recently read this article on the subject. I agree with Clark on this one.


Right. And for what it's worth, I get a bigger spiritual buzz reading the Heidelberg and Book of Common Prayer than I do trying to muscle up a good religious experience.
 

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
I am bringing this up again because it has been on my mind lately.
I have yet to dive into Alexander's work. Not being a really emotional person, though I'd like to think I am rather empathetic, I am wondering how should emotions, or lack thereof, be balanced.
For instance, many times I wonder, if I am a new creation, where's the new; the new affections, the new hatred of sin, the zeal to do anything and everything for church, progress against besetting sins? Where are the pure motives for repentance or good works in my heart? It's but a small and dismal spark among my more cerebral interests in theology or other areas.
 
Last edited:

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
I am bringing this up again because it has been on my mind lately.
I have yet to dive into Alexander's work. Not being a really emotional person, though I'd like to think I am rather empathetic, I am wondering how
For instance, many times I wonder, if I am a new creation, where's the new; the new affections, the new hatred of sin, the zeal to do anything and everything for church, progress against besetting sins? Where are the pure motives for repentance or good works in my heart? It's but a small and dismal spark among my more cerebral interests in theology or other areas.

I think the danger is to try to define these terms by "depth of intensity." In that case, I focus more on my depth of intensity than on what Jesus did for me.
 

Spurgeonite

Puritan Board Freshman
I find it interesting to read the experiences of some of the Puritans, for example...


There are times when I almost fear to speak of these things, but there are some here, surely, who will comprehend me, some here who have passed through the same state and will not think that I am dreaming. There are times when the soul has long contemplated Christ, and there are some who know not only to contemplate, but to enjoy. Even on earth faith sometimes gives place to a present and conscious enjoyment. There are times with the believer when whether he is in the body or out of the body he can scarce tell; God knoweth; and though not caught up to the third heaven he is brought to the very gates, and if not permitted to see Christ on his throne, he does so see him on his cross, that if an infidel should say to him, “There is no Christ,” he could say, “I have seen him; my eyes have looked upon him, and my hands have touched him after a spiritual sort.” There are many such rapturous seasons as this on record in the biographies of good men. I shall quote but one or two, and I hope there are some here who have known them in their own experience. In the life of Mr. Flavel, who was one of the most temperate of the Puritans, and one not at all given to anything like fanaticism, there is an event mentioned which once occurred to him. He said that being once on a journey alone on horseback, the thought of the love of Christ came upon him with great power, and as he rode gently along the road, the thought seemed to increase in force and strength, till at last he forgot all about earth and even where he was. Somehow or other his horse stood still, but he did not notice it; and when he came to himself, through some passer-by observing him, he found that he had bled very copiously during the time, and getting off his horse he washed his face at the brook, and he said, “I did verily think as I stood there, that if I was not in heaven I could hardly hope to be more blessed in heaven than I was then.” He mounted his horse and rode on to a place of entertainment where he was to pass the night. Supper was brought in, but left untasted on the table. He sat all night long without sleep, enjoying the presence of Christ, and he says, “I was more rested that night than with any sleep I ever had, and I heard and saw in my soul, by faith, such things as I had never known before.”

Spurgeon, C. H. (1862). “The Love of Jesus, What It Is—None but His Loved Ones Know.” In The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons (Vol. 8, p. 346). London: Passmore & Alabaster.
 
Top