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A. Intellect and Will: Which Is Prior?

But how exactly is this supposed to work? What is the relation between affection and belief here, between will and intellect? Which, if either, is primary? Is it that first one sees (i.e., comes to know or believe) that the great things of the gospel and God himself are lovely and amiable, and then comes to love them? Or is it rather that first one comes to love them, thus coming to see that the things in question are, indeed, worthy of love? In working in our hearts, does the Holy Spirit first and supernaturally get us to see the truths of the great things of the gospel, our affections naturally following suit (so that we come to love and delight in them)? Or is it rather that the Holy Spirit first corrects our affections, cures the madness of our wills, so that we begin to love God above all rather than ourselves, as a result of which we come to believe the great things of the gospel? Or is neither prior, so that will and intellect are cured simultaneously? This question, of course, is connected with a correlative question we examined in chapter 7: is sin primarily a matter of intellect, of blindness, of failing to see or believe the right things, thus leading to wrong affection and wrong action? Or is it primarily a matter of the wrong affections, of loving and hating the wrong things?


Although Edwards emphasizes the centrality of the affections, he also seems to endorse the position that intellect is prior to will. He seems to suggest that the believer first sees the beauty, amiability, loveliness of God and the great things of the gospel, her affections then naturally following:

[The saints] first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious, and their hearts are first captivated with this view, and the exercises of their love are wont from time to time to begin here, and to arise primarily from these views; and then, consequentially, they see God’s love; and great favor to them. (p. 246)

Here the focus of his attention isn’t the question whether it is intellect or will that is prior (but whether the saints first see that God loves them and then come themselves to love God, or the other way around). Nevertheless, there is the clear suggestion that what happens first is that the saint sees that God is lovely and Christ excellent and glorious; this vision is captivating, delightful, winsome; the result is love for God. Elsewhere he is more explicit: “Knowledge is the key that first opens the hard heart and enlarges the affections, and so opens the way for men into the kingdom of heaven” (p. 266); “Gracious affections do arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things.” Furthermore,

Truly spiritual and gracious affections . . . arise from the enlightening of the understanding to understand the things that are taught of God and Christ, in a new manner, the coming to a new understanding of the excellent nature of God, and his wonderful perfections, some new view of Christ in his spiritual excellencies and fullness, or things opened to him in a new manner, that appertain to the way of salvation by Christ, whereby he now sees how it is, and understands those divine and spiritual doctrines which once were foolishness to him. . . . That all gracious affections do arise from some instruction or enlightening of the understanding, is therefore a further proof. (pp. 267, 268)

This apparently fits less than perfectly well with another of Edwards’s characteristic doctrines: that what lies at the bottom of sin is hardness of heart—which, he says, is a matter of having the wrong affections, or (less disastrously) at any rate lacking the right affections:

Divines are generally agreed, that sin radically and fundamentally consists in what is negative, or privative, having its root and foundation in a privation or want of holiness. And therefore undoubtedly, if it be so that sin does very much consist in hardness of heart, and so in the want of pious affections of heart; holiness does consist very much in those pious affections. (p. 118)


Now by a hard heart, is plainly meant an unaffected heart, or a heart not easy to be moved with virtuous affections, like a stone, insensible, stupid, unmoved and hard to be impressed. Hence the hard heart is called [in Scripture] a stony heart, and is opposed to an heart of flesh, that has feeling, and is sensibly touched and moved. (p. 117)

These passages suggest (as I argued in chapter 7) that sin is fundamentally a matter of failing to have the right affections and having the wrong ones; it isn’t (in the first instance, anyway) a failure of knowledge. It is less a failure to see something than to feel something.381381   Though of course I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that an affection is simply a feeling of some sort, as if it had no intentional component. The hard-hearted person fails to love the right things; he lacks the virtuous affections of love for the Lord and neighbor and for the great truths of the gospel; he also lacks the hatred and sorrow for sin, gratitude for salvation, joy, peace, and all the rest that flow from a proper love of God. And that suggests that on receiving the gift of faith and the rebirth (regeneration) that goes with it, what happens is that the affections are redirected, so that one makes at least the first halting steps in the direction of loving God above all.

Somehow consequent upon that is a new knowledge of the loveliness and gloriousness of God and of the Christian story as well. Still, this suggestion is compatible with the thought that in acquiring faith it is a kind of knowledge or enlightenment that is prior. Perhaps sin is, indeed, a malfunction of the will (a misdirection of affection); perhaps this malfunction is, indeed, what is repaired with regeneration; but perhaps the way this repair is effected is by way of being granted a certain kind of knowledge or enlightenment. It can be both that sin is fundamentally malfunction or dysfunction of the will, and that what comes first in regeneration is a certain understanding or insight. Then revealing would be prior to sealing, with respect to faith, even though what needs repair is, at bottom, will rather than intellect.

Sometimes Edwards seems to suggest that neither intellect nor will is prior:

Spiritual understanding consists primarily in a sense of heart of that spiritual beauty. I say, a sense of heart; for it is not speculation merely that is concerned in this kind of understanding: nor can there be a clear distinction made between the two faculties of understanding and will, as acting distinctly and separately, in this matter. When the mind is sensible of the sweet beauty and amiableness of a thing, that implies a sensibleness of sweetness and delight in the 298presence of the idea of it; and this sensibleness of the amiableness or delightfulness of beauty, carries in the very nature of it, the sense of the heart; or an effect and impression the soul is the subject of, as a substance possessed of taste, inclination and will. (p. 272)

If there is no clear distinction between the two, then clearly neither is prior to the other. Even in this passage, however, it looks as if, according to Edwards, intellect really is prior. He speaks here of “a sense of heart”; that sounds like affection, but I think appearances are deceiving. To see how, we must note one further characteristic Edwardsian idea: that upon conversion and regeneration the believer acquires a “new simple idea.” She thus acquires the ability to perceive something she wasn’t able to perceive before. She can now perceive the beauty and amiability of the Lord, something she was unable to do prior to conversion. This ability involves a new phenomenology, one not available to “natural men”:

For if there be in the saints a kind of apprehension or perception, which is in its nature, perfectly diverse from all that natural men have, or that it is possible they should have, till they have a new nature; it must consist in their having a certain kind of ideas or sensations of mind, which are simply diverse from all that is or can be in the minds of natural men. And that is the same thing as to say, that it consists in the sensations of a new spiritual sense. (p. 271)

Here Edwards speaks the epistemological language of the mid-eighteenth century. Knowledge or cognition involves mental entities Locke calls ‘ideas’ and Hume ‘impressions and ideas’. These are on the order of mental images, like bits of visual or auditory imagery or other sensuous imagery. The details of the process, as the British empiricists thought of it, need not concern us now (and in any event are incoherent). But (to take an Edwardsian example) think of the taste of honey. You know what honey tastes like, and that knowledge crucially involves a certain kind of phenomenology. You wouldn’t know what honey tastes like unless you actually tasted it (or in some other way experienced that taste). You can’t have knowledge (more exactly, sensible knowledge) of the taste of honey or of its sweetness, without undergoing that phenomenology—without having that simple idea (as Edwards would think of it). There is a certain kind of experience that normally goes with seeing something red, and there is a certain kind of knowledge, namely, knowledge of what it’s like to see something red, that you aren’t able to have unless you have that experience. (Maybe this experience is a little like hearing the sound of a trumpet; still, that kind of analogy can take us only so far.) One who has never tasted sweetness or perceived red can know a good deal about the sweetness of honey and the look of something red (e.g., that both are experienced by many people, that people find the first pleasant and the second mildly exciting); there is also something she 299doesn’t know, namely, what honey tastes like and what a sunset looks like.

Now according to Edwards, one kind of experiential knowledge is spiritual knowledge; more exactly, there is such a thing as spiritual knowledge, and spiritual knowledge is experiential knowledge. This is knowledge of God’s ‘moral’ qualities, as Edwards puts it—knowledge of his holiness, loveliness, beauty, glory, and amiability. Like knowledge of the taste and sweetness of honey, this knowledge requires that one have a certain characteristic phenomenal imagery, “a certain kind of ideas or sensations of mind,” as he puts it. This is a new idea and a new simple idea. It is simple, first, because (unlike the image of a house, say) it is not compounded out of other ideas. And it is new in the sense that it is not available to “natural men”; it is available only to those in whom the process of regeneration has begun. In the fall into sin, Edwards thinks, we human beings lost a certain cognitive ability: the ability to apprehend God’s moral qualities. With conversion comes regeneration; part of the latter is the regeneration (to a greater or lesser extent) of this cognitive ability to grasp or apprehend the beauty, sweetness, amiability of the Lord himself and of the whole scheme of salvation. And it is just this cognitive ability that involves that new simple idea. There is little to say by way of describing this new experience except to say that it is the experience of God’s moral qualities; and one who doesn’t have this new simple idea—one in whom the cognitive process in question has not been regenerated—doesn’t have spiritual knowledge of God’s beauty and loveliness.382382   According to Edwards, those who have the requisite experience and enjoy the requisite phenomenology note that previous to this experience they hadn’t really understood such phrases as ‘a spiritual sight of Christ’; these terms had not conveyed “those special and distinct ideas to their minds which they were intended to signify; in some respects no more than the names of colors are to convey the ideas to one that is blind from birth” (The Great Awakening, ed. C. C. Goen [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972], p. 174). Such a person may know, in a way, that God is beautiful and lovely (perhaps she takes this on the authority of someone else), but there is a kind of knowledge of this loveliness she doesn’t have (experiential knowledge), and it is precisely this kind of knowledge that is the spiritual knowledge of which Edwards speaks. Spiritual knowledge is experiential knowledge, and a necessary condition of having the latter is having the right phenomenology, the right imagery, the new simple idea.

I spoke of a cognitive ability, the ability to grasp and apprehend the beauty and sweetness and amiability of the Lord and of the great things of the gospel. Edwards constantly uses more specific language, the language of perception. One in whom the process of regeneration 300has reached a certain point can see the beauty of the Lord, taste his sweetness, feel his presence. I believe Edwards thinks these uses of the terms ‘see’, ‘taste’, and ‘feel’ are figurative or (better) analogical. On the other hand he thinks the term ‘perceive’ is being used perfectly literally, and in the same sense in which it is used when we speak of sight and hearing, taste and touch as perception. This ability to apprehend the beauty and glory of the Lord is in fact a perceptual ability. One may know that the Lord is, indeed, beautiful and glorious; there is also the different condition of perceiving that the Lord is beautiful and glorious. Here Edwards appeals to the language of Scripture, which often represents regeneration as a matter of giving eyes to see, ears to hear, unstopping the ears of the deaf, opening the eyes of the blind. It is important to see that Edwards thinks of these properties—beauty, glory, holiness, as well as love and benevolence—as genuine and objective properties, genuinely inhering in God. It isn’t that beauty is really a subjective reaction on our part to something or other; rather, there is the property the Lord has of being beautiful; we grasp or apprehend that property and that the Lord has it; and a necessary condition of so doing is undergoing a certain kind of phenomenology. And of course this precisely mirrors the situation with respect to sensory perception.383383   For an insightful account of Edwards’s sense of the heart (with extensive and useful quotations from Edwards’s works), see William Wainwright’s “Jonathan Edwards and the Sense of the Heart,” Faith and Philosophy 7, no. 1 (January 1990).

Edwards believes we perceive these moral qualities of God; and I believe that Edwards’s views here are, at the least, plausible. I don’t propose to canvass the objections to perception of God, however, or defend its plausibility. That is because this has already been done in fine style by William Alston.384384   Perceiving God (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991). See also my reply in chapter 10 to Richard Gale’s suggestion that perception of God is not possible. Alston shows that none of the objections to perception of God—that only material objects can be perceived (and God isn’t a material object), that there aren’t the right kinds of tests and measurements, that we can’t demonstrate that the alleged perception is veridical and hence really perception, that not everyone has this alleged ability, that people disagree as to what it is that they (as they take it) perceive of God, and all the rest—Alston clearly shows that none of these objections is anywhere nearly cogent. He also develops a powerful generic account of perception according to which perception of God is perfectly possible. If indeed there is such a person as God, there is no reason why he couldn’t have endowed us, his creation and his children, with the ability to perceive him and to perceive that he has certain properties.


We can now return to the question that occasioned this detour: according to Edwards, which comes first, affection or intellection? Love for God or knowledge of God? I think Edwards’s answer is that it is knowledge. I think he thinks that one first perceives the beauty and loveliness of the Lord, first comes to this experiential knowledge, and then comes to develop the right loves and hates: love for the Lord, for the great truths of the gospel, hatred for sin: “all gracious affections do arise from some instruction or enlightening of the understanding”; “Gracious affections do arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things.” What he means here, I think, is that this experiential knowledge of God and his qualities comes first; then there is a consequent raising of affections. “Truly spiritual and gracious affections . . . arise from . . . some new view of Christ in his spiritual excellencies and fullness.” His idea, I think, is that the regenerated person perceives the beauty and loveliness of the Lord and of the great things of the gospel and then, naturally enough, comes to love them. It is the perceiving that comes first; in this respect, therefore, intellect is prior to will.

Is Edwards right? Is it really true that intellect precedes will, that knowledge precedes love in this case? The question divides itself. We may think of the structure of intellect and will as follows. There are various dependency relations among the acts of intellect and will, of such a sort that certain intellectual acts (acts of cognition) are necessary conditions for certain acts of will. Any given act of will could be basic in the sense that it doesn’t depend on any prior act of intellect, and any given act of intellect could be basic in the sense that it doesn’t depend on any prior act of will. Perhaps one can’t love God without first seeing that he is, indeed, lovely and attractive; if so, then no act of loving God will be basic in the present sense. On the other hand, perhaps certain affective acts do not depend on any prior acts of intellection; if so, those acts will be basic. What is the relevant sense of dependency involved? I suggest that it is a matter of design plan: an act of will is dependent, for a creature S, on a certain act of intellect if and only if S’s design plan specifies that S will engage in the act of will in question only consequent upon engaging in the kind of act of intellect in question.385385   Of course there are other kinds of dependency; we could call the variety currently under discussion ‘design plan dependency’. For present purposes I’m thinking of design plan dependency as including logical and causal dependency; thus, if a given act of will’s (intellect’s) occurring entails or causally necessitates a given act of intellect’s (will’s) occurring, the former act will be design-plan-dependent on the latter.


Given these preliminaries, it is evident that there are several different ways to take the claim that intellect precedes will here. It might be claimed only that

(1) For any affective act of will, there is at least one kind of act of intellect upon which it is dependent, and some acts of intellect are not dependent on any act of will.

By way of illustration, perhaps no one who is functioning properly comes to love God without first seeing, knowing, that God is indeed lovely and attractive (and perhaps that latter cognitive act must involve Edwards’s experiential knowledge); but perhaps that cognitive, intellective act of knowing that God is lovely and attractive is not dependent on any (affective) act of will. One comes to see that God is lovely and then (and therefore) loves him. This is quite compatible with there being some acts of intellect that are dependent on acts of will; it requires only that there also be some that are not. So it might be held, more strenuously, that

(2) For every (affective) act of will, there is a prior act of intellect on which it is dependent, and for no act of intellect is there a prior act of will on which it is dependent.

It isn’t easy to see which (if either) of these Edwards means to assert. And perhaps, indeed, he means to assert neither; perhaps he is thinking just of religious affections and the characteristic acts of intellect associated with them. Perhaps he means to claim only that the religious affections depend on a preceding (or concomitant) grasp or perception of some of the qualities of God, although it is not the case that perception of God’s moral qualities is dependent on a prior affection. Perhaps he means to say that, in the process of regeneration, what happens first is that the Holy Spirit enables one to perceive something of God’s moral qualities; this then (according to the normal working of the design plan) raises one’s religious affections. He is committed to this much, but perhaps to nothing stronger.

Still, even this much is too strong. In the state of sin, we are inclined to be indisposed to God and neighbor; this is the essence of our sinful condition. The real problem, then, is a matter of will. It isn’t merely that we fail to see the beauty of the Lord and the lovableness of our brothers and sisters, thus failing to love them. Mere absence of the right affections is only part of the problem; there is also the fact that we are inclined to be resentful and dismissive toward the Lord and competitive and self-serving with respect to other people. What is required here isn’t, first of all, more knowledge. Given our sinful inclinations to hate God and neighbor, we might perceive God’s moral qualities and nonetheless continue to hold him at arm’s length, refusing to love him—perhaps thus being in an even worse condition than when his presence was obscured by 303the smoke of our wrongdoing (Anselm) and we hated him, as it were, from afar.

Edwards might retort that one simply can’t perceive the moral qualities of God and fail to love him, to be attracted by him, to find him marvelously delightful and fascinating. This is dubious at best. No doubt one whose affective capacities or faculties are functioning properly will love the Lord on perceiving his loveliness, glory, and beauty; no doubt such a person will find him delightful. Conversely, consider someone who did perceive God’s beauty and glory but was nonetheless put off by him: such a person would be malfunctioning in some way. (A person who saw God’s beauty but didn’t love him wouldn’t, perhaps, describe God as beautiful (although he might describe him as terrible and fascinating, as a bird, transfixed by terror, might describe a snake, or a mariner the horrifying beauty and power of a storm that threatens his life); it doesn’t follow that he doesn’t, in fact, perceive that beauty.) When intellect and will function properly and are appropriately tuned to each other, we will delight in what we see to be delightful, love what we see to be amiable.386386   As I see it, therefore, there are such properties as being delightful, desirable, beautiful, and the like; there is also the cognitive condition of noting that something is delightful, desirable, or beautiful; in addition, there is the affective condition of delighting in the thing in question, or desiring it, or admiring and being drawn to its beauty. I believe Edwards concurs. A chief component of sin, however, just is dysfunction of the affections; and there is no good reason to think someone suffering from a mad misdirection of affection couldn’t be put off by what he saw to be beautiful. Curing the cognitive effects of sin doesn’t automatically cure the affective madness. The gift of faith and consequent regeneration isn’t just a matter of restoring the intellect to a pristine condition in which we can once again perceive God and his glories and beauties; it also, and essentially, requires curing that madness of the will.

So which is primary in faith and regeneration: intellect or will? I say neither. Sin is a malfunction of the will, a skewing of affections; it is loving and hating the wrong things. Still, it also involves blindness, an inability to see the glory and beauty of the Lord. The answer to the question ‘which is prior?’ is ‘neither’ or ‘there’s no saying’. Regeneration is a matter of curing both intellectual and affective disorders. The structure of will and intellect here is perhaps a spiral, dialectical process: heightened affections enable us to see more of God’s beauty and glory; being able to see more of God’s beauty and glory and majesty in turn leads to heightened affections. There are certain things you won’t know unless you love, have the right affections; there are certain affections you won’t have without perceiving some of God’s moral qualities; neither perceiving nor affection can be said 304to be prior to the other. Regeneration consists in curing the will, so that we at least begin to love and hate the right things; it also includes cognitive renewal, so that we come to perceive the beauty, holiness, and delightfulness of the Lord and of the scheme of salvation he has devised.

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