This blog series on Reflections is intended to encourage Christians to read more vigorously by providing a beginner’s guide to some of the Christian classics in such fields as theology, philosophy, and apologetics. Hopefully a very brief introduction to these important Christian texts will motivate today’s believers, as St. Augustine was called to in his dramatic conversion to Christianity, to “take up and read” (Latin: Tolle lege) these classic books.


This week’s book, Treatise Concerning Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, is considered a classic Christian text as well a groundbreaking work in the field of psychology of religion. Edwards’s work seeks to provide a criteria for evaluating the authenticity of Christian religious experience in light of the mass religious conversions that were taking place in the New England colonies during the First Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. 

Why Is This Author Notable?

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) has been called America’s greatest philosophical theologian. Born in the American colonies, he became a central voice in the First Great Awakening and preached arguably the most famous sermon in Christian history, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He was the first president of the college that would later become Princeton University. For more about him and his accomplishments, see my article, “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Jonathan Edwards.” 

What Is This Book About?

Jonathan Edwards’s Treatise Concerning Religious Affections developed a whole new field of academic study known as the psychology of religion. Personal religious experience is often what people appeal to most in order to argue that they have discovered God. Yet while religious experience is engaging, it is subjective in nature and may be caused by other factors than just an authentic encounter with the divine. There is also the challenge of people in non-Christian religions having similar religious experiences to that of Christians.

In light of the mass conversions to Christianity that were happening during the First Great Awakening (in the 1730s and 1740s) and how often those conversions involved overt religious experience, Edwards set out to discover how to discern this complex phenomenon. His book was intended to provide a criteria for evaluating authentic Christian conversion experiences from those that were the result of mere hysteria or from other possible religious sources.

Written in 1746, Edwards’s work is divided into three major parts. He describes how an authentic conversion to Christ happens in a biblical context through regeneration via the Holy Spirit. He also notes how both emotion (the affections) and the intellect play critical roles in Christian conversion. Finally he develops a list of twelve negative (inconclusive or false) signs of conversion, and contrasts the negative list with what he calls the twelve signs of true religious conversion. The result is that Edwards provides a formidable biblical, philosophical, and psychological analysis of the profound phenomenon of religious experience.

Jonathan Edwards writes about what the affections reveal about the authenticity of a person’s religious experiences:

“There are false affections, and there are true. A man’s having much affection, don’t prove that he has any true religion; but if he has no affection, it proves that he has no true religion.”1

Why Is This Book Worth Reading?

Edwards’s book is a timeless work because it combines the complex subject of the psychology of religion with critical theological and apologetics analysis. All Christians need help in discerning true religious experience from merely psychological experiences, or even help in contrasting the biblically correct from the spiritual counterfeit (see 1 John 4:1–3).

Edwards’s work doesn’t answer all questions about how to think Christianly about every type of religious experience, but it is definitely a masterful tool crafted by one of Christianity’s most distinctive thinkers and pastors.



  1. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2: Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 121.

Subjects: Book Review, Books, Christian Literature, Reading

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About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.

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