Jonathan Edwards and Knowledge of God, part 1

February 25, 2015

edwards preaching

“A Divine and Supernatural Light” (1734) is one of Jonathan Edwards’ most important sermons. Therein, Edwards is beginning to formulate his understanding of “religious affections,” culminating in his famous treatment of the topic in 1746. To give you a time frame for reference, his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God was published in 1737 on the basis of the revival in his congregation at Northampton in 1734. So, this sermon was delivered in the same year as the “Great Awakening” made its way to Northampton.

The following is the first of a two-part analysis of the sermon. You can find the sermon in the Yale anthology of his writings. I own this volume, but it is stored away somewhere in a box. So I had to use the online edition without pagination. The text for the sermon is Matthew 16:17.

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In Matthew 16:17, Jesus pronounces Peter as blessed for his confession of faith. He alone rightly recognized Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). This was not a revelation of “flesh and blood” but of the “Father in heaven.” In other words, God revealed this to Peter, not as a revelation derived from the material and limited nature of creation. This was not a particularly clever insight of Peter. It was a “revelation” or “unveiling” from God himself, and as such it was a gift. It is the nature of this gift of faith that Jonathan Edwards aims to discern in his sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” delivered in 1734. The sermon reveals some of the distinctive aspects of its time and place. While it is surely an expository sermon, committed to the faithful exposition of the passage, it is also oriented to the currents of the time, both receiving and influencing these currents.

In the early eighteenth century, Protestant divinity was the recipient of the Reformation heritage, with its subsequent scholastic development and impressive coherence. This doctrinal heritage was challenged mightily by the currents of Enlightenment thought, most famously pronounced by Descartes’ “subjective turn.” No longer was external authority a sufficient means to our knowledge of God and the world. The authority had to be ratified within. There was a crisis of certainty, which is to say, a crisis of knowledge. John Locke would distinguish between opinion and certainty, wherein the latter can only ever amount to “degrees” of certainty and that only upon a subjective foundation and apprehension.[1] And the criterion for all Enlightenment thinkers was reason, together joined with the incontrovertible evidence of sense experience. The result is “natural” religion, with its noble quality of ratiocinative integrity. As John Tillotson stated it, “Nothing ought to be received as a revelation from God which plainly contradicts the principles of natural religion.”[2] Interestingly, Jonathan Edwards agrees with the “subjective turn” in his own way. Truth is received and verified within, and this verification is capable of articulation. The difference is that God, for Edwards, is both the author and the criterion of this truth, when it concerns matters of God’s own self-disclosure. This displaces man and man’s reason as the criterion, while maintaining the “realm” of man’s subjectivity as the location in which God is operative and graciously present. In this way, Edwards is able to maintain the Reformed doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation within an anthropological rendering of our subjective apprehension of this God. He is, at once, an heir of the Reformation and an heir of the Enlightenment. And perhaps Pietism, with its experiential basis for doctrinal reception, is the synthesis of the two. Edwards is all three.

As he exposits Matthew 16:17, Edwards is keen to emphasize that Peter’s knowledge is “above any that flesh and blood can reveal,” because it is “too high and excellent to be communicated by such means as other knowledge is.”[3] Our knowledge of God is categorically distinct from other knowledge. The “otherness” of this knowledge derives from the fact that God “reveals it…not making use of any intermediate natural causes, as he does in other knowledge.” Lacking such intermediate means, this knowledge is “immediately imparted to the soul by God.” In contrast to the “natural man,” those who receive this saving faith are given the “light” to apprehend the truth of God, and this light gives life. It is an “indwelling vital principle,” such that God indwells man and “takes him for his temple, actuates and influences him as a new supernatural principle of life and action.” The Holy Spirit abides within the saints, “exerting his own nature in the exercise of their faculties.”

For Edwards, the assent of faith is never a merely intellectual calculation and conclusion. While our faith involves the intellect, in its full analytical rigor, it is true faith insofar as it is birthed by the new life of God within our hearts. Edwards has a number of ways to express this existential reality: “the sense of the heart: as when there is a sense of the beauty, amiableness, or sweetness of a thing; so that the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it.” In this one sentence, we have several of Edwards’ favorite terms: heart, beauty, sweetness, pleasure, and delight. The significance here is that Edwards is utilizing aesthetic categories within a moral framework. Herein, the individual’s will is operative upon the conditions of an aesthetic “divine excellency,” to use one of Edwards’ favorite expressions. In other words, as Edwards states it, “There arises from this sense of divine excellency of things contained in the word of God, a conviction of the truth and reality of them….” The “conviction” follows upon the “sense.” Our assent is a consequence of our aesthetic perception and reception of God’s splendor.

This “spiritual light” does not produce any new doctrine, for that would be the gift of inspiration. Rather, the light allows us to apprehend and receive the truths of the word of God, already given. The objective referent is the truths of Scripture and the Gospel revealed therein. Edwards is offering an account of how our subjective disposition is made capable of receiving this truth. The important point here is that Edwards is not orienting our subjectivity back upon itself, as if the “sweetness” or “delight” was the object of faith. The feelings are the medium or the means, not the end. Edwards is preserving epistemological realism, even as he challenges an Enlightenment aridity that elevated the rational at the expense of the moral and aesthetic. For Edwards, the rational is never alone, never without the moral and aesthetic, which would make him a Platonist, broadly speaking.[4] In this way, Edwards is also anticipating 19th century Romanticism, but without retreating into subjective affectivity as an end in-itself, which cheapens truth and elicits sentimentality in one’s piety.

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[1] As Locke states, “A man cannot conceive himself capable of a greater certainty than to know that a given idea in his mind is such as he perceives it to be.” An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Chapter 2.

[2] The Works of the Most Reverend Dr. John Tillotson (London: Goodwin, Tooke, and Pemberton, 1714), 225.

[3] All citations from Edwards are from “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (www.ccel.org/e/edwards/sermons/supernatural_light.html). No pagination.

[4] The transcendentals of Platonism (Goodness, Truth, Beauty) are convertible with one another: the good is always beautiful and true, the truth is always good and beautiful, and the beautiful is always good and true. And yet, they are not identical with each other: for example, Edwards writes, “It is out of reason’s province to perceive the beauty of loveliness of any thing: such a perception does not belong to that faculty. Reason’s work is to perceive truth and not excellency.”

One Response to “Jonathan Edwards and Knowledge of God, part 1”

  1. […] series on Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” See the first part for introductory material and the main analysis. Below, I offer some concluding […]

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