Jonathan Edwards and Knowledge of God, part 2

February 27, 2015

Jonathan-Edwards

This is the second and final installment of a brief, two-part 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 thoughts.

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Edwards repeatedly appeals to the “heart.” It is in the heart that prejudices are harbored, as sin darkens our vision of “seeing” the truth of the Gospel. But, whenever a person discovers for himself, as Edwards writes, “the divine excellency of Christian doctrines, this destroys the enmity, removes those prejudices, and sanctifies the reason, and causes it to lie open to the force of arguments for their truth.”  Reason is sanctified – set apart for God – once the heart of stone is changed into a heart of flesh, to cite Ezekiel 36:26. This experience of the heart involves one’s affections, as we have seen in Edwards’ fondness for language of “sweetness.” This is given extensive treatment in Edwards’ much-acclaimed A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746). As in our present sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” Edwards continues in his later writings to account for the nature of and conditions for our affections toward God. In a basic sense, no Reformed theologian has ever discounted the affections. On the contrary, Reformed theology has emphasized that true faith is only ever present when the heart has been converted and turned toward God, all of which is part and parcel of God’s beneficence toward us in Jesus Christ.[1] As Calvin said, faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”[2] God’s goodness is sealed upon our hearts. In order to highlight the theme of comfort, we could turn to the famous first Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism. For the theme of joy or delight, we could turn to the first Q/A of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. These are rightly beloved statements in the Reformed tradition and often noted for their “warmth” of expression.

While there is significant continuity between Edwards and his Reformed forbearers, there is still something new with Edwards. It arises from his revivalist impulse, however cautious he was to subordinate the affections to truth. The new thing is the extent to which the affections are a criterion for ascertaining the presence of saving faith. This is especially evident, as Edwards attempted to do, when evaluating the status of a person’s soul according to the expressiveness or otherwise of his affections. It is no wonder that Edwards was ejected from his pulpit in Northampton! We can commend his concern for the souls of his congregants, but the heart of another is not ours to evaluate. We have to be satisfied with the candidate’s statement of faith and let God judge.

Secondly and more importantly, we have to be cautious about emphasizing the affections within ourselves as a measure of God’s love for us. Edwards does not do this precisely, but his revivalist heirs did and perhaps he opened the door. The problem is when the emotions subside, when the elevated feelings are no more – or during times of spiritual “dark nights,” when God’s “absence” weighs heavily on our soul. It is during these times when we need to rely the most on God’s sufficient and perfect work in Jesus Christ, not preoccupied with our malaise and questioning whether God loves us. Otherwise, in vain, we will attempt to stir ourselves and recover the initial sweetness of our conversion, when in fact God is calling us to a deeper maturity and more profound trust in him. As Edwards would agree, we do not have faith in our affections but in Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest.

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[1] In other words, faith is not the efficacious cause of our salvation; it is the instrumental cause – receiving, not bringing about. The grace of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is the efficacious cause.

[2] John Calvin, ed. John T. McNeill, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster Press, 1960), 3.2.7.

2 Responses to “Jonathan Edwards and Knowledge of God, part 2”

  1. Cal said

    This is the rock and the hard-place in present-day appellations.

    On the one hand, you have a rather scrutinizing evangelicalism. People are prying, trying to figure out if so-and-so is ‘saved’, is a real Christian, and not just nominal. This is normally sought in a ‘testimony’ that is dramatic and shocking. “I was baptized as a child and grew up under Christian parents” is usually viewed skeptically.

    On the other-hand, there is an actual change in the heart in the wake of Christ. This is more than intellectual assent to doctrinal positions. I don’t expect every Christian to have such an attenuated understanding of their faith, though they should seek such. On account of the Constantinian synthesis, Christian becoming a social category than a fundamental break with the World, there is ‘nominalism’. It’s why the Waldense would re-baptize eachother and their children. It’s part of the Anabaptist resistance to Zwingli. To say they’re merely arguing for credo-baptism is to miss the root, and miss why Zwingli was so raving mad, and willing to execute former friends and associates.

    I find Reformed confessionalism is too intellectually wired, though at least trying to wade through these muddy waters. I appreciate the effort.

    Edwards touches on the pulse of something important. How do we examine for the “fruit” of the Gospel? I’ve not heard any compelling account so far. But I figure it has a lot to do with a heart willing to forgive.

    cal

    PS. In my thought, it was for the best Edwards lost his pulpit in that reprobate Puritan social project called New England. God did mighty work through him.

    • Kevin Davis said

      “that reprobate Puritan social project called New England.” Okay, I had to laugh at that! But, yes, I know what you mean. In regard to your question about examining for fruit of the Gospel, I agree that it cannot be done, at least not through an objective test that is applied to another. Of course, Paul is happy to warn us repeatedly about fruit, even giving several concrete examples.

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