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.

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.”

Calvin window at Rundle United Church, Canada

Barth generally likes to treat the “subjective side” at the end of his volumes in the Church Dogmatics, after rightly hammering us over the head, for hundreds of pages, with the objective side: Jesus Christ. These evaluations of the subjective “correspondence” to God are some of my favorite parts. For example, in IV.2 he closes his doctrine of sanctification, which is definitive in Christ, by (finally!) looking at “The Act of Love” (783-824), which is a beautiful and devotional study of our graced capacity to love.

In IV.1, which I have been reading through, he treats justification by faith alone toward the end of his multi-layered account of “the Lord as servant,” which includes such marvelous moments as “The Judge Judged in Our Place” (§59.2) much earlier in the volume. He begins his treatment of faith as the “human work” acceptable to God, not because of any “intrinsic value” to our act of faith but only because God has chosen to accept it as the “counterpart and analogy to God’s own action” (615-616). Man’s faith as such does not justify him: “He needs justification just as much in faith as anywhere else, as in the totality of his being. In relation to it, considering himself as a believer, he cannot see himself as justified….” (616). He follows this paragraph with a short excursus on John Calvin’s own clarification that faith is not a virtue, as in his exegesis of Abraham’s faith. I thought it was worth posting as a whole. I have provided the translations from the study edition of the CD (in italics below), assuming that most of my readers do not read Latin and French:

Of the Reformers Calvin made this distinction with particular sharpness. Faith as such cannot contribute anything to our justification: bringing nothing of our own to procure the grace of God (Inst. III, 13, 5). It is not a habitus [disposition]. It is not a quality of grace which is infused into man (on Gal. 3.6; C.R. 50, 205). Faith does not justify by virtue of being a work which we do. If we believe, we come to God quite empty, not bringing to God any dignity or merit. God has to close his eyes to the feebleness of our faith, as indeed He does. He does not justify us on account of some excellence which it has in itself; only in virtue of what it lacks as a human work does He justify man (Serm. on Gen. 15; C.R. 23, 722 f.). For that reason there is no point in inquiring as to the completeness of our faith. Exegetes who understand the reckoned of Gen 15.6 as follows: Abraham has been reckoned righteous, and that belief in God was a virtue which he possessed are condemned by Calvin quite freely and frankly: those dogs must be an absolute abomination to us, for these are the most enormous blasphemies which Satan could vomit forth (ib. 688). As if there were nothing worse than this confusion! And, indeed, according to the fresh Reformation understanding of the Pauline justification by faith there could not be anything worse than this confusion. It is clear that if faith was to be a virtue, a power and an achievement of man, and if as such it was to be called a way of salvation, then the way was opened up for the antinomian and libertarian misunderstanding, the belief that a dispensation from all other works was both permitted and commanded. And the objection of Roman critics was only too easy, that in the Reformation sola fide this one human virtue, power and achievement was wildly over-estimated at the expense of all others. Even at the present day there is still cause most definitely to repudiate this misinterpretation, for which the Pauline text is not in any sense responsible. [CD IV.1, 617]

The “most enormous blasphemies which Satan could vomit forth” are the attempts to qualify faith as a virtue or disposition acceptable to God. Nothing worse than this confusion! And the upshot, of not making this confusion, has significant practical consequence: “There is no point in inquiring as to the completeness of our faith.” Amen. The “experimental” Puritans, and their heirs today, could benefit from that. Edwards could have kept his job at Northampton!

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Image: Calvin window at Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff, Alberta

I imagine that most people who read this blog also have Scott Clark’s blog on their blog readers, but if you haven’t seen it Clark has posted a link to a fascinating lecture by Richard Muller at TEDS. Muller’s thesis is that Edwards’ treatise on Freedom of the Will used Enlightenment philosophical determinism, instead of the Thomist-Aristotelian compatibilism of Reformed scholasticism. So, whereas the Reformed scholastic categories allowed for a non-coerced freedom of will, while entirely circumscribed by the divine will, Edwards’ categories yielded a determinism proved by rationalist logic. This thesis is building off of the work found in Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Reformed Theology, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I love Edwards, but I’ve never liked his treatise on the will; so, it’s highly interesting to re-think Edwards’ argument in the light of the prior Reformed tradition and developments in philosophy.

By the way, although Barth is not happy with either Enlightenment or Aristotelian methods, his own defense of omni-causality (and attack on Molinism) is rather congruent with Muller, van Asselt, et al.‘s defense of the Reformed scholastic allotment for free choice.

Reason in Faith

September 25, 2009

This could have been taken straight out of Newman’s Grammar of Assent, with its proper nuance of reason’s role in the apprehension of the truths of our faith. These distinctions not only guard against fideism broadly (unhelpfully) construed, but against the “radical” characterization of faith as wholly alien, subversive, yada yada. The italics are mine.

“‘Tis rational to suppose, that it should be beyond a man’s power to obtain this knowledge, and light, by the mere strength of natural reason; for ’tis not a thing that belongs to reason, to see the beauty and loveliness of spiritual things; it is not a speculative thing, but depends on the sense of the heart. Reason indeed is necessary in order to it, as ’tis by reason only that we are become the subjects of the means of it; which means I have already shown to be necessary in order to it, though they have no proper causal influence in the affair. ‘Tis by reason, that we become possessed of a notion of those doctrines that are the subject matter of this divine light; and reason may many ways be indirectly, and remotely an advantage to it. And reason has also to do in the acts that are immediately, and remotely an advantage to it. And reason has also to do in the acts that are immediately consequent on this discovery: a seeing the truth of religion from hence, is by reason; though it be but by one step, and the inference be immediate. So reason has to do in that accepting of, and trusting in Christ, that is consequent on it. But if we take reason strictly, not for the faculty of mental perception in general, but for ratiocination, or a power of inferring by arguments; I say if we take reason thus, the perceiving of spiritual beauty and excellency no more belongs to reason, that it belongs to the sense of feeling to perceive colors, or to the power of seeing to perceive the sweetness of food. It is out of reason’s province to perceive the beauty or loveliness of anything: such a perception don’t belong to that faculty. Reason’s work is to perceive truth, and not excellency. ‘Tis not ratiocination that gives men the perception of the beauty and amiableness of a countenance; though it may be many ways indirectly an advantage to it; yet ’tis no more reason that immediately perceives it, that it is reason that perceives the sweetness of honey: it depends on the sense of the heart. Reason may determine that a countenance is beautiful to others, it may determine that honey is sweet to others; but it will never give me a perception of its sweetness.”

Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” in A Jonathan Edwards Reader (Yale, 1995), pp. 121-122.

edwards preaching

Jonathan Edwards on how to “beget true apprehensions” of God, in preaching:

“If the subject be in its own nature worthy of very great affection, then speaking of it with great affection is most agreeable to the nature of that subject…and therefore has most of a tendency to beget true ideas of it. …I should think myself in the way of my duty, to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth …I know it has long been fashionable to despise a very earnest and pathetical way of preaching; and they only have been valued as preachers, who have shown the greatest extent of learning, strength of reason, and correctness of method and language. But I humbly conceive it has been for want of understanding or duly considered human nature, that such preaching has been thought to have the greatest tendency to answer the ends of preaching.” *

And, once again, notice that the end of preaching is to beget knowledge of God — knowledge which must include the affections and the will, as well as the intellect. Scholasticism (knowledge of God as the end of religion) and Pietism (the charity beget by religion) make love in the mind of Jonathan Edwards.

* Quoted in J. I. Packer, “Jonathan Edwards and the Theology of Revival,” Puritan Papers, vol. 2 (P&R, 2001), p. 27. Found in Jonathan Edwards, Works, 2 vols. (London, 1840), vol. 1, p. 391.

Picture (above) taken from the cover of The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards (Banner of Truth, 2008) by John Carrick.