Jonathan Edwards: Distinguished Marker of Works (Spiritual and otherwise)

[This is a guest post by Pat Roach. Pat is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Portland, OR. Pat is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

We are just on the other side of the of the annual posting of college commencement speeches, but if you find yourself still needing to scratch that itch, then friends I give to you Jonathan Edwards.  In particular, his commencement address at Yale College in 1741 entitled The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God (hereafter TDM). And in case you were wondering, the graduation speaker at Yale in the year of our Lord 2011 was Tom Hanks. Moving on…

In TDM, Edwards sets out to give a rational and Biblical defense of the revivals that had recently occurred throughout New England. He begins with an explanation of nine things that can not necessarily disqualify (or qualify for that matter) an event as a work of God’s Spirit. For example, he writes, “What we have been used to, or what the church of God has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge whether a work be the work of God, because there may be new and extraordinary works of God.”  Edwards is saying that it is not enough to point out “we’ve never done it like that before,” and then consider the issue closed.  God is free and not always “traditional” in the way He operates. Likewise, and these follow from his first point, just because a congregation gets emotionally worked up, has “great impressions on their imagination,” and copy one another’s behavior, doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is not working.  He might very well be producing those exact effects.  You have to explore deeper to discern Spiritual substance.  I have to say this portion of the address was a pleasure to read, if for no other reason than seeing Edwards mind work on paper through the issues and counterarguments he anticipates. Edwards’ writing weaves together pastoral wisdom, Scriptural reasoning, and starchy Puritan tendentiousness.

He then goes on to outline positive markers of the Spirit’s work in reviving His people.  The people’s esteem of Jesus is raised, they experience revulsion against personal sin, give greater attention to Scriptural teaching, and they have deeper love for others.  On this last positive marker of love, Edwards addresses a false kind of affinity that is possible in revivals, and he perceptively writes, “There is commonly in the wildest enthusiasms a kind of union and affection that appears in them one towards another, arising from self-love, occasioned by their agreeing with one another in those things wherein they greatly differ from all others, and for which they are the objects of the ridicule of all the rest of mankind; which naturally will cause them so much the more to prize the esteem they observe in each other, …”  This kind of love, he concludes, is not Christian love and “no true benevolence, any more than the union and friendship which may be among a company of pirates that are at war with all the rest of the world.”  Edwards has not mindlessly drunk the Kool-Aid. He recognizes the abuses and false signifiers of spiritual renewal that can emerge, and wants to uproot them and cast them off.

Yet, one thing does he lack…a sense of mystery about history.  In TDM Edwards categorizes the New England revivals as redemptive-historical works, and as precursors to Christ’s Second Advent. Describing the unusual features of the recent revivals, he says, “we have reason from Scripture prophecy to suppose, that at the commencement of that last and great outpouring of the Spirit of God…the manner of the work will be very extraordinary.” In short, “Our revivals have weird stuff. Weird stuff will be happening at the end of the age. This must be the end of the age.” From there, he goes on to warn those who oppose revivals that in so doing they hinder the work of the Spirit.  He compares them to the first-century Jews who opposed Christ, and finally warns dissenters that they are in danger of being guilty of the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. He is that sure that the revivals are heaven sent.

And this is where Edwards’ overreaches. Or, he should at least be willing for the revivals to be measured by the same stick as the redemptive-historical events of the 1st century, to which he links them. Did the revivals produce long-term righteousness in the lives of the participants? Edwards himself despaired of this, as time wore on.  Did the Spirit cobble together thriving (renewed) ecclesial communities as a result of the revivals, as at Pentecost? Sadly, Unitarianism soon weakened the churches in New England. Did Edwards Himself attribute to the Holy Spirit works that were not His?  That would be claiming too much.  That would be too Edwardsean.

In TDM Edwards apparently had no reservations about seeing in the current events of history – and his congregation’s collective life – the immediate, and discernible activities of a very busy, and present God. Yet today, for the most part, similar claims by Christians would be viewed with no small amount of suspicion. Are we are too conditioned to understanding history, and our the events daily lives, materially? Or is this reluctance to “interpret” actually a function of faith, not presuming to give definitive readings of the Spirit’s sovereign moving? What do you think?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]


Posted on June 23, 2011, in Th.M. Program, The Enlightenment and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. There seem to be two levels that you are discussing here: daily lives and history.

    Speaking to the latter first, it seems that looking at 1Thes 5 & Luke 21:34-36 we as Christians are to look at history as it happens around us and to think eschatologically. God is working His Will toward the Day of the Lord and His return. Perhaps we rightly interpret historical events, perhaps not. Is there eschatological import to the existence of modern Israel or not? Some say yes, others say no, but it is appropriate for us to to try and make those kinds of interpretations.

    Looking at our daily lives and interpreting God’s Spirit at work in them, I think that is a much more difficult question. Personally I am still inclined to make those kinds of assessments, but focused internally, looking at myself and my family. Externally, I have seen churches close their doors and it seems that the Spirit withdrew His support for that local body. But I do find it harder to bring myself to assess the “success” or “failure” of other churches and attribute that to the work of the Spirit. I am even more reluctant to make that sort of assessment with regards to individuals. That is not to say that I will not, I can think of one evangelist I know that God seems to have been working through him in marvelous ways, but definite reluctance in that area.

    However I don’t know if my reluctance is more culturally driven or if it stems from my definite awareness that i am finite and lack a LOT of information.

    • Felicia Wetzel

      Yeah, we lack a LOT of information, but those like Paul and James seemed to have very CLEAR indicators of whether or not a person/church genuinely had the Spirit of God within them. I mean, the first century churches lived off of their words about false teachers and being able to discern those who are true and those who are false. I’d say that’s a pretty safe start to begin with…

      The problem today is, and I think Edwards was struggling with similar tensions, the kinds of scoffs and derision that come with not adhering to the religious status quo, which almost always adheres to the values of society.

  2. I think the key for assessing Edwards here is to recognize that what he was doing was more than just discerning whether a particular event was a work of the Spirit. His task was to identify those things that were of the Spirit end fit that event into the overarching narrative of eschatological redemption. So, for example, if what looked like a revival broke out in Portland, my guess is that most of us would want to “interpret” that event (i.e. make some evaluative decision as to whether we thought it was a work of the Spirit or something else). But, to be Edwarsean here is to go the next step and interpret how that event fits with other events of our day and moves the story toward its eschatological consummation. The question is really whether we want to offer the latter kind of interpretation.

  3. I also think it’s worth making a distinction here between secular and ecclesial events. Even if we’d be willing to interpret something like a revival in Portland and try to discern its place in the narrative of redemption, would we be willing to offer a similar interpretation for the war in Afghanistan? Can/should we try to say that that means as part of God’s providential control of earthly history?

    • Thanks for a good post, Pat. My stance on this one is, as usual, live in the tension. There are good examples of both expressions you refer to in your concluding questions. We can probably learn from both…

      In response to Marc: I think what Edwards is doing is legitimate, but it seems to me the person who sets out to interpret history must first and foremost take a posture of humility… I don’t mind people asking questions and elaborating with how events fit into God’s providential control, but it drives me crazy when people come out and confidently announce how these are specific out-workings of God.

      Example: Pat Robertson came out and “blamed” 9/11 on the gay and lesbian community.

      Generally, leaders who speak into every single issue sooner or later lose people’s attention. Karl Barth reminds us that it is important that we think (and listen) before we speak. He also brings to our attention that silence can have a confronting function (consider Christ journey to the cross). Therefore, Christ’s posture towards culture is that of a question mark, rather than an explanation point. I gather that we don’t have to speak up on every issue. Sometimes silence is just as effective.

      • Thanks to all who responded. The rest may continue in your online somnolence…

        My last posted thoughts on this:

        a) Edwards probably didn’t make distinctions between ecclesial and secular events in the way we do. For us, those categories are almost as absolute as space and time – almost. For us not to put Afghanistan in a larger r-h context would indict us before Edwards, I think. I can’t imagine thinking like he did in this regard, but I will acknowledge that he is more in the mainstream of historic Christianity on this issue, too. Would a post-Kantian theologian write City of God? Could she?

        b) It occurs to me as I think about your comments and continue to read him, that one of Edwards’ most important bequeathments to American Protestantism is his theologizing of American exceptionalism. A shoot from that branch is the confidence that American’s have in interpreting particularities of history theologically and in ways that fit the narrative they endorse. BTW, Liberals do this as much as Fundy’s (since they are kinda of the same thing, only the Libs have trust funds and better vacations). For example, mainline churches readily invoke the language of God’s new work by the Spirit to explain their novel (and gnostic) view on ordaining non-celibate ministers (gay or otherwise).

  4. …This kind of love, he concludes, is not Christian love and “no true benevolence, any more than the union and friendship which may be among a company of pirates that are at war with all the rest of the world.”

    What a tremendous quote!

    This is a tricky business that Edwards is attempting to engage. Anyone who attempts to trace the footsteps of the Spirit walks a thin line where finite minds could disqualify a legitimate work of the Spirit. However, I do appreciate Edwards marks of listed here by Pat. “The people’s esteem of Jesus is raised, they experience revulsion against personal sin, give greater attention to Scriptural teaching, and they have deeper love for others.” If we are going to lay down a foundation for this endeavor, I think we all would agree that these should make it up.

    I am wondering why we, including Edwards, feel the need to defend God’s work, to legitimize it? I find myself in the midst of this temptation. However, I think the better practice might be to turn to prayer, rather than prescriptions. Prayers that God would reveal to individuals their self-deception. And trusting that at the end of the day, Jesus knows those who know him…

  5. Pat, great post. Certainly a pertinent question in today’s church. Historically, it seems the church has continually wrestled with the question of what legitimate conversion looks like. We could go all the way back to the Novationist controversy, as “Christians” recanted their denial of Christianity. Were they genuine? I think today we are leery to label something a work of the Spirit because there is this gnawing question mark in the back of our minds. I don’t necessarily think this is bad. In the parable of the sower sustained fruit was the proof of a changed heart. In student ministry I remember being excited about what I saw happening in students lives only to watch them walk away from the faith. There is a tension to live in here. I think Edwards lives nicely in the tension. Stating what are definitive marks of a work of God, yet leaving room to question the sincerity of the person’s fruit. I also appreciate that he does not try and fit God in a nice, tidy box, but leaves room for other miraculous works of God. I’m wondering, in TDM did Edwards deal with any of the “if you continue to the end” statements in Scripture?

  6. If I remember correctly, JE did not include any sustained reflection on those passages dealing with perseverance. He did invoke Gamaliel’s “let it ride, wait and see” approach, however, when suggesting how folks should deal with revivals.

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