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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.]

What is “true” religion?

[This is a guest post by Felicia Wetzel. Felicia is an M.A. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

Remember the context in which Edwards writes. In the wake of the revivalism of the Great Awakening, Edwards felt compelled to articulate the distinction between true and false religion in a much more thorough and pointed way than he had done in his previous works, such as in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Edwards outlines twelve signs that indicate genuine religious affections, those signs that indicate genuine conversion. Not only do they serve as tests or standards of genuine piety, but they are themselves the very substance of the religious life. Affections serve as a kind of sign post indicating the direction of one’s soul, whether it is toward God in love or away from God toward the world. These are as follows.

First, affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural and divine. Second, the objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest. Third, those affections that are truly holy, are primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things. Or (to express it otherwise), a love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency, is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections. Fourth, gracious affections do arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things. Fifth, truly gracious affections are attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things. Sixth, gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation. Evangelical humiliation is a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart. Seventh, gracious affections are attended with a change of nature. Eighth, truly gracious affections tend to, and are attended with, the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; or in other words, they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ. Ninth, gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit. Tenth, truly gracious and holy affections are beautiful in symmetry and proportion. In the truly holy affections of the saints is found that proportion which is the natural consequence of the universality of their sanctification. Eleventh, gracious affections, the higher they are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments increased. Twelfth, gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice. Their lives are universally conformed to and directed by Christian rules.

Edwards’ purpose in outlining these twelve signs is to test affections within one’s self, not to distinguish true from false affections in others. Further, he is primarily concerned with those operations of the Spirit which are saving in the heart of the individual.

One of the difficulties that I have encountered while reading Edwards is maintaining a clear understanding of what he means by his distinctions between such things as understanding, inclinations, will, heart, affections, etc. In all of his ability to maintain sharp distinctions between such concepts, it seems that he might run the risk of losing the unity and integrity of the human soul, or the self. This might not be that major of a point, however, considering the fact that throughout his argumentation these distinctions often times lose their sharpness.

Critical observations of Edwards aside, I am more interested in what you guys believe to be the signs of genuine “gracious affections.” In my paper, after I consider the twelve signs of genuine religious affections, I plan to describe them and then move to articulate what I believe to be the fundamental signs of a genuine believer. To begin our discussion, What do you believe to be the fundamental marks of a true believer? How would you answer the overarching question that Edwards sought to answer, “What is true religion?

[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.]

Some Problems with Jonathan Edwards’ view of Original Sin

[This is a guest post by Andreas Lunden. Andreas is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

In The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended; Evidences of its Truth Produced, and Arguments to the Contrary Answered, Jonathan Edwards engages in the controversy over human depravity, a topic that occupied much of the eighteenth century. Edwards’ eagerness to refute his opponents on this matter indicates that a major cultural shift was ultimately at stake, since the Western man was viewing himself with increasing positivism regarding his nature and potentialities. In other words, Edwards was combating an increasingly prevailing drift of opinion that had begun in Europe and was now slowly but surely invading America.

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An Outline of Edwards’ Argument

The argument of this book is straightforward. Edwards spends well over three hundred pages defending the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. More specifically, for Edwards, Original Sin means, (1) the innate depravity of heart of all men OR, (2) the imputation of Adam’s sin to all men. Those who hold to one of these statements usually also hold to the other. On the contrary, those who oppose Original Sin usually oppose both these statements. According to Edwards, such “new interpretations”, which stray from Christian tradition, are unlikely to be correct. For Edwards, “mankind are by nature in a state of total ruin, both with respect to the moral evil they are subjects of, and the afflictive evil they are exposed to, the one as the consequence and punishment of the other, then doubtless the great salvation by Christ stand in direct relation to this ruin.” He finds support for his views both in general observations of man’s inclinations and behaviors (history), as well as the witness of the Christian scriptures.

The flow unfolds as follows:

  • Part One: Evidence of Original Sin from Observation, Experience & Scripture
  • Part Two: Observations from Scripture Proving Original Sin
  • Part Three: Observations Relating to the Process of Redemption
  • Part Four: Answers to Common Objections

What stands out is Edwards’ brilliant exposition concerning man’s inability to present evidence for capacity of goodness despite God’s “great means” to promote such virtue. He analyzes both the Old and the New Testament, focusing on the means used by God to draw man to Himself: from Adam to Noah, from Abraham to Jesus in relation to the Gentiles, from Abraham to Jesus in relation to the Jews, and finally the “Church age.” For John Taylor (the main opponent of Edwards), the ongoing failures to pierce the heart of man were simply due to a wrong representation of the gospel. Such a view must have caused unpleasant affections in the heart of Edwards. According to our defender of Original Sin, the problem of man’s depravity stems ultimately from something much deeper than an “unfortunate” misunderstanding. Man’s apparent failure to respond to God lies in the realm of a thoroughly corrupted heart. Consequently, man’s redemption is obviously connected to a restructured heart, which is exclusively the result of the Holy Spirit’s work.

Some Problems with Edwards Argument

Edwards has a talent for arguing in such a way that he answers not only the questions currently on the table, but also possible “follow-up” issues that may surface in response to his own writings. However, one possible weakness in Edwards’ argument (as discussed in class) is his view that creation is a continuous event ex nihilo (from nothing). In arguing that God recreates the whole of the universe every instant, he is able, not only to combat Deist notions, but also maintain a sense of oneness, and connectedness between the first Adam, and the whole of mankind (as opposed to Taylor’s view that sin and guilt are to be seen as entirely personal). However, this begs the question, if history is divided into an infinite number of independent frames, how is the now related to the past or the future? What, then, is a person? How does one in this view understand personal identity?

Another area that I find problematic is Edwards’ somewhat condescending posture in relation to his opponents. His argumentation is ruthless, in style but first and foremost in intellectual force. While, I agree with most of Edwards’ argument it’s possible that his aggressiveness caused a more polarized debate, rather than mutual learning from one another. I am by no means arguing we should compromise truth, only that we constantly need to be on the lookout for ways to communicate creatively in a spirit of truth and grace, simultaneously.

Edwards’ Opponent

Finally, I conclude from this reading that nothing is new under the sun. I found myself chuckling at Taylor’s arguments since they sometimes sound similar to contemporary objections to Christian doctrines of Sin, Hell, Judgment, etc. Here are a few examples:

The doctrine of Original Sin…

…disparages divine goodness in giving us our being, so that we have no reason to thank God for our being.

…pours contempt on human nature.

…gives us an ill opinion of our fellow humans.

…hinders comfort & joy, and promotes sorrow & gloominess.

…is not mentioned by Jesus in the gospels.

Jonathan Edwards offers sound answers to every one of these objections, but I’m curious, how would you respond?

[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.]


The Great Disappointment of 1844

A prominent Christian teacher claiming to know exactly when Jesus would return. A group of people absolutely convinced that he’s right. A world watching to see what would happen.

Sound familiar? I’m sure it does. But, I’m actually describing what was going on in 1844, when William Miller convinced his followers that Jesus would return sometime that year, eventually settling on October 22. The day came and went without incident.

Here’s a short video on The Great Disappointment, which does a nice job putting you into their shoes to experience their hope and eventual disappointment.

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HT Crystal Lewis

It’s Jonathan Edwards Week!

I’ve decided to designate this as Jonathan Edwards Week, since it’s the week leading up to my class on Jonathan Edwards. And, to celebrate Jonathan Edwards Week, I’ll be posting a variety of Edwards links, quotes, and resources every day this week. (I will, of course, post on other issues as well. I couldn’t stick to one topic for an entire week if I wanted to.) So, if you’re interested in Edwards, stay tuned for more.

And, I thought the following clip would help get things started on the right note.

HT Brian’s Life

Time to spend some quality time with Jonathan Edwards – any suggestions?

Every year I get to lead a Th.M. seminar focusing on key figures in historical theology. This year, it’s Jonathan Edwards. (So far I’ve done seminars on Augustine, Luther, and the Greek Fathers. I love my job.)

So, as I get ready for the seminar this summer, it’s time for me to brush off old favorites and explore new resources. I’m just about to dig into Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word by Douglas A. Sweeney and The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics by Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, which I’m thinking about using as a resource for orienting students to the broader Puritan context of Edwards’ theology. In the next few days, I’ll also be reading through Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life again, since that will be the key biography for the course.

I have several other books on my reading list and I’m looking forward to digging more deeply into Edwards than I have in the past. But, I’m also open to suggestions. So, I have two questions. What are your favorite books about Edwards? And, what are your favorite works written by Edwards?

For extra credit, if there are any journal articles or book chapters that you think do a particularly fine job of addressing some aspect of Edwards’ life and/or theology, please feel free to pass those along as well.

God in America – PBS documentary online

I just found out that PBS has been running a series this week on God in America. Here’s the description from the website:

For the first time on television, God in America explores the tumultuous 400-year history of the intersection of religion and public life in America, from the first European settlements to the 2008 presidential election. A co-production of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and FRONTLINE, this six-hour series examines how religious dissidents helped shape the American concept of religious liberty and the controversial evolution of that ideal in the nation’s courts and political arena; how religious freedom and waves of new immigrants and religious revivals fueled competition in the religious marketplace; how movements for social reform — from abolition to civil rights — galvanized men and women to put their faith into political action; and how religious faith influenced conflicts from the American Revolution to the Cold War.

Has anyone been watching this? If so, what do you think? Is it any good? One of the other faculty here at Western has been watching and was pretty impressed with the overall quality and balance through the first two episodes.

You can watch the the whole series online here. If you do watch it, make sure you come back here and let us know how it was. I’ll probably check it out and see if there are some good segments to use in my church history class.

The 50 Most Influential Religious Figures in American History

Joe Carter has published his list of the 50 Most Influential Religious Figures in American History. I won’t reprint the list here, but it’s an interesting list. Unfortunately, he gives the list in alphabetical order. I would have liked to see him try to rank these people in order of influence/significance. That’s always an impossible task, but it’s fun to watch people try.

I did notice some surprising omissions.

  • American liberal theology was noticeably underrepresented. What about William Ellery Channing, Harry Ward Beecher, and Harry Emerson Fosdick?
  • And, since we’re talking about American religiosity in general, where are the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau?
  • What about U.S. Hispanic religious leaders? Certainly figures like Padre Martinez or Virgilio Elizondo are worthy of consideration.
  • And, of course, let’s not forget Gary Larson. I think my generation learned more about religion from the Far Side cartoons than any of the above combined.

Is there anyone that you would want to see included in a list like this?