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Jonathan Edwards on Love as the “Sum of All Virtue”

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

Jonathan Edwards’ Charity and its Fruits is a collection of manuscript adapted for publication by Edwards on the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Jonathan Edwards first delivered these lectures as a series of sermons to his church in Northhampton in 1738, and were first published in 1852. Shortly, after it was published, The New Englander, a journal founded at Yale College, described Edwards’ work as a volume that reflected “the childlike simplicity of his tastes, his strength of intellect, his acute and searching discrimination, and the warmth and earnestness of his piety.”1 Charity takes a simple tone and clear logic that reflects the nature of a work design to be delivered to those in his flock in Northhampton. Each lecture functions as its own independent unit, and therefore lacks a structured progression, even though Edwards works through each verse in succession. I would group each lecture under several headings.

The first heading could be titled, the primacy & nature of love. The title of this volume uses the term, charity. Even though, Edwards uses charity throughout this work, it is somewhat misleading. At first glance, any modern reader would assume that when Edward uses the word “charity”, he means to discuss the voluntary giving of help, usually expressed in the giving of money. However, Edward simply adopts this word due to its use in his translation of the Bible. He points out that in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, the word “which is here translated ‘charity,’ might better have been rendered ‘love’.” Edwards defines love as “that disposition or affection whereby one is dear to another;” and is expressed as it is “exercised towards God or our fellow-creatures.” Despite the object of its expression, Edwards argues that Christian love is always the same because it comes from God by God motivated by God’s loving nature. When Christian love is active in an individual, we find that we possess the greatest ingredient of the Christian faith. For Christian love reflects “the sum of all the virtue and duty that God requires of us, and therefore must undoubtedly be the most essential thing.”  And without it, there can be no real exercise of true religion. Edwards also argues that Christian love is to be prized above all virtues, as well as all supernatural gifts of the Spirit. In Edwards estimation, supernatural gifts of the Spirit are granted temporarily by God for a purpose, however love is inherent in a Christian’s nature & continues through to eternity. Edward describes those extraordinary gifts as “a beautiful garment, which does not alter the nature of the man that wears it.” However, love is that “fruit of the Spirit that never fails or ceases in the church of Christ.”

The second heading could be titled, the visible effects of love. Edwards argues, “All true grace in the heart tends to holy practice in the life.” Therefore, it must be visible and there must be fruit. If we desire to know that Christian love is real, it is most clearly evidenced in a individuals seeking and doing it—“for whatever we truly desire, we do thus seek.” This is most clearly seen in our redemption. “He has reconciled them to God by his death, to save them from wicked works, that they might be holy and unblamable in their lives.” Edwards continues by showing the effects, or fruits, of love. This is reflected in a Christian’s ability to endure all sufferings of all degrees. Edwards argues that Christian love enables Christians to willingly undergo “the fiercest and most cruel sufferings in degree, they are willing to undergo for Christ”; for they “are like pure gold, that will bear the trial of the hottest furnace.” Christian love is also visible in Christian humility. Edwards argues that if we have God’s condescending love, and we understand & love God who is infinitely greater than we are, and we love our humble Lord who was crucified for our sake; then the fruits of love will be a humble spirit.

The final heading I would use to organize Edwards thoughts in this volume is the opposing spirits of love. Edwards first address the spirit of envy, which is opposed to Christian love. He states, “The nature of charity or Christian love to men is directly contrary to envy; for love does not grudge, but rejoices at the good of those who are loved.” Edwards also points out that selfishness is at opposite of Christian love for “those that are possessed of the spirit of Christian charity are of a more enlarged spirit still; for they are concerned not only for the thrift of the community, but for the welfare of the Church of God.” Finally, Edwards argues that the spirits of anger and censoriousness are at complete odds with love.

Charity and its Fruits possess tremendous strengths, which should be noted. Compared to many of the writings of Jonathan Edwards, the language is extremely clear and easy to read. His arguments have a powerful straightforwardness about them that is well supported by Biblical evidence. This volume is possesses a practicality unlike any of his other works. Most lectures in this volume end with valuable considerations of the application of arguments made by Edwards. My biggest concerns in this work were largely peripheral concerns. With this volume, they begin with the lack of exposition, due to my fondness of preaching, and end on Edwards’ heavy emphasis on personal examination. Though Edwards does recognize that when discussing love and “a life of Christian practice…the meaning is not, that the life is a perfect and sinless life.” There is significant emphasis on demands of love and our failings to meet them. This would not be as problematic had there been countered with significant devotion to the Gospel, and Christ’s perfect and sinless life. In the end, Edwards’ exploration into the nature and fruits of love helps uncover true Christian love, how it is identified, and practiced.

1 Northrop, F. W. “President Edwards on Charity and its Fruits.” New Englander. 10.2 (1852): 222-36.

[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.]

Flotsam and jetsam (1/12)

The temperance movement reacted to a real social and medical problem. We should not dismiss it as a product of Victorian prudishness. But then a focus on reducing alcohol abuse morphed into the conviction that it was a sin for any person to take a drink, period. This was a simpler approach, but it is not biblical.

Can a well-placed expletive positively stir the soul? If something is deemed inappropriate for children, should it not be sold through “Christian” distribution channels? Can Christian art impact us positively through things that offend us? Is the act of “offending” a counter-Gospel act?

My basic thesis is this: The assumptions required for such homiletic detours are irresponsible both to yourself and to your audience, and they misunderstand the way in which God works in the life of the church.

  • Robert Miller sparked a lively discussion with his argument that human dignity should not be the ground of Christian ethics (see also here and here). I found the discussion particularly interesting for Miller’s argument that main competing ethical systems (utilitarian, deontological, virtue) are incommensurable and that theologians cannot pick-and-choose aspects of each without lapsing into incoherence.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/24)

There are various things that you could say that are sufficient to give some moral status after a few months, maybe six months or something like that, and you get perhaps to full moral status, really, only after two years.

Let it be clear:  The earliest Jewish Christian believers did not see themselves as departing from full loyalty to their ancestral deity.  They saw their devotion to Jesus as mandatory, in response to God’s exaltation of Jesus as recipient of this devotion.

  • David Fitch explains why he thinks that Youth Groups Destroy Children’s Lives. He concludes by saying how important that well-done youth ministry is for the church, but here’s his critique in a nutshell.

I think youth groups often do things that work against the formation of our youth into life with Christ and His Mission. They also soak up huge time and resources in ways that are a detriment to the community life of the church.

it seems fairly obvious that if a squad of terrorists did try to infiltrate Manhattan or any other urban area, they would not dress in camouflage to do it, and would not be sprinting.

The Pope, condoms, and the principle of double effect

While I was at ETS, some of our ThM students were discussing theological ethics and the principle of double effect (PDE), a way of thinking through complex moral situations in which a single act has both a negative and a positive consequence. (See Chris Smith’s post on Double Effect and the Ethical Dilemma.) Since I was not able to participate in the discussion, and since I don’t want to look stupid in front of my students, I thought it would be a good idea for me to work on my own understanding of this principle. So, it was with interest that I dug into a recent post by Katie over at the Women in Theology, arguing that the Pope’s recent statements about condom use can be analyzed using PDE.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the upcoming book in which Pope Benedict XVI apparently condones the use of condoms in certain situations, particularly when used to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS among prostitutes. At first glance, this seems rather surprising given that for Catholic theologians, condom use necessarily results in the bad effect of separating the the sexual act from its unitive and procreative act. Although this is an unpopular position in modern culture, this view underlies the traditional Catholic rejection of contraception in general. But, as the Pope has pointed out, condom use also has the intrinsically good effect of preventing the spread of a deadly disease. Thus, we have a situation in which a single act (condom use) will result in both a good effect (preventing disease spread) and a bad effect (separating the sexual act from its divinely intended purposes).

To determine whether PDE applies to this scenario, we must see if the scenario meets the following conditions:

  1. The Nature of the Act: The act in question must be at least a morally neutral act (i.e. it cannot be an intrinsically bad act).
  2. Means-End: The bad effect  cannot be the means by which the good effect is accomplished.
  3. Right-Intention: The bad effect cannot be that which is intended by the actor.
  4. Proportionality: The good effect must be equivalent to or greater than the corresponding bad effect.

And, as I see it, the condom-use scenario meets all four conditions.

  1. The Nature of the Act: It seems to me that even for Catholic theologians, condom use is a morally neutral act. In and of itself, using a condom has no moral consequences (e.g. using it as a water balloon). It is one  particular result of using a condom (preventing conception and, consequently, separating the sexual act from its procreative function) that is instrinsically wrong.
  2. Means-End: As in most PDE scenarios the good effect and bad effect are inseparable. Wearing a condom during the sexual act (assuming that the condom does not malfunction) necessarily results in both consequences. But, it seems clear that the bad effect in this situation is not the means for accomplishing the good effect – i.e., a person does not seek to separate the sexual act from its intended purposes as a means to preventing the spread of a deadly disease. The two consequences are inseparable, but the one is not the means for accomplishing the other.
  3. Right-Intention: This is critical. For this situation to come under PDE, the actor must intend the good effect and not the bad one. So, in this scenario, the person using the condom must intend to stop the spread of a deadly disease and not to prevent procreation.
  4. Proportionality: The benefit of preventing the spread of a deadly disease must outweigh the drawback of separating the sexual act from its procreative function. As with most PDE scenarios, there is a strong element of subjectivity in this final step. But, it is certainly not obvious that this scenario violates this condition.

So, it would seem to me that this scenario is amenable to analysis using PDE. And, the Pope’s conclusion seems warranted, assuming that you agree with the application of condition 4 and the use of PDE in general.

That is my best attempt to explain how PDE works and how it applies to a situation that most Protestants would not necessarily see as involving a significant moral quandry. But, it demonstrates how PDE might be applied to other scenarios with more existential angst for us. And, it also highlights some of the weaknesses of the approach: the often opaque appeal to intentions, an ambiguous understanding of what qualifies as an “act”, and the necessarily subjective judgment required by the proportionality condition. At the same time, though, I like the way that PDE forces us to acknowledge how difficult it can be to make moral judgments in the midst of a broken world in which sometimes there are no “right” answers.

    Double Effect and the Ethical Dilemma

    (This post is by Chris Smith and is the next post in the series on Philosophy and Theology that the ThM students are engaged in.)

    The article that I have chosen to post about is “The Rule of Double Effect—A Critique of Its Role in End-of–Life Decision Making” by Timothy E. Quill. This is how I understand the double effect rule: The double effect rule states that a doctor is ethically justified in prescribing medicine that is intended to treat a terminally ill patient’s pain even if this same medicine may decrease the patient’s expected lifespan or result in death. The double effect rule justifies a doctor’s actions based on the nature of their intentions. If a doctor prescribes medicine with the intention of minimizing pain but causes a patient’s death, his actions are justified under the double-effect rule; however, if a doctor prescribes medicine with the intention of causing death, his actions are not justified. (The assumption behind this rule is that there is not a less harmful drug available to treat the kind of pain the patient is experiencing.) The rule is called double effect because a doctor’s intention can have two effects: the intended relief of pain and foreseen but unintended death.
    The double effect rule begs the question: Can the desire to alleviate extreme and terminal pain ever outweigh a doctor’s imperative to preserve physical life? Quill states: “The word ‘intentional’ suggests, however, that the deaths of innocent persons may be permissible if brought about unintentionally” (1768).  Here we need to understand the meaning of unintentional not as an accidental effect that is unexpected but as a potential effect that is not intended. When a doctor seeks to alleviate pain by increasing dosages that will have a harmful effect on the patient, can he really by justified when he knows that his actions are further contributing to the patient’s inevitable death? I would say he is justified in this act because his intention is to alleviate.

    A case Quill describes makes the double effect rule even more reasonable in my opinion. He describes a patient who is on a respirator in order to help him breath. Is a doctor justified in his decision to turn off a respirator in hopes that the patient will be able to breathe without it? I would say the act of turning off the machine is justified even if the patient dies because the hope was to draw on the patient’s strength to stimulate his own breathing. The patient’s death may have been possible (“foreseen”) but unintentional because the desire was to see the patient breathe on his own. I find this to be a more effective use of the double effect rule because the doctor was attempting to stimulate the patient to greater health rather than attempting to prevent pain.

    Morning links (9/15)

    Okay, I finally got one too many comments from people who either couldn’t figure out what “flotsam and jetsam” means (originally a nautically term referring to the debris left after a shipwreck, it’s also used to refer to “odds and ends” in general), or who wondered if I’m just a big Little Mermaid fan (which, by the way, says more about you than it does me). So, I’m going to drop that title for a while and go with something that will hopefully be a little clearer. But, just in case there’s still some uncertainty out there, let me explain:

    • “Morning” = that period of the day between when I wake up and when my coffee has finally kicked in.
    • “Links” = those underlined/colored/highlighted words on the screen that take you places when you click on them.

    Now, that we’ve taken care of that business, here are some links for this morning.

    Eccentric Existence 13 (social action)

    [We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

    In the previous post, we discussed the pneumatological framework of Kelsey’s theological anthropology. And, we saw that Kelsey presented the Spirit as both gift and promise. The Spirit is both the gracious presence of God with his creation (humanity’s ultimate context) and the promise that God will continue to lead all of creation (humanity’s proximate context) toward its eschatological telos. This immediately raises the question of human action in the world. Do we have any role to play in the eschatological consummation of God’s promised purposes? If so, what is that role and how should we go about it?

    The Meaning of Human Action

    According to Kelsey, “Perhaps the most important anthropological question about our proximate social contexts is whether historical change…is meaningful” (478). Is there any for us to look at the messy, complex world that we live in, as well as the sin and brokenness that so often accompanies even our most well-intentioned actions, and still come to the conclusion whether there is any real meaning to the historical changes that we work so hard to achieve.

    Do such changes amount to a movement toward any goal of such transcendent value that it redeems the suffering and loss? Or is unrelenting historical change finally sheer ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’? (478)

    At this point, Kelsey sounds very much like James Davison Hunter in his recent work To Change the World. Both express significant reservations about whether we can have any real confidence about whether our actions really are leading to meaningful change in the world. Instead of working in accordance with God’s eschatological purposes, even envisioning ourselves as contributing to and ushering in God’s eschatological Kingdom, isn’t it entirely possible that we are instead acting in our own selfish best interests, furthering the sinful world orders that we seek to undermine? Does human action have any real meaning in this broken world? Or, are we hopelessly compromised in our sinfulness and can only wait in anxious anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s eschatological purposes. For Kelsey, it appears to be a little of both. He does want to affirm that human action in the world has meaning, but only in a highly qualified way.

    The Ambiguous Nature of Human Action

    If you’ve been following this series, this emphasis on the ambiguous nature of  human action should come as no surprise. Kelsey has routinely emphasized that sin, finiteness, and sinfulness all contribute to making it nearly impossible to systematize virtually any aspect of theological anthropology. Instead, at every turn we are confronted and frustrated by ambiguity and complexity. Human action in the world is no different.

    First, Kelsey appeals to the Wisdom literature to contend that there is “no overall teleological order” (479). God did not create any single creaturely existence that precisely mirrors “the inexhaustibly rich and complex beauty of God’s glory” (479). So, the ambiguity of human action is integral to being God’s creatures. Rather than trying to find the ideal expression of God’s “will” in every situation, we are instead called to find the best expression of human faithfulness in our particular quotidian. And, it was precisely for this that God created us as creatures who have “their own time and space” (480). By giving us time an space to be ourselves, God creates the opportunity (and responsibility) to use that freedom for his glory. It’s our task to respond to this gracious gift in faithful hope.

    Of course, our inherently creaturely complexity is rendered even more ambiguous by the reality of sin. Instead of just being manifold expressions of human faithfulness in our finite quotidian realities, the existence of God’s creatures is “radicalized into a living contradiction when their creatureliness is distorted in sin” (481). Thus, we fall into “inexplicable self-contradictoriness” (481) that renders human action opaque and often absurd.

    Given these two kinds of ambiguity – the ambiguity inherent in being diverse creatures living in his manifold creation and related to by God in complex ways, and the ambiguity introduced by sin and its absurd contradiction of all that God intended – there is an inherent “ambiguity in every historical change that is apparently a change for the better” (484).

    The Missio Dei

    At this point, one would be forgiven for thinking that Kelsey was going to introduce a God-of-the-gaps resolution to the problem. Human action is ambiguous because of our finiteness and fallenness, but don’t worry, God’s action in the world will make sense out of everything. For Kelsey, though, the missio Dei actually introduces yet another source of ambiguity.

    the missio Dei moves in God’s own very peculiar way sometimes with, sometimes against, and sometimes obliquely at cross-grain to the various trajectories of change that we can discern in our social and cultural contexts. (487)

    Rather than clarifying the situation, we see that God’s action often works against what we might think of as the betterment of the world order and society. Indeed, Kelsey points to apocalyptic language as a great example of how the missio Dei often works against the natural currents of the world.

    apocalyptic imagery concerns the structure of the cosmos, not the logic of history….Paul does not use apocalyptic rhetoric for that purpose. He uses it to describe a radical change in the structure of the world, a shift from an old creation to a new creation. (490)

    We sometimes think that we can easily identify the ways in which God is at work in the world. But, what we are often doing is identifying God’s action with what we think the world really needs. When we see those things happening, we presume that it is God at work. Kelsey argues, though, that apocalyptic imagery forces us to consider the fact that God’s inauguration of the Kingdom through Jesus’ resurrection means that “all such principles used to constitute a socially constructive lived cosmos” have been radically relativized” (492-493). Instead of operating in accordance with our preconceptions and socially derived views of human flourishing, God breaks into the world and “unilaterally constitutes a new social reality, a new lived world” (496).

    God’s work in the world thus constitutes another source of ambiguity in the world. The apocalyptic inbreaking of God’s eschatological reign is so radically other that we often fail to recognize it when we see it.

    Grace and Judgment

    At this point, one could legitimately begin to wonder if Kelsey’s qualified affirmation of human action in the world is really a resounding “no.” Given all this ambiguity, how could human action have real meaning? For Kelsey, the answer is to recognize both God’s grace and his judgment on all human action. Since all of our actions are inherently ambiguous, we must anticipate God’s judgment on everything that we do.This judgment is not simply the result of ambiguity, since at least some of the ambiguity comes from our the finiteness and diversity of God’s good creation. But, God’s judgment falls on “our idolatrous reliance on culturally relative values to generate such blessing on their own” (499). Thus, we can never afford to fall into a complacent confidence that assumes God’s stamp of approval on our actions. Instead, we should recognize the diversity, messiness, and brokenness of human existence, seeking to be faithful in every situation, but always also anticipating God’s judgment on our every action.

    At the same time, though, we anticipate with eschatological hope God’s gracious mercy.  “God drawing humankind to eschatological consummation does entail that, by the creativity of God’s free love, what has been distorted will be transformed, the threat of meaninglessness overcome, and living deaths liberated into true life” (500). Even while anticipating God’s eschatological judgment on our actions in the world, we can still stand firm in our hope that God’s grace is sufficient and that he will accomplish his purposes in the world. Human action is not thereby rendered meaningless, we are still called to live faithfully in our quotidian, but it is seriously qualified in light of the inbreaking of God’ eschatological Kingdom and the sinful ambiguity of our creaturely contexts.

    Flotsam and jetam (8/31)

    Flotsam and jetsam (6/13)

    • The Australian Broadcast Corporation announces the launch of its religion and ethics portal. The plan is to provide both ABC content from its various media sources as well as original content from leading thinkers around the world.The home page features an article from Rowan Williams, “Refugees Make Us Strange to Ourselves,” about the role that racial and intellectual others play in fostering intellectual freedom and healthy cultural identity. (HT Byron Smith)
    • Biblical Interpretation has an article challenging the idea that we can chronologically separated “early” biblical Hebrew from “late” biblical Hebrew, contending instead that they are contemporaneous styles and that this has implications for how we date OT books. (HT Jim West)
    • Larry Hurtado comments on the success and frustration of his new blog.
    • Ed Setzer discusses four problems with the “rock star” pastor, and his suggested solutions.
    • Christopher Benson has an interesting post on “Why We Need the Dark.” I’m counting on Rev. 22:5 being metaphorical because I really like the dark. (I’m sure that suggest some deeply disturbing things about my psyche, and I’m okay with that.)
    • Joel points out that students can get Amazon Prime free for one year.
    • And, here’s a helpful resource for anyone who needs to learn how to talk smack in Chinese.

    Flotsam and jetsam (5/29)