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.]
Free market economics through the lens of sin, power, and human flourishing (Acton 4)
[Oops. I wrote this while I was at Acton, but neglected to publish it. So, before anyone comments, yes I know that 4 comes before 7.]
One of the consistent themes here at Acton has been the idea that economics is not a zero-sum game. Rather than trying to determine how to divide up a finite pie of economic resources (wealth re-distribution), we should be focusing on how the proper use of capital resources creates more capital and greater global wealth. And, the best way to allocate those capital resources properly is to allow local economies to flourish. Some centralization of governmental authority is necessary to ensure that market forces don’t get out of hand, but in general we should facilitate the development of free markets that can respond swiftly to market demands and tap the resources of creative individuals/communities.
An issue that often arises in these discussions is that of global poverty, particularly poverty in majority world countries. Applying these free market principles means that the best way to address poverty is through the development of free market economies that will facilitate the production of greater wealth. Although “aid” should be an important part of our response to crisis situations, continual aid leads to an unhealthy dependence that destroys local economies. So, instead of “aid”, we should be focused on supporting local, free market economies. This is the best way to address global poverty. And, the growing economies of China and India are often cited as case studies in the application of these principles.
Although I can appreciate a lot about this arrangement, I am still left with at least four questions. One of them, the impact of this free market approach on the environment, I’ll save for my next post. In this one I’d like to focus on the issues of sin, power, and human flourishing.
1. Sin. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s easy to talk about a “market” as an abstract force in society, and then discuss its potential for good in the world. That’s nice. But, when we realize that markets comprise the actions of individuals and communities which are themselves sinful and driven by sinful desires, the level of optimism should decrease significantly. And, Acton is fully aware of this problem. That’s why none of the lectures rejected a role for government in monitoring markets entirely (even though some of the rhetoric still pressed in this direction). But, their preferred answer to the problem of sin is the development of “virtuous” people and societies, who will then develop more “virtuous” markets. Unfortunately, “virtue” is one of those terms that never received adequate definition. Presumably they meant the Christian virtues (love, joy, peace, etc.). But, since they’re not talking about evangelism per se, they must be talking about developing “Christian” virtues in non-Christian contexts. (In other words, for market purposes it doesn’t really matter if you’re a Christian or a Buddhist, as long as you’re trustworthy.) But, I’m still waiting for some discussion of what it means to develop Christian virtues apart from Christ, who gets to determine which virtues are necessary, and how they do that. So, in general, I’d still like to see more reflection on the nature of sin and how it impacts this appeal to free markets.
2. Power. This one is similar to the last, but nuanced in a particular way. In one discussion this week, someone pointed to the problem of malaria in the majority world as an example of a situation that free markets seem poorly positioned to address. According to him, Malaria has the greatest impact on poor children in the majority world. Since such children have no capital resources, large pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in affordable malaria medications. An example like this powerfully demonstrates the problem of unequal power distribution in the world and its impact on free markets. It would seem that as long as such inequities exist, there will be a tendency for free markets to cater to the needs and desires of those already powerful and wealthy. Granted, as someone points out, it’s actually in the best interests of the market to bring people out of poverty because it creates a larger and wealthier market. But, to hope that the market (i.e. the sinful people making economic decisions) will take such a long-range view, often against its own short-term interests, is a little more than I can manage.
3. Human Flourishing. And, we’re back to this one again because I think it’s at the center of so many of these issues. At the very end of one session someone asked why it is that so many people look at the growing economy of China and worry about what that economic growth is doing to the overall well-being of the people. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to discuss this one because I thought it raised a great question. If we’re not careful, this approach would seem to run the risk of equating human flourishing with economic well being, albeit virtuously economic well-being. So, we end up with a more Christian version of the homo economicus. I think the concerns people raise about rapid economic development are based on an almost unconscious realization that human flourishing involves so much more. So, a discussion of economics has to be grounded in an understanding of (at least) what makes for human flourishing in the world so that we can determine when economic growth does or does not serve that greater end.
Thoughts on human dignity
The Acton University confernce opened this evening with approximately 400 people from more than 50 different countries. At dinner I sat next to a young woman from Myanmar who is studying contextual theology in the Netherlands. I have to admit that I had no idea that Acton had such a global draw. It was impressive. And the attendees appeared to be similarly diverse in race, gender, and denomination (approximately 50% Catholic, 50% Protestant, and 5% Orthodox; I realize those numbers don’t add up, but he added the Orthodox at the end and I’m not sure how it affects the first two numbers).
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, the president of the Acton Institute, gave the openening address entitled “Thoughts on Human Dignity.” Apparently this is his standard first-night presentation, introducing all of us to some of the basic principles of the Acton Institute. It was an engaging presentation, but it did leave me with a number of questions that I hope to pursue further over the next few days.
- Several key terms went without clear definition. Most importantly: liberty, virtue, dignity, image of God, right, and nature. All of these were used repeatedly in the presentation, and I’m sure they’ll be key to many of the seminars as well. So, I’m hoping for much more clarity in how these terms are being used.
- Although Sirico repeatedly referenced the “complexity” of the human person, he tended to emphasize the rational/intellectual aspect of humanity. He often referred to the importance of “ideas” for shaping human life and indicated that it is primarily our rationality that separates us from the animals. That left me wondering if there wasn’t an implicit rationalistic anthropology driving some of this despite the occasional mention of other dimensions of human existence – relationalty, physicality, etc.
- There seemed to be some ambiguity in the presentation on the relationship between the individual and the corporate aspects of humanity. Sirico said at one point that “we are not individuals,” emphasizing the relational dynamic. But later he also said that a human person was an irreplaceable particular (or words to that effect). I’m sure the tension between these two was mostly rhetoric, but it did cause me to wonder if sufficient thought has been given to both of these dynamics and how they are related to one another.
- One of the more interesting moments came during the question/answer time at the end. Someone asked Sirico if he could talk about the resources that the Trinity or Christology might have for addressing some of the issues that he’d raised in his understanding of anthropology and how it relates to dignity, liberty, and society. Now granted, these areas may not be Sirico’s strong suit. But I was still surprised to see that he had little to offer by way of response. He did indicate that he was sure the answer was yes. But he clearly had not spent much time reflecting on what those resources might be or even significant thinkers who might be helpful for understanding this. Given Acton’s premise that a theologically robust understanding of the human person is fundamental for an adequate approach to issues of economics and governance, this apparent lack of trinitarian and christological reflection is more than a little concerning.
- And, finally, toward the end of the presentation he brought up the “right to personal property,” and he argued that this right is grounded in the imago Dei and that protecting this right is essential to establishing and maintaining a flourishing society. I knew coming into the confernce that this was going to be a significant point of emphasis. But, apparently I’ll need to wait for one of the seminars to unpack this assertion more because Sirico did very little to support the contention.
Those are five of the questions that I left this evening’s presentation with. Since this was merely an introduction to the main ideas of the Acton Institute, I expect that many of them will be unpacked further as the week progresses. At least, I hope they will.
Does Christian character have apologetic value?
In a recent post, C. Michael Patton argued that “Christianity is not validated upon the character of its adherents.” In other words, he contends that whether or not Christians actually live significantly differently than non-Christians should have no bearing on whether or not we believe Christianity to be true. He concludes, “Christianity is based solely on the historic person and work of Christ.”
I’d be curious to hear what you have to say about this. On the one hand, you have Patton’s argument that the truth of Christianity is not predicated on the extent to which Christians live out this truth. And, you also have all the sociological evidence supporting the notion that Christians do not in fact live lives that are significantly different from non-Christians. Those two pieces would seem to suggest that Christian character does not have apologetic value. It doesn’t work (i.e. there’s no evidence suggesting that Christian character is noticeably different) and it isn’t necessary (i.e. the truth of Christianity stands or falls without it).
Of course, on the other hand you have the life-changing power of the Gospel and the indwelling of the Spirit. These truths would seem to indicate that if Christianity is in fact true, it should be noticeable. Consequently, Christian character is legitimate evidence for (or against) the validity of Christianity.
What do you think? If you were engaged in an apologetic dispute with someone and they raised the apparent lack of noticeable transformation in the lives of Christians, how would you respond?
Free will and character are not incompatible
A common critique that I often hear against libertarian views of free will is that they are incompatible with the idea that our decisions can be decisively shaped by our character. I ran across a good example of this critique in a recent blog post. The author is critiquing a definition of free will offered by C. Stephen Evans, in which Evans says, “The possession of free will does not entail an ability not to sin, since human freedom is shaped and limited by human character. Thus a human person may be free to choose among possibilities in some situations but still be unable to avoid all sin.” The author concludes:
This statement is contradictory. If the will must sin of necessity then it is in bondage to corruption, and that which is in bondage is not free. So we must ask, freedom from what? Freedom from coercion, yes, but not freedom from necessity (the necessity to sin in this case). So even the author of the definition himself rejects free will perhaps without even knowing it.
There are at least two things wrong with this conclusion. First, it is simply a mistake to conclude that for a person to have “free will”, even in a libertarian sense, they must not be constrained in any sense. All views of free will recognize that the human will is always constrained in important ways (i.e. there are lots of things that I can’t choose). Evans’ definition simply affirms the fact that believing in free will does not commit you to believing that a person is free not to sin. Most libertarian views of free will do necessitate that there be multiple legitimate options available to the free agent, but it is entirely consistent with these views to hold that all of these options might be sinful. Libertarian free will does not commit a person to maintaining that a fallen human being is capable of performing a truly good and righteous act. That is an entirely separate question.
Second, the criticism misses the fact that at least some libertarian views affirm that some free actions can be fully determined by a person’s character. In other words, it might be the case that my decision to X was fully and completely determined by the fact that I am the kind of person who always does X. But a libertarian can still maintain that this is a free action for which I am entirely responsible if I was responsible for the development of an X kind of character. In other words, as long as I am ultimately responsible for the actions and decisions that led to the development of my character, I am fully and freely responsible from the actions that flow from that character, even if the specific actions that resulted were themselves fully determined. (For a good introduction to this understanding of free will see Robert Kane’s A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will).
So, if you want to be a compatibilist, fine. But be careful about throwing “logical contradiction” around too quickly. (And, by the way, the same holds for many libertarian criticisms of compatibilism).