Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jonathan Edwards: Some Circumstantial Evidence

Note: this is the first part of a draft of an article which considers Edwards's relation to Calvin and also to Reformed Orthodoxy.

In the course of his great work The Freedom of the Will Jonathan Edwards had this to say about one of his notable theological predecessors

However the term 'Calvinist' is in these days, among most, a term of greater reproach than the term 'Arminian'; yet I should not take it at all amiss, to be called a Calvinist, for distinction's sake: though I utterly disclaim a dependence on Calvin, or believing the doctrines which I hold, because he believed and taught them; and cannot justly be charged with believing everything just as he taught. (The Freedom of the Will (1754), ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven, Conn. Yale University Press, 1957), 131 )

Some years earlier, writing to Joseph Bellamy, he advised

But take Mastricht for divinity in general, doctrine, practice and controversy; or as an universal system of divinity; and it is much better than Turretin or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion. (Edwards to the Reverend Joseph Bellamy, January 15th, 1747, (Works, 16.211)

This is a reference to Petrus Van Mastricht (1630-1706), Professor of Theology at the University of Utrecht from 1677 until his death. He was the author of a number of works, but Edwards undoubtedly refers to Theoretico-practica Theologia, published in two volumes in 1682 and 1687, and which was reprinted a number of times.

I think that it is fair to say that the tone of Edwards is somewhat different in these two extracts, each of which has become well-known. Writing about John Calvin, and in public, he seems to be rather tetchy and grudging, expressing both puzzlement and indignation that anyone should think that he (of all people!) should take Calvin to be a human authority, despite being willing, for the sake of a label, to be called a Calvinist. He is not in thrall to Calvin, asserting his theological autonomy or independence at this point.

In the case of his letter to Bellamy, Edwards’s words were for Bellamy’s eyes only, and he is more relaxed, even fulsome. Of all the theological books that he has ever read, when one is looking for an all-round theological authority and guide, van Mastricht’s lengthy scholastic treatment is the best of the bunch, coming second only to the Bible itself!

Edwards exhibits some historical awareness in delivering these two different verdicts. When he wrote to Bellamy, Edwards was preoccupied with the Arminian issue, a concern that was to lead to the Freedom of the Will in 1754. Calvin could not be of much direct help to him there. To pitch John Calvin into the middle of the Arminian controversy would have been to court the charge of anachronism. Van Mastricht could be of more direct help, since in the post-Synod of Dort world of the late seventeenth century, he was a leading anti-Arminian theologian. But it seems that it was not his ability in handling the Arminian controversy, but in his comprehensiveness, that Edwards thought that Van Mastricht’s strength lay. And in any case, advising his student on which textbook to use was a rather different undertaking than disclosing to the world those theologians whose name he was willing to take.

In making comparisons between Edwards and these two earlier Reformed theologians that he mentioned, it should be borne in mind that while they each wrote a major systematic work of theology as a magnum opus. Edwards never did. Though even here the hints that he provides of how he might have tackled such a challenge reveal an approach that differs both from that of Calvin and of Van Mastricht. In a part of another letter which has also become well-known, this time written to the trustees of Princeton towards the end of his life, Edwards told them that he intended to write a ‘great work called A History of the Work of Redemption’, which would be ‘a body of divinity in an entire new method, being thrown into the form of a history.’ (Jonathan Edwards to the Trustees of the College of New Jersey, October 1757, Works, 26:727).

It seems to be clear from this proposal, and what he left to us in his History of the Work Redemption, a series of sermons posthumously-published in 1772, that what Edwards intended was what is nowadays called a ‘redemptive-historical’ theology, what is currently regarded as biblical theology rather than as systematic theology. Yet in the covenant theology in the Reformed tradition there was already such a treatment, and Edwards must have been very familiar with it, with the writings of Johannes Cocceius and of Herman Witsius. From what he wrote, he seemed to be proposing something rather in the historical vein of the covenant theologians, yet with its own unique method. This is another example of Edwards’s boldness and his willingness to innovate, while at the same time keeping within, while even touching, the limits of the boundaries of Reformed orthodox theology.

Besides that, Edwards’s writing style does not correspond either to that of Calvin or Van Mastricht. Like much that he gave his hand to, he was very self-conscious about what he was doing. He was self-conscious of his writing style, and deliberately sought to cultivate it by reading widely and no-doubt disciplining himself in the characteristically Edwardsean way. What emerges is sharply different from the rhetorical style of persuasio that Calvin exhibits in the Institutes, and on the other hand Edwards avoids the formalities of scholasticism. But these stylistic differences need not be altogether exclusive of each other. The Baptist theologian, John Gill, a contemporary of Edwards, some of whose writings were known and used by him, combined a rather orotund, stately eighteenth century prose style with the observance of scholastic distinctions, as is evident in his Body of Divinity. In Edwards’s case the style is certainly that of the eighteenth century. Yet unlike Gill he employs scholastic distinctions in a minimal way.

When all is said and done, the fact is that Edwards’ writings show little direct influence of either theologian. Although he occasionally quotes from Calvin there is little if anything from Van Mastrict, despite Edwards’ high praise of him. However, what has to be borne in mind is that Edwards sees himself writing for diverse readerships. Of his three great works, the Freedom of the Will (1754) is written for his fellow-theologians of a Reformed stamp in New England and beyond, and their Arminian opponents; and the Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (posthumously published in 1758) was intended to outflank the Arminian threat to New England by mounting a root and branch attack on what Edwards regarded as the ultimate enemy, European Deism. It is only his Religious Affections, the first of these three renowned books to be published (1746) that was designed for the domestic New England market.

But how is it possible to make these distinctions about different audiences with any confidence? Partly, of course, by their subject matter and provenance. The Affections arises directly out of the New England revivals and their abuses, a matter of acute concern both to the supporters of the revivals and to their critics. The book had its origins in courses of sermons to Edwards’s Northampton congregation. The other two works are concerned with two fundamental topics in Christian dogmatics, and in particular in theological anthropology. In writing these two books Edwards’s attention focussed on the Colleges of New England and their alumni, and on Europe, whose latest radical ideas were beginning to reach the ears of those on the other side of the Atlantic.

There is another sign of the fact that Edwards had different audiences in mind; the footnotes he employed, and the figures whom he engaged in intellectual combat, or from whom Edwards garnered support, those who appear in the main text. So, for example, the footnotes in the Religious Affections are references to, and citations from, a whole range of Puritan writers from old England and New England - such as his grandfather Solomon Stoddard, Thomas Shepherd, William Ames, John Flavel, William Perkins, John Preston, John Owen, Samuel Rutherford, Anthony Burgess and Theophilus Gale. In addition he cites Francis Turretin, John Calvin, and Martin Luther. The only exception to this roll-call appears to be John Smith, the Cambridge Platonist, and Jeremiah Jones, who wrote on the canon of Scripture. He mentions John Locke, but only en passant along with Cicero, Addison and others.

These lengthy citations from his Puritan forbears were partly a matter of presentation and partly of theological politics. Those chiefly cited were the New England theologians Shepherd and Stoddard, the first a theologian of considerable authority in that community, the second Edwards’ grandfather, but more importantly his predecessor in the Northampton pulpit. Edwards clearly wanted it to be known that he had their endorsement for his teaching on the revival, particularly the careful discriminations he makes about the signs of genuine faith on the one hand and of hypocritical or self-deceiving faith on the other. So here, in the Religious Affections, his grandfather and Thomas Shepherd and the other Puritans, were still speaking. He invites his readers to draw the obvious implication that each would have approved of the revivals and of Edwards’s role in them.

But was the value placed on these writers a sign of their persisting influence? For such puritan writers, the scholastic methods of distinction and disputation were a dominant intellectual influence. Theologians such as Owen and Turretin and Rutherford were in the front rank, men who were able to turn out scholastic Latin disputations at will. Owen and Rutherford locked horns over standard issues in scholastic theology, such as the necessity of the atonement. Rutherford was highly regarded by Gisbertus Voetius, Peter Van Mastricht’s forerunner in theology at Utrecht. The scholastic Latin works of the Scottish theologian were published in Holland as well is in Edinburgh. Had he wished, Rutherford could have occupied a chair in theology there. Ames and Preston were similarly influential.

Despite this roll-call of scholastically-minded Reformed thinkers, I do not think that this is very good evidence that Edwards was nothing more than an eighteenth-century exponent of Reformed Orthodoxy. For the reason that he cited all these theologians was not on account of their scholastic skills, but for a rather different skill. Each was, in Edwards’s eyes and in the eyes of the ministers of New England, masters of practical and especially of ‘experimental’ divinity. That is, they were practiced in the testing of the soul, and in providing written guides for others to test their own souls, over this grand question: Is my conversion real or counterfeit? Do I exhibit the signs of grace? What are these signs? As part of their general outlook on religion, such divines held that first thoughts are not always best thoughts, nor first feelings best feelings. Many who were religious will be barred when they reach the gates of heaven. Of the ten virgins, five of them were wise, but five foolish. When the coming of the bridegroom was announced, five had no oil in their lamps. The Religious Affections is a work of such divinity on a grand scale, with an orderliness and a penetration that surpassed Edwards’s teachers, a response called forth by the expressions of heightened feeling as well as the bodily contortions of those affected by the revival.

It is true that in pursuit of such practical divinity fine discriminations were called for. In a work from which Edwards quoted, Pneumatologia, or a Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit, (1674) John Owen had agonised over the distinction between an account of regeneration which was the outcome merely of moral persuasion, and one which is truly spiritual, the direct renewing of the Holy Spirit. In making such a discrimination Owen certainly exhibited scholastic skills. But the scholastic apparatus was fragmentary, and its language incidental. This was not controversial divinity against the Jesuits or Socinians. These practical preachers used their analytic skills like skilled physicians, to deal with the spiritual problems of the pew, cases of conscience. It was for this reason that Edwards appealed to them, not because they set out their grand theological vision in scholastic terms, or sought to overturn errant divinity, though some of them, such as Owen, were certainly scholastic theologians in both those senses as well.

So a sign of Edwards’s orientation is through this litany of familiar Puritan preachers and practical divines, and the frequent citations of Scripture. Yet, in addition to this, another voice can be heard, the voice of John Locke, as evident in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. As is well known, this philosophical work bowled over the young Edwards when he first read it, and it continued to influence them until his dying day. The last of his great works, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, makes significant use of Locke. But in the Religious Affections Locke appears incognito. For Edwards to have cited him, to have footnoted the Essay for his readers, would have been a distraction. It may even have aroused their suspicions. In the Affections Edwards was seeking to analyse the character of (in the Lockean terminology he adopted) ‘new simple idea’, a new sensation, not a phantom, nor a mere image, but a new reality, like none experienced before. And the question was, what are the characteristics of the presence of this new simple idea, so that a person will know either that he has experienced it, or that he has not? This is the Puritan doctrine of the Spirit’s regeneration, dressed in new verbal clothing.

So, having in the first Part of the Religious Affections shown the importance of the affections, and in the second Part delineated a series of signs which are neither here nor here, in the third Part, which Edwards calls ‘the trial of religious affections’, he sketches no less than twelve signs ‘Shewing What Are Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections’. And what is the character of such affections? ‘[H]ere is, as it were, a new spiritual sense that the mind has, or a principle of (a?) new kind of perception or spiritual sensation, which is in its whole nature different from any former kinds of sensation of the mind’. (205-6) It is ‘the giving of a new sense’, a ‘spiritual sense’. (206) It is not a new faculty of the soul or a natural habit but ‘a new foundation laid in the nature of the soul’, (206) ‘sensations of a new spiritual sense’ (271) a sense of the ‘supreme beauty and excellency of the nature of divine things, as they are in themselves’. (271) Edwards’s point is stark: regeneration is not the raising or exalting of what is already present in fallen human nature; this is, at best, mere imagination or moral reformation. Nor is it merely religious excitement of one kind or another. It is a novel intrusion, a new idea, a new sense, a ‘sense of the heart’. (272)

Intriguing as its presence is to modern students of Edwards, the influence of Locke here ought not to be exaggerated. For here at least the influence of John Locke is confined to the re-expressing in Lockean terms of what was the common coin of Puritan practical divinity. Puritans such as John Owen used the image of ‘light’ and ‘illumination’, keeping fairly close to the language of the New Testament, to convey the supernatural character of Christian conversion. In his work on the Holy Spirit mentioned earlier, which Edwards quotes, Owen had written of a ‘new, spiritual, supernatural, vital principle or habit of grace, infused into the soul, the mind, will, and affections ... a new principle of spiritual life’. (Pneumatalogia, or, A Discourse on the Holy Spirit (1674), The Works of John Owen ed. W.H. Goold (1850-3), (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1966), III. 329-30). ’There is, therefore, an effectual, powerful, creating act of the Holy Spirit put forth in the minds of men in their conversion unto God, enabling them spiritually to discern spiritual things’. (332) God ’communicates a light unto our minds, and that so as that we shall see by it, or perceive by it, the things proposed unto us in the gospel usefully and savingly’. (333) This is not quite the Lockean language of sense or sensation. Owen retains the scholastic terminology of habits, while using language that made the transition to the Lockean terminology of ‘new sense’, ‘sensation’, a ‘new simple idea’ fairly easy to make. My own view is that Locke’s influence here is merely terminological. Using Locke’s terms, Edwards sharpened and renewed the standard teaching on regeneration and its call signs.