Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Edwards’s Puzzle

In the Author’s Preface to his The Freedom of the Will, Jonathan Edwards wrote,

And I desire it may be particularly noted, that though I have occasion  in the following discourse, often to mention the author of the book entitled,  An Essay on the Freedom of the Will, in God and the Creature, as holding that notion of freedom of will, which I oppose; yet I don’t mean to call  him an Arminian: however in that doctrine he agrees with Arminians, and departs from the current and general opinion of  Calvinists. If the author of that essay be the same as it is commonly ascribed to, he doubtless was not one that ought to bear that name. But however good a divine he was in many respects, yet that particular Arminian doctrine which he maintained, is never the better for being held by such an one: nor is there less need of opposing it on that account; but rather is there the more need of it; as it will be likely to have the more pernicious influence,  for being taught by a divine of his name and character; supposing the doctrine to be wrong, and in itself to be of an ill tendency.

These remarks are interesting in several ways.

Who is Edwards referring to?

To Isaac Watts, (1674 – 1745) the composer of wonderful hymns like ‘There is a green hill far away’, and ‘There is a land of pure delight’.  I don’t know if Edwards sang them in his church, or in his home, or when he was out riding. How do we know it was Isaac Watts?

We know because Watts wrote the book, An Essay on the Freedom of the Will, in God and the Creature, which Edwards tells his readers that the view he was to expound in the book, compatibilism, was ‘the current and general opinion of  Calvinists’. It was not a radical innovation, but the standing position of his Calvinist contemporaries and forbears. Of whom? One theologian that Edwards admired was Francis Turretin, and someone he had an even better opinion of was the Dutch Reformed theologian Petrus von Mastricht. In a letter to his friend and former student, Joseph Bellamy, he wrote in 1747, some years before his Freedom of the Will was published, Edwards said ‘But take Mastrict 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’. His father Timothy Edwards and grandfather Solomon Stoddard  were pillars of New England congregationalism. He veered from his grandfather’s views on the ‘half way covenant’, but no sign that he changed his grandfather’s views on free will.


It is true that Edwards was somewhat outspoken on the defects of scholasticism, the mode of theologizing of his forbears, and so I guess his relatives were in no doubt implicated. For example he criticized Thomas Chubb who was not a scholastic, but Edwards thought he used language that was ‘void of distinct and consistent meaning in all the writings of Duns Scotus, or Thomas Aquinas’.

And he says this ‘instead of the plain vulgar notion of liberty, which all mankind, in every part of the face of earth and in all ages, have; consisting in opportunity to do as one pleases; they have introduced a new strange liberty, consisting in indifference, contingence and self-determination; by which they involve themselves and others in great obscurity and manifold gross inconsistence’.’

But this affects the form not the matter of the question of free will.  He wrote that he himself adopted the language of ‘the vulgar’, everyday language,  not of the ‘learned’,  in the book. Arminian views of the will depart from ‘the current and general opinion of  Calvinists’, and so in the book he holds that he was not innovating. Nevertheless, he tells his reader in the Preface, a person may subscribe to an Arminian view of the will without being an Arminian.

Watts and Edwards

The second thing we learn from what Edwards writes in his Preface is that he does not regard a doctrine such as the nature of free will to act as a foundation for other doctrines, the necessary and sufficient condition of the doctrines of a system of orthodoxy. He says about Watts,  ‘yet I don’t mean to call him an Arminian: however in that doctrine he agrees with Arminians, and departs from the current and general opinion of Calvinists.’ This implies, I take  it,  to take another view than  ‘the current and general opinion of Calvinists’ on the nature of free will and, Edwards seems to think, they are still entitled to that label, if they subscribe to the remainder.

This opinion I think was similar to the view of William Cunningham who in his laboured, rather tortured article, ‘Calvin, and the Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity’ (in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation). By this (I think) he was to give one in the eye to Sir William Hamilton, the Edinburgh philosopher, who regarded the Confession as entailing  necessitarianism. ‘Necessitarianism’ is how determinism was referred to in the nineteenth century. Using extravagant language, Hamilton believed the Confession held that ‘man has no will, agency, moral personality of his own  so a man has no free will he was able to do an act for which he is responsible.” This is not the language of someone who has developed an appetite for understanding what ‘God works all things after the counsel of his will’ means, or who can write carefully about any view he departs from.  But Cunningham went along with the spirit of this, arguing that a person can consistently be a libertarian as regards free will, claiming that the will has the metaphysical power of alternativity, and still be able to subscribe ex animo to the Westminster Confession.

The basis of doctrine

The ‘Watts position’ as we may call it is the outcome, and a reminder, that the basis of Christian doctrine for a Protestant is not another doctrine or doctrines, but the relevant biblical evidence for that doctrine.  The revealed word is the foundation, not any other doctrine.

Such is an inference of what Edwards says, about Watts. ‘A Harmony A person can have Arminian views about some central matter, but not be an Arminian. (Of course Edwards had no reason to think that Watts’s views would develop,  until he wrote such books as The Harmony of all the Religions Which God Ever Prescribed, the Arian Invited to the Orthodox Faith, and Orthodoxy United in Several Reconciling Essays on the Law and the Gospel, Faith and Works.. The circulation of such titles contributed in England to the Dissenting Academies’ departure from their earlier moorings in Calvinism through the eighteenth century.

A second problem

Edwards did not use the word ‘Watts’ once throughout the book, in which Watts’s book was referred to and argued about often. I wonder why? Watts, who had quite a few American contacts, was involved in receiving Edwards’s account of revival in a letter to England. This was Edwards's first effort in publicity in England, indeed in Europe, a letter to Guyse end Colman,  each prominent English dissenters, on the revival in Northampton, who passed it to Watts, and Guyse’s congregation promised publication. Watts saw it through the press as A Faithful Narrative of The Surprising Work of God, in 1737,  by which time the revival was waning, and Edwards’s  Freedom of the Will was yet to be written, being published in 1754. So plenty of time for festering. But Marsden in Jonathan Edwards, A Life, Yale, 2003, missed the significance of the snub of Edwards's not mentioning Watts by name by anonymising him. in referring to Watts’s book on free will. Was Edwards protecting Watts’s name?  But his name was easy to trace when supplied with the title of his book on free will, and Edwards readily supplied that.  If so, why no 'Watts'?

Thursday, June 11, 2020

There is a Higher Throne

During the life of the virus pandemic, and my lock-in on its account,  I have tried to keep abreast of comments in the media. I’m particularly interested in the comments and proposals of those in who regard themselves as Christians. Many who speak and write do so in a situation in which 40,000 or so have died in the U.K. due to the effects of the virus, in about ten weeks. There has been understandable tears and sorrow from the sudden death of a member of a family, usually an older member. Yet these deaths are hardly ‘tragic’. After all, we all have to die. In this sense death is an everyday occurrence, a commonplace. As the Preacher reminds us, ‘there is a time to die’.  

So there have been plenty of remarks about death, and about life after death in which the  loved ones  hope to join their dead relative again. And there is speculation about how society will be like ‘after’ the  pandemic, people not being entirely sure whether it will ‘go away’ in a straightforward sense, or whether it will linger on like a bad dream. Some comfort themselves by the vague sentiment that in the middle of sorrow that death  brings, we can hope. After all, we don’t get much help from a live stream, nor does the radio or television provide a virtual course, or courses, on preparing for death. At least, I haven’t heard one.

A ‘higher realm’

But if we are Christians,  can we get help  from Jesus, and the early Christians, the Apostles?  Maybe we can, and do. For if there is one thing that lingers from Sunday school, and wayside pulpits, and thoughts for the day, is that God is Love, and therefore everything will turn out OK: we shall be safe in the loving arms of God himself.
But Jesus, who is himself God incarnate,  on one occasion delivered this warning:

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear, fear him who after he hath killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Lk. 2.12)

We are not in the hands of God only in this life. But ‘after that’, having spent our lives,  we enter what the hymn calls a ‘higher realm’. We are all used to earthly realms, with their corruption, indecisiveness, lies, blasphemies, and the limitations of presidents and prime ministers, no doubt reflecting the lives of us the people whom they represent, and have voted them into their office. They are not as bad and disappointing as they could be, but they often pretty bad.

But Jesus in that saying that when we enter the heavenly realm warns the life to come is sure enough, but that it will be a fearful place. There is a serious side,

Jesus also said this to his disciples: 

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever  would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will  it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life’. (Matt. 16.24f.)
Is death the end?

It is not innovating when someone holds that when we are dead we are dead. That has been the view of Epicureans  and others since time immemorial. A particular moving expression of this position was given by Philip Larkin in his poem ‘Aubade’, which ends the second verse  by the poet elegantly expressing the view that when we die we face a ‘sure’ extinction. 'We won’t be here or anywhere. Nothing more terrible, nothing more true.' (If you have not read  the whole of ‘Aubade’, you ought to.)

Between the sentimentality of ‘we’ll meet again’ and the ‘when you’re dead you’re dead’ the are is the creedal vie, speaking of Christ, who ‘sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick (i.e. the living),  and the dead. Both Jesus and his Apostle Paul faced the extinction option. In the case of Christ he debated the point with the Sadducees, ‘who say there is no resurrection’, who put a question to him. (Matt. 22.23f.) And in the case of Paul, when he visited The Areopagus at Athens,  met with Epicurean philosophers (Acts 17.18) and when he preached ‘Jesus and the resurrection, to some of them at their invitation,  he said ‘now he [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, [Jesus Christ], and of this he has given assurance to all, by raising him from the dead.’ The reaction later was, that when they heard of the resurrection, some mocked. But others said ‘We will hear you again about this’.  But Paul went out from their midst.’ And there was a division, as there often when the gospel of Christ is preached.  ‘But some men joined and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them’. (v.34)

So people today are not innovating when they scorn the idea of resurrection. It is a common reaction. The Bible refers to the ‘sting’ of death, and that undoubtedly contributes to its fearfulness. Paul said ‘The sting of death is sin,  and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’.(I Cor. 15, 56-7) That victory was obtained by the resurrection of the crucified Christ


Resurrection is not the only thing that is scorned. The idea of a final righteous judgment is also mocked. It is one factor that causes the fear of death, not only the parting from loved one, and from life on the earth. For as we have seen for the Christian death is not the end, for after death we meet our righteous Maker. But if we have grace to trust Jesus while we are still alive in the body, Jesus who while he was here, in the house of Mary and Martha, and said  ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ Martha said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.’ (Jn. 11. 27)

There is a higher throne
Than all this world has known,
Where faithful ones from ev'ry tongue
Will one day come.
Before the Son we'll stand,
Made faultless through the Lamb;
Believing hearts find promised grace—
Salvation comes.

Hear heaven's voices sing;
Their thund'rous anthem rings
Through em'rald courts and sapphire skies.
Their praises rise.
All glory, wisdom, pow'r,
Strength, thanks, and honor are
To God our King, who reigns on high

And there we'll find our home,
Our life before the throne;
We'll honor Him in perfect song
Where we belong.
He'll wipe each tear-stained eye
As thirst and hunger die

The Lamb becomes our Shepherd King;
We'll reign with Him.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Jesus on the cross. What are we to say?

When it comes to the death of Jesus Christ, there is, I think,  a lack of definiteness in how people describe it. Of course we must respect Paul’s emphasis that ‘great is the mystery of godliness’. (I Tim.3.16). Yet  it is one thing to respect the unfathomableness of the Incarnation, but quite another,for example, to allow ourselves to makethe claim that God died on Good Friday, presumably experiencing  resurrection on the third day. Death of God? Resurrection of God? The oddity and incoherence of these expressions should alert us that somewhere, someone has made an unwise inference.

First clarity, Jesus Christ is God incarnate

Here is Calvin on the Incarnation,

Certainly when Paul says of the princes of this world that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8), he means not that he suffered anything, in his divinity, but that Christ, who was rejected and despised, and suffered in the flesh, was likewise God and the Lord of glory. In this way, both the Son of man was in heaven because he was also Christ; and he who, according to the flesh,dwelt as the Son of man on earth, was also God in heaven. For this reason,he is said to have descended from heaven in respect of his divinity, not that his divinity quitted heaven to conceal itself in the prison of the body,but because, although he filled all things, it yet resided in the humanity ofChrist corporeally, that is, naturally, and in an ineffable manner. There is a trite distinction in the schools which I hesitate not to quote. Although the whole Christ is everywhere, yet everything, which is in him is not everywhere. I wish the Schoolmen had duly weighed the force of this sentence, as it would have obviated their absurd fiction of the corporeal presence of Christ. (Inst . IV.17.30)

It has to be borne in mind that the Incarnation, comprised of the divine and the human natures of Jesus Christ, was not a case of fifty-fifty. The human nature was subordinate to his divine nature as befits the creature to his Creator.  In loving grace God the Son, the eternal Logos, very God of very God, took on human nature, the natural progeny of the Holy Spirit and the lineage of Mary. He was ‘clothed in our flesh’ as Calvin puts it more than once. It was not at all a case of the human nature also taking on divine nature. So there was an asymmetry. This is central to his condescension and of his humiliation. When the word become flesh (John 1.14), neither his full deity nor his full humanity were compromised or changed in their natures. He, the Logos,  was  taken of a new relation. He was related to ‘flesh’ at a precise time, the date of the change in  Mary’s life. Eternally he was purely spirit and in the person of the Son took on 'flesh', a instance of human nature. In ‘became flesh ‘ the ‘became’ is not to be understood as the transformation of the Logos into something that was not the Logos, nor of humanity that was not fully that, but of the acquiring of a new relation to something that is the Logos, but was also united to ‘flesh’, human nature.

If evangelical preachers are excited by the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the extent that they allow themselves to talk of the ‘death of God’, this is an exaggeration that they should not allow themselves, but rather discipline their thinking.  

The Incarnation and the three offices

Consider, from another strand of Christendom, the idea of the death and resurrection of Christ as a sign of hope, or of the coming of Spring (though not so in the Southern hemisphere), or of the triumph of love over adversity and death, of human life over death. It is a symbol new life. Hence bunnies and daffiodils and chocolate eggs are intrinsic to such a view of Easter.  

Such wide varieties of interpreting Christ’s resurrection suggests that these momentous events, on which the history of the race pivots, are not so much a deep mystery, as a conundrum, a blank, in which we can use their imagination to paint or colour, as we see fit. The person of the God – man is forgotten. What happened on the death of Jesus, was not  the humiliation or the death of the God – man, but the triumph of human nature over death, without any details, or perhaps, more confusedly, of the triumph of God over death.  

Each extreme view that we have sketched also ignores the place of the  offices of the Incarnate Saviour in the events of the Cross. He is the Messiah. He is prophet, priest and king, of which the fundamental office is that of priesthood. The drama of the death and resurrection were actions of the economic trinity, the trinity not in itself  but in its arrangements in respect of the redemption of the church by Jesus Christ.  And it is evidence of the ‘calvinistic’ character of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms that these documents adopt John Calvin’s emphasis. In Chapter VIII ‘Of Christ the Mediator’,  the character of his Mediatorship is that he is, ‘the Prophet, Priest, and King;  the Head and Saviour of his church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the World…’ (VIII.1). And the Larger Catechism explains it from question 42 onwards, with emphasis on the practical application of these offices of Christ in the Christian life.

All this was to in order for him do the Father’s ‘work’ that he gave his Son to do. (Jn. 17.4) And it is a relationship that, having been made, has no end, for the Logos bears that nature, human nature, as eternally glorified. That these are mysterious matters no one can doubt, for they are intimate and unique relations of the Creator and the seed of the woman. Although Calvin’s three-foldness is that of a prophet, priest and king, yet there is biblical evidence as the office of priest that is the basic, primary office. The duties are the most basic.

Hugh Martin says,

The Divine Spirit does not affirm that His appointment either to his prophetic or His kingly office “glorified” him. But the affirmation is expressly made of His appointment to the sacerdotal office: “God glorified Him to be made an high priest." (Heb. v.5). To inaugurate Him into the office of prophet or of king we read not that the dread solemnity of the Divine oath was had recourse to. “But the Lord  hath sworn and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec’ (Psa. cx.4). Four times is this remarkable oracle quoted in terms [i.e. explicitly] in the  New Testament.’ (Heb. vi. 16 – 17,  vii 20-21, 28., vii.17, vii.21) (Hugh Martin, The Atonement, Knox Press, Edinburgh, 1976, 54.

These titles and offices, as Martin insists, are not literary devices to embellish the Incarnate One,   not vague expressions of mere adornment. The are literally true of the Logos, what he became. Indeed we may say that he is the paradigm and perfect example of each office. His offices define his character, selling out his identity. He was truly a prophet, priest and king, particularly a priest who made a real sacrifice, and who was himself the offering. The great high priest  was as a prophet….. and as a king.

The moral is that the work of Christ is essential to his identity, expressed as his  character of prophet, priest and king. The character of Christ as a substitute, offering etc. are intrinsically  related to his character, and not to be a vehicle of human imagination and inventiveness, nor to be forgotten, or re-modelled as the work of Christ the remembrancer of the coming of Spring.

So if we bring together his humanness and his deity, and enumerate  the offices, these marvellous changes fill in the essential detail of the work of Christ on the cross, and so determine what it means and why it matters. We are not to shun detail when we think of the cross and Christ on it. This act was not a blank outline waiting for descriptions from ‘religious writers’ using their imaginations. He was really a priest, as well as being a king and a prophet and real himself the offering. As a prophet he expressed in revealed language the character of his priesthood. (55) And as  king he rules his kingdom. (Eph.5.5)

NOTE, Hugh  Martin, (1822 – 85)  from whom I have borrowed some of the material used above, was a nineteenth-century Scottish theologian, who left the ministry due to ill health. Besides The Atonement, among the other books he  wrote  were The Prophet Jonah (1866), The Shadow of Calvary (1865), and Christ’s Presence in the Gospel History,(1865) and was the author of articles in The British and Foreign Evangelical  Review.

See also