Monday, November 26, 2012

Jonathan Edwards' Spiritual Experience; Holding Two Models Simultaneously

I started George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life.  I'll be going through this book rather slowly, and my blogging through it will be off-and-on, which means that I may not blog about it every day.  But I will be reading and blogging through it, for so far it's a good book.

One issue that stood out to me in my latest reading was Jonathan Edwards' spiritual development when he was young.  There came a point when Jonathan was walking in the woods and had an ecstatic recognition of Christ's beauty and love.  Prior to that point, however, Jonathan really struggled as he sought salvation.  There were times when he was interested in spiritual things, and he was excited at a revival at his father Timothy's church (where Timothy was the pastor).  But then Jonathan's spiritual interest petered out.  Jonathan also struggled with relationships, for, even though he impressed adults with his learning, he tended to alienate his peer-group with his shyness and his seriousness.  Jonathan also struggled with sexual lust.  And, while Jonathan did desire God, he thought that the doctrine of predestination portrayed God as a monster, and he also did not care for his father's discipline.

After Jonathan was awakened to the beauty of Christ, his spiritual interest became more sustained.  Yet, even during some of the time that he was a pastor, he still struggled.  He kept extensive notes about his spiritual condition each day, as he noted times when he was irritable or lacked spiritual passion.  He sought to retain his spirituality through regular spiritual disciplines, which often helped him to arrive at a state of equilibrium.  Moreover, he tried to get along with his parents, even though Marsden narrates that Jonathan's father did not think that Jonathan's conversion was quite good enough (though, ironically, at that time, Timothy wanted Jonathan to pastor a certain church).  Later in life, Jonathan looked back on his years as a younger Christian and reflected that he was relying on himself more than the Holy Spirit.  And, while Edwards' spirituality can easily strike one as overly introspective, he did write a best-selling biography of David Brainerd, which "encouraged countless Christian to seek lives of disinterested sacrifice and missionary service" (page 2).

I identified with many aspects of Edwards' spiritual journey: his search for a consistent spiritual high (if you will), his excitement at people becoming closer to God, and his struggles with himself and others, as well as with certain religious doctrines.

Another issue that stood out to me was how Puritans sought to apply the Old and New Testaments.  The Old Testament presents membership in God's people as something that Israelites are born into----which circumcision marks.  In short, the children of someone who is in God's covenant are themselves part of that covenant.  But the New Testament, in contrast, seems to hold in a number of places that faith is how one becomes part of God's people.  There were Puritans who tried to have it both ways: to uphold the covenant as something into which one was born, but also as something that one entered through a conversion experience.  But suppose we had an infant from Christian parents who entered the community of faith through his baptism, yet he grew up and did not have an acceptable conversion experience?  Should his children be baptized, since the infant children of covenant members were the ones who were to receive baptism, and this guy was halfway in the covenant (due to his birth to Christian parents and his baptism as an infant) and halfway out (since he did not have a conversion experience)?

Roger Williams, if I'm understanding Marsden's discussion correctly, did not treat the church as a Christian nation into which people are born.  Moreover, unlike many Puritans, Williams did not think that God dealt with nations as God did in the Old Testament----judging them according to their obedience or disobedience to certain laws.  Rather, for Williams, the New Testament communicated how God dealt with people in this day and age----people entered the church by faith.  But there were many Puritans who sought to retain an Old Testament model and a New Testament model simultaneously.

Jonathan Edwards grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, argued against the requirement that a person have a demonstrable conversion experience to become a church member.  For Stoddard, even if a person claimed Christ but was not truly converted, his participation in the sacraments might lead him to become a Christian.  Stoddard's open-model was rather controversial.

2 comments:

  1. Hi James, my own preference on these sorts of issues would be: faith is not a matter of assent to verbal formulations. So, people can have faith even if they haven't any verbal knowledge of the object of faith. If their disposition is such that they are being faithful to God and Christ, even without verbally knowing of them, then they have true faith. The point about cognitive, verbal, doctrinal, knowledge is that it is desirable that people know the truth in these ways too, and that they join a community that knows in these terms what things are about. But it is not essential. So, also, it is not essential that there be either dispositional or doctrinal completeness or purity. davey.

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  2. Yeah, like Rahner's anonymous Christian.

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