Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Edwards: progress report (still not really liking him)

So Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections is temporarily available as a free download. This is of course completely cool. Plus, it is unabridged, and it is read by Simon Vance, who also read The Reformed Pastor.

Vance is a good reader and should be a pretty smart guy, given all the excellent books he's recorded. (An aside: wouldn't that be cool? To be paid to read excellent books, word for word? Where do you sign up?) It's surprising to hear Vance give Edwards' references to an individual psalm as "Psalms XX," and even more to hear him refer to "Revelations X:X." But that's a small thing.

I'm on about the fourth of twelve, and profiting from it — but only because I don't take Edwards too seriously.

To elaborate: Edwards has made a very good (and personally humbling and convicting) case for the importance of Godward affections. That's a plus.

But on the other hand, he just goes on and on and on about how this and that doesn't necessarily mean you're saved. Turns out (I'm gathering) that nothing really means you're saved, so far. Nothing!

Now I'm a person who's always had trouble with assurance. Thirty-four years and counting, by God's grace, and I still struggle from time to time.

In that struggle, Charles Spurgeon is always a great encouragement to me. Spurgeon takes the slightest flicker of faith, and points it to Christ. He's always, always pointing to the grace of God and the love of Christ.

But unless Edwards ends up somewhere gracious pretty soon, all I am getting from him is that everything means nothing. Faith, orthodox faith, fruitful faith, works, feelings, grace shown in life... all absolutely essential, and all meaningless. Might mean you're saved, might not. You must have them, but if you do, it doesn't mean you're saved.

All I am getting from Edwards is dour condemnation, gloom, despair — not the sort that (if I took him too seriously) would drive me to the Cross, but the sort that would drive me towards permanent residence the Slough of Despond.

Let me be clear: Edwards doesn't even point me to repentance and hope. I'm sure his defenders will want to say that this is how Edwards undoes our faith in ourselves or carnal states or means. Perhaps that is his intention; that is the most charitable reading I can put upon it. But if that's his intent, in my case he's failing miserably, so far. The one and only upshot would be, not to despair of myself and my works and my flesh, but to despair — period! Not even to bother to look to Christ nor to God's promise nor grace, for (he somberly intones) others have made great shows of doing the very same thing, and gone off howling to Hell nonetheless.

So why bother?

I intend to listen to all twelve long mp3's before I form a final opinion. I know some of the best people love Edwards. I know he was a towering figure.

But in spite of my best efforts, I am still finding him a distant, frosty, bloodless, glowering specter.

Thank God that the word and promises and invitations and assurances of the Lord Jesus Christ speak more appealingly, graciously, tenderly, and hopefully than does Jonathan Edwards.

37 comments:

Kim said...

When I read that Religious Affections was being given away on MP3, I was alarmed.

I've read Religious Affections and Edwards is my all time favorite Puritan writer, so I've read him "religiously." In my opinion, Edwards must be read and reflected upon, paragraph by paragraph, sometimes sentence upon sentence.

To hear it read aloud would be relentless--relentlessly overwhelming. My first thought was, "Oh, what a relentless barrage that would be to the listener."

Not all written words are meant to be listened to.

If I were you, I'd ditch the MP3's. If you are determined to finish Religious Affections, then read it. Give yourself the time you need to pace your reading and reflect.

Kim from Hiraeth

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Thanks for providing your initial impressions. I've been meaning for the longest time to read some Jonathan Edwards material because Piper and the monergism.com folks are really impressed with him. I think I read somewhere on the Desiring God website that George Marsden's bio of Jonathan Edwards was the best biography he ever read.

So I still intend to read Edwards or about Edwards, but it's interesting to know that this towering figure in Reform history isn't cutting the mustard for a Calvidispiebaptogelical...yet.

Tom Chantry said...

Tagging off of Kim here...

...a few years ago I was painting classrooms for the summer, and I tried listening to books on tape. I attempted to listen to David McCullough's John Adams, and I found it incomprehensible gibberish. Now this book was supposed to be the greatest piece of American biography in decades, and I couldn't get through three chapters before I quit. A friend who teaches history for a living said, "You're missing out, try reading it," but I couldn't make myself try. I've been avoiding McCullough, even the much acclaimed 1776, until I recently picked up his biography of Truman. It was extraordinary, and now I'm determined to go back and try again. I came to the conclusion that I could listen to - Oh, I don't know - Tom Clancy while painting, but definitely not David McCullough. Jonathan Edwards? I need a good night of sleep and a quiet room before I tackle him.

One further thought, re. Spurgeon vs. Edwards. Spurgeon taught in the context of Baptist churches ravaged by Eighteenth Century hypercalvinism. He needed to point men constantly to Christ as their hope and assurance. Most of the best aspects of Spurgeon were the result of his reaction against his circumstances. Edwards, on the other hand, preached in a New England deadened by the halfway covenant - his churches were full of people who thought they were going to heaven because, well, they were from New England! He felt he had to destroy false assurance, and if he went overboard, it's possible that context was the reason.

DJP said...

I know you mean well, and want me to enjoy the beauty and wonderfulness that is Jonathan Edwards, and I appreciate that.

But I have read Edwards. Again and again and again. I keep trying him, because people I think well of, think well of him. My impression is the same every time: bloodless, joyless, sallow, sunken-cheeked caricature. I feel I now know where people get their slanderous image of Puritans.

So maybe you're right, maybe on my 127th try at reading (and getting a gram of grace) from Edwards, I'd succeed. But I'm not optimistic.

Oh, BTW Tom, fwiw, I really enjoyed John Adams on audio tape. Go figure.

Kim said...

Hello again, Dan.

If I were you, I'd give up on Edwards without guilt. Why become entrenched in a negative impression? Why not just accept that some people enjoy and benefit from his writings but they are not for you? (If you read Piper much, you are getting a glimpse into Edwards anyway! : D )

Gerhardus Vos is supposed to be a brilliant theologian and I tried and tried to read him with understanding but to no avail. I finally decided that God had gifted the church with many devout writers and that if I couldn't benefit from Vos where others could, that's OK.

Kim from Hiraeth

DJP said...

Thanks, Kim. I do accept the principle: everyone's not for everyone.

I just keep feeling I'm really missing out, since people I like get so much out of Edwards. It's as if someone points at a painting and tears up about how gorgeous and stirring it is. You look, and all you see is swamp with a pickle. So you go back again and again, hoping to see what they see.

Maybe Edwards is like Tom Sawyer's fence?

Connie said...

I've been SLOWLY picking my way through Edwards' "Affections" and would agree with Kim--must be READ slowly, paragraph upon paragraph, sentence upon sentence,(and for me, WORD upon word)!

I'm less than a third of the way through, but have taken note that the last two thirds of the book is devoted to 'Showing What Are Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections'. Which, of course I'd expect to be more uplifting and less "bloodless". At least I'm expecting that to be so.

Just my two cents!

philness said...

Dan,

Perhaps John H. Gerstner could help. According to Sproul he is the best scholar on Edwards.

Kristine said...

I've both read "Affections", and listened to it as well. My conclusions, both times, were similar to your own. (on that mention, I did prefer READING this particular work, rather than listening to it)

He offers much to reflect on, and very, very much to be challenged by (which I welcome; especially given the nature of our culture to relentlessly coddle everyone); but, neither do I take him too seriously.

I've seen much of what Edwards writes, practically lifted to the level of scripture; brilliant, yes. Fallible, yep to that too.

DJP said...

Thanks, Kristine.

Now, I survive him because I've formed my own Biblical convictions over the decades, and have read broadly. But I fear of a similarly dispositioned soul who's directed to Edwards as the end-all, doesn't have the same broad reading, and is driven absolute and Christless despair by him.

If he stopped reading where I am, I could see it happening. As I said, I intend to listen to the end.

Kim said...

". . .I fear of a similarly dispositioned soul who's directed to Edwards as the end-all, doesn't have the same broad reading, and is driven absolute and Christless despair by him."

In the same way, I worry about those who read Olsteen's fare, however that, of course, is when we remind ourselves that God is sovereign over the affairs of men; right down to the reading material to which He is exposing them for His purposes.

You know the saying: The same sun that hardens the clay softens the wax. He is the Sun that fashions the objects to His glory. I think I learned that from Edwards. ; )

Kim from Hiraeth

Brad Williams said...

I have found that Richard Sibbes beautiful little book The Bruised Reed is a great help in dealing pastorally with those who struggle in the Slough of Despond. The upshot of that it is that he deals with me pastorally as I read.

I have found Edwards helpful in two main areas. One, I really enjoyed his work, The End for Which God Created the World. The other time I have found him helpful is in his refutations against what he regarded as aberrant theology. He is so careful and precise in that area.

As for the Religious Affections, I believe that book was born out of pastoral disappointment. That is, he had seen great "revival," but he was seeing some of the fruit was rotten. I think he was reflecting on what was happening and wondering why so many promising converts fell away, and he was warning against relying on 'mere' emotion for assurance. The problem is that he may have been a little too rigorous in his attempt. He spent so much time eroding false assurances he didn't spend enough time on true hope of assurance in Christ.

DJP said...

That makes sense, Brad, and does provide a context.

But again and again, he says, "Now, you've got to have this, or you have no saving grace. Of course, if you do have it, it doesn't mean you have saving grace. Same with this, this, and this."

Brad Williams said...

I know. It is as if he doesn't want to get overly hopeful. In other words, for every example he could think of for a display of spiritual fruit, he knew someone who had fallen away who had once seemed to manifest it. Being the logical thinker he was, I imagine the process he went through something like this:

1. Scripture teaches that those born of the Holy Spirit display love, joy, peace, a long-suffering spirit, and etc.

2. You must have these fruits if you are truly regenerate.

3. You must persevere in these or it isn't genuine.

4. I've known guys who manifested this and fell away.

5. Therefore, I am not certain that you can be certain of salvation if you manifest these things, even though you must have them in order to be assured.

He spent so much time on this fruit inspection that he forgot that our assurance does not rest in our fruit. Someone who is doubting salvation needs to be reminded of the promises of God that are ours in Christ, especially if they are "bruised reed" doubters and not simply unruly. Obsessive internal examination done without the light of Christ's gracious promises leads to a long night of spiritual darkness.

Paul said...

This topic and thread reminds me of the Washer message in "02".

You know...the "shocking" message presented to a youth group.

DJP said...

Sorry, not tracking with you at all.

CraigS said...

I'm listening to the Life of Brainerd at the moment, and having some of the same reaction to page after page of Brainerd talking about how he feels about God at a particular moment.

The puritans were so introspective with regards to assurance, weren't they? I don't think it was healthy. I love *The Pilgrims Progress*, but was very disappointed with *Grace Abounding*, as I felt Bunyan spent the whole book looking for assurance in all the wrong places, and being tripped up in his faith by the smallest matters.

Brad Williams said...

I noticed the exact same thing in Brainerd. He was always writing things like, "I grew in grace today and loved Jesus more...I trust." He always added "I trust" as an addendum, as if he wasn't ever fully confident that he was in a state of grace.

Carlo said...

I think in part where people get their slanderous image of the Puritans is not from the likes of Edwards but from the grandchildren of the Puritans. The Puritans truly worshipped the Lord and I believe the second generation from the Puritans observed some of that worship and instead of worshipping God like the Puritans did, they worshipped the holy life that the Puritans lived and worshipped legalism.

With regards to what is happening with Edwards' work on Religious Affections - a number of questions come to my mind. One of them being and what stage of Edwards' life was he writing this work and how was Edwards' wired?

I don't know if any of you have seen the interview between Piper and MacArthur at the Sept 2007 Ligonier Conference. Towards the end of the interview Piper confesses that when he had turned around 40 he went through a great period of depression, desperation and sobbing and this lasted several years and the camera turns to MacArthur and MacArthur responds, "this went on for several years??" resulting in the audience bursting into laughter.

MacArthur responded by saying that he went through several trials - some may know about his wife being in a terrible accident, one of his sons being diagnosed with some kind of cancer and the ongoing ad infinitum attacks he gets against his biblical theology from many. MacArthur responded he is just wired differently in a way that he processes sufferings differently.

I have never read a biography of Edwards so I don't know at what stage of his life he was going through when he went he was writing his Religious Affections. Obviously the Lord wanted Edwards to be desperate, maybe even depressed or to use your words Dan, dour. I don't know. John Piper believes he went through what he himself went through so he could develop a theology of suffering. I think the same could be true for Edwards also, that is, Edwards went through what he went through so he could develop his theology of __________ (you fill in the blank).

I would not form your final opinion of Edwards, Dan, until you've read everything you've read about Edwards (he has over 15 works or something) and read his biography.) If you're like me, that's an impossibility so I read what others have said who have read his works and study his life and the consensus appears to be that He is the greatest theologian that this nation (if we consider the colonial era) has ever had second to none with the exception of John MacArthur running in a close tie. ) These folks could be totally wrong about Edwards but I wouldn’t necessarily form an opinion at the end of this work.

DJP said...

Thanks, Carlo. Yes, I thought that interchange between Piper and MacArthur very interesting.

I actually have read Murray's biography of Edwards, and I keep trying to read Edwards himself. I don't know that there's anyone I've tried harder to like, with less success.

I've never said he was bad. i think I've always said very carefully how he strikes me.

In what I heard today, he was saying it didn't matter if you believed the Bible, and if the Word made a deep impression on you, or if your faith were based on the Word, you could still be without grace.

Then he finally made himself start saying some more constructive things about the reality of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer though, frankly, I think he's now made it so immensely complicated....

Pity Paul and Silas hadn't read Edwards before they told the Philippian jailor how to be saved.

(Okay, that may have been a tad sarcastic.)

Dan said...

Dan,
I'm only just finishing 2 of 12 but you have made me very critical as I listen. I must say though that from the point of view of someone wanting encouragement then Edwards has been exciting. He urges me on to desire God more and he reminds me of the magnificent thing it is to have Godward affections. It is also encouraging to be reminded that the affections do not save me but they should be evident, not begrudgingly but excitedly because I know that God is the most excellent thing to be affected towards.

Rick Potter said...

Now I'm a person who's always had trouble with assurance. Thirty-four years and counting, by God's grace, and I still struggle from time to time.

Dan, I'd like to recommend a book for you (if you haven't already read it).

"The Quest for Full Assurance" by Joel R. Beeke

Absolutely wonderful book.

Rick Potter said...

Oh, and off topic, but congrats on your conference. I am downloading and listening. So far I am really enjoying. You're a great help to all of us.

Rick

DJP said...

Dan: I'm happy for you. (c:

Rick: thanks.

LeeC said...

Dan, thanks for the tip yet again.

I definetly think some people are just different in the angles with which they view things.

I see in Edwards "Affections" the plea of a man who knows there are tares amongst the wheat and he desperately wants to see them shed their self delusions and be saved.

His other works do not come off like this to me. I have always felt that with Affections he was at the end, he had preached with conviction to the best of his ability and watched people nod thier heads through the whole sermon while he knew them personally enough to realize that it was an intellectual excercise for them. They had no affection for God, noe Desire and that scared him. And now he is breaking out the big guns to shake them out of their nicely religious tree.

I certainly though can see how some could not like this. I know many who are convinced my own pastor is a heartless man who knows nothing of love. I on the other hand see a heart so burdened for his flock that he is driven to mercilessly proclaim the Word to them.

Some say that of MacArthur, others as we both know of Phil. We're all different parts of the body to be used in different ways in different peoples lives.

Regards,
Lee

LeeC said...

By the way there are guys out there that are highly respected, that I hold in high esteem that I just can't listen to even so i think I know what you mean.

Lee

Rileysowner said...

Well, I entered a long post outlining some of what I remember of the context into which Edwards wrote, but I don't see it here.

Basically one has to keep that context in mind because it explains much of why Edwards keeps saying things are not a certain sign of God's working in a person.

On one side there were people who discounted the First Great Awakening because of the extreme emotional/affectional responses in people. They claimed that God did not work that way at all.

On the other side there were people who claimed the only way a person would know God was working was because of the extreme emotional/affectional reactions. If people were not falling down or crying out, or what have you, they would have said God is not working.

Edwards purpose, as I remember it, was to defend the Great Awakening from it detractors on both sides, and to direct people to where certainty could be found. Not the wavering certainty of mere emotionalism, nor the cold light of unaffectional orthodox doctrine. Instead, what Edwards was looking for was the light of true doctrine bringing heat to the affections of believers.

I probably said it better the first time, but this will do for now.

I am far from an Edwards scholar, but I took a couple of seminary courses with Michael Haykin where we dealt with Edwards extensively. I just hope I remembered what I learned back then.

DJP said...

Thanks, Rileysowner. Sorry about your comment, I certainly didn't delete it.

Carlo said...

Dan,

Sounds like you have a good background including reading a bio of Edwards. Well, let us know what you think after you're done with his work.

I plan on reading a couple of shortened abridged (really abridged versions) of two of Edwards' works on the Experience that Counts and God at Work in the near future.

Now that '24' is postponed indefinitely because of the writers' strike WAAAAA! WAAAAA! I'll have an extra hour of reading on Monday nights!

DJP said...

LOL, Carlo.

"Pick up A Faithful Narrative! Do it NOW!!!"

candyinsierras said...

I had a comment that disappeared too, but I figured you deleted it.

Carlo said...

Dan,

You wrote: ""Pick up A Faithful Narrative! Do it NOW!!!"

My response: I'll try to remember that. I'm actually reading Jerry Bridges new book "Respectable Sins - Confronting the Sins We Tolerate." It's actually a short book and I've already read it through it but I'll be camping on it for some time because I want to go through it very slowly again and go through each of the directions in dealing with those sins.

Pretty much all the respectable sins he lists in his chapters I have so, it will be a while!

DJP said...

Well, Carlo, I hope you know that was a Jack Bauer joke.

Carlo said...

It was a Jack Bauer joke? And here I thought I was absolutely addicted to '24' and knew everything about '24' that there is to know!

Highland Host said...

Jonathan Edwards is certainly not everybody's cup of tea. I'd put R.S. Candlish's book on First John in the same category. Candlish so insists on holiness in the Christian life that he makes you wonder whether or not you've even begun to be a Christian. But that's Candlish. My take on this is that books are suited to your state. The last thing I'd do in a depressed state is pick up Candlish on First John or Edwards on the Affections. No, THAT is a time to pick up Sibbes' 'Bruised Reed' or Hooker's 'Poor Doubting Christian'. There are times when all I can manage is a sermon by Philpot or a letter or two of William Romaine. At other times I can tackle a volume of Warfield or even a piece of Edwards. But those who are tempted to carnal security, by all means let them read Edwards to shake them out of it.
As for the Puritans, I agree that they themselves were not the problem. Perhaps one of the problems in reading Edwards for you Americans is the caricature of him that entered American popular culture. The same is true of John Gill here. Yet Gill himself was a very human man, and his works are full of Christ. Maybe you should read Gill instead of Edwards?

SolaMeanie said...

. . . a distant, frosty, bloodless, glowering specter.

Oh. For a moment, I thought you were talking about me.

SolaMeanie said...

Kidding aside, I think it's important to remember that some of the messages of these great preachers of the past are products of the times in which they live. (If I'd care to imitate McCartney, I'd say "in which they live in).

Every sermon Spurgeon preached during the Downgrade wasn't all chipper buoyancy. Edwards and his fellow pastors were dealing with a host of spiritual issues among the public at the time. We tend to think of past days in America as innocent and idyllic, but that's not the case. I am sure Edwards had reasons for preaching as sternly as he did.

I think some of these sermons would be well said today, especially in Emergent congregations.