Jonathan Edwards on the Problem of Faith and History

Published in the Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 31, pp. 217-228.

A Point of Contact With the Contemporary Discussion

The rebirth of interest in the thought and life of Jonathan Edwards1 is fully justified, for he was truly one of the greatest philosopher-theologians that America has ever produced.2 One question of contemporary significance that to my knowledge has not been put to this unique thinker is the question of “faith and history.” In other words, the question how Edwards conceived the ground of faith as it relates to historical knowledge has not been raised in the growing body of secondary literature. I would like to put this question to Jonathan Edwards and unfold his answer as he develops it in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.3

The contemporary significance of the question of faith and history4 (which I can only touch on here) is due to the rise of the historical-critical method in biblical studies. In his recent work on the historical-critical method Edgar Krentz states the problem like this: "Historical criticism produces only probable results. It relativises everything. But faith needs certainty.”5 In this situation it is common today to make historical uncertainty a virtue which alone opens the way to faith: “Criticism frees us from the tyranny of history and makes the vulnerability of faith clear.”6 So for many scholars the certainty of faith is not grounded on the results of historical investigation.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, on the other hand, deplores what he calls the flight “into a harbor supposedly safe from the historical-critical flood tide.”7 The disjunction of the certainty of faith from its ground in history rationally known is, for Pannenberg, “injurious to the essence of faith” and leads “into blind credulity.”8 He rejects the idea of his critic Paul Althaus that faith itself grounds our knowledge of God's revelation in the events of history.9 ‘A person does not bring faith with him to the event as though faith were the basis for finding the revelation of God in the history of Israel and of Jesus Christ.’10 On the contrary faith rests on rationally verifiable knowledge of historical events like the resurrection of Jesus.11

So the age-old dispute concerning the role of reason12 and historical knowledge as the ground of faith continues unabated. One question raised by the present controversy which slips too easily into the background in scholarly discussions is this: What should the role of reason and historical knowledge be for the layman—the non-historian—as he seeks to believe in the gospel of Christ? Daniel Fuller, who has a profound appreciation for Pannenberg's thought13 has criticized Pannenberg's position on this question:

If historical reasoning is the only way by which men can attain faith, then faith becomes the possibility for only the few who can think historically, and faith for the common man is possible only if he is willing to commit himself to the authority of a priesthood of historians.

Pannenberg, it will be remembered, wants to make faith the possibility for all men by having what is, virtually, a priesthood of historians. Theology's task as he sees it, is to assert the credibility of the Christian proclamation, so that laymen can believe it because of the authority that the theologian, with special historical skills, can provide.14

It is this very issue of the non-historian, the common man, which determines the way Jonathan Edwards handled the question of faith and history. His starting-point is not, What is possible for historical reasoning? but rather, What is possible for the ordinary members of the church? Even in his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, which Ola Winslow says was addressed not to his flock but to his brother intellectuals,15 Edwards reveals his pastoral concern for his ordinary parishioners. He remarks, “It is impossible that men, who have not something of a general view of the historical world, or the series of history from age to age, should come at the force of arguments for the truth of Christianity, drawn from history to that degree, as effectually to induce them to venture their all upon it” (p. 292, col. I). The voice of the missionary16 can be heard when he adds, “Miserable is the condition of the Houssatunnuck Indians and others, who have lately manifested a desire to be instructed in Christianity, if they can come at no evidence of the truth of Christianity, sufficient to induce them to sell all for Christ, in any other way but this” (p. 292, col. 1).

In spite of his rejection of historical argumentation as the ground of faith for the non-historian (not for the historian, as we shall see), Edwards does not diminish the role of reason or of valid evidence even in the case of uneducated people. As we shall see, Edwards believes that “truly gracious affections are attended with a conviction of the reality and certainty of divine things” (p. 288, col. 2), and that this “certainty” is founded on “real evidence” and “good reason” (p. 289, col. 2). But first we must define precisely what, for Edwards, the object of this saving certainty is.

The Object of Saving Faith

According to Edwards, the object of true saving conviction is “the great things of the gospel” (p. 288, col. 2). By the “gospel” he means “the doctrines there taught, the word there spoken, and the divine counsels, acts, and works there revealed” (p. 291, col. 1). He refers to the “truth of the gospel; which is the glorious doctrine the word of God contains, concerning God, Jesus Christ, the way of salvation by him, and the world of glory that he has entered into, and purchased for all them who believe” (p. 289, col. 2).

The object of a gracious and saving conviction, however, is not merely the factuality of the things of the gospel but also the “holy beauty and amiableness in divine things” (p. 291, col. 2). It is “the glory of God's moral perfections” manifest in the great things of the gospel which is the proper object of our conviction (p. 291, col. 1). Or, as he calls it in another place, it is the “supreme and holy excellency and beauty of those things” (p. 290, col. 2). Beauty, excellency, perfection, amiableness, divinity, holiness—these are the qualities of the gospel of which saving faith must be certain.

The Reasonableness of Saving Faith

Having defined the object of faith we may now ask what it is that distinguishes faith as genuine and saving. This relates directly to Edwards’ conception of the ground of faith. For faith to be genuine it must be “reasonable” and “spiritual.” I will discuss these terms separately and then try to integrate them.

Edwards explains, “By a reasonable conviction, I mean conviction founded on real evidence, or upon that which is a good reason, or just ground of conviction” (p. 289, col. 2). In other words, it is not sufficient that one have a strong conviction of the gospel’s truth; the conviction must proceed from a just or reasonable ground. If one is persuaded of the truth of the gospel merely because one’s fathers, neighbors, or nation believe it, then one has an unreasonable persuasion, for that is why the “Mahometans” are strongly persuaded of the truth of their religion. “That belief of the truth of the Christian religion, which is built on the very same grounds with that of Mahometans who believe in the Mahometan religion, is the same sort of belief. And though the thing believed happens to be better; yet that does not make the belief itself to be of a better sort, for though the thing believed happens to be true, yet the belief of it is not owing to this truth, but to education” (p. 289, col. 2). For Jonathan Edwards, conviction which does not spring from a perception of the truth of its object is not a gracious, saving conviction.

It is not my purpose in this essay to enter the debate concerning the various philosophical influences that shaped Edwards' thought, but perhaps a brief comment in this section would be in order. He certainly knew first hand the concern for epistemological clarity in John Locke,17 in whose Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) the young Edwards had found more pleasure “than the most greedy miser finds, when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold from some newly discovered treasure.”18 Through Locke, who had “found great satisfaction in the writings of Descartes,”19 Edwards was almost certainly aware of Descartes’ passionate concern for truth and mental certainty.20

It would be misleading, however, if I gave the impression that Edwards’ thought was simply a replay of his predecessors’, and that the Religious Affections was primarily philosophical rather than biblical. He transformed and went beyond what he inherited. As Harold Simonson observes, Edwards “commenced his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections by quoting not Locke but 1 Peter 1:8.”21 In other words, Jonathan Edwards’ foremost aim was to be biblical, to set forth his subject matter “as exactly agreeable to the Scriptures as I am able” (p. 302, col. 1). This biblical approach will become more evident as we move to the second characteristic of faith that distinguishes it as genuine, saving faith.

The Spirituality of Saving Faith

“It is requisite not only that the belief... should be reasonable, but also a spiritual belief or conviction” (p. 290, col. 1). Not all reasonable conviction is genuine, saving conviction, for “some natural men yield a kind of assent of their judgments to the truth of the Christian religion from the rational proofs or arguments that are offered to evince it’ (p. 290, col. 1); he cites as examples Judas and many Jews who heard Jesus (John 2:23-25) and Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:13, 23). The assent which men yield must be a spiritual sort. What Edwards means by “a spiritual conviction of the truth of the great things of the gospel, is such a conviction as arises from having a spiritual apprehension” (p. 290, col.1); therefore spiritual conviction depends on spiritual understanding. The reason Judas and the Jews and Simon did not have the right kind of conviction is that they did not have right understanding or true apprehension.

Edwards refers to this true apprehension of the things of the gospel as spiritual because the Spirit of God enables “the mind to view them as they are” (p. 290, col. 1). He finds support for this divine enabling in Matt. 16:16, 17:6-8; and Luke 10:21, 22: “I thank Thee Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes . . . no man knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and he to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

He also refers to this true apprehension of the divine things of the gospel as “spiritual” because of the peculiar kind of knowing that it involves. Spiritual apprehension or understanding “consists in a sense and taste of the divine, supreme, and holy excellency and beauty of those things” (p. 290, col. 2, my italics). Edwards distinguishes between mere speculative knowledge and sensible knowledge. The former is the sort of knowledge by which we know what a triangle or a square is. The latter is the “sort of knowledge by which a man has a sensible perception of amiableness and loathsomeness, or sweetness and nauseousness.” That is, it is “the sense of the heart wherein the mind not only speculates and beholds but relishes and feels.... Yet there is instruction in it; as he that has perceived the sweet taste of honey, knows much more about it than he who has only looked upon and felt it.” This then is the basis for his definition of spiritual understanding: “Spiritual understanding primarily consists in this sense or taste of the moral beauty of divine things” (p. 283, col. 2).

In this regard Edwards cites 2 Cor. 4:3-6:

And if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those that are perishing in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelieving that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God; for we do not proclaim ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Edwards says, “Nothing can be more evident than that a saving belief of the gospel is here spoken of by the apostle as arising from the mind being enlightened to behold the divine glory of the things it exhibits” (p. 290, col. 2, so also p. 283, col. 1). Accordingly we may say that “the mind is spiritually convinced of the divinity and truth of the great things of the gospel, when that conviction arises either directly or remotely, from such a sense or view of their divine excellency and glory as is there exhibited” (p. 290, col. 2).

The Unity of Faith’s Reasonableness and Spirituality

Saving faith, then, must be both a reasonable and a spiritual conviction. It must be founded on “real evidence” and must arise from a sense or view of the glory of the things of the gospel. The relationship between the reasonableness and spirituality of saving faith is now evident. It is precisely what is seen by spiritual apprehension which constitutes the “real evidence” upon which saving faith rests. The assurance of the ordinary believer, the non-historian, “is altogether agreeable to reason; because the divine glory and beauty of divine things is in itself real evidence of their divinity, and the most direct and strong” (p. 290, col. 2). Edwards can sum up the content of the “evidence” in a phrase: “divine glory.” He does not mean that the ordinary believer “judges the doctrines of the gospel to be from God, without any argument or deduction at all; but it is without any long chain of arguments; the argument is but one, and the evidence direct; the mind ascends to the truth of the gospel but by one step, and that is its divine glory” (p.290, col. 2, my italics). So it becomes evident that the reasonableness and the spirituality of saving faith resolve into one and the same thing. Conviction is spiritual in that it arises from a spiritual sense of the divine glory of the gospel and it is reasonable in that it is founded on “real evidence,” which that glory is.

Edwards is eager to guard his view from two related misunderstandings. The one would accuse him of making doctrinal knowledge subjective; the other would say that his “real evidence’ is in the believer, not in the gospel outside himself. Therefore Edwards stresses that “spiritual understanding does not consist in any new doctrinal knowledge, or in having suggested to the mind any new proposition, not before read or heard of: for it is plain that this suggesting of new propositions, is a thing entirely diverse from giving the mind a new taste or relish of beauty and sweetness” (p. 285, col. 1).22 Further, Edwards insists that the “real evidence” which indeed the Holy Spirit enables us to see (p. 290, col. 1; p. 291, col. 1) is not within ourselves: “Spiritually to understand the Scripture is to have the eyes of the mind opened to behold the wonderful spiritual excellency of the glorious things contained in the true meaning of it, and that always were contained in it, ever since it was written” (p. 285, col. 2).

If the “real evidence” of the divinity of the things of the gospel has always been there in the original meaning of Scripture, why is it that so few see it and believe? Edwards foresees the objection implicit in this question and responds, “It is no argument that it cannot be seen, because some do not see it; though they may be discerning men in temporal matters” (p. 291, col. 1). The reason so few see and believe is that “the mind of man is naturally full of enmity against the doctrines of the gospel; which is a disadvantage to those arguments that prove their truth, and causes them to lose their force upon the mind” (p. 293, col. 1). This natural enmity results in a veil lying across the mind or in the blindness of the mind to what is really there. Thus the Psalmist prays, “Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Ps. 119:18). When the Holy Spirit answers this prayer by overcoming our natural enmity to the glory of the gospel, we are able truly to apprehend it, to taste it, and our faith is thus at once spiritual and reasonable.

Historical Reasoning and Saving Faith

Concerning the ground of faith which I have just described Edwards says, “unless men may come to a reasonable, solid persuasion and conviction of the truth of the gospel by internal evidences23 in the way that has been spoken, viz. by a sight of its glory; it is impossible that those who are illiterate and unacquainted with history should have any thorough and effectual conviction of it at all” (p. 292, col. 1). It is because of this clear fact of experience and Edwards' pastoral orientation that he does not spend time developing historical arguments for the truth of the gospel.

There is another reason: not only are most people incapable of thinking historically, but even if they could, mere historical demonstration of the gospel's truth does not necessarily produce saving faith or spiritual conviction. The reason for this is that the true object of saving faith is not the mere factuality of the gospel but (as was shown earlier) its beauty and divine glory. “There is a great variety in degrees of strength of faith, as there is a vast variety of the degrees of clearness of views of this glory: but there is no true and saving faith, or spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the truth of the gospel, that has nothing in it of this manifestation of its internal evidence, in some degree” (p. 293, col. 1). In other words, no matter how strong the external historical arguments are, there still can be “no spiritual conviction of the judgment, but what arises from an apprehension of the spiritual beauty and glory of divine things” (p. 293, col. 1).

As Edwards assesses the scholarly world of his day he finds no cause for encouragement that the mere improvement of historical apologetics will increase the prevalence of faith. Concerning the historical arguments of his day he writes, “Indeed it is but very lately that these arguments have been set in a clear and convincing light even by learned men themselves: and since it has been done, there never were fewer thorough believers, among those who have been educated in the true religion; infidelity never prevailed so much, in any age as in this, wherein these arguments are handled to the greatest advantage” (p. 292, col. 2). Edwards is serious when he refers to historical arguments as “clear and convincing.” Elsewhere he refers to “the clear evidence from history of the truth of facts in different ages” (p. 292, col. 1). Yet historical arguments seem often to be ineffectual.

Does Edwards then have any use for such arguments for the truth of the gospel? He is very clear on this: “Great use may be made of external arguments, they are not to be neglected, but highly prized and valued; for they may be greatly serviceable to awaken unbelievers, and bring them to serious consideration, and to confirm the faith of true saints; yea, they may be in some respects subservient to the begetting of a saving faith in men” (p. 293, col. 1). The primary value of historical arguments for Edwards then is that they cause us to consider more carefully the gospel and thus become a means to our spiritual apprehension of its glory which is the begetting of saving faith.

In conclusion I would suggest that on the issue of faith and history Jonathan Edwards merits our serious consideration, for he is able to hold together things that in our own day are often isolated into various theological camps. First, he respects the validity of and encourages the pursuit of historical arguments for the truth of the gospel. Second, he recognizes that these arguments have a limited function not because they are inimical to the nature of faith (as modern existentialist theologians say), but because the great mass of ordinary people cannot carry through a detailed historical argument. Third, faith must nevertheless be reasonable if it is to be saving faith; that is, it must have a just ground for certainty. This ground, Edwards argues, is really there in the gospel record for all who have eyes to see.


1 The rebirth of interest in Edwards may be illustrated both by the recent reprinting of his works and the numerous monographs treating his life and thought.
Works: Religious Affections, John Smith, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959). The Nature of True Virtue (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960) has gone through four printings. Freedom of the Will (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1969). Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings (Cambridge: James Clarke & Go., Ltd., 1971). The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), a reprint of the 1834 edition edited by Edward Hickman.
Monographs: Douglas Elwood, The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Columbia University, 1960). David Levin, ed. The Puritan in the Enlightenment: Franklin and Edwards (Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1963). Alfred O. Aldridge, Jonathan Edwards (New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1966). Conrad Cherry, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1966). Edward H. Davidson, Jonathan Edwards, the Narrative of a Puritan Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1966). James Carse, Jonathan Edwards and the Visibility of God (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967). Roland Delattre, Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968). John Opie, ed., Jonathan Edwards and the Enlightenment (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Co., 1969). David Levin, ed., Jonathan Edwards, a Profile (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969). Elizabeth Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man, the 'Uncommon Union' of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971). Dorus Paul Rudisill, The Doctrine of the Atonement in Jonathan Edwards and His Successors (New York: Poseidon Books, Inc., 1971). Clyde A. Holbrook, The Ethics of Jonathan Edwards (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, I973). Ola Winslow, Jonathan Edwards, 1703-,1758 (I940; rpt. New York: Octagon Books, 1973). Harold Simonson, Jonathan Edwards: Theologian of the Heart (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1974).
One other evidence of the rebirth of Edwards studies is the recent establishment of a Jonathan Edwards Consultation in the American Academy of Religion.

2 The rediscovery of this fact in recent scholarship is due above all to Perry Miller's intellectual biography of Edwards, Jonathan Edwards (New York: William Sloan Associates, 1949). He says, for example, that Edwards “speaks from an insight into science and psychology so much ahead of his time that our own can hardly be said to have caught up with him” (p. xiii). Miller's view was criticized by Vincent Thomas, '”The Modernity of Jonathan Edwards,” New England Quarterly, XXV (March, 1952).

3 The edition of Edwards' works that I will be citing is the Banner of Truth Trust edition cited above. The Religious Affections is found in vol.1. All page numbers in the text will refer to this treatise.

4 For an historical survey of the problem from Lessing to Pannenberg see Daniel P. Fuller, Easter Faith and History (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1965), pp. 13-187.

5 Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).

6 Krentz, p. 67.

7 “Redemptive Event and History” in Basic Questions in Theology, vol. I, trans. George H. Kehm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 16.

8 Insight and Faith” in Basic Questions in Theology, vol. 2, p. 28.

9 Insight and Faith,” p. 29. Althaus' critique is contained in “Offenbarung als Geschichte und Glaube. Bemerkungen zu Wolfhart Pannenbergs Begriff der Offenbarung,” Theologische Literaturzeitung, 88 (1963), cols. 81-92.

10 “Dogmatic Theses on the Doctrine of Revelation” in Revelation as History, trans., David Granskou (London: The Macmillan Co., 1968), p. 137.

11 Pannenberg develops his historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus most fully in Jesus, God and Man (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 88-114.

12 In the 8th March 1976 issue of Time magazine Pannenberg commented, “I am not the most popular theologian in Germany. I am found guilty for referring to reason” (p. 76).

13 See, for example, his article, “A New German Theological Movement,” Scottish Journal of Theology, vol. 19, no. 2 (June 1966), pp. 160-75.

14 Easter Faith and History, pp. 237f. Pannenberg's position is expressed in “Insight and Faith,” p. 33: “Believing trust can also arise in such a way that the believer does not always have to prove on his own the trustworthiness of the knowledge presupposed therein. It is the special task of theology to do this. Not every individual Christian needs to undertake this task. He can trust on the assumption that things are in order with respect to the ground of his trust. This point of view presupposes, of course, an atmosphere of confidence in the reliability of the Christian tradition.”

15 Ola Winslow, Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1785, p. 231.

16 From 1751 to 1758 Edwards was pastor of the church in the frontier town of Stockbridge, Mass., and missionary to the Indians. His concern for Indian evangelization extends back into his pastorate at Northampton, as is shown by these comments in the Religious Affections which was written between 1742 and 1746.

17 See, for example, James Carse, “Mr. Locke's Magic Onions and an Unboxed Beetle for Young Jonathan” in Jonathan Edwards and the Visibility of God, pp. 31-44. Edward Davidson, Jonathan Edwards: The Narrative of a Puritan Mind, pp. 10-19. John Opie, ed., “The Influence of John Locke upon Edwards” in Jonathan Edwards and the Enlightenment, pp. 1-21. Harold Simonson, “Locke and Empiricism” in Jonathan Edwards: Theologian of the Heart, pp. 23-32.

18 Sereno E. Dwight, “Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,” in Works, vol. 1, p. xvii. Perry Miller comments on Edwards’ encounter with Locke, “The boy of fourteen grasped in a flash ... that Locke was the master-spirit of the age” (Jonathan Edwards, p. 52). Ola Winslow writes, “Here was one who spoke the language for which he had been listening. It was neither the language of scientific observation nor that of theological dogma, but the pure serene [language] of abstract speculation' (Jonathan Edwards, p. 61).

19 Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy, revised by Ledger Wood (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1957), p. 333.

20 In Descartes' Discourse on Method (1637) he resolves “never to accept anything as true unless I recognized it to be evidently such: that is, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudgment, and to include nothing in my conclusions unless it presented itself so clearly and distinctly to my mind that there was no occasion to doubt it.” Discourse on Method (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co. Inc., 1956), p. 12.

21 Jonathan Edwards: Theologian of the Heart, p. 32.

22 Edwards does not fail to acknowledge here John Calvin's expression of the same conviction. He cites Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 9: “It is not the office of the Spirit that is promised to us, to make new any before unheard of revelations or to coin some new kind of doctrine of the gospel; but to seal and confirm to us that very doctrine which is by the gospel.'”(Cited in a footnote on p. 285, col. 1) Edwards could have shown other parallels between his thought and Calvin's; his emphasis on taste and sweetness recalls a quote from the Institutes, 1, 7, 2: “As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that [the Scripture] came from God ... ? it is just the same as if we asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter?' (quoted from the Beveridge translation). In the preface to Freedom of the Will Edwards wrote, “I should not take it at all amiss, to be called a Calvinist, for distinctions sake [from Arminian]: 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 every thing just as he taught” (Works, Vol. 1, p. 3).

23 This use of the term “internal evidences” is not to be confused with the popular view that the Holy Spirit by an internal witness adds to the Scripture the additional information that the gospel or the Scripture is true. For example, Edwards' approach is not that of the modern Old Testament scholar E. J. Young who said that the Christian “is convinced that the Bible is the Word of God, because God told him so” (Thy Word is Truth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1951), p. 34). Edwards stresses that the Holy Spirit does not add new information about the Scriptures but “enables the mind to view them as they are” (p. 290, col. 1).

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