To Nat Hatch: Reflections on Jonathan Edwards’ Sermon on 2 Peter 1:16

I have been thinking much recently on the relationship between seeing and believing. Edwards’ sermon on 2 Peter 1:16 which you edited has churned up my mind again. I am writing chiefly to ask whether you really think that your sentence at the top of p. 2 of your notes on the sermon is precisely correct.

You say, “It is only a lively sense of the heart—the sight, the taste, the touch of God—that constitutes saving faith.” It is this word “constitutes” that bothers me. The word may be perfectly chosen because its ambiguity may accord with an ambiguity you perceive in Edwards. “Constitute” can mean “to establish” or “to found,” or it can mean “to form” or “to compose.”

My concern is that the word will probably be construed in our day in the latter sense, and that this is probably not Edwards’ point in the sermon. The reason this distinction between grounding and composing faith is crucial to me is that to say the sight of Christ is faith leads into the irrationalist’s position of requiring a “leap in the dark” or a baseless “decision.”

If sight and faith are the same, then you can never say, “I believe because …” But this would not be true to Edwards (or Scripture, I think) who again and again speaks of the sight of Christ’s glory as the ground of faith.

The clearest examples are:

  • p. 4.9,  “But if the apostle had respect only to the outward sight he had of Christ, if that had a tendency to convince him of the truth of the gospel and was good grounds of such a belief, then much more will a discovery of the spiritual glory of Christ appearing in the Word of God be a good ground of conviction that Christ is the Son of God…”
  • p. 5.3 “Peter, when he saw this, his mind was strongly carried to believe…”
  • p. 13.1 “There is an ineffable power and influence which a sight of the glory of Christ as savior has to constrain the heart to embrace the gospel as true.”
  • p. 15.7 “Those babes believed in Christ upon good grounds; they had a conviction that was built upon a good foundation.”
  • p. 19.3 “A true believing the gospel is what arises from a discovery of the gloriousness and excellency of spiritual things.”
  • p. 19.5 “The sense of the heavenly excellency of Christ convinces that he is able to free and that he is faithful; and it is this that encourages one to put confidence in him.”
  • p. 21.1 “…does a sense now convince you of it—the gospel—and make you embrace it as true?

In all of these places there seems to be a distinction between the “sense of excellency of the gospel” (i.e., the sight of it) and the “believing,” “embracing” and being “confident” in it. Does not your statement that the “sense of the heart… constitutes faith” blur this distinction?

But there is an ambiguity in Edwards which I think he did not have worked out. He admits (p. 7.6), “It is difficult in this case to distinguish between the understanding and the will. Both of these faculties are concerned in the sense that the soul has of the excellency and loveliness of a thing.” If, as you point out from Freedom of the Will, the will is always as the greatest apparent good is, then “if he sees the greatness of Christ, the heart must necessarily be inclined to him, disposed that way.”

But is the seeing identical with the inclining? If “seeing” can be replaced by “tasting” or “relishing,” then it would almost seem so. Your last line on p. 2 of the notes shows that seen excellency = love of the seen. But this is true by definition: “truly see” = have a “lively sense,” i.e., see = feel, i.e., see loveliness = feel love.

If this is what Edwards intends, then “faith” must go beyond the seeing/feeling in some way in view of the quotations above, since the seeing grounds believing. Faith, I suppose, would involve the consequent confidence and conscious embracing of Christ as Savior.

In fact, Edwards says in his Remarks on Important Theological Controversies (Works II, Banner of Truth, 1974, p. 580),

Upon the whole, the best and clearest and most perfect definition of justifying faith, and most according to Scripture, that I can think of, is this, faith is the soul’s entirely embracing the revelation of Jesus Christ as our Savior.

Or a sentence later:

Faith is the soul’s entirely acquiescing in, and depending upon, the truth of God revealing Christ as our Savior.

I am not sure whether Edwards is always careful to distinguish saving faith from its ground in the felt-glory of Christ in the gospel. But I think he does, and so I wonder if you should use the word “constitutes.”

Let me try to clarify (for myself) the dynamics of faith by an analogy. Suppose I am shown a landscape painting (the gospel) and have no feeling or sense of its beauty or glory, even though I look at it a long time. Then suppose that a sensitive critic helps me by pointing out a relationship (Edwards’ “harmony” and “agreement” and “conjunction” p. 11.8, 12.5) of harmony and contrast and symmetry that my eyes had not noticed before, even though I was looking at the painting. Seeing I had not seen. At this point a sense of loveliness might be born in my soul. I might sense and feel the beauty of the work as I look at it now. But I might not. And what would be the difference? Would it not be my lack of sensitivity to beauty, my hardness and untouchability?

In this analogy there are three stages of seeing: first, to have the painting presented before my eyes; second, to have patterns and specifics brought to my attention so I notice them; third, to see that as beauty or as lovely. In the first two there need be no affections involved. But in the third, seeing is by definition feeling and so is tantamount to the affection of love (and yet involves the previous two seeings and so involves the faculty of understanding, i.e., construing pattern and relationships).

The reason this latter “seeing” is the same as feeling is because the object seen is no longer the painting but the glory or beauty of the painting. But as soon as you demand that someone not merely see an object but see it as beautiful, you are requiring from them a kind of sensitivity which is no longer a function merely of the physical eyes or of the reasoning power of the mind. You are requiring a sense of pleasure in beauty. Edwards uses the analogy of tasting honey. Sweetness is to honey as glory is to the gospel; and the sense of taste in the tongue is to sweetness as a sense of pleasure in the soul is to glory or beauty.

Would this be a fair statement of how Edwards understands this affair?

Implications:

  • Preaching should strive to portray beauty. Oh, how we need more preachers to have seen and be overwhelmed by the divine glory of the things of the gospel.

  • Elmer Gantry could really convert people because it is possible to describe the contours and patterns of the gospel landscape while not sensing their beauty and yet so that others by God’s grace might sense it.

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