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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Renewing Spiritual Perception with Jonathan Edwards

Ray S. Yeo, Renewing Spiritual Perception with Jonathan Edwards: Contemporary Philosophy and the Theological Psychology of Transforming Grace, Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology (London: Routledge, 2016).

RoutledgeYeoThis revised version of Yeo’s King’s College London thesis makes a fine contribution to our understanding of spiritual and emotional perception. Yeo, who now teaches at Prairie College in Alberta, mines Edwards on the affections and spiritual understanding, puts him in dialogue with the contemporary philosophical theologian, Robert C. Roberts (among others who have worked in the philosophy of emotions and related sub-disciplines, most importantly Nicholas Wolterstorff and William P. Alson), and develops a revision of Edwards’ thinking on these issues that is suited for the twenty-first century. Or as Yeo summarizes his agenda for the volume: “The eventual aspiration of the book is to articulate a contemporary theological psychology of spiritual perception that could help us better understand the philosophical, psychological and theological nature of transforming grace” (p. 2). His is the first full-length book to aspire to such a goal.

Yeo examines three features of Edwards’ thought on these issues: his doctrine of the infusion of grace in the regenerate; his theology of Scripture and its spiritual understanding; and his long-cherished concept of spiritual delight. Yeo assesses these features in relation to late modern conceptualizations of perception, especially through the emotions, updating Edwards’ doctrine with the help of Roberts and others in the service of his own, constructive theory of perception.

In the end, Yeo makes five revisions to Edwards’ thought: the first to Edwards’ view of converting/sanctifying grace (chapter two); the second to his notion of the infusion of grace (chapter three); the third to Edwards’ notion of the content of the Bible (chapters four and five); the fourth to his concept of spiritual delight (chapter six); and the fifth to Edwards’ view of “the nature of the underlying psychological disposition or capacity for spiritual perception and delight,” which Yeo develops into a “wisdom-like disposition . . . formed by one’s understanding of Scripture,” a virtue he calls “Christocentric wisdom” (chapter seven, but quotation taken from p. 206, in chapter eight).

Yeo’s book will not help readers of this blog gain a better understanding of Edwards’ thought, which it sometimes misconstrues in the service of Yeo’s project (as when it asserts that Edwards failed to distinguish between converting and sanctifying grace [chapter two], or taught a direct and unmediated union between divinity and humanity in the redeemed [chapter three]). But it will help them gain an appreciation for the ways in which Edwards might be used as a resource for writers on spiritual perception and emotion. It is a fascinating example of what John Webster, Oliver Crisp and many others are now calling the “theology of retrieval.”

Highly recommended for constructive, analytic, and systematic theologians and philosophers.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards’s Turn from the Classic-Reformed Tradition of Freedom of the Will

Philip John Fisk, Jonathan Edwards’s Turn from the Classic-Reformed Tradition of Freedom of the Will, New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016).

V&RFiskThis second installment in V & R’s monograph series in Jonathan Edwards studies, which is edited by the staff of the Edwards Center at Yale, has been very well researched. Written by Philip J. Fisk, a Trinity graduate and long-time Free Church missionary, it began as Fisk’s doctoral dissertation for the Evangelical Theological Faculty (ETF) in Leuven, Belgium, where Fisk now teaches. Supervised by Anton Vos and Andreas J. Beck, it exhibits all the hallmarks of their neo-Calvinist rehabilitation of the Scotist line of Reformed thought on freedom, which is summarized well in a book by that name from the late Willem van Asselt and his colleagues in the Netherlands, whom the Leuven scholars follow (https://www.amazon.com/Reformed-Thought-Freedom-Reformation-Post-Reformation/dp/080103521X).

Put briefly, the Scotist line of Reformed thinkers on freedom held a less deterministic way of thinking about volition than that caricatured as “Calvinist” by Socinian, Arminian, and Roman Catholic foes. They allowed for what John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) and his heirs claimed was genuine contingency in human moral action. Using Latinate Aristotelian tools they inherited from medieval scholastic sources, they contended for a strong doctrine of predestination, a robust approach to the sovereignty of God over all of human history, and the freedom of the will via concepts like “concurrence” (of divine and human willing, the latter being truly free but depending on divine cooperation for existence) and what they called “synchronic contingency” (real power one has in the moment of volition to do other than what one chooses, even if/though one’s choice has been predestined by God). To their critics, these doctrines seemed logically inconsistent. But to Fisk’s scholastic Calvinists, they offered a way of eating one’s cake and having it too–of maintaining an apparently high view of God’s providence with a seemingly strong commitment to real freedom and contingency.

The burden of Fisk’s book is to show that Edwards abandoned such scholastic tools of art and thus turned from “the classic-Reformed tradition” on freedom. Or in Fisk’s own words, “our conclusion is that Edwards totally transformed the Reformed tradition from within the tradition, and as such, deviates from it” (p. 418). Edwards claimed to argue for the freedom of the will. But he actually undermined it by denying any contingency in human moral action, and became a rank determinist.

Fisk develops this claim in a two-fold manner. Part One of his book treats “The Harvard and Yale Curricula on Freedom of Will” (pp. 67-231), in which Fisk sketches the history of commencement theses at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as well on the freedom of the will up to the time when Edwards published his own Freedom of the Will (1754); the work of the Dutch scholastic thinker, Adriaan Heereboord, on the freedom of the will, which was studied at the colleges; and the work of the Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard Presbyterian, Charles Morton, on the will, which was based on Heereboord and Fisk suggests Edwards may have studied in college. Part Two treats “The Position of Jonathan Edwards on Freedom of Will” (pp. 233-408), in which Fisk measures Edwards and his work with other scholars on the freedom of the will (especially Daniel Whitby, an Anglican Arminian) against the gold standard of Reformed Scotists like Heereboord—and finds Edwards wanting.

Inasmuch as Fisk’s Scotist interpretation of what he calls “the main Christian line of thought” as well as “the classic-Reformed line” of thought on the will (pp. 108, 231 and passim) has sparked a bit of controversy, his interpretation of Edwards will prove controversial too. All should grant that Fisk’s scholastics avoided sheer determinism, but many (like me) will argue that Edwards did so too and, in the end, proved no more deterministic than most of his Reformed predecessors. He did leave behind much of the Aristotelian framework for interpreting volition, and thus defended human freedom in a rather different manner than scholastics such as Heereboord. But he did so in order to defend traditional Calvinism from critics who deemed it too deterministic. By Edwards’ day, critics saw through what they claimed was the verbal smoke and mirrors of the Scotists on freedom, and thus Edwards felt obliged to adopt a new approach–one that was more transparent about Calvinist views of God’s sovereign rule over history, and more forthright in its argument for human natural freedom (freedom to do whatever one pleases) in the midst of moral necessity (one always/necessarily wills to choose that to which one is most inclined when choosing). He ended up teaching something very much like the older Calvinistic doctrine, in spite of his modern framework for interpreting the issues: that God has predestined all the things that matter most in the history of the world, but that humans also choose freely everything they do (except in cases of natural/physical compulsion, in which we are not morally culpable for our actions). No matter which philosophical frame of reference he employed, none of the early modern Calvinists taught a view of human freedom that passed muster with their much more libertarian critics.

In the preface to the first edition of Edwards’ Original Sin (1758), the Rev. Samuel Finley (who became Princeton’s president three years after Edwards died) referred to Edwards’ earlier book on the Freedom of the Will (1754) as a volume “that has procured him the Elogy of eminent Divines abroad. Several Professors of Divinity in the Dutch Universities,” Finley specified, “very lately sent him their Thanks, for the Assistance he had given them in their Inquiry into some controverted Points; having carried his own further than any Author they had ever seen” (p. ix). The reception of Edwards’ writings on the freedom of the will has clearly changed since then in the Low Countries!

This book is highly recommended. Careful readers have now seen that it will prove most useful to philosophical theologians, and most interesting to Calvinists seeking the best ways to defend their faith from charges of determinism. But all serious students of early modern Western thought need to come to terms with its contents. And students of Edwards’ thought will want to noodle on its argument regarding Edwards’ place in the history of Calvinism.

For more on the issues handled masterfully by Fisk, consult the debate conducted through the following lectures from Richard Muller and Paul Helm hosted here at the Center.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Knowing, Seeing, Being

Jennifer L. Leader, Knowing, Seeing, Being: Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, and the American Typological Tradition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)

Leader ImageThis is a fascinating study by an up-and-coming scholar of American life and letters teaching at Mt. San Antonio College in southern California. It traces Edwards’ long-range legacies in the typological thinking of two major American poets: the nineteenth-century Massachusetts recluse, Emily Dickinson; and the celebrated twentieth-century modernist, Marianne Moore.

Leader argues that her comparison of these three verbal artists “reveals a deep structure of American metaphysical thought that has heretofore been largely unexamined. While it is a truism,” she notes, “that the Bible has had a tremendous influence on American letters,” most scholars working in the wake of Harvard’s Perry Miller have neglected the most important theological influences on modern American literature, focusing mainly, as they have, on Transcendentalism. “In fact,” Leader contends, “early training in the Protestant Scriptures did more than shape (or discourage) religious belief” in a vaguely defined, transcendental way among nineteenth and twentieth-century writers. “It also shaped, via specific theological traditions, underlying assumptions about the authority, transparency, and trustworthiness of all language to contain or mediate reality. This book,” she continues, begins to demonstrate this rather more specifically theological kind of literary influence “by locating and articulating ways Edwards, Dickinson, and Moore received and transformed both models of language and depictions of the natural world from within their own Reformed typological heritage” (p. 4).

Leader’s most important summary of her work for Edwards scholars comes at the end of chapter one. “In the sense of an American literary heritage,” she writes, “Edwards’s typological imagination situates him upstream of a shared American metapoetic which finds significance in the natural world as a second kind of text that complements the King James Bible. Such a stream veers away from a desire for ‘oneness’ with creation, however, by its emphasis on differentiation and meaningful relation with the other-as-other, a core proclivity that is rooted in the embrace of differentiation and ambiguity in concepts of religion, language, and scientific thought. Later partakers of this stream, such as . . . Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore, were neither embarrassed nor intellectually crippled by their own iterations of this religious (and specifically Reformed and Trinitarian) set of beliefs. Rather, they worked both within and against the American typological imagination, using their nature poetry as evocative meditations on the mystery of revelation from a source outside the self, on the roles of desire and ethics to put one into relation with what one perceives, and on consent to life as a kind of being-as-becoming” (p. 33).

Emily Dickinson grew up in the heart of New Divinity country (i.e. Edwardsean New England), and even studied for a time at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, which was led by Mary Lyon, an Edwardsean theologian. Although Dickinson mentions Edwards only once in her poetry, Leader demonstrates that Dickinson’s perception of the natural world was haunted by Edwards’ thought. (Joseph Conforti, Amanda Porterfield, and several other scholars have also written about Mt. Holyoke’s Edwardsean priorities.)

Marianne Moore, on the other hand, never read Edwards (at least as far as we know). However, as Leader makes clear in the most original part of her book, “she was well versed in the writings of Augustine and early Protestant reformers such as Calvin and Luther.” More importantly, her outlook was shaped quite profoundly “by two pastors who were very fluent in Edwards’s theology: the Reverend E. H. Kellogg . . . and her grandfather, the Reverend John Riddle Warner, who attended a Reformed seminary in the mid-nineteenth century at the height of the Edwardsean influence on ministerial training” (pp. 172-73). These ministers, with whom Moore enjoyed close relationships, mediated Edwards’ thought to her on a regular basis–along with older, broader strains “of Augustinian and Calvinist biblical interpretation” (p. 143).

This is a very important book. Not only does it revive scholarly interest in the literary legacies of Edwards, it clarifies those legacies by showing that they survived not merely in a diffuse way among the Transcendentalists, but in a more specific way among writers raised in Reformed and Edwardsean church contexts in which the typological interpretation of reality, informed by the interpretation of Scripture, remained alive and well into the late modern period.

Leader’s Knowing, Seeing, Being is highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of American literature.

Jonathan Edwards for the Church Conference

confA notable feature of the recovery of the Reformed faith in the United Kingdom was God’s use of American theologian Jonathan Edwards in the ministries and lives of the leaders. Thomas Chalmers, Charles Spurgeon, A. W. Pink, John Murray, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones all considered the discovery of Edwards’ writings as turning points in their ministries. Indeed, it is at least possible that the qualitative influence of Edwards has been greater here than it has been among the American church. Jonathan Edwards for the Church seeks to promote such usefulness in a new generation.

The upcoming Jonathan Edwards for the Church Conference will take place next year on February 27 and 28 at Collingwood College, Durham (UK), and the speakers include Reformed ministers who have studied Edwards as well as specialist scholars who are also ministers. They are:

  • Nicholas T. Batzig
  • David Owen Filson
  • William Macleod
  • 
Gerald R. McDermott
  • John J. Murray
  • 
Jon D. Payne
  • William M. Schweitzer
  • 
Douglas A. Sweeney
  • Jeffrey C. Waddington

This conference will provide a forum in the UK for ministers and other interested Christians to share the riches of Jonathan Edwards’s astonishing ministry. We have seen half a century of rapidly escalating JE publications and research, and there have been many conferences held all over the world but this is believed to be the first held in England. While most of these conferences have been primarily for the academy, this conference is unashamedly for the church. Therefore, worship and prayer will be integrated into the program.

You can register now here. For more information please contact edwardsconference@gmail.com or visit edwardsconference.org.