In Book III of Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin defined his understanding of faith. Calvin described saving faith as ‘a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us,’ which affected both the head and the heart of the believer. This faith was based on the promise given in the Word of God in Jesus Christ, and it was ‘sealed’ through the internal work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. Calvin refused to separate the heart from the brain, or the disposition from the understanding. True faith combined intellectual assent with ‘devout disposition.’ Faith rested upon the knowledge of Christ, and Christ could not be known apart from the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. (Calvin: 551-553)
Calvin’s definition of faith has influenced a long tradition in Reformed theology reflecting on the nature of Christian assurance. Christian pastors and theologians have wrestled with the implications of Calvin’s apparent suggestion that saving faith is certain: ‘faith is a knowledge of the divine benevolence toward us and a sure persuasion of its truth.’ (Calvin: 556) In the same section of Institutes Calvin denies the distinction between formed and unformed faith he found in the works of Lombard and Aquinas. He admits that something resembling faith, a ‘shadow or image of faith,’ can and often does exist within the non-elect, the reprobate. They are ‘sometimes affected by almost the same feeling as the elect, so that even in their own judgment they do not in any way differ from the elect.’ (Calvin: 555)
The theological reflections of Jonathan Edwards on his ministry in the 1730s and early 1740s wrestle with the same questions raised by Calvin’s comments on the nature of saving faith and assurance. Or, at least, a reading of the works of Edwards from this period can be enriched by placing them in the context of the quest for assurance among Protestant Christians in the 17th and 18th centuries. In at least one place in his writings, Edwards hints at a definition of saving faith that resonates with Calvin’s own definition: ‘He that has true faith is convinced of the reality and the certainty of the great things of religion…’ (Charity: 230) And yet a substantial part of Edwards’ theological writing from this period is an ongoing evaluation of the practical realities of such a well defined and certain understanding of saving Christian faith. Although this paper will not be concerned with the history of Jonathan Edwards and his ministry, it is interesting that Edwards had such problems and difficulties as a minister during the same period. Perhaps Edwards was unable to apply the consequences of his theological reflections. Perhaps the reason for the departure of Edwards from Northampton in the late 1740s was theological as much as it was practical or political. One interesting note from an older biography of Edwards comments on the lack of assurance that his close followers in Christian ministry, Nathaniel Emmons and Samuel Hopkins, experienced throughout their lives. If Emmons and Hopkins remained uncertain of their conversion how could other Christians expect to meet the Edwards standard of Christian assurance? (Allen: 231)
In The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God published in 1741, Edwards provided one of his first widely read attempts to describe the differences between true and false Christian religious experience. William Cooper, in his preface to the work, wrote of how Edwards drew on Scripture, reason and experience for his arguments. This is an early and interesting use of three words that are now commonly understood as labeling three sources for theology. Edwards based his text on 1 John 4:1: ‘Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world’, and he restricted his use of Scripture in the book by concentrating on the teaching contained in 1 John 4. (Marks: 88) From the first paragraph of the book, Edwards warns about the need for rules in the church to identify true works of God. Rules are required because of the work of the devil, who produces copies of all the different types of work of the Spirit of God. In the second paragraph of the book, Edwards mentions ‘the indwelling of the Spirit, as the sure evidence of an interest in Christ,’ (Marks: 86). Edwards is both modern and traditional in his approach. He wrestles with real events and experiences of a spiritual nature. But he struggles to break away from the language that had come to dominate his Christian community. Edwards, at this stage at least in his career, is unable to leave aside his Reformed and Puritan heritage as he describes practical piety and associated theological questions.
The first part of Distinguishing Marks is a list of things that do not provide evidence against a real work of the Spirit of God. Unusual and extraordinary occurrences do not rule out God’s working in a situation. Here Edwards is probably defending the events of revival that he had experienced in his ministry in the 1730s. He even suggests that the last and final great work of God ‘in the latter ages of the world’ will be extraordinary. This is interesting because in a series of lectures delivered in 1738 based on 1 Corinthians 13, Edwards suggested that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit given to the church in the New Testament period could not be assumed to appear again during ‘the glory of the latter times of the Church,’. (Charity: 45) The reason Edwards gives for this is that in those latter times ‘there is no dispensation to be introduced, and no new Bible to be given.’ (Charity: 47)
What, then, were these unusual and extraordinary occurrences that did not rule out a work of God? In the second category Edwards begins to answer this question. Effects on the bodies of people, such as tears, trembling, groans, faintings, and other ‘agonies of body’ could not be used one way or the other to judge if a work was from God or not. Edwards seems to be ambivalent about such things ‘because the Scripture nowhere gives us any such rule’ for testing in this area. Moreover, Edwards asks if anyone could be ‘so foolish as from hence to ague that in whomsoever these things appear, their convictions are not from the Spirit of God?’ But Edwards builds into his argument the use of reason and experience. There is no ‘need of express scripture for every external, accidental manifestation of the inward motion of the mind,’ and, citing the example of the jailer in Acts 16, there is general reason to believe that such effects on the body do accompany the work of the Spirit. (Marks: 93)
In a later heading of things that do not rule out a work of God, Edwards adds mental effects to physical effects. Great impressions on the imagination are not an evidence against the work of the Spirit of God. Defining the idea of imagination is extremely difficult, as is understanding the use of the term in the writings of Edwards. Lee refers to the definition that Edwards gives in The Religious Affections, and he carefully distinguishes old and modern uses of the word. He also suggests that the language Edwards used could not really express his actual thinking clearly. (Lee 2000: 126, 127) This has been noted in a growing number of academic reflections on the nature of language and imagination in the thought of Edwards. Within the limits of Christian orthodoxy Edwards, perhaps prefiguring the work of Coleridge, tried to move beyond his Puritan context to describe the limitless truth of God’s work in the lives of Christian individuals. (Piggin and Cook: 407) The Christian imagination, or, perhaps more accurately God’s use of human imagination, was one area for Edwards to use, develop and explore in his explanations of pastoral work in times of revival.
Experience and imagination were important for Edwards. Indeed Edwards makes an appeal to the experience of human nature in this regard: ‘we cannot think of things invisible without a degree of imagination.’ (Marks: 96) While Edwards recognized the difference between ‘that which is imaginary and that which is intellectual and spiritual,’ he made the astonishing claim that it appeared to him manifest ‘in many instances with which I have been acquainted, that God has really made use of this faculty to truly divine purposes; especially in some that are more ignorant.’ (Marks: 96) This one sentence opens up the complexity of Edwards and his thinking about God’s action in the world, and human experience of that action. How does Edwards understand spirituality when he thinks of it in distinction to imagination and in conjunction with ‘that which is intellectual’? How comprehensive must the sovereignty of God be for Edwards, when God can use imagination to reach those who do not or cannot understand the ‘ordinary’ word of God?
In the same way, Edwards defends following the example of others as one way in which people experience the work of the Spirit of God in their lives: ‘it is no valid objection against examples being so much used that the Scripture speaks of the word as the principal means of carrying on God’s work;’ (Marks: 99). ‘It is the word of God that is indeed held forth and applied by example.’ (Marks: 100) The use of the word of God to uphold and explain these categories is metaphysical. For Edwards the word of God in some metaphysical way grounds and transcends even the spiritual and the intellectual aspects of knowing God. Perhaps there is even a hint that Edwards understood the word of God as transcending Scripture itself.
The final four headings marking things that do not rule out a work of the Spirit of God are all associated with morality and the law. People associated in general with such a work of God can be guilty of ‘great imprudences and irregularities in their conduct.’ (Marks: 101) Errors of judgment and delusions of Satan can be intermixed with work that is from the Spirit of God. (Marks: 103) When people fall away into gross errors and scandalous practices this need not be evidence against the general work being from God. (Mark: 104) And it is not against a work of the Spirit of God that ‘the terrors of God’s holy law’ are emphasized. (Marks: 106) Edwards sums up this final point: ‘(t)he gospel is to be preached as well as the law, and the law is to be preached only to make way for the gospel, and in order that it may be preached more effectually.’ (Marks: 107)