Jonathan Edwards, in his Miscellanies, includes a section that focuses on what we moderns would call “semiotics.” (e.g., one book focuses on his “divine semiotics”) In this section Edwards seeks to explain the role of sense apprehension and the functions of human perception in relation to judgment and the inner workings of the Holy Spirit. His fundamental questions are: (a) How is the human acquisition of knowledge different from God’s understanding of things extra ipsum, and (b) how is the natural human understanding affected through the infusion of divine grace that comes through union with God? In answering both questions Edwards draws a distinction between natural sense knowledge and supernatural sense knowledge.
Firstly, Edwards notes that human knowledge differs from God’s because humans possess an intermediary sensitive part of the soul on which the speculative part, the part most like the divine, depends for transforming “signs” into “things” of the mind. In other words understanding comes only after apprehension and reflection on sense images in the mind. God’s knowledge, says Edwards has no intermediary:
He understands Himself and all other things by the actual and immediate presence of an idea of the things understood. All His understanding is not only by actual idas of things without ever being put to it to make use of signs instead of ideas (either through inabbiilty or difficulty of exciting those ideas or to avoid a slow progeress of thought that would arise by so manifold and exact an attention), but He has the actual ideas of things perfectly in His mind without the least defect of any part and with perfect clearness, and without the imperfection of that fleetingness or transitoriness that attends our ideas, and without any troublesome exertion of the mind to hold the idea there, and without the trouble we are at to have in view a number at once that we may see the relations. But He has the ideas of all things at once in His mind, and all in the highest possible perfection of clearness, and all permanently and invariably there without any transitoriness or fading in any part. (The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: From His Private Notebook, p. 118)
Another thing that distinguishes men from God is the motion of the human will in relation to speculative knowledge. Edwards emphasizes the interconnected nature of the intellect and the will, noting that the ideal apprehension of the notions of beauty, delight, or any bodily pleasure or pain concern both the speculative intellect and the will. He calls this sensible knowledge a kind of inward “feeling” based on the sign of a sensible thing that is truly understood. This sensible knowledge is also speculative. For example, when men have a sense of the misery of being punished by God there exists an implied speculative idea of the greatness of His power which, Edwards notes, is commonly called a “sense” of the thing.
For Edwards, the Holy Spirit works on the minds of regenerate and unregenerate humanity in order to give them a proper “sense” of the things of religion. With regard to the natural man the Holy Spirit works through his natural faculties – Edwards insists that this does not involve any supernatural infusion of grace – in order to give him a sense of God’s greatness, wrath, mercy and so on. Apart from this influence by the Holy Spirit man is content with mere sense impressions, knowledge of the signs of things that are pleasing rather than an active understanding of sense impressions which, by their nature, lead away from material things. Edwards notes that the natural man who has been “unawakened” by the Holy Spirit is in a worse condition than the natural man who has been awakened:
Natural men, while they are senseless and unawakened, have very little sensible knowledge of the things of religion, even with respect to the natural good and evil that is in them and attends them. And indeed, [they] have very little of any ideal apprehension of any sort of divine and eternal things, by reason of their being left to the supifying influence of sin and the objects of sense. But when they are awakened and convinced, the Spirit of God, by assisting their natural powers, gives them an ideal apprehension of the things of religion with respect to what is natural in them, i.e., of that which is speculative in them, and that which pertains to a sensibleness of their natural good and evil, or all but only that which involves a sense of their spiritual excellency. (ibid., p. 123)
Beyond this, God gives the unregenerate man a natural sense of God’s perfection and the wonderful nature of His works and words, and the natural man is given a sense of religion in general. This concept of religion in general includes knowledge of God’s favor and mercy “as it relates to our natural good or deliverance from natural evil, the glory of Heaven with respect to the natural good that is to be enjoyed there, and likewise those affecting, joyful common illuminations that natural men sometimes have.” (ibid., p. 124)
Next Edwards mentions the regenerate man who is given all of these helps of the natural faculties plus the infusion of “something supernatural.” What this supernatural something actually is Edwards does not thoroughly explain. What he does explain is that there are three types of men. First is the unregenerate man who has no sense of the divine or immaterial principles. Secondly, there is the unregenerate man who has a sense of the divine naturally through the influence of the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, there is the regenerate man who has a sense of the divine given naturally and through supernaturally infused principles.
Based on Edwards’ other sayings, one may properly conclude that the major difference between natural religious sense and supernatural religious sense is that the later recognizes the true source of its convictions.
An ideal or sensible apprehension of the spiritual conviction of the truth of divine things, or that belief of their truth that there is in saving faith. There can be no saving conviction without it, and it is the great thing that mainly distinguishes saving belief from all other. And the thing wherein its distinguishing essence does properly lie is that it has a sense of the divine or spiritual excellency of the the things of religion as that which it arises from. (ibid., p. 123)
Therefore, the regenerate man differs from the unregenerate in the fact that he recognizes the source of this sense of the divine that he has. Both the natural man and the regenerate are able to function in the same world, think the same thoughts, even read the Bible and go to church together; both men are able to have a sense of God’s mercy and greatness and even of his wrath towards sin and the reliability of His word. Yet, only the man who has been given a supernatural sense is able to give glory to God as the source of his knowledge and conviction.
Edwards, in much the same way as Richard Hooker, saw the necessity of nature for the function of grace, and he promoted this reality not in order to promote natural religion but to give people a sense of the mercy of God. In fact he refers to nature as a “substratum” of grace.
[T]his sense of the spiritual excellency is not the only kind of ideal apprehension or sense of divine things that is concerned in such a conviction; but it also partly depends on a sensible knowledge of what is natural in religion – as this may be needful to prepare the mind for a sense of if its spiritual excellency and, as such, a sense of its spiritual excellency may depend upon it. For as the spiritual excellency of the things of religion itself does depend and presuppose those things that are natural in religion, they being, as it were, the substratum of this spiritual excellency, so a sense or ideal apprehension of the one depends in some measure on the ideal apprehension of the other. Thus a sense of the excellency of God’s mercy in forgiving sin depends on a sense of the great guilt of sin, the great punishment it deserves; a sense of the beauty and wonderfulness of divine grace does in great measure depend on a sense of the greatness and majesty of that being whose grace it is, and so indeed a sense of the glory of God’s holiness ad all His moral perfections; a sense of the excellency of Christ’s salvation depends on a a sense of the misery and great guilt of those that are the subjects of this salvation. And so that saving conviction of the truths of things of religion does most directly and immediately depend on a sense of their spiritual excellency; yet it also, in some measure, more indirectly and remotely depends on an ideal apprehension of what is natural in religion, and is a common conviction. (ibid., p. 125)
Thus the “natural things” of religion provide the basis upon which God’s grace performs its healing work. Of course these “natural things” are not purely natural, since man is incapable of the speculative sense of the divine apart from the work of the Holy Spirit; whether this work is done through the natural faculties or by the infusion of supernatural grace. In both cases, man’s knowledge is transformed into a mirror of the divine. Just as God’s knowledge of things is direct and immediate, so man’s knowledge of God becomes in a sense direct and immediate through the work of the Holy Spirit.