Nature as a Substratum of Grace: From the Miscellanies of Jonathan Edwards

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.


Christ Abolished the Dividing Wall: Aquinas on the Old Law

Wailing WallMany theologians don’t want to interpret Paul’s statement in Eph. 2:14, 15 about Christ breaking down the “wall of hostility” as referring to an actual abolishing of the Old Law.  Some are also afraid of viewing the passage in terms of Jew/Gentile relations because those within the New Perspective on Paul camp interpret similar passages in that light.  The latter see within 1st Century Judaism an exclusivism that Paul finds more problematic than an apparent legalism.  I found it interesting that Thomas Aquinas includes both of these ideas in his commentary on Paul’s statements in Ephesians 2.  He affirms that the “wall of hostility” is the Old Law and that Christ has broken down this wall, causing the rift between Jew and Gentile to be removed:

What is said here should be understood in this way. For the world is likened to a field, “and the field is the world” (Mt. 13:38); this field of the world is crowded with men, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). A barrier, however, runs down the field, some are on one side and the rest on the other. The Old Law can be termed such a barrier, its carnal observances kept the Jews confined: “Before the faith came, we were kept under the law shut up, unto that faith which was to be revealed” (Gal. 3:23). Christ was symbolized through the Old Law: “Behold, he standeth behind our wall” (Cant. 2:9). Christ, however, has put an end to this barrier and, since no division remained, the Jews and the Gentiles became one people. This is what he says: I affirm that he hath made both one by the method of breaking down the middle barrier.

St. ThomasThomas views the Law in cosmic terms.  The Old Law divided the whole world into different classes.  He goes on to explain that this “dividing wall” was never meant to be permanent because it was a wall that lacked mortar: 

I say a barrier of partition and not a wall. A barrier of partition is one in which the stones are not mortared together with cement; it is not built to last permanently but only for a specified time. The Old Law was a barrier of partition for two reasons. First, because it was not mortared together with charity which is, as it were, the cement uniting individuals among themselves and everyone together with Christ. “Be careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The Old Law is a law of fear, persuading men to observe its commands by punishments and threats. While that law was in force, those who kept it out of love belonged by anticipation, as Augustine holds, to the New Testament which is the law of love. “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons” (Rom. 8:15). Secondly, the Old Law is a barrier of partition because it was not meant to last permanently but only for a definite time. “As long as the heir is a child, he differeth nothing from a servant, though he be Lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed by the father. So we also, when we were children, were serving under the elements of the world” (Gal. 4:1-3). (Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, II. Lect., 5.)

Moses and Ten CommandmentsIn this passage Thomas affirms that there is not a stark distinction between the two testaments, as if those living under the Old Testament were merely required to meet certain external conditions without any internal motive. Rather, those who lived under the Old Testament participated in the New Testament by keeping the Old Law out of love.  Matthew Lamb explains Thomas’s view of the relationship and difference between the two covenants:

[Thomas borrows from] St Augustine’s De Gratia Christi et Peccato Originali, 2, 24-25 (P.L. 44, col. 398-400); also Contra Adamantum Manich. Discip. 17, (P.L. 42, col. 157-62). In St. Thomas’ view of salvation-history the Old Law had an embryonic relationship to the New: “As the effect is in its cause, or the perfect is in its less perfect beginnings-just as the whole tree is contained in the seed-so is the New Law contained in the Old Law.” S.T. I-II, 107, 3. This is a corollary of the general pattern of God’s salvific revelation to man, it is gradual in order for man to better assimilate it (ibid., 99, 6). Thus the New Covenant fulfills the Old by realizing its deepest potentialities (ibid., 107, 2); they both have the same goal while they differ as less perfect and more perfect in their methods of attaining that goal (ibid., 107, 1). This is why Aquinas characterized the Old Law as one of Fear and the New as one of Love. For a genuine supernatural love could only be offered to God by God himself become man and communicating his love, the Holy Spirit, to other men (S.T. II-II, 24, 2c; III, 8, 6c). Hence Christ is the head of all mankind (ibid., III, 8, 3) and those who observed God’s commands out of supernatural love in the Old Testament really belonged to the New, while those in the New Covenant who still practice virtue out of fear of punishment are acting as though they were under the Old Law (ibid., I-II, 107, 1 ad 2). (Matthew Lamb, Ibid. footnote 56.)

Glorification of ChristThis cosmic and eschatological understanding of the relationship between testaments is essential to understanding Paul’s view of the Old Law.  Those who keep the Old Law under the New Testament are acting as if the dark age of Moses has not been superseded by the light of Christ. Those who attempt to live in the old age are bound to keep the whole law. The faithful who lived before the New Testament were given supernatural charity which actually belonged to a future age. God has providentially guided his people through salvation history in an upward pattern.  The virtues of the new age existed in seed form in the old age and came to full bloom with the incarnation of the eternal Word.  Thomas believed that God is moving his world from death to glorification.


Q:  Does faith unite one to Christ?
A:  Yes
Q:  Is Christ God?
A:  Yes

Well, there you have it.  Now one must go on to question what sort of union believers have in Christ.  I haven’t quoted Nevin in a while, and I’ve recently been looking back through his The Mystical Presence.  What an excellent book.  This paragraph in particular is VERY IMPORTANT:  

The relation of believers to Christ, then, is more again than that of simply legal union.  He is indeed the representative of his people, and what he has done and suffered on their behalf is counted to their benefit, as though it had been done by themselves.  They have an interest in his merits, a title to all the advantages secured by his life and death.  But this external imputation rests at last on an inward, real unity of life, without which it could have no reason or force.  Our interest in Christ’s merits and benefits can be based only upon a previous interest in his person; so in the Lord’s Supper, we are made to participate, not merely in the advantages secured by his mediatorial work, the rewards of his obedience, the fruits of his bitter passion, the virtue of his atonement, and the power of his preistly intercession, but also in his true and proper life itself, We partake of his merits and benefits only so far as we partake of his substance …. In the Lord’s Supper, accordingly, the believer communicates not only with the Spirit of Christ, or with his divine nature, but with Christ himself in his whole living person; so that they may be said to be fed and nourished by his very flesh and blood. (The Mystical Presence, 53, 54.)  

Therefore, believers are united to Christ’s substance.  His body and blood truly dwells in us – in a spiritual, non corporeal manner.  If this ain’t theosis then call me a Zwinglian. It’s o.k. to say this. Don’t worry…this is Reformed.

An Increased Union with Christ

A common speculation regarding the Lord’s Supper is that there is no special partaking of Christ for the believing subject in the event of eating and drinking the elements.  If the sacrament is a means of grace (WCF 27) and grace only comes through union with Christ then what more should one expect from the sacraments? Are they not redundant?  Peter Martyr Vermigli states,

… I cannot admit or acknowledge a real or substantial or corporeal presence of Christ’s body, whether in the signs or in the communicants themselves.  Yet I do not doubt but insist rather that there is a spiritual communion and participation in his body and blood given to the communicants.  Although this is enjoyed even before the eating of the sacrament, it is increased by an exercise of faith in eating the mystery. (Peter Martyr Reader, 161.).  

Continue reading “An Increased Union with Christ”