Some friends and I are wending our way through “The Works of Jonathan Edwards.” These are my notes on one of his most famous sermons.
Following the standard Puritan model of composition (outlined by William Perkins) Edwards gives a brief exposition of his text: Matt. 16:17. He then explains the doctrinal content of the passage, before closing with application.
The knowledge which Peter has of Jesus’ identity is communicated, as only such knowledge can be, by God. God is “the original of knowledge,” in that He “is the author of all knowledge and understanding whatsoever.” [We may rightly say then that all knowledge is, at its core, revelatory knowledge.]. Nevertheless, Edwards states that the knowledge which Peter had was imparted by God’s Spirit, rather than being something that was discoverable by qualities which are latent within man.
The doctrinal section of the sermon forms the main part of the work. [This was not always the way – sometimes Puritan sermons are heavy on application, although they never bypass the doctrinal aspect. Just a thought, but were this method adopted universally by today’s preachers it might well spur a revival of doctrinal preaching in our churches].
The author’s first duty is to clear away any false opinions as to what this “divine light” is. He lists four things that it is not:
i. It is not natural. This means the unregenerate come to it even though they may experience pangs of conscience from time to time as a result of their consciences. The conscience may even be assisted by the Spirit of God, but without any internal testimony.
ii. It is not the stirring of religious imagination or fervor. This may be aroused even by the devil (though Edwards is careful to point out that true spiritual knowledge will inevitably provoke the imagination).
iii. This “light” is not new revelation. It is not something which cannot be found to be in accord with clear Scripture.
iv. It is not any “affecting view” that some may have of God and Christ. This may arise from within or from someone else, yet not be spiritual in its origin.
Having cleared away these four things, the author continues by declaring what this divine light is. He says that the leading characteristic of this light is “A real sense and apprehension of the divine excellency of things revealed in the word of God.” It is seeing the divine glory in the propositions of Scripture. Thus,
i. “He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.”
Here we encounter the well known contrast between rational and spiritual understanding. There is a “notional” or theoretical knowledge of things and there is a “sensible” or experiential knowledge of things. There is a huge difference between knowing formally that honey is sweet and experiencing what that sweetness tastes like. Thus, divine knowledge surpasses theoretical knowledge in that it is known by the soul – it is experienced.
ii. But this experimental knowledge (as the English Puritans called it) comes in by the removal of “the prejudices of the heart” whereby the reason is sanctified and can appreciate the force of truth. It also intensifies the reality of divine truths by placing them in their true context so that the mind can comprehend them better.
In addition to this, it is shown that the doctrines of Scripture and their great truths are seen to be no human invention. Men “believe the doctrines of God’s word to be divine, because they see a divine, and transcendent, and most evidently distinguishing glory in them…”
These new impressions are the fruit of saving faith. [Here I may say that this is the one proposition that he does not establish in the sermon].
Having said all this Edwards proceeds to show how God imparts this light. Following the scheme of clearing obstacles before propounding the doctrine he says that we must not think that God imparts this light either by a. bypassing the natural faculties that He has put in man; b. bypassing Scripture, or, c. through the witness of the Word independently of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.
In the third part of the doctrinal section Edwards now sets out to prove the truth of his teaching. He does this by demonstrating that it accords with both Scripture and good reason.
i. Scripture declares that this spiritual knowledge is separate from anything that may be attained by the ungodly. It is knowledge that is immediately given by God (e.g. Matt. 11:25-27; 2 Cor. 2:4, etc.)
This section is very impressive and plainly shows that this divine light is a selective revelation, the impartation and prerogatives of which are solely in God’s hands.
ii. Rationally speaking, this spiritual knowledge of divine things would only be expected to be separate from knowledge of mundane things. Edwards asks: “and why may there not be that stamp of divinity, or divine glory, on the word of God…that may be …distinguishing and as rationally convincing [as e.g. Christ’s Transfiguration], provided it be but seen?” Therefore, he proceeds to argue that once it is granted that this knowledge would be different it follows that it must be “seen” differently too.
This is a simple but effective apologetic argument. It does not itself establish the reality of this supernatural knowledge, but it does differentiate it from other forms of knowing and thereby show the necessity of divine illumination under such circumstances. So also, “it is rational to suppose, that this knowledge should be given immediately by God…”
Further, when all this is added to man’s sinful condition it is certain that natural reason could never arrive at it. In fact, reason as a faculty simply isn’t up to the job “perceiving of spiritual beauty and excellency no more belongs to reason than it belongs to the sense of feeling to perceive colours, or to the power of seeing to perceive the sweetness of food.”
His teaching established, Edwards closes with some applications (improvements):
i. Since this spiritual knowledge comes from God it may be granted to persons of any station or any level of intellect.
ii. It ought to lead us to examining whether we have ever been the recipients of it.
iii. In the third place, it ought to be sought out because of its excellence, because of its brilliance (“This spiritual light is the dawning of the light of glory in the heart.”), because of its influences – assimilating our natures to the divine nature, – and because of its fruit in holiness and worship!
This message certainly makes one appreciate the acuteness of Edwards mind as well as his wonderful grasp of the importance of truth. That his congregation asked for it to be published shows that they understood it and valued its teaching. Whence today’s congregations? I hope you all benefited from reading it as much as I did.