Newton’s Critique of Edwards

Life of John Newton Near the end of Josiah Bull’s biography of John Newton, there’s a quote by Newton that is somewhat critical of the great American theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Here it is:

“Mr. Edwards was an excellent man, but some of his writings are too metaphysical, and particularly that book [The Freedom of the Will].  If I understand it, I think it rather establishes fatalism and necessity than Calvinism in the sober sense.  I could object likewise to his book on Original Sin, though there are many excellent things in it” (p. 328).

These statements really made me want to hear more from Newton on Edwards, since I too am somewhat critical of Edwards’ theology.

Reading through Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., I did find more.  In a letter Newton wrote to Ryland in 1778, he criticized New England theology.  Though Newton wasn’t writing of Edwards specifically, he was writing generally of the American divines in the late 1700s.  I realize this post is a bit longer than normal, but I didn’t want to leave any part of this quote out.  Here it is.

“Most of the New England divines I have met with have in my judgment one common fault: they abound with distinctions and refinements in experimental matters, which are suited to cast down those whom the Lord would have comforted. And in their long account of what they call a preparatory work, they include and thereby depreciate some real and abiding effects of true grace. They require such an absolute submission to the righteousness and sovereignty of God, before they will allow a person to be a believer, as I apprehend is seldom the attainment of a babe in Christ.  I think if Mr. Stoddard had been at Philippi, and the jailer had sprung trembling in to him (instead of Paul and Silas) with the same question he would have afforded him but cold comfort, and would have made him wait a few weeks or months to see how the preparatory work went on before he would have encouraged him to believe in Jesus.

“Some of the good advice he gives to those under temptation, leads me to think, he had not sailed much in those deep waters himself.  In short, it [Stoddard’s The Way to Know Sincerity] is a book which, notwithstanding the many important things it contains, I should not put into the hands of some of my poor people.”

“We say such a building is a house, not only when it is tiled, painted and furnished, but while the walls are yet unfinished, while it is encumbered with rubbish and surrounded with scaffolds, which though not a part of the edifice (but are designed in time to be removed) are helpful for carrying it on.  We speak of a field of wheat not only in harvest but in spring, and say ‘It is day,’ when the light is gradually increasing, though the sun be not risen.  I doubt much if those desires and workings in an awakened mind which are mixed with great legality and mistakes are the real effects of the Holy Spirit no less than the fruits of joy and peace in believing which he produces in due time, and therefore ought not hastily to be cast away in the lump, as mere strivings of corrupt nature.  It is true there are unsound convictions, and impressions which are not abiding, but the Lord’s labourers should weed with a gentle and cautious hand, lest in their attempts to pull up the tares, they should pluck up the wheat also.”

“It would be well if both preachers and people would keep more closely to what the Scripture teaches of the nature, marks and growth of a work of grace instead of following each other in a track (like sheep) confining the Holy Spirit to a system; imposing at first the experience and sentiments of others as a rule to themselves, and afterward dogmatically laying down the path in which they themselves have been led, as absolutely necessary to be trodden by others.

There is a vast variety of the methods by which the Lord brings home souls to himself, in which he considers (though system-preachers do not) the different circumstances, situations, temperament, etc. of different persons. To lay down rules precisely to which all must conform, and to treat all enquiring souls in the same way, is as wrong as it would be in a physician to attempt to cure all his patients who may have the same general disorder (a fever for instance) with one and the same prescription. A skilful man would probably find so many differences in their cases, that he would not treat any two of them exactly alike.

“I hope the Lord has made me willing to learn (if I can) from all, but Nullis in verba jurare [take no one’s word as final] is my motto.  If you read the Scripture and your own heart attentively, you will have greatly the advantage of those who puzzle themselves by too closely copying the rules they find in other books.”

I wholeheartedly agree – and I appreciate Newton’s pastoral tone (go back and notice his illustrations about the house/building, sheep, wheat/tares, and physician).  I’ve tried to read Edwards’ Religious Affections but didn’t appreciate it because it didn’t really lead me to assurance at the foot of the cross.  I know Edwards wrote it for a particular audience at a particular time, but it seemed far too spiritually tedious to me.  For this and other reasons, and for the reasons Newton well noted above, the writings of Edwards are not typically on my recommended reading lists.  And by the way, this discussion also has to do with the judgment of charity (or charitable judgment).  But more on that topic later.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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The Nature or Properties of Election (Boston)

See the source image When the Bible talks about election, “God’s elect”, or “the elect,” what does this mean?  What is election?  Obviously in this context it’s not people electing someone to office. Instead, it’s God’s electing someone to salvation in Christ (e.g. Mk 13:20, Rom 8:33; 1 Peter 1:1, etc.).  The apostle Paul explains election with some detail in Ephesians 1:3-5, as many of our readers already know.

I like how Thomas Boston explained the nature of election as he reflected on Paul’s words in these verses.  Below is a summary of Boston’s excellent explanation – a section he called, “The Properties of Election:”

  1. It is altogether free, without any moving cause, but God’s mere good pleasure.  No reason can be found for this but only in the bosom of God. There is nothing before, or above, or without his purpose, that can be pitched upon as the cause of all that grace and goodness that he bestows upon his chosen ones. There was no merit or motive in them, as Christ told his disciples, John 15:16. ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.’ His choice is antecedent to ours. The persons who are singled out to be the objects of his special grace, were a part of lost mankind, the same by nature with others who were passed by, and left to perish in their sin.
  2. Election is eternal. They are elected from all eternity, Eph. 1:4 chosen before the foundation of the world, 2 Tim. 1:9. ‘He hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.’ All God’s decrees are eternal, Eph. 1:11. ‘We are predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will. God takes no new counsels, to do which would be inconsistent with his infinite perfection. Because God is eternal, his purposes must   p 307  be of equal duration with his existence.
  3. It is particular and definite. God has chosen a certain number of the children of men to life, whom he knows by name, so as they can neither be more nor fewer. Hence their names are said to be written in the book of life, Luke 10:20. Phil. 4:3 and others are said not to be written there, Rev. 17:8. Though they are known to none, yet God knows them all, 2 Tim. 2:19. And they are given to Christ, John 17:9. Therefore God’s decree of election is not a general decree only to save all that shall believe and persevere in the faith; for that way it might happen that none at all might be saved.
  4. It is unchangeable. Mutability is an imperfection peculiar to creatures. As the least change in God’s understanding, so as to know more or less than that hid from eternity, would be an instance of imperfection; the same must be said with respect to his holy will, which cannot be susceptible of new determinations. Though there are many changes in the external dispensations of his providence, which are the result of his will, as well as the effects of his power; yet there is no shadow of change in his purpose. No unforeseen occurrence can render it expedient for God to change his mind, nor can any higher power oblige him to do it; nor can any defect of power to accomplish his design, induce him to alter his purpose. Those who are once elected can never be reprobated. All that are elected shall most certainly be saved. None of them can be left to perish. For all the divine purposes are unchangeable, and must be fulfilled, Isa. 46:10.; and this in particular, 2 Tim. 2:19. Election is the foundation of God’s house, laid by his own hand, which cannot be shaken, but stands sure; and a sealed foundation, as men seal what they will have; a seal of two parts securing it; on God’s part, God loves and keeps them that are his, that they fall not away; on our part, the same God takes care that his elect depart from iniquity.

These great quotes are taken from pages 306-307 of Boston’s Works, volume 1

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

What Mind Can Grasp “I AM”? (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.7: St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies Commenting on John 8:24, Augustine had some brilliant reflections on Jesus’ words: Unless you believe that I am [εγω ειμι] you will die in your sins.  Note below how Augustine went back to Exodus 3 to explain Jesus’ words in John 8.  (Side note: this is why non-Christian groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons tend to avoid Augustine):

There is much implied in His only saying “I Am;” for so also had God said to Moses, “I Am who Am.” Who can adequately express what that AM means?

…Perhaps it was too much even for Moses himself, as it is too much for us also, and much more so for us, to understand the meaning of such words, “I am who am;” and, “He who is hath sent me to you.” And supposing that Moses comprehended it, when would those to whom he was sent comprehend it? The Lord therefore put aside what man could not comprehend, and added what he could; for He said also besides, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This thou canst comprehend; for “I am who am,” what mind can comprehend?

…The Lord Jesus Christ, I think, said nothing else by these words, “If ye believe not that I am;” yea, by these words I think He meant nothing else than this, “If ye believe not that I am” God, “ye shall die in your sins.” Well, God be thanked that He said, “If ye believe not,” and did not say, “If ye comprehend not.” For who can comprehend this?

In other words, Jesus is not telling people to comprehened what it means that he is “I AM,” but to believe it!

(The above quote is found in Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John,” in vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, p. 220-221)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

…In Studying Things of No Use (Calvin)

Institutes of the Christian Religion

When it comes to the fact that God has revealed himself in his Word, we do well to remember that what he revealed to us there is what he wants us to know about him and faith in him.  The Word is sufficient for our theology, our faith, and our practice.  We may not add to it, nor may we go beyond it.  We humbly accept what God has revealed and we stick with that revelation.  We won’t – and can’t! – have all the answers to all the questions we ask about God, his Word, and other doctrinal or theological things we might wonder about.  John Calvin discussed this point very well in one section of his Institutes.  These are the words of a humble expositor and interpreter of Scripture:

…Let us here remember that on the whole subject of religion one rule of modesty and soberness is to be observed, and it is this — in obscure matters not to speak or think, or even long to know, more than the Word of God has delivered.

A second rule is, that in reading the Scriptures we should constantly direct our inquiries and meditations to those things which tend to edification, not indulge in curiosity, or in studying things of no use. And since the Lord has been pleased to instruct us, not in frivolous questions, but in solid piety, in the fear of his name, in true faith, and the duties of holiness, let us rest satisfied with such knowledge.

Wherefore, if we would be duly wise, we must renounce those vain babblings of idle men, concerning the nature, ranks, and number of angels, without any authority from the Word of God. I know that many fasten on these topics more eagerly, and take greater pleasure in them than in those relating to daily practice. But if we decline not to be the disciples of Christ, let us not decline to follow the method which he has prescribed. In this way, being contented with him for our master, we will not only refrain from, but even feel averse to, superfluous speculations which he discourages….

…The duty of a Theologian…is not to tickle the ear, but confirm the conscience, by teaching what is true, certain, and useful.

 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 193–194.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Great Names of God (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation

I really like Herman Bavinck’s discussion of the names of God in the second volume of his Reformed Dogmatics.  Here’s a section of it which is full of Scripture references.  It’s theological and redemptive-historical, but it’s also practical:

There is an intimate link between God and his name. According to Scripture, this link too is not accidental or arbitrary but forged by God himself. We do not name God; he names himself. In the foreground here is the name as a revelation on the part of God, in an active and objective sense, as revealed name. In this case God’s name is identical with the attributes or perfections that he exhibits in and to the world: his glory (Ps. 8:1; 72:19), honor (Lev. 18:21; Ps. 86:10–11; 102:16), his redeeming power (Exod. 15:3; Isa. 47:4); his service (Isa. 56:6; Jer. 23:27); his holiness (1 Chron. 16:10; Ps. 105:3). The name is God himself as he reveals himself in one relationship or another (Lev. 24:11, 16; Deut. 28:58). That name, being a revelation of God, is great (Ezek. 36:23), holy (Ezek. 36:20), awesome (Ps. 111:9), a high refuge (Ps. 20:1), a strong tower (Prov. 18:10). By proper names, particularly by the name yhwh, God made himself known to Israel. He revealed himself to Israel by the angel in whom the Lord’s name was present (Exod. 23:20). And by him he put his name on the children of Israel (Num. 6:27), caused his name to be remembered (Exod. 20:24), put his name among them and made it to dwell there (Deut. 12:5; 14:23), especially in the temple that was built for his name (2 Sam. 7:13). Now his name lives in that temple (2 Chron. 20:9; 33:4). By that name he saves (Ps. 54:1), and on account of that name he cannot abandon Israel (1 Sam. 12:22; Isa. 48:9, 11; Ps. 23:3; 31:3; 143:11–12). Israel, accordingly, may not blaspheme and desecrate that name, or use it in vain (Exod. 20:7; Lev. 18:21; 19:12; 24:11). On the contrary: that name must be invoked, passed on in story, magnified, known, feared, exalted, expected, sought out, sanctified (Gen. 4:26; 12:8; Exod. 9:16; Deut. 28:58; 1 Kings 8:33; Ps. 5:12; 34:3; 52:9; 83:17; 122:4; Isa. 26:8; Matt. 6:9; John 12:28; etc.).

In the New Testament God’s name acquires an even richer and deeper meaning. For the Logos, who was in the beginning with God and is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known (John 1:18) and revealed his name (John 17:6, 26). Since no one knows the Father except the Son, only those to whom the Son reveals the Father gain knowledge of God (Matt. 11:27). Those who confess the Son have the Father also (1 John 2:23). Those who have seen him have seen the Father (John 14:9). The name of Jesus Christ, accordingly, guarantees the truth of our knowledge of God and all the associated benefits. He is called Jesus because he saves his people (Matt. 1:21) and is the only name given under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). By his name miracles are performed (Acts 4:7); by it we receive forgiveness (Acts 2:38), the right to become God’s children (John 1:12), and eternal life (1 John 5:13). Where two or three people are gathered in his name, he is in their midst (Matt. 18:20). Those who pray in his name are heard (John 14:13), and those who call on the name of the Lord are saved (Acts 2:21). All salvation for humanity is comprehended within the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Being baptized in that name is a sign and seal of fellowship with God. And an even richer revelation awaits believers in the new Jerusalem (Rev. 3:12), when his name will be inscribed upon everyone’s forehead (Rev. 22:4).

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 98.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Our Living Hope (Clowney)

Reading through Edmund Clowney’s commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-5 this morning brought me to these excellent observations about Christian hope:

Peter writes a letter of hope. The hope he proclaims is not what we call a ‘fond hope’. We cherish fond hopes because they are so fragile. We ‘hope against hope’ because we do not really expect what we hope for. But Peter writes of a sure hope, a hope that holds the future in the present because it is anchored in the past. Peter hopes for God’s salvation, God’s deliverance from sin and death. His hope is sure, because God has already accomplished his salvation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

The resurrection of Jesus was a life-changing reality for Peter. When Jesus died on the cross, it was the end of all Peter’s hopes. He knew only bitter sorrow for his own denials. The dawn could not bring hope; with the crowing of the cock he heard the echo of his curses.

But Jesus did not stay dead. On that Easter morning Peter learned from the women of the empty tomb and the message of the angels. He went running to the tomb and saw its evidence. He left in wonder, but Jesus remembered Peter and appeared to him even before he came to eat with the disciples in the upper room. Hope was reborn in Peter’s heart with the sight of his living Lord. Now Peter writes to praise God for that living hope. The resurrection did much more than restore his Master to him. The resurrection crowned the victory of Christ, his victory for Peter, and for those to whom he writes. The resurrection shows that God has made the Crucified both Lord and Christ. At the right hand of the Father Jesus rules until the day that he will come to restore and renew all things.2 With the resurrection of Jesus and his entrance into glory, a new age has begun. Peter now waits for the day when Jesus will be revealed from heaven (1:7, 13). Peter’s living hope is Jesus.

 Edmund P. Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter: The Way of the Cross, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 44.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

In But Not Of This World (Epistle to Diognetus)

Lightfoot’s Apostolic Fathers in English

This is such a great section of the 2nd century Chrisitan letter called “The Epistle to Diognetus“.  It is good commentary on the teaching of Christ and his apostles that this present age, this present world, is not our permanent home (John 17; 1 Pet. 1:1, etc.).

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. 2For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practise an extraordinary kind of life. 3Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. 4But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellous, and confessedly contradicts expectation.
5They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners;
they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers.
Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.
6They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring.
7They have their meals in common, but not their wives.
8They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh.
9Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
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They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives.
11They love all men, and they are persecuted by all.
12They are ignored, and yet they are condemned.
They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life.
13They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich.
They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things.
14They are dishonoured, and yet they are glorified in their dishonour.
They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated.
15They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect.
16Doing good they are punished as evil-doers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life. 17War is waged against them as aliens by the Jews, and persecution is carried on against them by the Greeks, and yet those that hate them cannot tell the reason of their hostility.

 Joseph Barber Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers (London: Macmillan and Co., 1891), 505–506.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015