Archives of Reception of the Bible

Past blogging in more ways than one.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

My early experience of reception - Jonathan Edwards

To give you an idea of how my earlier interests turned to reception of the Bible, here is an adapted excerpt from an early piece on the interpretation of the words of Gamaliel in Acts 5.38-39 (written in 1996, published in 1998 in ‘The Gamaliel Principle,’ in The Mark of the Spirit? A Charismatic Critique of the Toronto Blessing [ed. L.K Pietersen; Carlisle: Paternoster Press], 92-121).

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

In 1741, during a time of revival in New England, Jonathan Edwards published a three-part work entitled ‘The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God’ (On Revival [Banner of Truth, Edinburgh: 1965] pp 75-147). Part 1 outlined marks that could not be used to argue that something was not of the Spirit (89-108). In the second part Edwards outlines scriptural evidences for distinguishing a work of the Spirit of God; here he argues that these marks can discern a work of the Spirit from the work of Satan as an Angel of Light (109-20).

Having outlined these marks Edwards draws some inferences from them in a final section. The first inference is that the present events in New England were of the Spirit of God; Edwards includes details to support his claim (121-30). His second inference begins;

Let us all be hence warned, by no means to oppose, or do any thing in the least to clog or hinder the work; but, on the contrary, to do our utmost to promote it. Now Christ is come down from Heaven in a remarkable and wonderful work of his Spirit, it becomes all his professed disciples to acknowledge him, and give him honour (130).

Edwards begins by discussing the failure of the Jews to acknowledge Jesus and the works of the Spirit at Pentecost. He then turns to what he sees as the parallel failure amongst the ministers of the Church of his day, those who are failing to recognise the Spirit of God, who are ‘prudently’ keeping silent and who are, in some cases, claiming to await the issue (fruits) of the work. According to Edwards, their prudence in avoiding commenting on this clear work of the Spirit is, in fact, a secret kind of opposition to God that really hinders the work. Further, those who await the issue of the movement will await a clear sign in vain, as the Jews did, alway seeking further signs. Edwards wonders that those who pretend prudence in this way are so easy in the thought that they may be missing what he terms ‘the most precious opportunity of obtaining divine light, grace, and comfort, heavenly and eternal benefits that God ever gave in New England’ (134), having made no attempt to see for themselves.

Edwards now turns to those who have spoken contemptuously of the work in New England. These people would have done better, says Edwards, to have learnt prudence from an unbelieving Jew, Gamaliel, and cites Gamaliel's advice for them. They should not ‘oppose [the work in New England], or say anything which has even an indirect tendency to bring it into discredit, lest they be found opposers of the Holy Spirit’ (134). Those who speak contemptibly of the work are one step from the unforgiveable sin; that step being to call the work Satanic against their inward conviction that it is of the Holy Spirit.

Edwards appears to be guilty of a gross contradiction here. It is impossible to reconcile his advice to the scoffers to be prudent like Gamaliel with his condemnation of those ‘prudent’ men who are keeping quiet about the present work of the spirit; in the book of Acts, Gamaliel's advice is not to make one's mind up about whether or not a work is of the Spirit, but rather that no decision is necessary at all, ever. Such an attitude should surely be condemned by Edwards; remember his words, ‘Now Christ is come down from Heaven in a remarkable and wonderful work of his spirit, it becomes all his professed disciples to acknowledge him and give him honour (130). Gamaliel, then, should actually be Edwards’ prime target for his own refusal to recognise the words of the apostles as God’s prophetic voice!

I'll comment on this later.


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