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An Absolute Sort of Certainty: The Holy Spirit and the Apologetics of Jonathan Edwards Paperback – September 29, 2003
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"A solid and worthy contribution to Jonathan Edwards studies during the three hundredth anniversary of the great pastor-theologians birth. Wide ranging in its scholarship, yet skillfully focused in its exploration of the central role of the Holy Spirit in Edwards epistemology and apologetics." --Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe
"Nichols has done us the great service of understanding Edwards, first, from his own writings, and second, as an heir to Calvin. He shows us the true face of Edwards, whose greatest concern was for Gods glory, even in the right use of reason and confidence in revelation." --William Edgar
"In the volume, Jonathan Edwards speaks his own mind, a mind committed to the wonders of Reformed thought and its application to the churchs defense of the Christian faith. One finishes this book seeing Edwards, following Calvin, as a theologian of the Holy Spirit." --K. Scott Oliphint
About the Author
Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He is also author of Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought and Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of his Life and Thought.
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The problem of knowledge is Kant's epistemological brick wall: on one side is finite man and his world of particulars that he only experiences through sense impressions structured by the brain; and on the other, unreachable side – if there is anything at all – are the infinite, the eternal and the universal that might account for man and his finite particulars. On the other side is where the laws of nature and nature's God exist – if they exist at all. That man's mind appears to have breached Kant's impenetrable wall and grasped universal laws of nature was an incomprehensible miracle to Einstein, Schroedinger, and Feynman.
Decades before Kant considered the problem of knowledge, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) had a solution to how we can know, with certainty, something true about the infinite, the eternal and the universal.
The traditional Christian response to the problem of knowledge was that there is a personal God who has communicated eternal, universal truths to mankind in the Bible that explain and give meaning to man and the world he lives in. God has, in effect, sent us letters from the Other Side that explain in human language what ultimate reality is all about. The justification frequently offered for this belief is (1) the "self-authentication" of Scripture, which is said to be an objective property of the Bible that attests to its own veracity, and (2) the internal witness of the Holy Spirit that gives to Christians a subjective assurance of the Bible's objective truth.
The traditional justifications are offered in support of the position that the propositions of Scripture are true. Edwards proposes much more than this. Edwards is saying that the spiritual realities described by the propositions of Scripture can be directly and immediately experienced by the believer through the conscious, experiential disclosure of the Holy Spirit. The believer's assurance of the truth of the propositions of Scripture is based on having directly encountered the spiritual realities of which the Scriptures speak. As Edwards puts it:
"There is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. …. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance. There is a wide difference between mere speculative rational judging any thing to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness and beauty." (From the sermon, A Divine and Supernatural Light.)
Edwards' epistemology has an element of true Christian mysticism in the sense that he attributes the certainty of knowledge to a direct, intuitive, experience of spiritual reality that is communicated by the Holy Spirit through a "new sense" that is divinely bestowed upon the regenerated Christian. Edwards refers to this as a "divine and supernatural light" by which God shines into the heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Mysticism of any sort, true or false, does not mix well with many in the Reformed church, including the author of this book who constantly maintains that Edwards was not promoting mysticism. These frequent disclaimers are necessitated by the fact that when the author actually quotes Edwards, it sounds very much like he is describing a true Christian mysticism.
The author tries to strip Edwards' epistemology of its reliance on this divine, supernatural light and reduce it to the traditional justifications of self-authenticating Scripture and personal assurance that is attributed to an inner witness of the Holy Spirit but which is neither experienced nor perceived as a direct interaction with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit's work is simply inferred from the fact that one believes that the Bible's propositions are true. Edwards expressly rejects the approach taken by the author here of reducing the role of the Holy Spirit to a silent witness:
"How greatly has the doctrine of the inward experience, or sensible perception of the immediate power and operation of the Spirit of God been reproached and ridiculed by many recently! They argue that the Spirit of God cooperates in a silent secret, and undiscernible manner, through our own efforts. So no distinction is made between the influences of God and the natural operation of our own mental faculties." Religious Affections: A Christian's Character Before God, p. 41.
The author is so bent against any attempt to "subjectify knowledge and mystify Christianity" he flatly denies that Edwards' assurance was based on conscious experience of the divine and supernatural light even while quoting Edwards' statement that, "There is no spiritual conviction but what arises from an apprehension of the spiritual beauty and glory of divine things." (p. 142, 97, 104.) Edwards' personal accounts of the divine and supernatural light demonstrate beyond question that his certainty of spiritual truth and reality, while confirmed by Scripture and the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, is grounded upon a conscious, experiential perception. See, Collection of Works of Jonathan Edwards (OSNOVA), Location 2332 et seq.
Ultimate reality can be rationally understood and communicated by the propositions of Scripture that describe it. Ultimate reality can be experientially known through the divine and supernatural light that directly reveals it. The direct experience of spiritual reality provides the certainty that what the Bible says about spiritual things is true. As Edwards wrote: "[T]he Scripture shows that these things have to be experienced. For it is experience that convinces the soul." Religious Affections, p. 123.
On the negative side, the book started life as Nichols's Ph.D. dissertation, and though presumably reworked somewhat for the popular reader, it still retains the polemic and strained tone of an academic work. I much prefer it when an author is motivated by passion than by the need to demonstrate his case in lawyer-like fashion. (See Calvin's "The Bondage and Liberation of the Will"--translated into English for the first time just eight years ago--for an example of passionate writing!) I also thought Nichols did a poor job of explaining difficult, nuanced concepts such as the internum testimonium Spiritus Sancti, though this may have been because his original audience consisted of seminary professors who didn't require an explanation from the ground up.
If you read everything on Edwards that you can get your hands on, you will probably want to read this. Otherwise, I would suggest you pass on this one.