Faith Among the Graces: Edwards on Faith and Love

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This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation when the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a long series of academic debating points about the medieval Roman Catholic penitential system (the 95 theses) to the door of the Wittenberg church. One of the central questions of the Reformation revolved around the nature or essence of saving faith. Is faith in relation especially to the blessing or benefit of justification passive and receptive or is it an active or working faith? Does faith have its own integrity or does it have to be supplemented or completed by another grace?

The Reformation concluded that saving faith, as it is related to justification (i.e. the saving benefit of a sinner being found acceptable in the sight of a holy and righteous God by virtue of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ) is merely receptive. That is, one is justified by placing one's faith in Jesus and that results in the complete forgiveness of one's sins and the obtaining of a right(eous) standing before God. The Reformers determined that the Scriptures taught that faith was the alone instrument or means whereby the sinner unites to and apprehends Christ. While a true and living faith was understood to always be accompanied by all the other saving graces, none of these other graces were taken into consideration by God for his or her justification. It was sola fide or faith alone that was the instrument of justification.

The medieval Roman Catholic church held that saving faith was formed faith. That is, in order for faith to save, it must be formed or perfected by love. In practical terms, one was saved by faith and good works. Luther and the other Reformers recognized that a true and living faith always produced good works but that good works had no part in a proper and biblical understanding of the nature or essence of faith. Faith for Luther and the other Reformers, while accompanied by other graces such as love, was not defective and in need of some corrective such as love.

Over two hundred years later--and across the Atlantic Ocean--New England pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards addressed the question of the relation of faith and love in relation to each other in the thirteenth sermon in the preaching series later published as Charity and its Fruits entitled "Christian Graces Concatenated Together." Edwards has been at the center of a scholarly debate regarding whether or not his concern for sanctification in the Christian life, and specifically his concern with nominalism caused him to compromise his Protestant and Reformed principles about the integrity of justifying faith.

In the 1950s preeminent Edwards scholar Thomas Schafer argued that Edwards had in fact undermined, or called into question, his commitment to a biblical and confessionally Reformed understanding of faith and love in justification. Schafer did not suggest that Edwards intentionally departed from the faith once for all delivered to the saints, but that given his concerns with the new birth and growth in sanctification in the Christian life, he had perhaps accidentally moved away from the gold standard of Reformed orthodoxy. Schafer argued that Edwards embraced a quasi-Roman Catholic understanding of saving faith as formed faith, that is, faith formed by love. It is agreed that Edwards defended the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification in his graduation oration at Yale and in his lecture series on justification delivered at Northampton in 1734. No doubt we will not be able to settle this dispute here and now. However, we can look at how Edwards discusses the relation of faith and love in this sermon to open up for a window into how Edwards thought about this.

Before delving into the specifics of the sermon, we should note the context of this particular sermon. The sermon "Christian Graces Concatenated Together" is the thirteenth of a sixteen sermon series on 1 Corinthians 13, famously known as the "love chapter." I note this in order to point out the direct subject matter is not the doctrine of justification per se, or the nature of justifying faith. Having said this, any confessionally Reformed theologian worth his salt would always have a concern to be as clear and careful as possible when talking about faith (even in a context such as this sermon where the doctrine of justification is not directly in view)--to clearly define faith in such a way as to maintain its integrity as a discrete Christian grace. Faith is a broad biblical category of which justifying faith is one element or facet. What we say about faith more broadly, however, must not undermine what we say more narrowly about justifying faith.

Additionally, I should mention Edwards' emphasis on the integrated nature of the human soul. Edwards moved away from the faculty psychology of his day in which the powers of the human soul (intellect and will) worked concurrently with each other rather than in a reified, hierarchical manner. This means that faith for Edwards was a "whole soul" endeavor. It was not just a matter or the intellect or will alone, but both working together.

Now we can turn to the sermon "Christian Graces Concatenated Together." The main point of the sermon is that whatever Christian graces the Holy Spirit dispenses to Christians, they are chained (this is what concatenation means) together or they occur together or they are interlocked or linked. This is a thoroughly sound and biblical insight. Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 and not fruits. Wherever one fruit such as love, joy, or peace occur, so do others. The Westminster Assembly divines concurred in this (which is a good thing since they were aiming to be biblical!) when they noted that while justification was by faith alone, it was not a faith that was alone. True faith would always be accompanied by every other saving grace. In the case of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is arguing for the supremacy of agape love. In the end, only three graces remain and survive into the eschaton: faith, hope, and love. And, as Paul tells us, the greatest of these is love. Note that this is said by the Apostle of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Edwards tells us three things about the Christian graces: they always appear together, they depend on one another, and they are implied in one another. For our purposes, it is the second and third points that may be most problematic. To say that faith depends upon hope and love in order to be faith or vice versa does seem to suggest that faith does not maintain its own integrity or independence. The further point that faith implies hope and love or implicates them also casts into doubt Edwards' understanding of faith. Edwards goes further and says that love is of the essence of faith or is essential to faith or is an essential ingredient of faith.

One basic Pauline thought at this point is that the fruit of the Spirit, while multifaceted, is singular. We can even recognize a sort of synergy at work in the concatenated graces in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We can go further and say that each grace brings out the best in the others. But, to many, Edwards' language of faith depending upon hope and love to be what it is and to function properly seems to undermine the discrete integrity of faith. Some have suggested that it comes too close to the Roman Catholic notion of formed faith. It is one thing to say that hope and love enrich faith but it is another to say faith depends upon hope and love. This dependency relation suggests that faith cannot function in its own right. That is, faith qua faith, is insufficient. The same thing can be said about implication. Implication suggests that no grace is sufficient as God created them and gives them to his people. Is it logomachy to suggest that impinge might be a better word than imply?

Edwards' concern to stress that Christian graces come together like a floral bouquet is altogether legitimate. But dependency appears to undermine the proper functionality of each grace. Love is not faith--neither is it hope. Implication appears to undermine the discrete integrity of faith, hope, and love. Is Edwards' suggesting in so many words, that the Christian graces interpenetrate one another in a manner analogous to the perichoretic nature of the triune Godhead? He does not say as much in this sermon; but, one is left wonder.

We are left to conclude that while Edwards nowhere affirms in this sermon the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of formed faith, the logical implication of what he says seems to suggest something similar. Be that as it may, this does not square with what Edwards has written elsewhere about justification by faith alone. I suggest that we have a consistency breakdown in the teaching in this particular sermon.

In conclusion, what we learn from this experiment is that no fallen, sinful Christian theologian can be accepted in everything he teaches or advocates. This is in no way to undermine Edwards' proper due influence. However, with regard to the dependency and implication ideas, Edwards appears to accidentally undermine the biblical and confessionally Reformed notion of justifying faith as passive and receptive and complete in and of itself with its own proper functionality and discrete integrity. The Protestant Reformation recovered a biblical jewel when justification and justifying faith were clarified. Edwards' muddies the waters at this point. So brethren, let's go back behind Edwards to the crystal clear fount of Scripture and the Reformers! 


Dr. Jeff Waddington is the interim pastor at Knox OPC in Landsdowne, PA. He is the author is The Unified Operations of the Human Soul: Jonathan Edwards Theological Anthropology and Apologetic. Jeff is a contributor on the podcast, "East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards."

Posted October 10, 2017 @ 6:17 AM by Jeff Waddington
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