Jonathan Edwards, the Holy Spirit and the Incarnation

Jonathan EdwardsI was fascinated to read today’s guest post on Peter Enns’ blog Jonathan Edwards, The Holy Spirit, and Evolution: Part 1, by Brandon G. Withrow. In fact this Part 1 is not at all about evolution, so I am waiting to read about that in subsequent parts. But it was interesting to read about what Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century hero of today’s conservative evangelicals, had to say about the Holy Spirit, and especially of his role in the Incarnation, i.e. the coming of Jesus Christ as both God and man. It is not at all what I would have expected from a strict Calvinist. The first part is not so controversial, perhaps:

The Spirit, according to Edwards, unites the human nature of Christ to the divine nature and actively maintains the integrity of both, all the while not becoming an addition of a divine being to the person of Christ.

In doing this, the Spirit can ensure that the limitations of the human mind of Christ are maintained, otherwise, if the divine attributes were allowed to mix or rewrite the human nature, he would lose his genuine humanity, since the finite cannot contain the infinite.

Well, that certainly makes sense, and offers a good explanation of why the incarnate Jesus did not appear to be omniscient. It also accords with what I wrote here a few years ago in a post Jesus is Our Fully Human Example, that Jesus had some supernatural knowledge and could perform miracles not because he was divine but because the Holy Spirit was working through him.

The main point I was making in that post is that if this was true of Jesus, it is also true today of us Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit. And Jonathan Edwards seems to have made the same connection, and taken it somewhat further than I did, as Withrow writes with a quote from Edwards:

As the Spirit unites Christ’s humanity to the divine, so also the Spirit unites the human Christian (like Edwards) to God through Christ.

All…communion of the creatures with God or with one another in God, seems to be by the Holy Ghost. ’Tis by this that believers have communion with Christ, and I suppose ’tis by this that the man Christ Jesus has communion with the eternal Logos. The Spirit of God is the bond of perfectness by which God, Jesus Christ, and the church are united together (WJE 13:529).

Christ’s human nature is united to his divine nature thanks to the Spirit’s work. Likewise, the same Spirit unites Christians to the divine.

The implication of this seems to be that, for Edwards, the union between Christians and the divine through the Holy Spirit is of the same nature as the union between Jesus Christ and the divine. This opens up the question of the uniqueness of Jesus as the Son of God. If, as the New Testament clearly teaches, every Christian is a son or daughter of God and partakes of the divine nature, was Jesus really unique, or was he just the firstborn of many brothers and sisters? At first sight, both answers can be found in the New Testament, and in different strands of Christian theology. But the doctrine of the Trinity seems threatened by any idea that the second Person, God the Son, was not unique – or is every Christian an incarnation of the one second Person?

I am not familiar enough with the theology of Jonathan Edwards to know how far he took the implications of the teaching which Withrow describes here. Very likely Withrow explains it further in his book Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality Within the Christian Tradition (affiliate link – see also this description), which I have not read. But it seems clear that Edwards by no means followed what has become the traditional evangelical line on such matters, with a rigid distinction between the divine as well as human Son of God and his human and utterly sinful people. And I would suggest that Edwards was the more correct here.

7 thoughts on “Jonathan Edwards, the Holy Spirit and the Incarnation

  1. Part 2 of Withrow’s article has now been posted at Peter Enns’ blog. In this Withrow clarifies that Edwards believed in the pre-existence of Christ, something which was presumably unique, not shared with all Christians. His main point is to explore how

    Edwards clearly set a trajectory that provides Evangelicals with a tool for handling the difficulties of Scripture when it ceases to correspond with today’s science or other discoveries.

    The argument is simple: through the Holy Spirit, Jesus accommodated himself to his time, and so did the scriptural authors. Therefore the creation accounts in Genesis should be regarded as “an accommodation to human limitations and the human difficulty with accepting new paradigm changing perspectives”, and not used to argue against evolution.

  2. Peter, I think you are going in the right direction. The year my second son was a senior in college, at Gustavus Adolphus College, (a Lutheran institution, out on the edge of the prairie) the Christmas at Christ Chapel extravaganza at school that year was on the theme, Creation.

    What I witnessed was a vast, multi-media re-lettering of the first Genesis story, complete with dance, multiple choirs, bells, several orchestras and huge screen projections of what was also being read from two lecterns. It was fantastic and I heard the Word of God again from Genesis but in a way that allowed for much of what we now know about creation that could not have been known to a group of frightened Hebrews, fresh from centuries of Egyptian bondage, sitting around camp fires, listening to the Spirit-inspired elders, faces shining, straight from Moses and the Tabernacle.

    Creation has been so much more about “who” than about “how” but as we learn the how, it just adds to what we know of the wisdom and majesty of God.

  3. How valid is Withrow’s Part 2 argument in light of the creation account recurring in Exodus chapters 20 and 31? The creation week seems to be inextricably linked to the seventh day, which God blessed and sanctified. If the seventh day is not literal, and the six days before it, then what did God actually bless and sanctify? The Genesis account is also given as the “reason” for the 4th commandment in Exodus 20. I’m sure most people would agree that God doesn’t need to provide any reason for reinforcing any of his commandments. And this wasn’t merely Moses speaking; he was quoting God from verse 1 of the chapter. Would not the reason for the 4th commandment be rendered essentially redundant according to this theory that “Genesis as an accommodation to human limitations”? Just throwing around some food for thought.

  4. Robert, that’s a good question. But one might answer that the creation story, presumed well known by the recipients of the commandments, was intended not so much as giving God’s real reason for commanding the Sabbath (after all, God doesn’t need to give reasons) as to give the Israelites a reminder of what he was expecting them to do. I could also say that our recent English celebration of St George’s Day is not undermined by suggestions that the saint never actually existed.

  5. Thanks, Peter. The “reminder” though is not in nature, it’s in a story. I don’t see how it could serve as a reminder really. Anyway, how many times do we find Moses telling the people not to “forget” all the statutes, commandments and judgments set before them? But I do acknowledge that the Sabbath command was “special” because it was suppose to be the sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites.

    It would be sad though if we might feel the need to tell children the creation story, but then reveal to them many years later that the story doesn’t actually mean what it apparently says. If something was meant to be merely figurative, then I think we should be upfront about it. For example, if the serpent was not literally a serpent, but a person of some sort, then we should say so. So we should point out that the serpent was so called because he was crafty and manipulative, like an actual snake would be. I don’t think kids should be told stories just for the sake of it. If the tooth fairy is not real, I think we ought to be upfront about it. And if we believe that the creation story serves only as a literary device, we should always make this plain. Same with the flood, tower of Babel, Esau being born hairy, or whatever.

  6. Robert, I don’t know. But the point of my mention of St George is that something doesn’t have to be true, only widely believed, to serve as a reminder. As for telling misleading stories to children, that is a tricky one, which of course also applies to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

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