Should Theologians Be Spiritual: Part 4

In continuing our brief (and admittedly superficial) look at several theologians, we have been asking the question: Should theologians be spiritual? In doing so, we have been looking to answer another question: Is one’s spiritual depth directly related to one’s theological ability? In other words, if it were possible to objectively “read” another person’s spiritual depth, would that provide a “ceiling” on their theological climb?Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy

I now turn to Jonathan Edwards. As many of you know, I am writing my dissertation on Edwards, and have been asking many other questions of Edwards’ theological method, task and aim. For the purpose of this post, I am going to narrow down the literature quite a bit, and just look at the fourth sign in the “Distinguishing Signs” of The Religious Affections. Early on in this sign, Edwards states:

From what has been said, therefore, we come necessarily to this conclusion, concerning that wherein spiritual understanding consists; viz. that it consists in a sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things, together with all that discerning and knowledge of things of religion, that depends upon, and flows from such a sense.” (Y2:272)

Edwards concern, of course, is not our own. He is seeking to demarcate a truly spiritual understanding from an understanding that is natural about spiritual things. It is here that he invokes his robust understanding of aesthetics, drawing on his sense of the heart to talk about the ontological difference between regenerate and unregenerate. Importantly though, Edwards addresses the role of doctrinal knowledge:

From what has been said of the nature of spiritual understanding, it appears that spiritual understanding does not consist in any new doctrinal knowledge, or in having suggested to the mind any new proposition, not before read or heard of: for ’tis plain that this suggesting of new propositions, is a thing entirely diverse from giving the mind a new taste or relish of beauty and sweetness.” (Y2:278)

Edwards goes on to add that the “mystical” meaning of Scripture (which he believes is just a doctrinal explication of Scripture) is the same as doctrinal knowledge. This kind of knowledge is not the issue for true or spiritual understanding. Therefore, it is possible to do exegesis well without having the Spirit at all, let alone having spiritual depth! Edwards adds, “Spiritually to understand the Scripture, is rightly to understand what is in the Scripture, and what was in it before it was understood: ’tis to understand rightly, what used to be contained in the meaning of it; and not the making a new meaning (sic). When the mind is enlightened spiritually and rightly to understand the Scripture, it is enabled to see that in the Scripture, which before was not seen, by reason of blindness…Spiritually to understand the Scripture, is to have the eyes of the mind opened, to behold the wonderful spiritual excellency of the glorious things contained in the true meaning of it, and that always were contained in it.” (Y2:280-281)

Therefore for Edwards, if we can take his use of the doctrinal-exegetical task as evidence of his understanding of the doctrinal task itself, it seems that a theologian could do good theology without being spiritual at all (or even regenerate!). Edwards goes on to define doctrinal knowledge as “the knowledge of propositions,” rather than the knowledge of the excellency and beauty of God, which is what is found in a spiritual knowledge. A theologian could write a theology therefore, where s/he didn’t actually see the spiritual reality of their writing, leaving the readers of their theology the opportunity to see the beauty and excellency of their work that is blind to their own eyes and discernment.

What do you think about this? Edwards, of course, is building upon his understanding of the sense of the heart which has had a tumultuous reception, and therefore may turn you off from his project from the start. Regardless of whether you want to parse this out in the same way as Edwards, there does seem to be something to the fact that some theology is just beautiful, while other theology is ugly (if I can put it that way). In this sense, if we follow Edwards’ thought, the theologians task should be more than just expositing doctrinal propositions, but should be helping people see the beauty of God. If this is the case, a theologian would have to know the beauty of God to truly exposit it. If this is the case, it seems that we would need to recast what Edwards defined doctrinal theology as. Is the task of theology merely helping people understand propositions or understand God? If there is a spiritual sense, do we just stick to the propositions and trust that the Spirit will reveal as He will?

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One thought on “Should Theologians Be Spiritual: Part 4

  1. Theology is a spectrum like everything else. Some will be beautiful and some ugly. And it will reflect the person doing the theologizing. I once had a roomful of college students make a song up of the first verses of Mark and was able to deduce their “theological personality” from the results. I am tempted to conclude that the person and the theology are ultimaely a unity.

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