The Personal Narrative of Jonathan Edwards - Part XVIII
Now that we have completed our devotional study of Edwards’ Personal Narrative, a few concluding observations are in order.
First, Edwards’ spirituality is essentially contemplative rather than active. He rarely if ever speaks of concrete acts of compassion or love toward others. This isn’t to say he would have opposed them. I simply have in view his focus in the Personal Narrative. Countless sermons and other exhortations refer to the necessity of mercy and love toward those in need.
Traditionally scholars have argued that Puritan spirituality generally was more active in nature with a focus on deeds of charity and generosity and a life that would facilitate them. Not solitary prayer, but corporate and family worship was the highest expression of Puritan spirituality. This view is being increasingly challenged as our knowledge of Puritan life increases.
Second, a primary difference between Edwards and Puritanism in general is his failure to endorse a specific “morphology” of conversion in which humiliation or conviction of sin is a necessary prelude to consolation and assurance. Edwards’ most explicit confessions of sin and struggle for repentance came after his conversion, only as he progressively grew in the knowledge of the beauty and sweetness of Christ.
He was obviously more concerned with the nature of one’s spiritual experience than with its order or sequence. This may be why he says little in the Personal Narrative of his experience before the “new sense” and thus does not portray his life as do most evangelicals in terms of “before” and “after” conversion.
Third, there is an absence from the Narrative of any meaningful reference to historical or social context. On occasion he mentions where he was when an experience occurred, but in each case it is tangential to the experience itself. Little is said of family, friends, or intellectual interests. As one author has said, “the Personal Narrative has no real plotline; it is less a genuine story than a depiction of successive states of experience” (McClymond, 42).
Fourth, one can hardly miss his emphasis is on the benefits of solitude. Beyond the prayer “booth” that he built with his childhood friends he wrote of “particular secret places of my own in the woods, where I used to retire by myself”. He speaks of wanting to be “alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ.” He spoke of “often walking alone in the woods and solitary places, for meditation, soliloquy, and prayer.” When he wrote of then 13-year-old Sarah Pierpont (who was to become his wife) he praised her for loving “to be alone, walking in the fields and groves”, for she seemed “to have some one invisible always conversing with her.”
Fifth, Edwards places great emphasis on personal asceticism, believing that his spiritual growth is directly related to his physical health and energy. McClymond points out that “one searches his writings in vain for any passage in which he expressed an unalloyed delight in any sort of physical activity” (44). Self-examination or self-scrutiny is engaged only insofar as it reveals how far short of biblical holiness one has fallen, only insofar as it awakens the soul to the need for more of forgiveness and divine grace.
A word of clarification is in order here. Don’t take this to mean that Edwards was some sort of Gnostic who lacked appreciation for the physicality of creation. His appreciation for nature and the revelation of divine beauty therein is enough to silence that charge. It is true, however, that he had little if any appetite for what we today would consider “leisure” activities or hobbies or “mindless pleasures”. His life was one of single-minded pursuit of the knowledge and experience of God. He rigorously monitored what he ate and drank in order to maximize his intellectual and physical efficiency. Anything that threatened to diminish his power of concentration or distract his focus was vehemently resisted.
Sixth, the vocabulary of the Narrative is instructive. It is remarkably vivid in the way it portrays personal and subjective experiences: “sense” (22x), “affection” or “affect” (16x), “contemplation” or “meditation” (15x), “delight” or “delightful” (24x), and most significant of all, “sweet” or “sweetness” or “sweetly” (48x)! Clearly God was not a being merely to be known but a person to be enjoyed!
Seventh, Edwards spoke often of his frustration with mundane and temporal affairs of life, for they distracted him and detracted from the time and energy he might otherwise devote to contemplating God. In fact, he speaks of his responsibilities at Yale as the reason for spiritual decline. He longed for peace and stability to pursue God unhindered and unencumbered.
Eighth, although he valued his acquaintances, Edwards gives no indication that he worked hard at developing close intimate friendships. Be it noted, however, that Edwards’ entire life was wrapped up in community: he served as a pastor for most of his adult life, he cherished his relationship with his wife and children, and he spoke of heaven as a world of love in which the saints’ great joy is the joy of other saints.
Ninth, Edwards’ view of the Song of Solomon is instructive. He adopted an interpretation according to which the bride is not the corporate church but the individual believer. He testifies that no book affected him quite like the Song.
Tenth, his spirituality was individual, solitary, theocentric, and contemplative. God is most pleased with us and glorified when we ponder and reflect and contemplate and meditate on his beauty and splendor and sovereignty.
“Seeing” God, i.e., the “perception” or “apprehension” of God in himself, in nature, in Scripture, was an end in itself. It did not serve as a means to some higher aspiration. It is itself the pinnacle and the purpose for which we have been redeemed. God created all things that his beauty and glory might be seen and known and appreciated and rejoiced in by his creatures. “Complete absorption in God, rapt enjoyment of the divine ‘sweetness,’ and forgetfulness of one’s self – here in a nutshell is Edwards’ spiritual ideal” (McClymond, 48).