An Absolute Sort of Certainty: The Holy Spirit and the Apologetics of Jonathan Edwards

Stephen J. Nichols Presbyterian & Reformed Pub Co, Phillipsburg, NJ October 1, 2003
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In this work, a revision of his doctoral dissertation, Nichols probes the relationship between epistemology and theology in the writings of Jonathan Edwards. He argues that the center or the key to the interpretation of Edwards’s thought is apologetics. For Edwards, epistemology is grounded in the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, providing for the believer “an absolute sort of certainty.” Thus it is not reason that produces certainty for the Christian, but the experience of regeneration and illumination by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

In several introductory chapters Nichols summarizes and critiques various recent attempts by Edwardsian scholars to identify the center of the thought of this eighteenth-century New England pastor, theologian, and philosopher. In the end Nichols concludes that these various previous attempts have been misguided, not because there is no identifiable center or interpretive tool, but because the center has been misidentified. According to Nichols, “the key to understanding Edwards is to understand him as an apologist” (p. 18). Edwards appropriated from Locke the “new sense”; from Newton, Edwards learned to view the world through this new metaphysical perspective; and from the Cambridge Platonists he learned to use their point of view against Deism. By integrating this philosophical insight with his theological tradition, which emphasized the Spirit’s work in illumination, particularly from John Calvin and John Owen, Edwards’s thought is organized around this synthesis. “Edwards bases his understanding of perception upon the doctrines of regeneration and illumination, both of which he incorporates in his concept of the new sense. This gives the work of the Holy Spirit a prominent place in Edwards’s apologetic” (p. 74). The Spirit’s regenerating work produces a new way of viewing the world, and Edwards’s ministry revolved around defending and explaining this view of the world, Nichols maintains.

Nichols uses Edwards’s view of assurance of salvation and the truthfulness of Scripture as evidence of this pneumatological apologetic. Consistent with his Reformed tradition, Edwards argued that “assurance, or the witness provided by the Spirit to Scripture, which is predicated upon the self-attestation of Scripture, is the sole source of certainty regarding the truth of Christianity” (p. 122). Thus those who are indwelt by the Spirit have an inner testimony to the truthfulness of Scripture, and this internal witness provides both assurance of salvation and an apologetic ground for confidence in Christianity. From this foundation one can proclaim the gospel to others with confidence. As Edwards himself stated, “It is not he that has heard a long description of the sweetness of honey that can be said to have the greatest understanding of it, but he that has tasted” (p. 21). In short, those who have experienced the Spirit’s work in regeneration have an assurance of His presence that those without the Spirit have never experienced.

In a brief final chapter Nichols uses two of Edwards’s sermons to illustrate his apologetics in action. This chapter could have been expanded to provide support for Nichols’s claim that “Edwards’s primary vehicle for apologetics is the sermon” (p. 155), although the two examples he discusses do seem to illustrate adequately Edwards’s sermonic structure and content.

Nichols’s grasp of the secondary and primary literature is superb and his writing is user-friendly. Although Nichols has overstated both the role apologetics played in Edwards’s thought and the value of discovering the center of this man’s complex theological corpus, Nichols has written a book that is valuable to both scholars of Edwards as well as pastors and other Christian leaders. As an apologist, Edwards recognized the limitations of reason and experience and rightly understood that the only reliable ground for confidence in the truthfulness of Christianity is the work of the Spirit. Those who have tasted of the Spirit’s presence have assurance of salvation. Those who have not tasted of the heavenly gift can never be convinced of the truth of the gospel through arguments. The Spirit’s presence is necessary for the things of the Spirit to be understood. This was true in Edwards’s day, and Nichols states that this remains the case today and that the task of evangelicals is not to develop better arguments for Christianity, for arguments are not the means by which the heart is changed. Rather, the task of Christians remains the same, to proclaim the gospel message and to invite others to taste the sweetness of the honey for themselves. When the message is received by grace through faith, the heart is changed and the Spirit-indwelt convert has the inner testimony of the Spirit to the truthfulness of the Scriptures and to assurance of salvation, as well as being empowered to engage in Christian ministry.

This book is a helpful treatment of a largely neglected aspect of Edwards’s thought. Edwards was explicitly Trinitarian, and his use of Christological typology to interpret the Scriptures, history, and nature is widely acknowledged. Nichols has focused attention on Edwards’s view of the Holy Spirit and has shown how Edwards integrated his theological tradition with the insights of contemporary philosophers to ground epistemology in the regenerating and illuminating work of the Spirit of God, rather than in mystical experiences or in reason.

—Glenn R. Kreider

April 1, 2005
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2005 vol. 162 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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