Today’s post is the second of two (see part one here) written by Brandon G. Withrow, Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity and Religious Studies at Winebrenner Theological Seminary (Findlay, OH). He is most recently the author of Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Theology within the Christian Tradition (Cascade, 2011). He blogs at The Discarded Image (discardedimage.com) and his author blog, BrandonWithrow.com. This is the second of two posts on Jonathan Edwards.
In my last post, I showed how Jonathan Edwards understood the incarnation of Christ; the Holy Spirit unites the divine and human natures into one person without allowing the divine nature to overwhelm his human nature. This means that Christ’s human side does not have all the knowledge or attributes of the divine. Bottom line: Christ is truly human.
For example, while Christ could remember bits of what it was like as the eternal logos before the incarnation (John 17:5), “he could not remember [everything] as they were in the infinite mind, for the idea of the creator cannot be communicated to the creature as it is in God” (WJE 13:340). This work of the Spirit preserves his humanity.
Edwards’s discovery not only helped him understand better the incarnation of Christ and his own conversation; it also gave him a way of understanding how Scripture was inspired.
The man Jesus becomes one person by a communion of knowledge and will; but as in believers all divine knowledge is by the Spirit—’tis by the Spirit that the knowledge of inspiration and prophecy is given, and ’tis by the Holy Ghost that the spiritual knowledge of all believers is given: ‘The Spirit searcheth all things, even the deep things of God’ [1 Cor 2:10]—so, I suppose, ’tis by the Spirit that divine knowledge and consciousness is given to the man Jesus. (WJE 13:530; emphasis mine)
There is a lot happening in this quote, but here is the crux of it: (1) Christ’s human and divine natures are united by the Spirit into one person; (2) Christians are united to Christ by the Spirit in one body (Eph. 4:1-5); (3) the Spirit is also the mediator between the divine message and the human authors in inspiration, forming one book.
The incarnation of Christ is a divine accommodation to human limitations and so is Scripture.
As ancient Christians like Origen or Augustine phrased it, God spoke like a parent to a child, or used “baby talk.” Edwards concurs. “I believe,” says Edwards, that “he accommodates himself to our way of understanding in his manner of expressing and representing things, as we are wont to do when we are teaching little children” (WJE 18:119).
The Logos, writes Edwards, “came down from his infinite perfection, and accommodated himself to our nature and manner by being made man, as he was in the person of Jesus Christ.” Likewise, the divine message of Scripture is accommodated to human minds. “God had a design and meaning which the penmen never thought of,” says Edwards, he “condescended to their manner of speaking and thinking” (WJE 13:348).
Edwards does not mine all the implications of the incarnation for understanding Scripture, and specialists in this area could do more work. Still, 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.
As Edwards sees it, God does not change the truth, but he does express it in terms humans understand. At one point he muses that, if the “indisputable truths” of eighteenth-century philosophy were “revealed from heaven to be truths in past ages, they would be looked upon as mysterious and difficult, and would have seemed as impossible as the most mysterious Christian doctrines do now” (WJE 18:119).
Not every age is capable of receiving or understanding it all. “We find that those things that are received as principles in one age, and are never once questioned,” says Edwards, since “it comes into nobody’s thought that they possibly may not be true,” are “exploded in another age, as light increases” (WJE 18:119).
For Edwards, God’s revelation and vocabulary are fit, or incarnated, for the time periods of the biblical authors, but humans should expect change as the world grows.
And maybe this is an Evangelical perspective to take when reading Genesis in light of today’s science, especially in terms of human evolution. If God did not reveal certain things to these ancient writers because they were not ready, why is it so impossible to read Genesis as an accommodation to human limitations and the human difficulty with accepting new paradigm changing perspectives?
If, as my Evangelical friends tell me, the Bible is intended by God to be not only an authority, but also a living and breathing book that Christians can experience in fresh ways, then why ignore the mounting evidence for evolution? Christ grew in knowledge, so why shouldn’t Evangelicals?
Maybe instead of always resisting, Evangelicals should learn to change, and perhaps Edwards’s incarnational theology is a solution for them.