Bryce Horswell

Rel 319

Prof. Westblade

15 Nov 2003


Edwards and Mystical Experience


Interpretations of Edwards’ life diversify according to his vast corpus of Christian thought. To some, Edwards is a religious mystic who anticipated Ralph Waldo Emerson. Such interpretations tend to emphasize his convictions about the supremacy of religious experience, bypassing his orthodox tenacity. However, mystical elements remain in Edwards’ work, which prompts the question: "is the mysticism of Edwards disparate from the doctrine of Edwards?" Samples from Edwards’ writings show that, no, Edwards’ views on religious experience are not at odds with his doctrine, but are rather fully congruous and naturally consequent to his theological constructs.


But first, a discussion of what is meant by mysticism will prove eminently useful, as the argument turns upon the meaning of that word. The word, of course, is based in a rich, intricate and varied history. Reduction permitted, these historical definitions can be resolved into two camps. Both include the central focus of mysticism being "experimental wisdom and experimental knowledge of God, i.e. a knowledge of God based on direct experience of Him." Thus the mystic attempts to directly correspond with divine being, analogous to the theophanies of the Old Testament, but not directly parallel.[1] From this common base, two broad paths of mysticism emerge, roughly following the divergent sects in Christendom. One, Roman Catholic Mysticism, has received extensive treatment both in practice and observation. Traditionally, mysticism for the Catholic consists in a method, a series of steps, or to use the appropriate nomenclature "an ascent to truth". Examples of such mystics span considerable boundaries. Such personalities--San Juan de la Cruz, or San Teresa de Avila, or to use a modern example, Thomas Merton--outlined an approach to God seeped in method, ritual, and mystery. The frequency of extra-person experiences, combined with rigorous ascetic practice, proved unpalatable to many contemporary Protestants.


While censuring many of the Catholic mystics, however, the Protestants still maintained their own methods of seeking direct experience of God. The Protestant Mysticism falls more comfortably in the evangelical terms of meditation, contemplation, and spirituality, and so often goes unnoticed, or rather ‘unplaced’ in the historical tradition where it belongs. Often, this meditation takes a very simple form. Richard Foster calls Christian meditation "very simply, the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word."[2] More nearly fitting the meditation and mysticism outlined in this paper is that described by Michael McClymond: "contemplative spirituality may be characterized as a form of practice that seeks to cultivate an ever-deepening awareness of divine truth, and the love of God for God’s own sake."[3] In this vein, Protestant mysticism rivals that of Edwards, but the comparison is by no means uniform.


For the definition of mysticism that relates to Edwards and completes the discussion, one must include the vocabulary of the mystical union between God and man. That vocabulary is one of "complete absorption in God, rapt enjoyment of the divine ‘sweetness,’ and forgetfulness of one's self."[4] It is a vocabulary which makes inadequate the mundane and passive definitions tending to be associated with words like "meditation," "contemplation," and the ‘ascent to truth." Moreover, it is a vocabulary not only of Christian fervency, but of Christian life.


The question of "what is meant by mysticism" being dealt with, albeit casually, the more pertinent inquiry seems to be "was Edwards a mystic of the quality outlined above?" Answering this question of need must examine the personal life of Edwards. In order to properly reference or orient the reader to the broad testimony of Edwards’ life, three main avenues will be considered. First, there is the direct commentary of Edwards on his own life. This section will consist mainly in quotations from his diary and personal narrative. Second will be a series of quotations from Edwards’ sermons, where his exhortations to his congregation provide another perspective on the scope of mysticism in his life. Third, a few selections will be offered from his treatises, both from his published and unpublished works, to the end that the polished intellectual thought on the subject of mysticism will be seen.


The written spiritual life of Edwards comes to the modern reader largely in the form of his Personal Narrative. This narrative summarizes coherently entries from Edwards’ diary. Throughout the narrative, manifold examples of Edwards’ mysticism, his inner sense of the divine sweetness, present themselves. For instance, there is Edwards’ description of his conversion, where he says, "As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything before."[5] He continues, "the sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart, an ‘ardour of soul, that I know not how to express."[6] What marks this description of conversion is the focus on religious feeling. Perception of divinity in the "in-most parts" of Edwards, his "new sense," captivated the force of his conversion and the later progression of his Christian life.


This new sense was above all things, mysterious, that is, of an unknown and indescribable quality. Listen to the normally articulate and loquacious Edward’ s express his own frustration at the irreducibility of his new experience: "this I know not how to express otherwise, than by a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns if this world; and sometimes a kind of vision or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind sweetly conversing with Christ, and and swallowed with up in God."[7] Edwards perceived as with new eyes: "the appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be , as it were, a calm, sweet, cast or appearance of Divine Glory, in almost everything."[8] In particular Edwards' eyes danced upon the magnificent stage of nature and its portrayal of divine excellence: "I was walking there, and looking upon the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, as I know not how to express."[9]


What is there to take from all this? Primarily that Edwards had undergone a transformation in how he related to God: incorporating mysticism, that he had come into the Divine presence in a way he had never experience before. In one sense it was a filling of Edwards being: all that he could ask or imagine. "God's excellency, his wisdom, his purity, and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers trees; in water and all nature."[10] The benediction of nature also fruited in the spirit of Edwards: " made the soul like a field or garden of God, with all manners of pleasant flowers; enjoying a sweet calm, and the gentle vivifying beams of the sun."[11] In another sense, Edwards' transformation was one of continuing and of even intensifying desire. He says, "I had vehement longings of soul after God and Christ, and after more holiness, where with my soul seemed full and ready to break."[12] Yet over all the apparent tensions, the powerful sentiments communicate a new understanding of God that Edwards had, as if the Divine being had revealed to Edwards marvelous new facets of His character. "God in the communication of his holy spirit has appeared as an infantile fountain of divine glory and sweetness; being full, and sufficient to fill and satisfy the soul."[13] This then, this new sense of Divinity in Edwards, can be said to be the essence of his mysticism , and even more so his Christian life.


What Edwards apprehended, he also communicated to those around him. Specifically, Edwards, full of his new sense of divinity, related his discovery or revelation to the congregation for which he was spiritually responsible. In one sermon he said to them, "this light...assimilates the nature to the divine nature, and changes the soul into an image of the same glory that is beheld."[14] Edwards often used the metaphorical expression of light for the inner experience of God he had. To him it was the guarantee of salvation and the regenerate work of the Holy Spirit. As he said himself, the divine light above all was "a true sense of the divine and superlative excellency of God, and Jesus Christ, and of the work of redemption, and the ways and works of God in redemption."[15] Thus, the exhortation to reception of the divine light was paramount. "This light gives a view of those things that are immensely the most exquisitely beautiful, and capable of delighting the eye of the understanding"[16] so that the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it [the divine light]."[17]


Such an emphasis on subjective experience, much less sensual experience, left Edwards with many critics. Yet Edwards maintained not only the centrality of divine light and subjective experience to his view on regeneration, but also used these concepts in an affirmation of reason and the powers of the intellect. "[The divine light] not only removes the hindrances of reason, but positively helps reason."[18] Edwards' reason for this assertion was simple in content, but in its own way, profound, "'Tis rational to be supposed that this blessing [that of divine light] should be immediately from God; for there is no gift or benefit that is in itself so nearly related to the divine nature, there is nothing the creature receives that is so much of God, of his nature, so much a participation of the deity."[19] In other words, Edwards saw the grounding of human reason and even all human capacity in the blessing of divine light. Those who perceived merely with reason could in their own right apprehend the notions of God and his love expressed to humanity. Yet without the actual experience of love, or of God, such knowledge was useless. Edwards used the analogy of beauty. Just as there is a profound difference between knowing of a person who is beautiful and seeing the beauty of that person, so is there a difference between the person who knows of the excellency and beauty of God, and the person who perceives the beauty of God in his own heart.


Edwards wrote his impressions of spiritual, regenerate experience in several treatises. There he delineates the processes by which he can say of regeneration that it is truly a new sense of the heart. In one such exposition, he makes clear "to distinguish between mere speculative and notional understanding, and that which implies a sense of heart, or arises from it, wherein is exercised not merely the faculty of the understanding, but the other faculty of the will, or inclination, or the heart."[20] Emphasizing through repetition, Edwards goes to great lengths to affirm that the notional value of a thing does not compare with its experiential value. "In so doing Edwards had not dismissed the understanding as useless, but had merely said that notional knowledge is less significant than the sense of the heart."[21] As opposed to the understanding, this new sense subsists in the human desires and inclinations, most particularly in the desirability of God. The desirability of God, based upon the reception of Divine light, produces love for God: "if a man has any true love to God, he must have a spirit to love God above all: because without seeing Divine Glory [one might say without experiencing it!], there can be no true love to God."[22] To understand and to experience Divine glory, for Edwards this was religion.


With reference to the introductory definition of mysticism, it should be clear in what respects one can say that Edwards is mystic. That opinion finds basis in Edwards' own assertions regarding how true knowledge of God is acquired: through inner transformation by divine light. Another way of saying this is that God changes what is naturally desired, so that one can only enjoy the greatness of the divine being. This process, even terminology, is mystical. To the unconvinced, however, there may appear some great discrepancy between Edwards' thought on spirituality and his doctrine, largely orthodox Calvinism. "What role does the doctrine and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, impressively Aristotelian, have in the subjective religious experience?" they might ask, and with good cause.


In answer, a cursory look of Edwards' salient theological points will demonstrate the necessity of Edwards' mysticism, in that it is wholly congruous with his doctrine. To aid comprehension, the treatment of Edwards' thought will center on what he thought about the relationship between mankind and God. Discussion will begin and end with the purpose of God in the world, both with man and the rest of creation. From the purpose of God, subsidiary points will be established. The incarnation, man's relation to Christ as the incarnate deity, and the end result of the incarnation will each be treated with the end that Edwards' mysticism will be seen as a consequent to the theology he presents.


The end of the act of creation, for Edwards, begins with the concept of God. If God is the infinite being, who in all respects is the "most worthy of regard,"[23] then in all His actions, He must have Himself, His glory as the last end. As Edwards says of this line of reasoning:


"Whatsoever is good and valuable in itself, is worthy that God should value it with an ultimate respect. It is therefore worthy to be made the last end of his operation; if it be properly capable of being attained. For it may be supposed that some things, valuable and excellent in themselves, are not properly capable of being attained in any divine operation; because their existence, in all possible respects, must be conceived of as prior to any divine operation... But whatever is in itself valuable, absolutely so, and is capable of being sought and attained, is worthy to be made a last end of the divine operation."[24]


Only the glory of God, the manifestation of his perfection, could be said to be the ultimate motivation for God. Reducing even more simply, only the Divine Character of God could cause Him to do anything. "It is reasonable to suppose that he had respect to himself, as his last and highest end, in this last work; because He is worthy in himself to be so, being infinitely the greatest and best of beings."[25]


Creation comes from this respect of God for Himself. It is an act which bore and bears testimony to the greatness of God' s majesty, infinitude, and power. Indeed, the nature of God is such that it is glorified in how much it is known. That is not to say creation is a necessary component to God' s character, but rather that creation is the magnification of God's glory. As Edwards says,


"It seems to be a thing in itself fit and desirable, that the glorious perfections of God should be known, and the operations and expressions of them seen, by others being beside himself. If it be fit that God' s power and wisdom, etc. should be exercised and expressed in some effects, and not lie eternally dormant, then it seems proper that these exercises should appear, and not be totally unknown and hid."[26]


The created world, then, is in itself a portrayal of the divine being. "For Edwards nature plays a dramatic role in this process of communication. the image or shadow of Divine Being."[27] And again, "the loveliness of nature and its majesty suggested to his enraptured eye the lovely and majestic glory of God."[28]


In this created order, mankind is of special importance. Man is specially gifted with the moral choice of loving God. Ideally, of his own volition he can love or magnify the Holiness of God. Yet the fall of Adam, the moral choice of the fruit over the expressed command of God, has separated man from God and even man's ability to magnify God. There is an "evil tendency" in man, an inability to chose anything but sin. With reference to man's ability to sense God in nature, this means "the loss of the human sense for Divine beauty that is present throughout creation"[29] and also "the contraction or narrowing of the frame of mind or positive affections."[30] The desires, preferences, tendencies and affections of man (all synonymous) all incline themselves to sin and away from God. "They [men] universally run themselves into that which is, in effect, their own eternal perdition, as being finally accursed by God, and subjects of his remediless wrath through sin."[31] This is the consequence of the fall and the imputation of Adam's guilt upon man.


For Edwards, the reconciliation of man to God must involve not only the satisfaction of divine justice, but the transformation of what man wants. Man must not be only free from sin, but desirous of the love and glory of God as well. Witness Edwards' description of this process,


"A remarkable work of‘ Gods grace on the heart causing a great alteration in the soul as to the degree of grace very much delivering of it from former darkness & setting it much at liberty from corruptions that before through the weakness of grace used to entangle & ensnare the soul giving the soul a new & and much clearer understanding of divine things & remarkably putting it under new advantages for the exercises & fruits of the divine life."[32]


In order to effect this twofold work or reconciliation, God employed His own Son, the Christ, who became the incarnate Deity: Emmanuel, God-with-Us, and the salvation of mankind. In describing the excellency of Christ, Edwards says, "His condescension is great enough to become their friend: 'tis great enough to become their companion, to unite their souls to him in spiritual marriage: 'tis great enough to take their nature upon him, to become one of them, that may be one with them."[33] Moreover, as man is wholly incapable of choosing the redemption of Christ, even this must be given to him as special grace. Thus, "the spirit of Christ dwelling within makes human beings co-consenters with Divine being. To be human in the context of redemption is to become an incarnation of the spirit and thereby a member of the mystical body."[34] Redemption draws us out of our proclivity to sin, and restores to us the communion of God. Stated simply, salvation (or redemption), means "seeing God" once again.[35]


With this theological construct in mind, perhaps the vocabulary of Edwards' religious experience is more palatable. The preeminence of the "divine light" in Edwards' description of faith, thus, is just his emphasis on "the distinguishing feature of regeneration."[36] In this divine light, the human mind is united to that of God[37] and receives a subsequent apprehension of the marvelousness of God. As a disciple of Edwards, Joseph Bellamy, said in summary of Edwards' view of experience and faith: "This spiritual and Divine Light...shines in the heart, and consists in the knowledge of glory,...that is, in a sense of moral beauty; a sense of that beauty there is in the moral perfections of God, and in all spiritual and Divine things."[38]


To say that Edwards was mystical is to say that he viewed Christian faith as a regeneration through personal encounter with Divinity. While at times seeming to be divergent from his more didactic or expositional writings, such an interpretation of Edwards bears forth from the testimony of his life and even theology. In this light, Edwards can be seen fully as the advocate for spiritual revival and renewal that he was. He was the liberator of the Christian Heart from unnecessary chains and confinement that dominated contemporary Puritan theology. From Edwards, the Christian could, instead of agonizing over self-mortification, be free to relish the beauty inherent to relationship with God in love.

[1] Happold, F. C. Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology. Penguin Books: London. 1988, p. 41.

[2] Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth. Harper And Row, San Francisco, 1987.

[3] McClymond, Michael. Encounters with God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards, p. 39.

[4] Ibid., p. 48.

[5] Edwards, Jonathan. Volume 1. The Works of the Jonathan Edwards. Ed. Edward Hickman. Banner of Truth Trust:Carlyisle, PA. 1974, p. xiii.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. xiv.

[12] Ibid., p. xiii.

[13] Ibid., p. xlvii.

[14] Edwards, Jonathan. "A Divine and Supernatural Light," p.61.

[15] Ibid., p. 127.

[16] Ibid., p. 129.

[17] Ibid., p. 127.

[18] Ibid., p. 128.

[19] Ibid., p. 137.

[20] Miscellanies, #540.

[21] Newlin, p. 85.

[22] Miscellanies, #567.

[23] Edwards, Jonathan. The End for Which God Created the World. 15 Nov. 2003. Available from < >

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Cooey, Paula M. Jonathan Edwards on Nature and Destiny. Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston. 1985, p. 80.

[28] McGiffert, Arthur Cushman. Jonathan Edwards. Harper and Brothers Publishers: New York. 1932, p. 30.

[29] Cooey, p. 79.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Edwards, Jonathan. Original Sin, Part I, chapter 1, section 1. 15 Nov 2003

< http:// >

[32] Miscellanies, #847.

[33] Edwards, Jonathan. "The Excellency of Christ." The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, p.165.

[34] Cooey, p. 81.

[35] McClymond, p. 48.

[36] Newlin, p. 67.

[37] McClymond, p. 20.

[38] Joseph Bellamy, as quoted by Newlin, p. 168.