In my stack of books being read, there are a handful of writers that are always in there somewhere. I make a constant point of always having a book by Chesterton, Bunyan, Lewis, Thomas Watson . . . and, to come to our point this morning, Jonathan Edwards.
I am currently in Volume 12 of his Collected Works (no, I am not that far along — I jump around), and therefore have recently begun reading his Humble Inquiry. This is the book Edwards wrote defending his attempts to walk back the communion standards established by his predecessor Solomon Stoddard (also his grandfather) at Northampton, and which eventually led to Edwards getting the sack.
Stoddard believed that the Lord’s Supper was a converting ordinance, and therefore did not want to limit access to the Table to those known to be “truly converted.” Edwards was seeking to establish some kind of process that would enable the church to inquire as to the true heart condition of the person seeking to become a communicant.
In his opening to Humble Inquiry, Edwards is his usual lucid self, and is quite formidable.
He begins, as we all ought to, with Scripture. He demonstrates that the Bible uses the word saints, Christians, and disciples, in two distinct ways. His treatment of the word Christians is debateable, in my view, but his handling of how the Bible speaks of saints and disciples is incontrovertible. Saints are visible saints by profession, where the usage is found “in very many places,” and which Edwards says is acknowledged by all. They are too numerous to cite. But then you have the saints who are truly saints — e.g. when the Lord shall come to be glorified in His saints (2 Thess. 1:10). The same is true with the word disciples. “There were disciples in name, profession, and appearance; and there were those whom Christ called ‘disciples indeed’ (John 8:30-31).”
So far, so good. Among the many professing followers of Christ we have two categories. If you try to limit it to one category only, you will either become a sacramentalist or a member of the airy fairy invisible church, the one nobody ever has to tithe to.
At this point, Edwards goes on to advance a very clever argument, but one which in my view misses the point. “Real saints or converts are those that are so in the eye of God; visible saints or converts are those who are so in the eye of man” (p. 185).
He then says this:
“To say a man is visibly a saint, but not visibly a real saint, but only visibly a visible saint, is a very absurd way of speaking; it is as much to say, he is to appearance an appearing saint; which is in effect to say nothing” (p. 185).
His illustration of this is the example of gold:
“There are not properly two sorts of saints spoken of in Scripture: though the word ‘saints’ may be said to be used two ways in Scripture, or used so as to to reach two sorts of persons; yet the word has not properly two significations in the New Testament, anymore than the word ‘gold’ has two significations among us: the word gold among us is so used as to extend to several sorts of substances; it is true, it extends to true gold, and also to that which only appears to be gold, and is reputed gold, and that by appearance or visibility some things that are not real gold obtain the name of gold; but this is not properly through diversity in the signification of the word, but by a diversity of the application of it, through the imperfection of our discerning” (p. 184).
And this is why I believe the great Edwards fell prey to a category mistake.
“‘Visible’ and ‘real’ are words that stand related one to another, as the words ‘real’ and ‘seeming,’ or ‘true’ and ‘apparent.'” (p. 184).
What Edwards is doing is treating this problem as though it were a problem of chemical analysis. We have this thing that looks like gold, but it might not be. And when it comes to the question of our heart regeneration, he’s exactly right. This is true as far as it goes. If a professing Christian has a heart attack, he’s going to wind up in Heaven or Hell, and because we live in a world where professing Christians do both, Edwards is absolutely correct that only true disciples will be saved. He is in this sense a historic evangelical, and all Christians who want to be biblical must be evangelical in that same sense.
But when we are comparing gold with fool’s gold, we are dealing with an inert substance which is either gold or not. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of illustration, so long as we remember not to take just one illustration as the sum total of all possible illustrations. On this point it is the same as if you compared the Last Day to men who are sorting out good fish from bad, or angels doing the same (Matt. 13:47-50).
To illustrate the problem, let us expand the illustration and assume that both the gold and fool’s gold are now animated creatures with eternal souls, and have both taken covenant vows binding themselves to be true gold. Now what?
Now you have something more like a “true husband” and a “false husband.” An adulterous husband is not a “seeming” husband, to take Edward’s language from above. If he were only a seeming husband, then he wouldn’t be adulterous. The adulterer is as much a husband (in one sense) as the faithful husband is. He is not at all a husband like the faithful husband in another sense.
In short, we have to remember that there are two things going on. On the one hand we have the distinction between true Christians and false Christians, as determined by their heart condition, which only God ultimately knows. On the other hand, we also have common bond between true Christians and false Christians, which would be their shared obligation (as seen in their baptismal vows) to live lives of true repentance and evangelical faith.
So there is a substantive difference between gold and fool’s gold, but there is no substantive difference at all in the vows that both of them take. Out of all the people I have baptized, I know I have baptized people who were false in their profession and who fell away. But they didn’t fall away because I used a different set of vows on them. They didn’t fall away because they were under a different standard.
Where Edwards stumbled was here — he failed to take into account the very personal sign of the covenant, baptism, which he himself had administered to many of his people. If Edwards’ reasoning here stands, then infant baptism has to go. If infant baptism remains, then Edwards’ reasoning fails. And if we want Edwards’ reasoning to fail, but we want to remain evangelical, staying out of the sacramentalist swamp, then we must have one kind of baptism, and two kinds of Christian.