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The Hermeneutics of Jonathan Edwards

Samuel T. Logan, Jr.

I. Introduction to the Hermeneutical Problem

Within the scope of one twelve-month period, at the very heart of the last
century, America was presented, in artistic form, with two archetypal
examples of the hermeneutical problem. These expressions perfectly summarized
the intellectual concerns of that period of history which F. O. Matthiessen
has called the "American Renaissance." They also demonstrate the fabric of
the American consciousness for the preceding two hundred years and they point
toward its gradual disintegration during the following century.
The first example constitutes the artistic statement of purpose in Nathaniel
Hawthorne's classic novel, THE SCARLET LETTER. In the preface to that novel,
entitled "The Custom House," Hawthorne describes the source of his concern in
the novel. As he tells it, he had been serving as Customs Inspector in Salem
when one day, bored with the mindless routine of the place, he went poking
around in the dusty attic of the custom house. There he found many
treasures--but let him describe his most fascinating discovery:
The object that most drew my attention, was a certain affair of fine red
cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery,
which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little,
of the glitter was left. This rag of scarlet cloth, on careful
examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A.
how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times,
were signified by it, was a riddle whichI saw little hope of solving. And
yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old
scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there was some deep
meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed
forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my
sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind."1
Indeed it did interest him! And the meaning of the scarlet letter has
interested thousands, perhaps millions of Americans--and others--ever since.
But what is important here is first, Hawthorne's assumption about the nature
of reality and second, his response to reality given his assumption. That
little rag of scarlet cloth was not an autonomous, isolated datum of
experience. It was meaningful--full of meaning--and, as Hawthorne tells the
tale, he knew this immediately. The scarlet letter pointed beyond itself to a
greater reality of which it was an integral part. And Hawthorne wrote a novel
in response to this fact. THE SCARLET LETTER is essentially, then, a
hermeneutical work, one in which interpretive methodology is both form and

Within one year of the publication of THE SCARLET LETTER, Hawthorne's

neighbor in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Herman Melville, had published a novel
dedicated to Hawthorne, a novel which may well be the best ever produced by
an American author. Captain Ahab's is the questing mind which precipitates so
much of the action in MOBY-DICK, and Ahab's reading of reality explains the
precise goal of the ship and sailors on board the Pequod. After announcing
that the white whale is their target, Ahab is aghast at the uncomprehending
opposition of his first mate who cannot understand why they should chase one
whale any more than another. After all, Starbuck argues, all that matters is
how much whale oil is brought in to be sold on the Nantucket market.
"Nantucket market! Hoot!" cries Ahab. "Hark ye yet again,--the little lower
layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each
event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still
reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the
unreasoning mask."2
In each event, Ahab claims, in each event in all human experience there lurks
some meaning, some significance which the questioning mind must discover.
That, Melville seems to be suggesting, is indeed the goal of human
experience. To refuse the voyage, to ignore the lurking meaning is to
squander those attributes which constitute man's unique potential. And again,
the nature of reality--what we might call ontology--provides the
philosophical basis for Ahab's and Melville's quest. Melville describes an
event later in MOBY-DICK which establishes his hermeneutical ontology--Ahab
had nailed a doubloon to the mast and had promised it to the first sailor who
spotted the white whale. "But one morning, turning to pass the doubloon, Ahab
seemed to be newly attracted by the strange figures and inscriptions stamped
on it, as though now for the first time beginning to interpret for himself in
some monomaniac way whatever significance might lurk in them. And some
certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth,
and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the
cartload, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way" (Melville, Moby Dick, p.
A white whale and a rag of scarlet cloth--fascinating--perhaps--but what have
they to do with Jonathan Edwards? The connection becomes clear as one digs in
the soil of early American intellectual history for the roots of Hawthorne's
and Melville's hermeneutical concerns. Both Charles Feidelson in SYMBOLISM
argue persuasively that the kind of hermeneutical concern which dominates the
fiction of both Hawthorne and Melville arises out of a Calvinistic world
It is a matter of ontology. If God is absolutely sovereign, then no event in
human history is uncaused--all existence rests upon the will of God, which
will enter therefore into the fabric of everything it causes. Items of
experience do not exist in an ontological vacuum.

Such an ontology has clear epistemological implications. Because events

ontologically contain meaning (perhaps it would be more accurate to say that
events are meaning--cf. Psalm 19:1, 2), the proper response to those events
is epistemological. Events, things, experiences become a kind of language
through which the will of our sovereign God is expressed--these events,
things, and experiences should thus be handled hermeneutically, unless we are
to concede that God's will is insignificant. But it is only the Calvinistic
world view, with its focus on God's absolute sovereignty, which offers this
epistemological opportunity, which makes this hermeneutical demand.
Both Hawthorne and Melville felt the demand--Melville felt it because of his
Dutch Calvinistic background and Hawthorne felt it because of his New England
Puritan ancestry. But feeling it and handling it are two different
activities--if reality is meaningful, then precisely what do I do to deal
with that meaning appropriately.
As a Calvinistic New Englander, Jonathan Edwards helped to lay that bit of
scarlet cloth before Hawthorne. As one of the greatest and most influential
thinkers America has produced, Edwards helped to perpetuate the intellectual
universe within which a great white whale could exist and could threaten
Edwards' thought is both representative and pioneering--representative of the
Calvinistic world view with its hermeneutical implications and pioneering in
its detailed, innovative handling of those implications. Two of the greatest
works of literary art produced by Americans focus explicitly on the
hermeneutical problem. Jonathan Edwards, one hundred years earlier, suggested
a way of handling that problem, whenever it appears, which may provide
significant guidance for hermeneutics in the late twentieth century. And
Edwards' distinctive contribution to hermeneutics must be viewed against the
background of earlier Puritan hermeneutical practice.
II. Puritan Hermeneutics
Examples of the Puritan hermeneutical mind at work are easy to provide. John
Winthrop, the brilliant governor of Massachusetts Bay, wrote the following in
his journal on August 15, 1648:
The synod met at Cambridge by adjournment from the (4) [June] last. Mr. Allen
of Dedham preached out of Acts 15, a very godly, learned, and particular
handling of near all the doctrines and applications concerning that subject
with a clear discovery and refutation of such errors, objections, and
scruples as had been raised about it by some young heads in the country. It
fell out, about the midst of his sermon, there came a snake into the seat,
where many of the elders sate behind the preacher. It came in at the door
where people stood thick upon the stairs. Divers of the elders shifted from
it, but Mr. Thomson, one of the elders of Braintree, (a man of much faith,)
trode upon the head of it, and so held it with his foot and staff with a
small pair of grains, until it was killed. This being so remarkable, and

nothing falling out but by divine providence, it is out of doubt, the Lord
discovered somewhat of his mind in it. The serpent is the devil; the synod,
the representative of the churches of Christ in New England. The devil had
formerly and lately attempted their dissolution; but their faith in the seed
of the woman overcame him and crushed his head.3
That snake was thus Winthrop's Moby Dick or his scarlet letter--with one
crucial distinction. The snake's meaning did not evade the analysis of
Winthrop's mind as the bit of scarlet cloth evaded Hawthorne's. For Winthrop,
in a word, there were hermeneutics but no hermeneutical problem. Since
nothing does fall out but by divine providence, the snake was meaningful, and
Winthrop apparently discovered that meaning easily and surely.
But how? What methodology leads to such swift and certain interpretive
Perry Miller, whose writings on the Puritans must still be the starting point
for any serious student of New England Calvinism, suggests that the answer to
this question might be found in the logical system of the French theologian
Petrus Ramus. Ramus claimed that his logic actually corresponded to the exact
way that things were both in the present temporal world and in the nontemporal eternal world. To grasp the idea was to grasp the thing. Thus, as
Miller summarizes:
The argument was the thing, or the name of the thing, or the mental
conception of the thing, all at once. The charm of the system in Puritan eyes
was that it annihilated the distance from the object to the brain, or made
possible an epistemological leap across the gap in the twinkling of an eye,
with an assurance of footing beyond the possibility of a metaphysical slip. 4
The development of Ramist logic into specifically theological terms came to
be known as "technologia." God had planted certain seminal principles in the
mind of every individual, and as the individual experienced the world around
him, these principles were nourished and grew. These principles, such as
color, were exact duplications of elements within the material world and
within the mind of God. Both the seminal principles and the empirical
experiences were thus described as direct paths of access into the nature of
God Himself. This may be explained in terms of the method by which God
created the world. The act of creation was a two-fold process: God first
formed in His mind certain specific ideas (again, such as color) which He
then objectified by creating material reality. To grasp the objects, to name
them, is to grasp a direct emanation from the mind of God. The point is that
to grasp the meaning of words is considered equivalent to grasping the very
mind of God. All of nature is seen as a copy of ideas in the mind of God, and
language is a photographic copy of that copy. To use language is, therefore,
to construct a reality which perfectly mirrors the very mind of God. 5
The implications of such an understanding of language and reality are
enormous. In the first place, language is natural--that is, the relationship

between a word and the reality to which it is transparent is inherent and

internal. This means that the process of knowledge is unimpeded by any
insurmountable barrier--the path to correct understanding lies wide open to
anyone who will simply apply his intellectual muscles to the word or event
before him. This is, of course, an oversimplification, and very few New
England Puritans would explicitly argue for the possibility of true knowledge
apart from the enlightening and involving power of the Holy Spirit. But the
fact is that Ramist logic did develop into technologia (with the help of
William Ames) and that technologia as a theological system did produce such
hermeneutical certainty as that suggested by the quotation from John
Winthrop. Obviously, Ramist logic and the technologia which developed out of
it assumed a specific ontology and this ontology, this structure of reality,
not only made reality meaningful but also made discovery of that reality a
rather simple task.
Such "discovery" was, on the Ramist scheme, largely an intellectual activity
and consequently, hermeneutics in early Puritan thought was almost
exclusively a logical exercise. What one discovers when one analyzes either
experience or Scripture may have practical implications, but the primary
focus is on what, for example, resides in the mind of God.
The Puritans, as a rule, did not write novels--rather they gave vent to their
hermeneutical interests in sermons. Ola Winslow's description of the role
sermons played in that society is striking.
Sermons, thousands of them. Two per week, one hundred and four per annum from
every minister until his last earthly Sunday. No sermon was less than two
hours long and usually it was longer. 'Do not pinch them with scanty
sermons', said the ordination preacher among his advices to the young
incumbent. There was no danger. 'We know not how to conclude', said one of
the long-winded himself. So confessed and exonerated, they kept right on
turning the glass. Urian Oakes had once been seen to turn it four times and
there were others equally generous.6
In spite of what the new social historians are saying about the fabric of
seventeenth-century New England life, the dominant and determinative role of
sermons in American Puritan experience cannot be overemphasized. And just as
ontology determines hermeneutics, hermeneutics determines homiletics. That
is, an individual's hermeneutical methodology--the way in which he conceives
of and carries out his task as interpreter--this establishes the form and the
style of the sermons which he preaches. Certainly it did in seventeenthcentury New England.
Technologia as a hermeneutical methodology produced preaching in what has
been called, by Perry Miller, Ola Winslow, and many others "The Plain Style."
Miller points out that preaching during the early years of the Puritan
establishment was characterized by clarity, logical divisions and proofs, and
thorough explanation of the text, followed by a full list of "uses" or
applications of the doctrine taught in the text. The basic purpose of the

plain style was to summarize, in logical and propositional form, the doctrine
presented in the specific text.
That the "Plain Style," as Miller describes it, was the predominant form in
New England preaching is clear from a study of primary source materials. In a
sermon entitled "Swines and Goats" (first published in 1654), John Cotton
provides an excellent example of the type of linguistic usage that Miller has
been analyzing. He begins the sermon in typical Ramist manner by dividing all
men into two categories: Righteous and Wicked; all wicked men into two
classes: Notoriously Wicked and Hypocrites; and all hypocrites into two
sorts: Swine and Goats.7 The remainder of the sermon consists of a "meticulous
logical and rigorously organized" investigation of the precise
characteristics of these types with minute, Scriptural backing for each
A second example of the plain style is provided by Increase Mather's sermon
"A Discourse Concerning the Uncertainty of the Time of Men." Delivered at
Harvard College in 1698, this sermon dealt with the tragic deaths of two
undergraduates just a few days earlier, and Mather had ample opportunity to
arouse emotions and thereby to modify Ramist hermeneutical methodology.
Instead Mather begins his sermon as he would a philosophy lecture:
The Doctrine at present before us, is, 'That for the most part the Miserable
Children of Men, know not their time.' There are three things for us here
briefly to Enquire into. (1) What Times they are which Men know not? (2) How
it does appear that they are Ignorant thereof. (3) The Reason why they are
kept in Ignorance of their Time.9
The remainder of the sermon is organized scholastically, with the three
questions being carefully considered and thoroughly answered in precise
theological terminology. Mather seems almost, to be suggesting by his
homiletical style that his hearers can correctly interpret this tragedy
simply by using their rational faculties. Surely he would not have subscribed
directly to such an heretical position, but nevertheless, his preaching (and
that of Oakes, Cotton, and others) helped to move New England Puritanism in
this direction.
But by 1740, homiletical practice had so changed from the Plain Style that
Alan Heimert can describe the situation as follows:
The evangelical minister spoke to an audience that was apparently persuaded
that the Holy Spirit was more a rhetorician than a logician. Moreover,
Scripture seems to function in their discourses not as a source of doctrine
but as something of a verbal armory with which to make truths 'affecting' and
Before seeking the causes of this shift, let us be sure that we recognize it
as a shift, not as a complete repudiation of previous ideas. Heimert is
pointing out that Calvinistic preaching after 1740 was often more "affecting"

than it had been earlier; he is not saying that after 1740 logic and doctrine
disappeared altogether. With this in mind, we may proceed to examine those
aspects of Edwardsean homiletical practice and hermeneutical theory which
distinguished him from the earlier Puritans.
Edwards was one of the leading preachers and theologians of the Great
Awakening--as such, he participated in--even led--the homiletical revolution
which Heimert describes. The Plain Style was abandoned in favor of the
rhetoric of sensation, and in sermon after sermon, Edwards displays the new
pulpit oratory.
His most famous sermon is "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and there
is no reason why we should not begin a study of the rhetoric of sensation
there. In terms of subject matter, the sermon may not be "typical Edwards"-but then few preachers expound the intimate horrors of hell so often that
such a sermon would be typical. In terms of style, which is our primary
concern, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is typically Edwardsean.
Listen as Edwards warns the sinner of the dangers he is courting:
Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are
innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their
weight, and these places are not seen. This that you have heard is the case
of every one of you that are out of Christ. --That world of misery, that lake
of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit
of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth
open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of;
there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and
mere pleasure of God that holds you up.

* * * * *
Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards
with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go,
you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless
gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best
contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to
uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider's web would have to stop a
fallen rock.11
Listen to the language--what a difference from the Plain Style! Surely this
is the rhetoric of sensation.
Such remains Edwards' rhetoric even when his subject changes. The following
selection is from a funeral sermon--compare this sermon to the one preached
by Increase Mather on the occasion of the drowning accident in 1698.

We cannot continue always in these earthly tabernacles. They are very frail,
and will soon decay and fall; and are continually liable to be overthrown by
innumerable means. Our souls must soon leave them, and go into the eternal
world. O, how infinitely great will be the privilege and happiness of those,
who, at that time shall go to be with Christ in his glory, in the manner that
has been represented! The privilege of the twelve disciples was great, in
being so constantly with Christ as his family, in his state of humiliation.
But is not that privilege infinitely greater which has now been spoken of:
the privilege of being with Christ in heaven, where he sits on the throne, as
the King of angels, and the God of the universe; shining forth as the Sun of
that world of glory; there to dwell in the full, constant, and everlasting
view of his beauty and brightness;--there most freely and intimately to
converse with him, and fully to enjoy his love, as his friends and brethren;
there to share with him in the infinite pleasure and joy which he has in the
enjoyment of his Father--there to sit with him on his throne, to reign with
him in the possession of all thingsand to join with him in joyful songs of
praise to his Father and our Father, to his God and our God forever and ever!

Surely Edwards is, as Heimert claimed, seeking to make the biblical doctrines
of hell and heaven affecting and compelling.
But why? What lay behind this homiletical shift? First it must be noted that
Edwards was working with the same world view that caused Winthrop to find
meaning in a serpent and Melville to seek meaning in a whale. One of the
clearest and most definitive expressions of Edwards' Calvinistic ontology is
found in his study of the Freedom of the Will, first published in 1754. There
Edwards argues with rigorous precision that "nothing ever comes to pass
without a cause. What is self-existent," he continues, "must be from
eternitybut as to all things that begin to be, they are not self-existent,
and therefore must have some foundation of their existence without
themselves."13 That foundation, Edwards goes on to argue, provides not just
existence but also meaning. Specifically, in the context of this treatise,
Edwards is concerned to show that the Arminian notion of the freedom of the
Will is mistaken, that God is indeed the author of salvation, that when an
individual chooses Christ, that act means God has chosen this individual for
his own.
Human acts are, therefore, meaningful precisely because they are grounded in
divine sovereignty. Without that kind of ultimate ground, there would be no
ultimate meaning--in acts of the will or in any other event of human
experience. With that ground, meaning becomes not just potential but actual.
God's will did, in the words of the Westminster Confession, ordain whatsoever
comes to pass, and consequently the hermeneutical task becomes possible and
So for Edwards, hermeneutics was as crucial an activity as it was for
Winthrop, but still there is the shift from the Plain Style to the Rhetoric
of Sensation which we noted in Edwards' preaching. Of what hermeneutical

significance was that shift? It was of the greatest significance for it

signaled a major change in the very definition of hermeneutics.
Edwards' philosophical mentor was not Petrus Ramus as much as it was John
Locke. It is true, of course, that many modern scholars strongly dispute
Miller's rather facile identification of Lockean theory with Edwardsean
practice (and some of the inadequacies of Miller's approach will be discussed
shortly), but I do think that, to the degree that Edwards consciously had a
theory of language, it was very probably derived from Locke more than from
any other single source.14 Basically, Locke rejected the "natural" theory of
language which informed the Plain Style. In place of the natural theory,
Locke developed a symbolic theory in which words were taken to be artificial
inventions established by social convention. In other words, social
convention merely decreed that a certain word was to be linked to a certain
sense impression so that any given word refers to a discrete sense
impression. Since it is the sense impressions and not the arbitrary
linguistic symbols that are the basic reality, the purpose of language
(whether written or spoken) must be to conjure up those basic impressions.
Locke used the term "simple idea" to describe the original sense impressions
and claimed that a person has touch with reality only as he deals with these
simple ideas.15 It was with this kind of theoretical foundation that Edwards
began his ministry in Northhampton under his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard.
From the very beginning, Edwards strove, in his preaching, to avoid using
words which did not have any concrete ideas connected with them. While he
accepted the validity of abstract terms, he felt that preaching which used
these terms exclusively or even predominantly was a denial of life and a
failure to come to grips with reality. In his preaching, therefore, he
attempted to use words in such a way as to bring the sense impressions
originally associated with those words directly before his congregation. He
even went beyond Locke in claiming that words could operate as direct
psychological stimuli without any abstract ideas or speculative content being
involved. In his best known work, Religious Affections, he clearly and
decisively described the regenerated person as one who can "sense" the wonder
of God in the world all around, rather than as one who can grasp the mind of
God by analyzing Scripture texts.
Edwards reacted strongly against the Plain Style and against the prevailing
rationalistic, over-intellectualized faith which it tended to engender.
Edwards sought more than anything to make Christ a totally engaging Person
for his people. But this is not to say that Edwards repudiated logic or that
he ignored the importance of propositional understanding. Again the Religious
Affections serves as a model. Carefully reasoned and rigorously logical,
Edwards therein presents a full-blown analysis of an essential part of the
Christian life, a part which must be thoroughly and prepositionally known if
the individual's spiritual life is to be full, complete, and true.
A couple of brief passages from the Religious Affection will clarify Edwards'

There is given to those that are regenerated, a new supernatural sense, that
is, as it were, a certain divine spiritual taste, which is in its whole
nature diverse from any former kinds of sensation of the mind, as tasting is
diverse from any of the other five senses, and that something is perceived by
a true saint in the exercise of this new sense of mind, in spiritual and
divine things, as entirely different from anything that is perceived in them
by natural men, as the sweet taste of honey is diverse from the ideas men get
of honey by looking on it or feeling of it.
Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some
information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind
receives, some light or actual knowledge. Now there are many affections
which don't arise from any light in the understanding. And when it is thus,
it is a sure evidence that these affections are not spiritual, let them be
ever so high.16
Edwards is no mystic, despite claims to the contrary. He is no Ramist either,
for he believes that the hermeneutical task involves much more than mental
flights into the mind of God. The meaning of any event or of any passage of
Scripture is both its objective content and its significance for the personal
life of the interpreter. Consequently, hermeneutics must be both active and
passive in its relation to any text. That is what Edwards believed, and that
is how he preached.
And he preached that way not because of John Locke. Conrad Cherry, in The
Theology of Jonathan Edwards, perceptively and correctly argues that Edwards'
notion of "a holy taste" is much more biblical than Lockean, as Perry Miller
has claimed.
Cherry pinpoints the essential question as having to do with the origin of
the new simple idea of divine truth.
One way of getting at Edwards' understanding of the possibility of faith is
to ask: What is the source of that idea? And what enables the human powers to
entertain that idea? Edwards assigns the internal possibility of faith to God
operative as Spirit.17
The Holy Spirit is the necessary and sufficient hermeneutical principle for
both the analytic and the existential elements of true Christian knowledge.
Cherry's continuing thesis is that Edwards' theological position, no matter
against what individual or system of ideas he was reacting, was one in which
both elements of knowledge were considered essential and in which the Holy
Spirit was that entity which made affecting knowledge possible. Edwards'
pulpit style was a "rhetoric of sensation" because be conceived of language
as artificial. This means that seeing the truth requires much more than
logical linguistic formulations; it requires as well being gripped by that
very truth which is to be seen, and, if anything, "Sinners in the Hands of an
Angry God" gripped Edwards' congregation. Edwards' theology is a Spiritoriented theology because only the Holy Spirit could interpret "artificial"

words and only the Spirit could apply those words to human lives in such a
way that those lives received a "new way of seeing." His was certainly a
hermeneutic of the Spirit.
So, by his homiletical practice, Edwards offers to us a definition of
hermeneutics which drastically expands the earlier Puritan vision. Events and
words do "open to" meaning, but that opening is a wholistic process.
Hermeneutics by definition involves not just the discovery of objective
truth, as important, as critical as that is. Hermeneutics also involves the
molding of the interpreting self by the truth which is discovered. Melville
knew this--he knew that the quality of his own existence epended upon what he
discovered the whale to mean. Melville knew this at least partly because
Edwards said it.
But in saying it, was Edwards stepping out of the mainstream of historic
Reformed orthodoxy? Absolutely not! Careful analysis of William Ames' Marrow
of Sacred Theology or of John Calvin's Institutes (especially chapters two
and ten of book one) demonstrates this clearly. These are Calvin's words,
What help is it, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do? Rather, our
knowledge should serve first to teach us fear and reverence; secondly, with
it as our guide and teacher, we should learn to seek every good from him,
and, having received it, to credit it to his account.

* * * * *
Here let us observe that his eternity and his self-existence are announced by
his wonderful name. Thereupon his powers are mentioned, by which he is
shown to us not as he is in himself, but as he is toward us: so that this
recognition of him consists more in living experience than in vain and highflown speculation.18
Surely, then, Perry Miller was correct when he called Jonathan Edwards an
"authentic and consistent Calvinist."19
But Edwards' importance is not merely historical. His implicit redefinition
of hermeneutics is particularly relevant to the modern situation. Since
Melville chased his whale (unsuccessfully, I believe), a veritable plethora
of hermeneutical schemes have been proposed, almost all of which may be
subsumed under the basic epistemological dichotomy suggested bv Henri Bergson
in his Introduction to Metaphysics. There Bergson identifies two fundamental
ways of understanding the act of knowledge and, by extension, the nature of
hermeneutics. One he calls analysis--a rigorously scientific approach with an
emphasis upon objectivity and precision. The other is intuition--an intensely
subjective approach which emphasizes interpersonal involvement with that
which is being known or interpreted. Probably Bergson's dichotomy is another
version of the classicism- romanticism battles--surely it captures the spirit

of practically every hermeneutical methodology proposed in the twentieth

century. On the intuition side might be placed the existentialists and
phenomenologists, the German practitioners of the New Hermeneutic. Of all the
volumes published supporting this perspective, none is more cogent than
Richard Palmer's book entitled simply Hermeneutics. One statement from
Palmer's book established his phenomenological identity:
It is not the interpreter who grasps the meaning of the text; the meaning of
the text seizes him. This is a hermeneutical phenomenon which is largely
ignored by a technological approach to literature"20
But it is precisely a technological, scientific approach which is preferred
in Bergson's analytic tradition--the logical positivists, the formalists,
and, most recently, the structuralists. Robert Scholes speaks eloquently for
this latter group when he says, "Structuralismmay claim a privileged place
in literary study because it seeksto establish for literary studies a basis
that is as scientific as possible."21
There we have it: hermeneutics and the homiletical practice to which it leads
is either a life-engaging phenomenological process or a rigorously precise,
scientific process. E. D. Hirsch, whose book entitled Validity in
Interpretation identifies him as an analytic hermeneutician, even provides us
with a set of terms to identify hermeneutical emphases. One may focus on
meaning (as the analysts do) or one may focus on significance (as the
intuitionists do).22
But must we choose "either--or"? Edwards said "no" over two hundred years
ago, and we would do well to listen to him. "True religion," maintained
Edwards in apparent agreement with phenomenologists, "in great part, consists
in holy affections."23 But those holy affections, he continued in apparent
agreement with precise analysts, those "gracious affections do arise from the
mind's being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend
divine things."24
The right enlightenment of the mind thus seems to be a crucial part of
hermeneutical work, but it is not the only part, and hermeneutics is wrongly
practiced and wrongly taught if the dynamic, affecting element is omitted.
Likewise, one must not undervalue objective analysis which provides the
proper ground for correct and full interpretation.
The message of Edwards for the modern age is, therefore, this: As we work to
develop a fully biblical hermeneutic, one which is sensitive to the total
work of God's Spirit, we must listen to the analytic philosophers and the
structuralists. But just as surely we must listen to the existentialists and
the phenomenologists.
Hermeneutics must be wholistic if it is to be worthy of the name. And
hermeneutical theory must inform homiletical practice. That is, the very
style of our preaching and teaching, the means by which we interpret various

texts to our congregations and our students--the style itself must reflect
our wholistic definition of the hermeneutical process. If Reformed
hermeneutics has been out of balance in recent years, it is because
the dynamic, phenomenologicalelement, the affecting element to use Edwardsean
language, has been lacking. We must restore the balance, such balance as
emerged in a recent statement of R. C. Sproul, who exclaimed in true
phenomenological fashion, "We do not critique the Scriptures; the Scriptures
critique us."25
Jonathan Edwards did not provide us with a formal hermeneutical methodology,
but he did, by his scholarship and by his example, demonstrate the scope
which that methodology must encompass. And he challenged us to remember that
hermeneutics determines homiletics.
For us there are hermeneutical problems, but these problems exist only
because there are also homiletical opportunities. With Edwardsean
light and heat, let us tackle these problems to the glory of God.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1947), pp. 29-30

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), p. 139.

John Winthrop, "A Modell of Christian Charity," in The Puritans, ed. by Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson (2 vols;

New York: Harper and Row, 1963), I, 142-143.


Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 149.

Ibid., pp. 159-162.

Ola Winslow, Meetinghouse Hill, 1630-1783 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972), p. 91.

John Cotton, "Swine and Goats," in The Puritans, I, 314.

Ibid., pp. 314-315.

Increase Mather, "A Discourse Concerning the Uncertainty of the Times of Men," in The Puritans, I, 340.


Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 225.


Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hand's of An Angry God," in Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, ed.

by Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson (New York: Hill and Whang, 1935), pp. 159, 162.

Jonathan Edwards, "Funeral Sermon For David Brainerd," in Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, pp.


Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, ed. by Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), p. 181.


However, scholarly research is just beginning to probe the sources of Locke's own thought. One significant

possibility is that Locke, while he was at Oxford, came under the influence of the Puritan divine John Owen, whose
works Edwards knew. Possibly, therefore, the Lockean influence on Edwards was Calvinistic and biblical in its ultimate

Perry Miller, "The Rhetoric of Sensation" in Errand into the Wilderness, ed. by Perry Miller (New York: Harper and

Row, 1956), pp. 171-175. See also Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (New York: Dell, 1949), pp. 53-55.

Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, edited by John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), pp.


Conrad Cherry, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966), p.

25. Emphasis added.


John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles (2

vols.; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), I, 41, 97.


Perry Miller, "The Marrow of Puritan Divinity," in Errand, p. 98. Miller, p.98.


Richard Palmer, Hermeneutics (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1969), p. 248.


Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), p. 10.


E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 8ff.


Edwards, Affections, p. 95.


Ibid., p. 266.


R. C. Sproul, "Hath God Said," an address delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary on August 31, 1979.