Thursday, June 21, 2007

Storms on "Signs of the Spirit"

Sam Storms begins a series of posts explaining why he wrote the book, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards's "Religious Affections":

Because of the profound and truly life-changing influence that Edwards has exerted on me, I am quick to recommend his works to others, indeed, to everyone. This brings me to my defense of this interpretation of his treatise on the Affections. If it were the case that people heeded my advice, I would hardly have undertaken this project. Nothing grieves me more than to hear that yet another has started reading Edwards only to give up, frustrated by his style or overwhelmed by the complexity of his argumentation.

I can't begin to count the number of times I've been asked for recommended reading, have suggested Edwards, specifically the Religious Affections, only to be greeted with a contorted face or an embarrassed evasion that goes something like this: "Well, I tried reading Edwards. I really wanted to read the Affections, but after about 15 or 20 pages into it, I just quit. For whatever reason, I couldn't follow him. His style was aggravating and, well, to be honest, I just couldn't understand what he was saying."

Such confessions have come not simply from average lay folk, but from well-educated seminary graduates as well. Edwards' penchant for torturously complex sentence structure, together with the abundance of theological "bunny trails" that, at least initially, don't seem to contribute to the point he is making, have tested and all too often triumphed over the determination of even the most avid and intellectual of Christians.

For years I have taken the high ground when it comes to the reading of Edwards, refusing to yield to the insistent demand that someone "tweak his prose" or paraphrase his theological concepts. I have faithfully exhorted countless men and women, again and again, to renew their commitment to working through some of Edwards' more daunting treatises. "Your patience and perseverance will reap a bountiful harvest," I said, again and again, until blue in the face. Alas, to little (or no) avail, I've come to discover. Sure, there are a few, here and there, who've made their way through the Affections and were (justifiably) proud of it. But even in the majority of these cases, they aren't sure they understood, far less appreciated and embraced, what they had read.

I've worked my way through the Affections at least ten times, perhaps more, and I still struggle in places to make sense of him. I'm more than happy to attribute this failure to my shortcomings rather than his (indeed, I still hesitate, at times, to acknowledge that he had any shortcomings!). But I can no longer escape the conclusion that, no matter how passionately I exhort and encourage and rebuke and challenge people to read Edwards, no matter how exuberantly I promise them great treasure at the end of their labors, the vast majority of folk simply won't do it. Or they do it, for at most a few pages, and then set aside the book, forever convinced that Edwards is beyond their grasp. I wish it were otherwise. I pray that it were otherwise. But it isn't and, I fear, never will be.

The theology of Jonathan Edwards and his insight into the nature of religious experience are simply too important, too relevant, and too enriching to sacrifice on the altar of some lofty ideal that it is beneath his (and our) dignity to make his work accessible to a more general audience. I suppose I could go to my grave, proudly congratulating myself for not having yielded to the temptation to do what this book proposes. But I'd go there with the disturbing realization that other people are likewise going there without having reaped the eternal benefits of what Edwards had to say.

Let's be clear about something. I'm not advocating the "dumbing down" of Jonathan Edwards (or any aspect of the Christian faith). Yes, I would much prefer the "smarting up" of the Christian public, equipping them for the task of wrestling with this magnificent theological mind (and others as well). And I will continue to challenge believers of every age and educational background to think and dig deeply into the rich treasures of Christ, his Word, and the resources made available to his Church throughout the last two millennia. My prayer is that Signs of the Spirit will be a helpful tool in the pursuit of that goal.

Nevertheless, I suspect that on reading this many will come to me, protesting: "Sam, you're wrong! I read the Affections. I loved it. Yes, it was really hard, but my perseverance paid off." Praise God for every one of you. But for every one of you there are one-hundred others who tell a different story, whose encounter with Edwards was frustrating and embarrassing. It is for the latter that I wrote this book, not the former.