Friday, January 19, 2007

Christ and Hell

Stephen Holmes makes some fairly stimulating / provocative arguments in God of Grace, God of Glory: An Account of the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh:2000). In chapter six - 'God's self-glorification in the damnation of sinners' - Holmes maintains that the trinitarian structure of Edwards' theology comes apart in the discussion of damnation and hell.

In his discussion of the absence of God in hell Holmes writes (218): 'What hell is not, however, and the texts will be searched in vain for any counter-evidence, is the presence of the Trinitarian God. God's close relationship with His creation, is Trinitarian - most obviously in the divine self-giving to the world, which is the sending of Son and Spirit. In redemption, it is the closeness of the saints' relationship to Christ, and the presence of the indwelling Spirit which demonstrate the closeness of God. Here, in hell, it appears that a different God is present.'

Holmes returns to the point later in the chapter (234 et seq). Holmes argues that 'On the basis of the gospel story we simply cannot accept that God glorifies Himself in two equal and opposite ways, in the display of his justice and the display of his grace' (239).

There are two problems with this chapter as a study of Edwards. First, there is relatively little discussion of Edwards' theology. There is some background and a considerable amount of interaction with contemporary theology / philosophy but at the end I just didn't think that I heard that much from Edwards. Is he really so incoherent that he argues about hell apart from
his trinitarian presuppositions? Really?

An additional problem is the scope of the literature examined. Holmes states (215-216) that he is only looking at five sermons. In fact, there are numerous sermons that either deal with or touch on this very point. It is hard to conceive of Edwards arguing otherwise when so much of the biblical material is concerned with the judgment that is given over to the Son. I am thinkng of Psalm 2, John's gospel, and the Book of Revelation.

Volume 22 of the Works (not published at the time when Holmes was writing) contains a really startling (and I think fairly frightening) example of the Trinity and damnation. The Sermon is called Christ the Spiritual Sun in Works, 22, 48-63.

The sermon begins with an exposition of Malachi 4:1-2 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves in the stall.

Edwards deals with the diverse states of men and the coming of the 'Sun of righteousness' - 'We may observe the different consequences of this day's coming and the Sun's rising with respect to the righteous and the wicked.' (51)

It is worth noting who is coming - it is the one anointed with the Spirit of the Lord; 'the Christ.' (51) - 'and his beams shall be like fire to the wicked. It will be a scorching sun to them. ... So firing and scorching to the wicked will be the light of the sun, when it comes to rise, that when it comes to fill the world with its light, it will as it were turn the world into an oven to them.' (52)

So Edwards gets to the doctrine of the sermon: 'That same spiritual Sun, whose beams are most comfortable and beneficial to believers, will burn and destroy unbelievers.' (52).

Edwards then addresses the question of divine glory - (52-53) - 'Christ is as it were the Sun of the spiritual [world] on the account of the glory of his person. He is the brightness of God's glory.'

Skipping to Edwards' fourth point, and I'll quote at length here, we read (58-62 is the key section):

(60) 'The future appearance of Christ in his glory at the day of judgement, that will be most pleasant and joyful to the saints, will be dreadful and amazing to those that have rejected Christ. At the day of judgement, the Sun of righteousness shall appear in its greatest glory; Christ shall then come in the glory of his Father, and all the holy angels with him ... But this appearance, that will be so pleasant to believers, will fill the souls of unbelievers with amazement. The first sight of it will strike them with terror. ... Every ray of that glory that Christ shall then appear in will be like a stream of scorching fire, and will pierce their hearts with a keener torment than a stream of fierce lightening. They shall see Christ appearing in his majesty, and it will be a dreadful majesty to them, that will fill 'em with horrors and set them a-trembling and gnashing their teeth, at the same time that it fills the hearts of the saints with rejoicing and their mouths with singing.'

There are a couple of points to note. First, it is the divine self-glorification (here expressed as the exaltation of the Son - the Majesty of the Christ) which is the first perception of judgement that the 'wicked' experience. The glory blesses the saints and causes distress in the lost. Edwards says of Christ's glory 'the ungodly will hate the sight of it' (61).

Edwards takes the argument further. Holmes argues that the God who is present in hell is a 'different God' to the Trinitarian God of salvation (& grace). But Edwards says:

(61). 'And lastly, Christ's power, that shall be exercised in saving one, shall be exercised in tormenting and destroying the other. That Sun of God that is the Savior of believers, their best friend, their spiritual husband, will be the enemy of finally impenitent sinners. He will rule over believers with a golden sceptre of grace and love, making them willing in the day of his power; but he will rule over unbelievers in wrath and with a rod of iron, dashing them in pieces as a potter's vessel [Ps. 2:9].

Edwards argues that the agent of divine judgement is the exalted Son. The Father has given him authority to not only judge but also punish the nations - and he does this and all things (JE says this elsewhere, and it is implied in the title 'Christ') in the power of the Holy Spirit. Of course whether we like this doctrine or not is another question - but the texts show that JE taught a thoroughly Trinitarian account of both salvation and judgement. It is, in Edwards' view, the merciful Christ, who pours out the wrath of the Lamb. He is present at the last judgement and he actively punishes the impenitent in hell.

[I have mentioned this before but I will say it again - I am happy to post responses from any author whom I interact with in this blog. I write in the spirit of Prof Lee's plea for a 'more vigorous discussion of the theological and doctrinal issues in Edwards’ thought.’ Lee in Princeton Companion, xi.]


Anonymous cozart said...

so holmes is saying that (Edwards says?) God is present in hell, just not in his full trinitarian sense?

5:34 pm  
Blogger M. Jay Bennett said...

Let me take a shot at adding to the discussion.

I think one helpful distinction to remember is that, while Edwards did teach that God glorifies himself through the ends of Heaven and Hell, he does not regard them as equally ultimate. Heaven is in some sense a "more ultimate" end than Hell, because the condemnation exercised there is a means God uses to display his mercy to the elect in Heaven. This dependent relationship between God's glory displayed in Hell and God's glory displayed in Heaven is clearly evident in his sermon "The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous."

The dependence is also evident in Edwards's ordering of the decrees. He holds to a slightly modified teleological principle writing "that that is first in execution is last in intention with respect to the ultimate end; that that is second in execution is last in intention with respect to the the next end, etc." (JE, The "Miscellanies," a-500, vol. 13 Yale, no. 293, p. 383). With that in mind, he orders the decree of election (Heaven) as logically prior to the decree of reprobation (Hell).
Interestingly, he orders the decree of election supra lapsus and the decree of reprobation infra lapsus (see Oliver Crisp, JE and the Metaphysics of Sin, Ashgate Publishers).

Therefore, for Edwards, Hell is an end accomplished logically prior to the end of Heaven and serves as a means to the more ultimate end of Heaven. The display of God's glory in Heaven is dependent on the display of his glory in Hell.

Now with respect to the original question of whether Edwards's Trinitarianism breaks down in his doctrine of Hell, Holmes's argument seems to be dependent on viewing the end of Hell as independent of the end of Heaven. He admits that Edwards trinitarianism holds true in his doctrine of heaven. Therefore, if Heaven is an end dependent on Hell, then, even if JE's trinitarianism does not hold in his doctrine of Hell per se (which I think it does as Michael has shown), it does still hold when viewing the doctrine of Hell as part of God's overall purpose leading to the display of his glory in Heaven.

Any thoughts along these lines?

10:34 pm  

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