09 July 2006

of charity and its fruits

of charity and its fruits

The title of this post makes reference to a well-known set of lectures by Jonathan Edwards, delivered in 1738. And in his day and context, Edwards had ample time and need to reflect on the nature of Christian charity.

While Edwards himself was an important leader in the Awakening that swept New England in the 1730s, he recognized the often ambiguous nature of the Awakening: the controversy that swirled around it, charges of heretical teaching and confessional violations, and counter-charges of resisting God's grace or an unconverted ministry. Edwards was particularly concerned by what he termed the "censoriousness" that characterized figures on various sides of the issues.

In his tenth lecture on charity, Edwards took up one of the opposite habits from that of charity, the one manifest in a "censorious spirit," by which we are given to "think or judge uncharitably of others" whether with regard to their state, their qualities, or their words and other actions. With regard to the words and actions of others, Edwards defines censorious spirits as those that judge evil "without any evidence that constrains them to such a judgment" and who have "a disposition to put the worst constructions" on the words and actions of others.

With regard to judging evil apart from evidence, Edwards sees a censorious spirit towards others as "a suspicious spirit, which leads persons to be...ready to suspect them of being guilty of evil things when they have no evidence of it whatever." Such a spirit is thereby "an uncharitable spirit, and contrary to Christianity."

With regard to putting the worst construction upon others' words and actions, Edwards suggests we are censorious when we are "prone to put a bad construction" on words and other actions, "when they will just as well, and perhaps better, admit of a good construction" and without reference to the "moving design and end" of what was said or done. Edwards notes, "this is a kind of censoriousness and uncharitable judging, as common, or more common, than any other."

None of this is to say, according to Edwards, that making careful judgments is impossible or wrong, but rather must be undertaken with the utmost care. Sometimes this means simply leaving matters in the hands and wisdom of those whose proper jurisdiction it is to make such judgments.

Sometimes, with regard to others, "there is plain and clear evidence that they are justly chargeable with evil," and in such cases we cannot help but judge. Nevertheless, even then we must take great care lest we find ourselves "judging evil of others when evidence does not oblige to it, or in thinking ill of them when the case very well allows of thinking well of them." Edwards warns against situations of judging others in which "those things that seem to be in their favor are overlooked, and only those that are against them are regarded," or "when the latter are magnified, and too great stress laid on them."

A further danger, Edwards observes, is when we take delight in censuring others, since this distorts the process of discernment and right judgment. He writes,
But very often judgment is passed against others, in such a manner as shows that the individual is well pleased in passing it. He is so forward in judging evil, and judges on such slight evidence, and carries his judgment to such extremes, as shows that his inclination is in it, and that he loves to think the worst of others.
If we truly regard others with Christian charity, we "will be very cautious in" judging them. Those who judge with such charitable care "will go no further in it than evidence obliges them, and will think the best that the nature of the case will admit, and will put the best possible construction on the words and actions of others."

On a related topic, in his 1746 work Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards expounds the nature of truly gracious affections. He summarizes such affections in this way,
Truly gracious affections differ from those that are false and delusive in that they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy, as appeared in Christ.
In connection with some of the discussion concerning Presbyterians and Presbyterian Together (Part III, Section 8), Sam Logan pointed us to Edwards's remarks in the Affections regarding Christian fortitude, which intersects with the earlier remarks on a censorious spirit and the proper nature of Christian discernment and judmgent. Edwards writes,
But here some may be ready to say, Is there no such thing as Christian fortitude, and boldness for Christ, being good soldiers in the Christian warfare, and coming out bold against the enemies of Christ and his people?

To which I answer, there doubtless is such a thing. The whole Christian life is fitly compared to a warfare. The most eminent Christians are the best soldiers, endued with the greatest degrees of Christian fortitude. And it is the duty of God's people to be steadfast and vigorous in their opposition to the designs and ways of such as are endeavoring to overthrow the Kingdom of Christ, and the interests of religion.

But yet many persons seem to be quite mistaken concerning the nature of Christian fortitude. It is an exceeding diverse thing from a brutal fierceness, or the boldness of beasts of prey. True Christian fortitude consists in strength of mind, through grace, exerted in two things: 1) in ruling and suppressing the evil passions and affections of the mind; and 2) in steadfastly and freely exerting and following good affections and dispositions, without being hindered by sinful fear, or the opposition of enemies.

But the passions restrained, and kept under in the exercise of this Christian strength and fortitude, are those very passions that are vigorously and violently exerted in a false boldness for Christ. And those affections which are vigorously exerted in true fortitude, are those Christian holy affections, that are directly contrary to the others.

Though Christian fortitude appears in withstanding and counteracting enemies without us; yet it much more appears in resisting and suppressing the enemies that are within us; because they are our worst and strongest enemies, and have the greatest advantage against us.

The strength of the good soldier of Jesus Christ appears in nothing more, than in steadfastly maintaining the holy, calm meekness, sweetness, and benevolence of his mind, amidst all the storms, injuries, strange behaviour, and surprising acts and events, of this evil and unreasonable world.
Edwards's teachings here are, I think, useful reminders to us in how we interact and regard others, how we interpret and form judgments about their words and actions, and how we are to cultivate properly Christian virtues among ourselves to those ends.