Sunday, July 04, 2010

Paul R. Baumgartner, Jonathan Edwards: The Theory Behind His Use of Figurative Language

Paul R. Baumgartner, Jonathan Edwards: The Theory Behind His Use of Figurative Language, PMLA, September 1963, Volume LXXVIII, Number 4, Part 1, pp. 321-325.

But surely this is not the impression which most readers get from Edwards and earlier Puritan writers. Their use of figurative language, far from being reluctant, seems natural and happy. (321)

Jonathan Edwards, as might be expected, provides the theoretical or philosophical justifications for the analogical use of figurative language. … theories: the first concerns the relation between God and the created universe, between Infinite and finite being; the second has to do with the nature of man and his way of receiving truth or communication from God. (322)

Edwards escape simple pantheism. “Things,” although they are properly ideas of God and from God, are not God because their existence , as projected or externalized ideas, is not in God. The ideas in God have or are an infinite existence; whereas these ideas “extant” have a finite or participated existed which is essentially different, … (322)

The “things” of nature, then, are beautiful precisely in so far as they are emanations of the internal excellency of God, and all creatures have this communicated excellency according to their full capacity. Thus flowers, trees, and birds have no beauty of their own, properly speaking, but only a communicated beauty, which is the beauty of God. Edwards makes this perfectly clear in a long passage in the Covenant of Redemption: /
‘So that, when we are delighted with flowery meadows, and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we see only the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ. When we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see His love the purity. So the green trees, and fields, and singing of birds are the emanations of His infinite joy and benignity. … doubtless this is a reason that Christ is compared so often to those things, and called by their names, as the sun of Righteousness, the morning star, the rose of Sharon, and lily of the valley, the apple tree amongst the trees of wood, a bundle of myrrh, a roe, or a young hart. By this we may discover the beauty of many of those metaphors and similes, which to an unphilosophical person do seem so uncouth. (pp. 373-374)’ /
To call Christ, then, the “rose of Sharon” or the “lily of the valley” is more than mere accommodation or concession to the sensuous side of fallen human nature; it is a proper and beautiful way of speaking, since it expresses the true relation and “consent” between creature and Creator, between the finite and the Infinite. (322)

We must remember, however, that Edwards was not using imagery simply for its emotional effectiveness. The very fact of extensive imagery in the Scriptures, the word of God, was proof of its essential relation to truth. Referring to the New Testament, Edwards tells us that “Christ often makes use of representations of spiritual things in the constitution of the world for argument, as thus: the tree is known by its fruit. These things are not merely mentioned as illustrations of his meaning, but as illustrations and evidences of the truth of what he says.” [8]

God communicates His will and understanding, i.e., His knowledge and love of Himself, though the created universe (by means of constant laws) to finite minds which, in the very act of receiving the communication, return it to God. Man is the instrument by which God’s internal Glory extant is returned to Himself, and man’s knowledge and love of God is simply a participation (in finite existence) of God’s knowledge and love of Himself. (323)

In view of all this it is not difficult to justify the famous spider analogy in Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” There is even a certain metaphysical beauty in the fearful pronouncement that the “God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked” (p.164). It must be remembered that Edwards is speaking here to the non-elect, that is, to men totally depraved in their nature. … The beauty here lies in the truth of the relation expressed and not in the spider or in the condition of the sinner. (324)

Since truth is the analogy between finite and Infinite Being, what could be more appropriate than metaphor or analogy in the order of words and human truth for treating the things of relation “according to their nature” and exhibiting them “truly.” (324)

The one and only cause of true knowledge, however, is a supernatural sense or light given immediately by God to the elect. But God, working through men, makes use of means such as Scriptures, sermons, science, and metaphorical language to convey the “matter” of true spiritual knowledge to the understanding of men, since things must be perceived before they can be loved. (324)

Medieval in origin, the doctrine of analogy finds nearly its last foothold in American Puritanism. Its presence there assures us that the Puritan mind was perfectly at home with figurative language, though certain ascetic elements worked to make the Puritan writers interpret the doctrine more narrowly than writers in the Catholic tradition. Avoiding the baroque and the extraordinary, the Puritan drew his figures from simple nature and ordinary human experience. As Cady observes, Edwards abounds in images of weight and pressure, of suspension, of heat and fire, of cold and ice, of slipperiness and sliding, of rulers and the ruled, and of everyday relations among men. There is no strain in the use of these images; the doctrines of analogy makes them right and inevitable. And so it is with earlier Puritans. Such titles as Hooker’ “A True Sight of Sin” or Cotton’s “Wading in Grace” are neither dead metaphors (as the beginning of Hooker’s treatise makes clear) nor consciously figurative; the analogy of being makes them expressive of the “literal” truth. (324-325)


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