Jonathan Edwards, 18th century pastor and scholar, made two points about Romans 8:6—“To be spiritually minded is life and peace”—in his “Treatise on Grace” (Works, Yale ed., 21.178): “(1) That this divine principle in the heart is not called spiritual, because it has its seat in the soul or spiritual part of man, and not in his body. It is called spiritual, not because of its relation to the spirit of man, in which it is, but because of its relation to the Spirit of God, from which it is.”
And, “(2) It must be observed that where this holy divine principle of saving grace wrought in the mind is in Scripture called spiritual, what is intended by the expression is not merely nor chiefly that it is from the Spirit of God, but that it is of the nature of the Spirit of God.”
Let’s consider these two points, first by clarifying what he had in mind, and then by asking what his reflections might offer us in the 21st century.
The first point seems clear enough: the biblical expression “spiritual” speaks of having the Spirit actually present in a Christian. And with that it doesn’t fit some of today’s usages—as in saying that someone holds to an Eastern form of “spirituality”; or that an inwardly reflective person can be considered more spiritual than others. Edwards takes it, instead, to denote a person’s union with Christ that occurs when the Spirit is united with a believer’s spirit.
His second point needs a bit more context. In his broader discussion Edwards distinguishes the Spirit’s works in believers from the Spirit’s general works in humanity that aren’t a function of union—such as a conviction of sin, or “common grace, common illuminations and common affections.” In other words Edwards distinguishes the Spirit’s working presence in believers from the Spirit’s work in all humanity.
So, does this apply to us today?
Yes, indeed. For one, it demolishes the shared Modern and Post-modern sense that spirituality is something we humans generate, shape, and apply.
In the Modern era Rene Descartes believed that his exercise in radical skepticism and his axiomatic insight, cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”—treated human rationality as the canvas provided by the Spirit for humans to then explain all that exists. Baruch Spinoza quickly hijacked this Cartesian premise by concluding that all of Nature is divine and Spirit is the impersonal force within it. In each case God was dismissed as a reliable and personal communicator and the Spirit reduced to a shadowy presence.
Post-modernity—with its even more radical skepticism—pressed for a new level of spirituality by presuming that everyone is spiritual in wholly personal and unique ways, again without God’s voice in play. Thus each and every person has a right and responsibility to express a personal spirituality with a freedom that no one else can question. Privatized spirituality reigns as absolute.
Edwards may not have anticipated this full progression but he was alert to how important it is to get the Spirit-and-spirituality right. We must recognize that only God’s Spirit shapes true spirituality. Another “spirit”—not the Holy Spirit—works in the “sons of disobedience” as in Paul’s warning in Ephesians 2:1-3, but the true Spirit will, by contrast, be overt and obvious.
One application of Edwards for today comes in asking how the Bible expects us to be more spiritually minded. Is it our effort, or the Spirit’s inward transformation? If we take Edwards’ insights seriously we may want to dismiss projects in “spiritual formation” that rely on human duties rather than on the Spirit’s ministry. We would also challenge any promotions of privatized spirituality as literally misguided—as coming from another source than God.
What Edwards did identify as the evidence of our being spiritually minded is “a principle of divine love” (21.180). In his Treatise on Grace this divine love is represented as the outflow of the Father’s love for the Son. The Spirit expresses this love to and through believers as God’s “distinct personal agent”. This is his Spirit-to-spirit union, and the love of the truly spiritual believer is the signal that this union is present and active.
All this may be too much of an 18th century way of explaining things, but as we read the Bible ourselves I’m confident we’ll find that Edwards was very much on target. And with it we will enjoy Paul’s promise of life and peace.