Christian History and Christian Hedonism: Did Edwards Read Ursinus

One of the critiques of John Piper’s “Christian Hedonism” is that it is novel. In particular, some have argued that Piper’s emphasis on enjoying the deity deviates from, or at least was unknown to, the Reformed Catechisms and Confessions. For example, in Desiring God Piper tries to counter (and does so successfully in my opinion) the claim by Richard Mouw that Christian Hedonism does not square with the opening lines of the Heidelberg Catechism (pp. 21-22). Others are wary of Christian Hedonism because it seems to put too much emphasis on subjective religious experience, an emphasis, it is said, which owes more to the Great Awakening than to the theology of the Reformers.

On this latter point, a comparison between Jonathan Edwards and Zacharias Ursinus (author of the Heidelberg Catechism) is instructive. Here’s Edwards in his sermon A Divine and Supernatural Light on the rational and  the experiential nature of faith:

He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He don’t merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing; but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness. There is not only a speculative judging that God is gracious, but a sense how amiable God is upon that account; or a sense of the beauty of this divine attribute. (127)

Later, in distinguishing between a notional understanding of God and a “sense of the heart” Edwards remarks, “There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can’t have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind” (127-28). These are well known passages to anyone who has listened to Piper over the years.

What is less well known is that Ursinus speaks in the same way. I even wonder if Edwards at some point read the 16th century reformer’s Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Here’s Ursinus, in Edwardsian fashion, explaining the nature of justifying faith:

No man, however, truly knows what justifying faith is, except he who believes, or possesses it; as he, who never saw or tasted honey, knows nothing of its quality or taste, although you may tell him many things of the sweetness of honey. But the man who truly believes, experiences these things in himself, and is able, also, to explain them to others. (111)

Ursinus goes on to argue that with genuine faith, “Joy arises in the heart, in view of such benefits, which joy is accompanied with a peace of conscience that passes all understanding.” Indeed, “He who truly believes, experiences all these things in himself; and he who experiences these things himself, truly believes” (111).

All of this may strike you as quire unremarkable. But it is a good reminder that the experiential nature of faith, the spiritual mark of delight in God, and the expectation of pervasive joy are not the inventions of John Piper. Nor are they owing only to the influence of Edwards and the Great Awakening. They go back to the Reformers themselves.

Who knows? Maybe Edwards read Ursinus.