Tag Archives: Jonathan Edwards

Who Should Treat Depression?

Depression -- "The Black Dog."

Depression — “The Black Dog.”

Clinical depression has been described as the common cold of mental illnesses.  At times in my ministry I have wondered:  who doesn’t suffer with depression or hasn’t at some point or other?  The more open we are about discussing it, the less stigma we attach to it, the more we discover how common this ailment is.  Unfortunately, its prevalence does not mitigate its pain.

The pain is not eased by those who see the ailment in a simplistic way as merely a spiritual problem with a spiritual cure.  Even today there are Reformed believers who want to maintain the old view that a spiritual issue is the root cause of most (maybe even all) depression.  This view insists that depression is directly caused by the sufferer’s sin and then the solution to depression rests in repentance.  According to this perspective, pastors, elders, and regular believers, should call depression-sufferers to determine the sin which caused their anguish and turn from it.

Thankfully, other voices have been bringing a more balanced view.  Among them is Dr. David Murray.  His excellent book Christians Get Depressed Too (review here) proceeds on the basis that depression is a complex phenomenon often involving biological and medical realities.  One might think that this is a contemporary approach, something only developed in the last few years.  However, Murray points out that a nuanced view of clinical depression has been around for hundreds of years.  William Perkins (1558-1602) recognized that depression requires medical treatment, and so did Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).

Perkins and Edwards were not alone.  I was recently paging through Peter Lewis’ The Genius of Puritanism.  In chapter 3 (“The Puritan in Private”), Lewis has a discussion of mental depression.  He notes that the Puritans distinguished spiritual depression (obviously caused by sin) from mental depression.  They used the term “melancholy” for the latter.  Lewis notes that Richard Baxter (1615-1691) and Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) both recognized melancholy as a medical phenomenon.  I want to focus for a moment on Brooks and what he writes about this in The Crown and Glory of Christianity (found in volume 4 of The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks).

Brooks was addressing the question of why some Christians seem to be hard pressed with sadness, sorry, and grief.  After all, shouldn’t Christians be joyful?  Part of Brooks’ answer was to note that some of these issues arise from our bodies and the way we were constituted.  Some people are constitutionally more inclined towards melancholy.  He adds a vivid description of it:

Now there is no greater enemy to holy joy and gladness than melancholy, for this pestilent humour will raise such strange passions and imaginations, it will raise such groundless griefs, and fears, and frights, and such senseless surmises and jealousies, as will easily damp a Christian’s joy, and mightily vex, perplex, trouble, and turmoil, daunt, and discourage a Christian’s spirit (page 260).

He further says that this inclination towards melancholy can be used by Satan to his advantage.  Moreover, it is a condition which afflicts both soul and body.  There is definitely a spiritual aspect to the experience of depression, according to Thomas Brooks.  In another book, he writes that this malady “tries the physician, grieves the minister, wounds relations, and makes sport for the Devil.”  This surely sounds familiar!

Also familiar is the cure of which Brooks writes.  He writes, “The cure of melancholy belongs rather to the physician than to the divine, to Galen than to Paul” (page 260).  By “divine” here, Brooks means “theologian” or “pastor.”  Galen (129-200 or 216) was one of the ancient pioneers of medical science.  In our terms, Brooks was saying that depression needs to be treated by doctors, rather than by ministers.  Certainly he would agree that ministers must be involved and can provide spiritual guidance as treatment is sought and provided, but at its roots this is a medical problem to be addressed by medical science.  Did I mention that this was written in 1662?  Yes, in those times they had a far different understanding of medical science, yet they were not averse to pinning a mood disorder on a biological cause.

If you were to encounter a brother or sister suffering from a brain tumour, you would encourage them rather than admonish them to examine themselves for the sin which caused their condition.  Of course, we hold each other accountable for how we respond to medical ailments.  Every Christian is responsible for how they respond to adversity in whatever form.  Clinical depression should be dealt with in the same way.  Those suffering from it need medical treatment — and Christian encouragement from office bearers and regular church members.  In so doing, we reflect the heart and compassion of our Saviour Jesus.

Why Saints Love the Gospel

I’m not writing a full review of this book.  It’s a mixed bag.  There’s some good stuff on these eleven theologians, but McDermott also has some lapses in judgment.  One of the most disturbing is his position that the Reformation was unnecessary.  The best chapter is the one on Jonathan Edwards, which is not surprising since McDermott has done a lot of work on him.  I took note of this paragraph particularly:

Edwards suggests that this is why saints love the gospel — because, at least in part, of its holiness.  The good news (the literal meaning of gospel) is that a holy God joins an unholy people to himself, confers on them Jesus’ own holiness so that in the Father’s eyes they are holy, and then gradually makes them actually holy by the power of his Holy Spirit.  This is the mind-boggling happy news of the gospel.  (126)

And because of this gospel, we’re destined for the presence of God, which is beautiful and wonderful because it is a place of holiness (125).

Pride is the Worst Viper (Edwards)

“Remember that pride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building…[it is the sin] most difficultly rooted out, and is the most hidden, secret, and deceitful of all lusts, and often creeps  in, insensibly, into the midst of religion and sometimes under the disguise of humility.”

Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 225.

A Great Summer!

Today is my first day back after a few weeks of summer vacation — and it was a good one.  Our family spent a few weeks away in Nova Scotia.  What a quiet, beautiful part of Canada!  Then I spent a weekend in Edmonton for my 20 year class reunion.  That was also an enjoyable time.

Over my vacation, I did some reading.  George Marsden’s epic biography of Jonathan Edwards was remarkable.  I loved it.  I think it’s time to start reading some Edwards.  I also started reading John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version.  Unfortunately, it soon degenerated into pornographic smut and so I didn’t finish it.  Not recommended.  Much better was David Gessner’s Soaring with Fidel.  I enjoy birding and I love reading travelogues and this book deftly combines the two.

I also watched The Geneva Reformer: John Calvin.  I was hoping to be able to use this with one of my catechism classes this coming year.  What a disappointment!  If I were to show this to my catechism students, I would likely turn them off from church history forever.  There are not only concerns about the presentation style, but also the content.  The presenter, Dr. Gary Crampton, used to be a Presbyterian pastor, but turned Baptist some years ago.  Hence, we hear that the London Baptist Confession of 1689 is “a solidly biblical confession.”  I don’t think Calvin would agree.  Anyway, if you’re ever tempted to pick this one up, take my advice and pass on it.  It’s not worth it.