I’ve had the privilege of spending this week reading multiple works by Jonathan Edwards and one work about him—Jonathan Edwards: A Life, by George M. Marsden. I was able to do this because I’m granted two weeks per year for “study leave,” for which I’m truly grateful. I chose to read Edwards because his legacy is so enduring, yet my exposure to and knowledge of his work was practically nil. And if you get one week to really study something, and you’re a pastor in the Reformed tradition, why not study Edwards?
So I did and wanted to pass along a few things that surprised and intrigued me, as well as share some quotes that really struck me. In addition to Marsden’s biography, my reading was limited to selected sermons from 1731-1737, as well as sections from, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and from his sermons on 1 Corinthians 13, Charity and Its Fruits.
One note of caution: spending a week with Edwards qualifies me to say approximately nothing of depth—so if you’re an Edwards' scholar and want to help correct or supplement some of these thoughts, please do.
Something for Every Evangelical
The most surprising thing about Edwards’s theology and practice, to me, was that he was such an interesting hybrid of what are now, often separate evangelical streams. To put it bluntly, he seems like a Charismatic-Dispensationalist-Presbybaptist-Calvinist. Allow me to explain.
Charismatic: Edwards was a vital participant in two revivals. The first was in his own church and town of Northamption in 1734-1735. The town had a population of about 1,200 people, and virtually everyone was a member of the church he pastored. He frequently preached for the conversion of his congregation because he believed that many lacked a real heart conversion, and he rejoiced when revival came through his ministry, and then again in 1741-1742 through the wider movement we call ‘The Great Awakening.’
These revivals, happening in his own church and to his own wife, were often characterized by people being “slain in the Spirit,” having trance-like visions given by God, crying out and even screaming during sermons about the immediacy and horrors of hell should they not repent, and other similar outward signs. And although Edwards knew, after the first revival, that these signs and the confessions of faith that accompanied them sometimes came to nothing, and were just faddish responses—others were not. So, he was often defending the ecstatic experiences that accompanied these revivals and sought to move people to them in his own preaching. He believed that we ought to be moved in our hearts, emotions, minds and souls by the glories of Jesus Christ and the horrors of our own wickedness, because Scripture itself gives account of intense personal response to visions of God and conviction of sin. However, what I also found interesting was that although he defended what we’d typically call charismatic experiences and revivals, he never defended the renewal of what we now call charismatic gifts.
Dispensationalist: This point shows not just my ignorance of Edwards, but of most theologians of his day. Edwards kept many journals and wrote many letters trying to discern how the politics and battles of the 1730s-17450s, fit into the prophecies given in the book of Revelation. He saw Franch and the Catholic church, like most Protestants did, as the Anti-Christ—the Babylon of Revelation, and joyfully tracked in one of his many journals the losses sustained by the Catholic Church and/or France as evidence that the Beast was falling. I must admit, I found this rather shocking; probably because I’m what is called an amillenialist and Edwards was a millenialist. Throughout his life, he found reasons to see the glimmering early dawn of the thousand-year reign of Jesus, where the Kingdom of Christ would be globally and literally experienced on Earth, and communicated his thoughts to others in letters and sermons. He saw these glimmerings when the New Englanders captured Fort Louisbourg, just as much as when Whitefield and Tennent "captured" New England. Along with his views on the millennium, was a belief that trouble in Northhampton, or colonial Massachusetts, meant that God was directly and specifically punishing them for lack of godliness and true repentance. The intertwinedness of God’s sovereignty, the prophecies of Revelation and the news of his day reminded me of the “maps” of the end times that tended to be popular in Dispensational circles (at least, to my knowledge), where teachers and writers seek to connect specific moments in history to specific prophecies in Revelation.
Presbybaptist: That's not a word? It should be. He struck me as Presbyterian in the way he often did not want to make major decisions without the approval and council of other ministers, including his decision to leave Stockbridge and become the short-lived President of what is now Princeton University. However, I’m not aware that he actually pastored alongside other elected elders. Obviously, he practiced infant Baptism—but although he inherited a church that had essentially open communion within the town (where nearly everyone was baptized)—his own thinking, which ultimately led to his ouster in Northhampton, was that this was unbiblical, and each communing member should be able to give a credible confession of godliness in their own life. He also seemed to have a more Baptistic style of warning his congregation about their sins and vices, and stressing how they must be truly repentant and be born again to have any hope of heaven. (This is obviously very subjective, so I'm not trying to make any significant ecclesiastical points, here.) I don’t know much about Edwards’ actual ecclesiastical tradition, except that it seemed inherited from early Puritanism where church and town were deeply blended in leadership and membership—and he was a a Congregationalist. I do know that his salary at Northhampton was paid for by the taxes collected in his parish, in keeping with the times. He also couldn’t simply be voted out of the church by the church members, without a trial that included neighboring ministers.
Calvinist: This was about all I knew when I started the week! I knew Edwards was a Calvinist. He believed in the Sovereignty of God, the totality of human depravity and the absolute necessity of God’s grace to give us saving faith, light and understanding. He defended these doctrines and taught them to his church constantly. He was “New Light” in his pro-awakening stance, and Calvinist in his doctrines of grace. Unfortunately, I did not get to his, Freedom of the Will this week, but would like to now read it.
It’s possible I misread things or misunderstood them over the course of this week but these points seemed so recurring that I think I generally got them right. The result?
I felt challenged at times by the ease with which I disconnect modern-day events from the hand and plan of God. I felt challenged at times that I’m quick to judge people who attest to more emotional and ecstatic experiences of the Holy Spirit. I felt enlightened in encountering someone who has thought much more deeply than I on what the real evidences are—as best as we can see them—of actual conversion in a human heart. And finally, I felt inspired to desire more of God for myself, to believe that more immediate encounters with God are possible—not making them the end-all, be-all of faith—but also not shying away from seeking the presence of the Spirit, through cherishing and meditating on the love of Jesus Christ and God the Father for me. Finally, I highly recommend the biography and am grateful for Marsden’s work.
A Few Collected Quotes from Various Sermons (All page numbers are from the Yale volumes.)
Also, although I didn’t quote it, the sermon, All the Grace of Charity Connected, is amazing. Read it!
Sermon: Practical Atheism
p 51, “Man is prone to infidelity and to catch at arguments for it.”
p. 54, “So if men were not in a considerable measure atheists, it would be utterly impossible that they should go and live so peaceably and quietly in every wickedness and commit sin so boldly as they do under such warnings as they have.”
Sermon: The Pure in Heart Blessed
p. 63, “We are so accustomed and habituated to depend upon our senses, and our intellectual powers are so neglected and disused, that we are ready to conceive that seeing things with the bodily eye is the most perfect way of apprehending them. But it is not so; the eye of the soul is vastly nobler than the eye of the body.”
p. 64, “There must be a direct and immediate sense of God’s glory and excellency.”
On why seeing God is what makes the soul truly happy…
p. 66, “Fourth, it is satisfying because the fountain that supplies it is equal to men’s desires and capacity. Fifth, and lastly, it hath an unfailing foundation.”
p. 67, “The love of so glorious a Being is infinitely valuable, and the discoveries of it are capable of ravishing the soul above all other loves.”
p. 68, “If a man enjoys pleasure and lives in it, how much soever he may be taken with what he enjoys, if he be never the better for his pleasure, if he be not the more excellent for it, it is a certain sign that he is not a truly happy man.”
p. 71, “When once the saints are come into God’s presence, tears shall be wiped from their eyes and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Rev 21:4)
p. 71, “Sin can’t remain in the heart that thus beholds God, for sin is a principle of enmity against God; but there can be no enmity remain in one that after this manner sees God’s glory.”
p. 85, “We must not think to excuse ourselves by saying that it is God’s work, that we cannot purify our own hearts; for though it be God’s work in one sense, yet it is equally our work in another. James 4:8, ‘Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double-minded.’”
Sermon: A Divine and Supernatural Light (Matthew 16:17)
p. 411, “The Holy Spirit operates in the minds of the godly, by uniting himself to them, and living in them, and exerting his nature in the exercise of their faculties.”
p. 413, “He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He doesn’t merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.”
Sermon: Perpetuity and Change Of The Sabbath
p. 233, “We read in Scripture of two creations, the old and the new, and these words of the fourth commandment are to be taken as of the same force to those that belong to the new creation, with respect to that new creation, as they were to them that belonged to the old creation, with respect to that old creation. We read that God in the beginning “created the heavens and the earth”, and the church of old was to commemorate that. But when God creates “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1), those that belong to that new heaven and new earth by a like reason are to commemorate the creation of their heaven and earth.”
p. 233, “The gospel state is everywhere spoken of as a renewed state of things, wherein “old things are done away and all things are become new.” (2 Cor 5:17); we are said to be created anew in Christ Jesus. All things are restored and reconciled whether in heaven or in earth, and God has “caused the light to shine out of darkness” (2 Cor 4:6), as he did at the beginning … Now we that belong to the gospel church belong to the new creation.”
p. 235, “Let us understand this which way we will, it will not be well consistent with the keeping one day in seven in the gospel church principally for the remembering and calling to mind the old creation.”
Sermon: Self-Examination and The Lord’s Supper
p. 264, “They partook after such a manner as to make void the ordinance.” v 20-21
p. 265, Our fitness to take the supper is “not that of desert or undeserving.” Also, “A man having so much sin in his heart that he can no other than attend the Lord’s Supper in a very defective manner is not the unfitness we speak of.”
p. 267, “All may confess that in this respect (sinfulness) they are unworthy of an attendance on the Lord’s Supper; and when they have partook that they have partook in a very unworthy manner.”
Given that, what are we to examine for, if we all come unfit? We are to examine for…
p. 267, “Whether or not he lives in any known sin.”
p. 268, “Persons ought to examine whether or not it be their serious resolution to avoid all sins and live in obedience to all known commands as long as he lives.”
p. 268, “Persons should particularly examine themselves before they come to the Lord’s Supper whether or not they don’t entertain a spirit of hatred or envy or revenge towards their neighbor.”
p. 272, “But the end of the examination is that you may amend before you come.”