Old Dead Guys Notes #10: Jonathan Edwards

Notes #10– Jonathan Edwards

  1. Introduction
    1. 1705-1758
  1. A theologian who often brings very sharp responses, especially when only known from his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ which is not really very representative of his sermons or his theology.
  1. He is overwhelmingly considered the greatest theologian ever to live in America and many have said he is one of America’s greatest philosophers and also wrote one of the greatest works of religious psychology.  He clearly is one of America’s greatest intellectuals.
  1. The Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience has more references to him than to any other single person.
  1. Edwards has been extremely influential to many modern evangelical thinkers.  John Piper has regularly stressed his great indebtedness to Edwards.  Martin Lloyd–Jones encouraged everyone to get and read Edwards thoroughly.  R C Sproul, through his mentor John Gerstner, is an Edwards fan.
  1. There are several sides to Edwards.  He was a great thinker, but was also a pastor for 30 years and a great defender of the revival known as the 1st Great Awakening.
  1.  Often simply referred to as a Calvinist, he was a particular type of Calvinistic theologian, one who emphasized conversion and discerning what is genuine spirituality. Roger Olson says a distinctly American version of Reformed theology.
  1. He also had a very speculative side.  He would go for long walks or horseback rides in the woods and would carry little pieces of paper with him and a pencil and come back with them pinned all over his coat with thoughts that occurred to him. He would write them down in his notebooks– often called his Miscellanies— and flesh them out.  Many of these were highly speculative and would often attempt to explain some aspect of traditional Reformed theology in a new and highly unusual manner.  He rarely published those, but they show a fertile mind, and he did write a number of major treatises that broke new ground.  
  1.  Some of the new ground was highly contested by a number of orthodox Reformed theologians.  Some, such as the late John Gerstner, have tended to read Edwards through the lens of Reformed orthodoxy– Gerstner, a fan of 17 century Swiss theologian F. Turretin loved to remind everyone that Edwards called Turretin, the “great Turretin”– but Edwards speculated in a number of directions far afield from Turretin and other examples of classic Reformed theology.
  1.  Edwards left behind a mixed legacy among his direct followers. Some stayed fairly close to his unusual brand of Reformed theology, but others took his speculative bent and pulled it in some even more variant directions.
  1.  Among his modern followers, it is generally the evangelical, Reformed side of Edwards that they love and his defense of an evangelical, pro-revival theology and spirituality.  Many modern university scholars love the speculative side of Edwards.  The first modern biographer of Edwards was by Perry Miller, an atheist professor at Harvard in 1949, who loved Edwards for his intellectual genius.
  1. There have been conferences galore on Edwards– the first major one was at Wheaton College in 1984 and I was there.  Among the keynote addresses was atheist intellectual historian Bruce Kuklick of the University of Pennsylvania who said Edwards was the founder of the longest running philosophical school in America.  He later expanded that paper into a major book entitled Churchmen and Philosophers.
  1. Since then there have been scores of conferences and dozens of books of essays about Edwards.  Each decade the number of doctoral theses on Edwards in a wide variety of fields- theology, history, English, psychology, communications, philosophy- has doubled every decade. 
  1. There is a Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University which houses his manuscripts and Yale University Press has published 26 thick volumes of his work in hard copy and 79 total when the online works, mostly of his sermons, are included.  The key staff of that JE Center are mostly evangelicals.
  1. We have 1,200 of his sermons and thousands of pages of his philosophical and theological notes and handwritten notes on virtually every passage of the Bible. 
  1. There are several JE centers around the globe, including Australia and the one in Brussels, Belgium that is holding a conference in July of this year.
  1. Noted American Lutheran theologian, Robert Jenson, has written a book about Edwards entitled: America’s Theologian.
  1. His life
    1. Jonathan Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, the son of a Puritan minister.  He had 10 sisters, each of whom was 6 feet tall.  
  1. While much of his heritage on both sides was godly– his father and grandfather were ministers and one of his sons and grandsons were as well in addition to a number of other descendants– he was the grandfather of Aaron Burr who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel and one of his great aunts was convicted of infanticide and he had a great uncle who was an ax-murderer.
  1. As mentioned last week, the Puritan tradition was a branch of the Reformed tradition that emphasized practical godliness.  The particular type of Puritanism that JE was born into also tended to emphasize the experience of conversion as a living reality.
  1. He was a precocious, somewhat introverted child who wrote a quite detailed study of spiders as a youth and on the colors of the rainbow showing knowledge of the optics of Isaac Newton. 
  1. He experienced his own conversion as youth by meditating on 1 Timothy 1: 17: ‘now unto the King….”
  1. His mother was the daughter of Solomon Stoddard, the minister in Northampton in western Massachusetts for over 60 years and one of the most prominent ministers in colonial New England.  Stoddard was frequently referred to as “the pope” of the Connecticut Valley because of his strong influence.
  1.  He received a good classical education as a youth and entered Yale College at age 12, graduating with a BA and MA.
  1. During his time at Yale he studied intently the new intellectual movement coming out of the European Enlightenment, devouring the works of John Locke at one point. He said that he devoured Locke like a miser does discovering a stash of gold. 
  1. Defending Calvinistic theology in reference to Enlightenment thought would be a lifelong goal and many have claimed that he did this better than any other thinker.
  1. After a brief stint as a supply preacher in a Presbyterian church in New York City and a Congregational church in Connecticut, he served as a tutor at Yale for a few years and then was called to be an assistant pastor to his aging grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in Northampton, MA and would succeed his grandfather when he died.
  1. He married Sarah Pierpont at age 24 and they had 11 children together, 8 sons and daughters, all but one reaching adulthood.
  1. He lived under the shadow of his grandfather and his relationship with his parishioners was often rocky.
  1. He was not a natural orator and in his early ministry especially mostly read his sermons without much eye contact, but his words were eloquent.  He was very impressed with George Whitefield and tried to imitate him, but realized that he simply was a different personality. It did lead him to learn to preach more extemporaneously in his later ministry. 
  1. A revival broke out in 1734-35 and a large number professed conversion, but after the revival cooled,  one of his uncles committed suicide and several others in the congregation said that they heard voices urging them to do so as well and this further strained his relationship with the church.
  1. When the balcony of the church collapsed during service and several died, tension broke out over how to rebuild the church.  JE wanted seating according to age so that the elderly could hear;  many of the wealthy merchant members wanted seating according to social prestige.  He also wanted them to pledge to deal honestly in their business practices and not raise prices exorbitantly during times of shortages. 
  1. In 1739-40 another revival broke out with large scale professions of faith and a visit by noted evangelist George Whitefield, but that cooled down after a few years as well.
  1.  Edwards was not a people person– he explicitly told his congregation he would spend all of time in the study– and he wasn’t very adept at interpersonal relationships.  He botched the “bad book” controversy– a midwife’s manual was being passed around the young men as a kind of pornographic book and he called them out publically from the pulpit, including those who had only heard about it and had not actually seen it.
  1. He also tried to reverse his grandfather’s more open communion practice and replace it with a restricted communion for only those he had attested to being what he considered showing signs of true conversion.  He also protested against the shabby treatment of Native Americans which rankled some.  Even though JE was a slave holder and  defended slavery at one point, he clearly argued that all people, including Native Americans and African Americans were to be treated as those made in the image of God. 
  1. Matters came to a head and JE was dismissed by an overwhelming majority vote, although he stayed on for a year as pulpit supply before taking a call to mixed congregation of Native American Mohicans and rather troublesome English settlers in Stockbridge, MA– some of the descendants of this congregation are part of an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation near Green Bay, WI where the tribe later migrated to.  JE had to use a translator to preach to the Indians.
  1. This experience gave him a bad taste for Congregational church government and he expressed a desire to become a Presbyterian.
  1. JE spent 7 years there and wrote most of his major works of theology before taking a call to be president of the College of New Jersey, later renamed Princeton University.
  1. Shortly after arriving in 1757, he was vaccinated for smallpox to set a good example for the community, but it was botched and he caught the disease and died in early 1758 at the age of 54.  He suffered greatly before his death.
  1. Basics of his theology
  2. He, more than any other theologian, put beauty at the center of his theology.
  • He had very high views of the sovereignty and majesty of God and extolling the glory of God was extremely important to him, but he loved to speak of the beauty of holiness.  R Olson claims that no theologian in the history of the church had a higher view of God’s majesty, glory and power. 
  • He wrote in a number of areas, including defending the doctrine of original sin, putting his own unique spin on the doctrine and a classic work on the Freedom of the Will.
  • A particular rationalistic form of Arminianism that was creeping into New England greatly disturbed him and he wrote against it in several places.  He utilized some of the new philosophy of John Locke in his defense of Calvinism.
  • In the Freedom of the Will, he argued against both classic Arminianism and the new Deism of the Enlightenment, both of which were emphasizing libertarian ideas of free will.  JE argued that both were wrong in that there was no faculty of will, but instead the “will” was simply the person choosing and every act of choosing was always according to the strongest motive.
  •  Thus JE argued both for a type of “free will” and yet a kind of determinism as well.  The human always freely chooses according to the strongest motives, but the motives drive the will.
  • What was speculative about his formulation was that he didn’t allow for any secondary causation as classic Reformed theology had done and some of his writing seems to imply that not only was God the primary cause of all of the motives, but that he was continually recreating everything.  These speculations have been troublesome to many Reformed thinkers, even as some have said he brilliantly solved the issue of “free will.”  However, even his modern disciple, John Gerstner, admitted that JE’s answer to the origins of evil was not convincing.
  • JE also preached a long series on Justification by Faith and this sparked the first revival in Northampton.  Yet his own doctrine of justification is problematic to many in the Reformed tradition.
  1. The key sticking point is that he tends to equate faith and love.  Gerald McDermott, one of the leading JE scholars, says that JE really believes in justification by a godly, grace induced disposition which is the root of both faith and love.  McDermott says that JE is actually closer to Aquinas than the Reformers.  This has been noticed before and even those who have tried to salvage JE for the Reformation tradition have admitted that he speaks differently than Luther and Calvin.
  • He also thought a lot about prophetic speculation of a post-millennial type.  He preached very little about it, but his notebooks are full of speculations on prophetic texts linking them to contemporary events. 
  • He had an expanded sense of typology and believed that the physical world was full of types that pointed to Christ. 
  • He also speculated in his private notebooks– hundreds of pages according to G McDermott– a great deal about the possibility of those who have never heard of Christ possibly being saved because they had received grace and enough revelation that had trickled down to them from various sources to understand their sinful state and know their need for grace and mercy.  God had given them godly dispositions through grace.
  • He used Cornelius in the book of Acts as his prime example of this. 

IV. His most important theological contribution

  1. J I Packer says that it his theology of revival and many, i.e. G McDermott, have said that it is his notion of Religious Affections, but the 2 are intertwined.
  • The setting for this contribution was the critique of the revivals by some of the more staid ministers around Boston, especially in light of the excesses of a few, such as James Davenport in New Haven, who stripped down to his underwear in a frenzy while preaching.
  • JE both defended the revivals as true works of God in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741) and Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1742), but he fleshed out the theology underlying his discussion in what some have said is his greatest work: On Religious Affections.
  • In fact JE placed period revivals at the center of God’s redemptive plan for the ages and his post-millennial speculations led him to believe that the revivals of his time were precursors of the millennial age about to dawn.   He was involved in an international prayer movement to pray for further revivals. 
  • What JE meant by Affections was not emotions nor passions, but deep seated dispositions of the soul.  He said Satan loved to delude us with false religious affections.   Satan was trained in the best divinity school of the universe. 
  • Thus even all genuine religious awakenings will have stumbling blocks, false conversions, and oppositions in addition to genuine fruit.   Even those truly awakened may succumb to spiritual pride at having been awakened or fall to temptations to look for immediate works of God without the normal means of preaching and prayer.  
  • Yet revivals were genuine and immediate works of God.  We can pray and preach, but only God gives genuine revival 
  • Revivals were extraordinary works of God in which the unconverted or dull Christians were revived to have a new sense of God.  It is not primarily a restoration of orthodoxy, but may include that.  It is a deepening of experiential piety.   They were corporate affairs. 
  1. He often used the language of a taste or a relish of the divine sweetness or beauty of God which the truly regenerate sensed.    He used the phrase “inner sweetness” 55 times in 10 pages of his Personal Narrative. It has been likened to being overwhelmed by the beauty of a piece of music or art so that one loses or forgets oneself.
  • He said that faith and love flowed from these religious affections and they were the source of genuine godly spirituality.
  • Conversion was a transformation from self-love to “love of divine excellency.”
  • The regenerate saw the beauty of holiness while the unregenerate only saw holiness. 
  • He went through both genuine and not genuine signs of true religious affections.
  •  There 12 non-genuine 
    • The religious affections are very great, or raised very high.
    • They have great effects on the body
    • They cause those who have them, to be fluent, fervent and abundant, in talking of the things of religion
    • Persons did make ’em themselves, or excite ’em of their own contrivance, and by their own strength.
    • They come with texts of Scripture, remarkably brought to the mind.
    • There is an appearance of love in them.
    • Persons having religious affections of many kinds, accompanying one another, is not sufficient to determine whether they have any gracious affections or no
    • Comforts and joys seem to follow awakenings and convictions of conscience, in a certain order.
    • They dispose persons to spend much time in religion, and to be zealously engaged in the external duties of worship
    • They much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God
    • They make persons that have them, exceedingly confident that what they experience is divine, and that they are in a good estate.
    • The outward manifestations of them, and the relation persons give of them, are very affecting and pleasing to the truly godly, and such as greatly gain their charity, and win their hearts.
  • The genuine are
    • Arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural, and divine
    • Objectively grounded in the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves (and not in any conceived relation they bear to self or self-interest)
    • Primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine thing; a love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections.
    • Arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things.
    • Attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things.
    • Attended with evangelical humiliation (= a sense that a Christian has or his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart).
    • Attended with a change of nature.
    • Tend to, and are attended with, the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy, as appeared in Christ.
    • Soften the heart and are attended to and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit.
    • Have beautiful symmetry and proportion.
    • The higher gracious affections are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments increased.
    • Have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice.
  • JE elaborates on the 9th sign– i. Above– as fear of God
  • G McDermott says that when first read RA, it was like spiritual heart surgery and some of the anesthesia was wearing off– cf. the response to John Gerstner’s sermon on the Wise and Foolish Virgins. 
  • Gerry McDermott always warns readers of JE on RA of perfectionism and that JE was addressing an expression of cheap grace and antinomianism.   He had come to the conclusion that most of his congregation were hypocrites. 
  • Historian Harry Stout,  Yale University professor, head of the JE Center and general editor of the collected works of JE says that JE “brought people to the experiential edge without plunging them into enthusiasm.” 

V. What we can learn from Jonathan Edwards

  1. Not a head-heart distinction– he will have none of that.  He holds both together.
  1. However, in spite of some awkwardness in his treatise on the Freedom of the Will, he is a crucial reminder that there is not a faculty of “will’ that is disconnected from who we are as people.  Hence we need a change of who we are by grace in order to freely exercise our wills toward good.  In other words he points to the biblical stress that regeneration precedes faith. Without the new birth we can’t see the kingdom of God- John 3:3 and we are born of God, not of human will– John 1: 12.
  1. He is a reminder that genuine revival is clearly a divine gift, not something that we plan for, although we can long and pray for it, but also that with it will come strife contention, false conversions, etc, because Satan is at work as well.
  1. He reminds us that we need to be very discerning about what is genuine spirituality and what isn’t.  JE reminds us that much of what we often take as true conversion, can clearly be counterfeited by Satan.
  1. Even if JE sometimes seems to go overboard, self-examination is biblical– 2 Corinthians 13:5- and claims to be converted without biblical fruit at false claims. 
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