THEO353 - Church History
Dr. Heather Ackley
November 6, 2002
The True Jonathan Edwards
There are not many American historians that will argue Jonathan Edwards' importance in American history. Nor will there be too many theologians who will not at least respect the influence Edwards had over his eighteenth century audience. However, what comes into question when studying Edwards's methods is the appropriateness of his style and his theological conclusion about God. Over the two centuries since Edwards began his famous ministry, he has received criticism from everyone, famous authors to renowned theologians. The problem most of his critics have with him lies in his philosophy of ministry. Simply put, as will be described later, they did not doubt his effectiveness in reaching people but disagreed with the tactics by which he brought people closer to God. At first, it seems odd that anything could be criticized if it is effective in bringing people closer to God. However, when looked at more closely, Edwards' methods might be compared to those of a car dealer who found out one of his best salesmen was lying about cars in order to sell more. Despite the critique of Edwards' methodology, ultimately Edwards was a great combination of two things: intellectualism and piety. This of course seems threatening to many because most people do not contain the ability to succeed in both. Many preachers, both today and during Edwards's time, were capable of demonstrating piety in their lives and so inspiring their congregations; however, they did it solely out of emotion. By contrast, there were many great scholars during Edwards' time as well, but their motivation was rooted in pride. Mixing both a great intellectual understanding of the work of God and having a true desire to seek righteousness just opened the door to boisterous critique from peers and scholars. Whatever the critique, it does not change one simple detail: Edwards was right. Not only was Jonathan Edwards a great theologian, but his philosophy of ministry inspired the nation to experience a God-centered awakening, which rapidly and abundantly brought people to a closer relationship with God.
It was Mark Twain who commented that Edwards must have been a "drunken lunatic." He continues by commenting that he was also a "resplendent intellect gone mad - a marvelous spectacleÉBy God I was ashamed to be in such company."
Twain was not the only one however that felt this way. Perry Miller, probably Edwards' biggest critic, claimed that the Great Awakening marked a shift from the will of God to that of the nature of man. According to Miller, Edwards was the key figure who aroused a nation to leave the will of God and seek their own futile attempts of bringing salvation.
The only problem with this
conclusion is that Edwards himself acknowledges his intentions and purpose in
ministry. He felt his role was to call his fellow New Englanders to conversion
by rationally presenting the moral and spiritual reality of the gospel. He
concluded that when this was done correctly, those who followed in conversion
would accept and follow essential Christian Doctrine.
He later writes that the chief role of ministers was "to be the instruments of leading souls to the God of all consolationÉthey are sent as ChristÉ.to preach good tidings to the meek, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captivesÉand to comfort all that mourn."
Jonathan Edwards' first exposure to ministry was growing up in the parsonage where his father Timothy held a pastorate in a church in East Windsor, Connecticut.
Not only did he witness the success and effects of ministry from his family, but he also grew up under the great instruction of Solomon Stoddard, a renowned pastor and theologian who just happened to be Edwards' grandfather. It was under the guidance of this apprenticeship where Edwards received instruction for two years on the methods of ministry. Then, in 1729, he became the sole pastor in his grandfather's North Hampton church.
However, by 1729, Edwards had long been prepared in practicality and theology. He graduated from Yale in 1722 with a master's degree (only being nineteen years old).
It was two years before his graduation date, though, when he had his most important event of revelation. Edwards himself said that, "From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God's sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell."
Because of this event, he later developed a mentality that saw all things in life pointing to the sovereignty of God. He writes, "God's excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water and all natures; which use greatly to fix my mind."
Although he grew up Puritan, it was not until this revelation that he truly accepted the Calvinist interpretation of Christianity. It was Edwards' understanding that it was definitely God's election as far as who was and was not saved. However, he was adamant about the fact that it was up to pastors to preach on the "gravity of sin and the necessity of the heart turning to God." If pastors were not capable of doing this, they had failed their job.
held the pastorate in his church in North Hampton for nearly twenty-three
years. It was not until a controversy over church membership in 1750 that
Edwards found himself forced from his church.
This was after the mass amount of conversions in the spring of 1735; one source says as many as thirty people a week were following Edwards' pleas to repent and turn to God.
Also, Edwards' influence brought the great George Whitefield from England to preach to the masses in New England during what is now labeled the Great Awakening.
However, being forced from his
church in 1750 allowed Edwards to pursue a passion that had been brewing in him
since early in his ministry: missions.
The critics did not
leave Edwards alone after he left the pulpit. Some have criticized Edwards as
solely looking for a quiet place to reflect and concentrate on his writing when
he turned to the mission field. These critics claim that he had absolutely no
interest in ministering to Indians.
This criticism, like the criticism about his preaching, simply was not an accurate interpretation of Edwards's actions. In the same year in which Edwards began his series of great revival sermons (1734), he also involved himself in a new missionary venture to the Native Americans in the area.
Both during his pastorate position
and from the mission field, Edwards rebuked his fellow New Englanders for
believing that the Great Commission had been fulfilled by the Apostolic Fathers
and therefore was not binding them to any form of ministry to Native Americans.
He even went as far as saying that the "white-man" was in sin for not realizing the mission field in which God had placed in front of him. For Edwards, this also included standing for the rights of Indians and proclaiming the white men were wrong in their taking of the land.
matter where Edwards went, he could not escape the fact that people continued
to dislike his mixture of intellectualism and piety.
The problem with most of Edwards' critics was that they did not have a full knowledge of the setting in which Edwards preached, nor did they truly understand the well-roundedness of Edwards' ministry. This is no more evident than in the comment made by Oliver Wendel Holmes in 1880, nearly a century and a half after Edward's ministry:
Edwards's system seems in light of today, to the last degree barbaric, mechanical, materialistic, pessimistic. If he had lived a hundred years later, and breathed the air of freedom, he could not have written with such old-world barbarismÉThe truth is that [his] whole system of beliefsÉis gently fading out of enlightened human intelligence, and we are hardly a condition to realize what a tyranny it once exerted over many of the strongest needs.
Holmes' quote perfectly illustrates two main problems with most, if not all, of Edwards' critics: lack of understanding of the time and lack of understanding of intelligence. Holmes himself says, "if he had live a hundred years later." The problem is that Edwards did not live a hundred years later, nor did God want him to live a hundred years later. Edwards never "breathed the air of freedom," as Holmes understood it, nor did Edwards minister to people who had breathed this "free air." It is one thing to critique a theologian on his theological positions when truly understanding how he relates to other theologians at the time. But to honestly hold a theologian accountable for not understanding theology in light of later American ideals and expounded intellectualism is ridiculous. The simple truth is that Edwards knew two things: the Bible and his society. To say that Edwards was stuck in "old-world barbarism" and was therefore wrong is absurd. Holmes might as well critique the Apostle Paul for being "barbaric, mechanical, and pessimistic" for making his statements about women in Timothy (given the fact Paul may or may not have written the text). Although some makes this critique, it is relatively prejudice, especially given Paul's society. The simple truth is that just like Paul, Jonathan Edwards spoke truth into a society that needed God's direction and guidance. Also like Paul, just because Edwards may seem barbaric does not change the fact that there is solid theology behind his positions. Although they may need a little adapting for current society, it does not mean that they cannot be incredibly useful in understanding God's will for the modern day.
observation about the critique and praise of Jonathan Edwards is that seemingly
competent theologians are taking similar issues and siding completely on
opposite sides. As noted earlier in the essay, Perry Miller blatantly accuses
Edwards for taking a God-centered society and turning it into a man-centered
agenda. However, twenty-first century scholar John Piper takes the exact
opposite stance, which says that Edwards had a God-centered vision of
The problem again in Miller's observation is a poor understanding of the context in which Edwards' preached. Before Edwards, it had been the Puritan dream to establish a colony that was truly centered on God. The state of Massachusetts had been settled in 1630 with a desire to establish a society solely based upon the Bible. This would then serve as an example to the rest of the world (especially England) to follow. It was the desire of these early Puritan Pilgrims to establish a city on a hill that would not be hidden from the world. The problem was that, over the next one hundred years, the colony grew quite prosperous and quickly lost its religious fervor. By the time Jonathan Edwards entered into ministry, the Massachusetts colony had potentially strayed as far away from God as their original forefathers in England had.
In light of this, it would be hard
to truly say that Edwards took a society away
from God-centeredness and brought it to man-centeredness. It is these
facts that indicate John Piper has a much better observation of the work of
Both professional and lay theologians critique Edwards on his style of preaching. He is usually understood to be a hellfire, revivalist preacher who, like today's evangelists, used scare tactics to draw people "closer to God." However, these critiques could not be further from the truth. The reason for the error is because of the fame Edwards' sermon entitled Sinners in the
Hands of an Angry God
It does not seem evident that Edwards ever intended this to be his most famous sermon. Given the fact, however, that this sermon has become as well known as it has, it is easy to see how someone could erroneously misunderstand Edwards. The simple truth was Edwards was as far from an emotional preacher as anyone. He preached with such dispassion that one observer commented, "He scarcely gestured or even moved, and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style or the beauty of his pictures to gratify the taste and fascinate the imagination."
Edwards did not appeal to emotion or scare tactics. It is true that he was
not afraid to preach the truth, and sometimes that called for sermons like Sinners
in the Hands of an Angry God
. However, his sermon library included just as many on God's grace and mercy. These sermons had just as much convicting spirit as damnation sermons. Conrad Cherry observes:
In a sermon on the peace to be found in Christ, Edwards meditated on the tranquil, delicate light of day which is nonetheless brilliant and searching enough to lead one to see things as they really are - the kind of light which torments those who prefer the darkness of evil.
With a better understanding
of the broad bank of sermons Edwards preached, it is easier to see the true
style and demeanor in which they were preached.
Edwards' critics are blatantly and ignorantly wrong in their assessment of his work. The research involved in studying someone as complex as Jonathan Edwards shed a lot of light onto a great theologian and communicator. It is evident when looking at Edwards' sermons such as Sinners in the Hands of Angry God
, The Justice of God in the Damnation of
, and Pressing into the
Kingdom of God
that he rooted himself in
biblical truth. In all three of those sermons, he sets the examples of saying
very little with out having a biblical example to support his words. It seems
evident that Edwards understood that his words meant nothing, and it was up to
the Word of God to do that talking.
Not only are these sermons bathed in scriptural references, it seems that Edwards did not have his "favorite" books to pull from. This means he did not neglect the Old Testament. Preparing sermons in this way makes it hard for any critic to be able to offer any vague opinions.
There were four areas in which Edwards's contributions to American Christianity had a profound effect. Because of this and the strong scriptural basis for his work, it is hard for this writer to disagree with his effectiveness in communicating the true word of God. The first element which Edwards brought out by his excellent ministry skills involves what sprung out of the Great Awakening: doctrinal correctness and vital piety.
There are, sadly, too few preachers who are able to claim they balance these two vital aspects: preaching and witnessing God's word.
area in which Edwards contributed to American theology was his devotion and
enthusiasm to missions.
It is one thing to claim spiritual
truth, but if it is not actively being lived out in the daily communication of
the gospel to those who do not know it, how can one truly be taken seriously
when preaching on the topic?
The third interesting development out of Edwards' style was a new ecumenical method within the evangelical movement. He strongly supported united "concert of prayers," which called upon God in mission opportunities.
The unity Edwards wanted between Christians, and the desire to share that unity with the world, indicates that his heart was in the right place when he ministered to the "sinners" of the world.
Finally, Edwards' contribution in requiring a serious understanding when committing one's life to Jesus Christ by making church membership a grave issue cannot be overlooked.
Edwards was not simply a man who was concerned with converting mass numbers of people to the cause of Christ. It seems that, unlike many evangelists of today's time, Edwards was serious enough about his faith and his role in bringing people to Christ that he did not take it lightly. An ineffective preacher would have only preached "soft" messages of God's love that probably would have portrayed God as a lonely deity just waiting for people to come to Him. On top of soft messages, he would make it really easy for anyone who so desired to become a member of the church. However, Edwards does not seem to operate like that. It is clear by the truth in his preaching and strict membership requirements that it is not about the numbers, but about the seriousness of the decision made regarding the souls of fellow humans.
Overall, the research done on Jonathan Edwards yielded nothing less than a great example, which any honest minister of God's word should observe. The model set forth by Edwards will long inspire many current and future pastors. The only question that is raised so far from this research is why all of the good pastors seemingly get kicked out of their churches? In a somewhat humorous manner, it provides little hope for young aspiring pastors who see that if they want to be liked then they need not be good, and if they want to be good, they should not expect to be liked.
As far as Edwards' relationship to today's society is concerned, the simple truth is that, although not perfect, Edwards sets an excellent example for biblical hermeneutics that would do any preacher a lot of good to adapt. Mark Noll makes the point that "beyond Edwards, Berkely and Malebranche, there were not many - Roman Catholic, state-church Protestant or revivalist evangelical - who resisted the tide of the time that was putting human nature at the center of things."
The ironic thing is that after the Great Awakening, a relatively high amount of time in which America actively pursued the will of God, society is back to the society Noll speaks about. How many of today's preachers could take a model like Jonathan Edwards and speak abundant truth into people's lives by adapting his philosophy and method of ministry? There may be no greater need amongst preachers and teachers of today to rise up and follow Edwards in style. This society is crying for someone not to entertain them with funny stories and illustrations in sermons, but rather to bring depth, honesty, and truth. It seems to be a rather simple approach to preaching ministry, but simplicity does not seem to yield popularity.
The greatest American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, must be understood as an excellent example of balance between piety and intellectualism. He enabled a nation to return to a God-centered message in a manner that could speak truth into the lives of people today, just as it did in the eighteenth century. Critics of his style simply lack understanding of the time period, the well-roundedness of Edwards's preaching, and the simple biblical truths in which Edwards preached on. A return to Edwards-style ministering could do a congregation, as well as a nation, a great deal of good.
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