Review: The Theology of Jonathan Edwards

theology_jonathan_edwardsOn October 05, 1703, a light came on in East Windsor, Connecticut. Jonathan Edwards was born into a family with a ministerial legacy which the young Edwards would carry on with resounding force. Born the only male in the midst of ten siblings, Edwards would go on to become, arguably, the greatest theologian America would produce. Thrust into the midst of a congregation, whose communion practice would later become a point of contention between Edwards and his grandfather Solomon Stoddard, Edwards began to see early on a kind of first fruits which would be a shadow of what his own ministry would become.

As a homeschooled youth, Edwards was schooled in a classical way which included the study of ancient languages, Roman-Greco classics, and Reformed theology. A truly gifted youth, Latin became a second language to him at the age of six, and by the age of twelve he was reading in Greek with a working knowledge of Hebrew. One month shy of thirteen, Edwards would head off to Connecticut Collegiate School (which later became Yale) and matriculated at the ripe old age of sixteen. The usual course of study consisted of grammar, rhetoric, logic, ancient history, metaphysics, and ethics. On top of these, studies in Calvin, Owen, and a complete memorization of Marrow of Theology, from the Puritan Ames, was required.

After graduating at the top of his class and being Valedictorian, Edwards pursued graduate studies for two years at Yale. Promptly after completing his studies Edwards entered the pulpit and began to write treatises and diary entries which would end up filling more than fifty volumes. As a preacher in an English Presbyterian congregation in New York, Edwards began his Miscellanies, a theological notebook he kept which would one day be composed of more than one million words.  At 19, Edwards began to recast his idea of Calvinism against the growing Arminianism and deism of his day. It is during this time which he accepted a position at Yale, which we would call the President today, and began to oppose a crypto-Catholic Arminian heresy which he saw taking place at Yale.

In 1734 the first inkling of revival broke out after Edwards preached two sermons on justification by faith. The authors point out that Edwards went further than the early reformers on this idea. They note that, “He declaimed against, on one hand, thinking that our works save us, and on the other, thinking that ‘good works [are] not necessary to salvation’. In other words, he opposed Pelagians (who say unaided free will can keep God’s commandments) and Arminians (who believe God waits for us to take the initiative in salvation and sanctification) on the one hand, and Antinomians (literally, ‘against the law’) on the other. Here is where, in my thinking, the highlights of Edwards’ life shine through.

One cannot think of Edwards without thinking of the revival which he found himself in the midst of, whether that meant good or bad things for him. Edwards oversaw awakenings, both among the colonies on the eastern shoreline, and in a broader sense when his writings went international. He wrote extensively on the subject of revival, engaging the revivalists both theologically and practically as a pastor. His revival writings include; Faithful Narrative of a Surprising work of God (1737), The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival (1743), Religious Affections (1746), and Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer (1748).

In this section on Edwards’ theology of revival and a section at the beginning of Part Three, the authors make an interesting correlation between the revivals of John Wesley in Europe and the experience of Edwards in the colonies. As a middleman, George Whitfield would preach revival sermons in both countries with amazing results. Somewhat of a catalyst, Whitefield would visit both parties as a friend even though the trifecta had differing revival theology. Whitfield, a strong Calvinist, would speak against the excessive compulsions which the revival preaching would have on the physical body upon hearing the preached word of both Wesley and Edwards. While Edwards found himself on the side of Whitfield, to a point, he did find himself agreeing with Wesley on some aspects of the revival. It is interesting to note that when the Pentecost/Charismatic revivals broke out in 1900, they quoted from Wesley, a self-avowed Arminian, extensively and largely left the Calvinist-leaning Edwards out of the     equation altogether.

There are many other areas of Edwards theology which the authors tough on and to tackle the entire corpus of Edwards work would be an inexhaustible text. This volume does an excellent job of drawing upon Edwards theology with unbiased research and clear writing. For me the meat is found in Edwards revival theology and the legacy that left on his disciples like Samuel Hopkins, though later Hopkins would divert strongly from the original trajectory of Edwardsean thought. This tome on Edwards will serve as an excellent starting point for those seeking an introductory work on his context and the events that shaped his thinking.

At the end of the section on revival the authors make the point that after a, “Retrospect of three centuries, the transatlantic revivals of the 1730’s and 1740’s—with Edwards as their leading theological interpreter—left a sizeable legacy. It is called evangelicalism. They close out the volume with a similar statement bridging the gap between various denominations and theological camps. “Imagine a Christian dialogue today that included adherents of ancient churches—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic—with various modern church bodies—Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Disciples of Christ—as well as an ample representation from the newer evangelical and Pentecostal-Charismatic congregations from around the world. If one had to choose our modern thinker—and only one—to function as a point of reference for theological interchange and dialogue, then who might one choose?

Our answer should be clear.

 

The Theology of Jonathan Edwards
Michael J. McClymond & Gerald R. McDermott/Oxford University Press, 2012
Review Copy Courtesy of Oxford University Press

 

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