“Resolved, Never hence-forward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God’s.” (from the “Resolutions” of Jonathan Edwards, begun in 1722)
“Perhaps the simplest statement of it is the best: that it lies in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing—in the entire compass of his life-activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations—is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.” (Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield volume 5, pages 354-355).
“He looked upon those who called themselves Calvinists, that were for palliating the matter by, as it were, trimming off the knots of Calvinism, that they might conform it more to the taste of those who are most disposed to object against it, [as men who] were really giving up and betraying the cause they pretended to espouse.” (Samuel Hopkins in Life of Jonathan Edwards p. 52).
“The key to an understanding of Jonathan Edwards is that he was a man who put faithfulness to the Word of God before every other consideration. At critical points in his life…he put the truth first. He did this when considerations of personal interest — ‘my own reputation, future usefulness, and my very subsistence’—all made the opposite course of action seem expedient. It was this which Edwards rejected…He knew that ‘success’ is not to be judged in the short-term. The Christian’s business is to honour God, and in his own time God will honour his truth and those who are faithful to it.” (Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, page 471).
Certain men throughout the history of the Christian church capture the imagination. Paul, Augustine, Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli—each holds the possibility of fascinating reflection and thought. Some have left to us great amounts of writing by which we may learn of their thought, and, possibly, of their living. Others have left us but a tantalizing sheaf of papers by which to learn anything about them. The Christian historian, on the whole, has a great storehouse of information available to him, from which he must pick and choose that which is accessible and proper.
When one comes to the life and writings of one Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, Massachusetts, however, one is faced with an overabundance of material. A voracious reader and writer, Edwards has left to us not only the books published during his lifetime, but hundreds of hand-written sermons, as well as personal journals and his “Miscellanies” from which the researcher can cull countless jewels. But here the very immensity of the task of even trying to review Edwards comes into view. Not only is the material available so vast, but it is at times very complex and difficult to follow. It comes to us in many forms—books, treatises, sermons—and given that all the manuscripts available have not even been put into print, no one can claim to know Edwards in an exhaustive way. (In this work, the primary source of information is to be found in the two volume edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards printed in England in 1834, and currently republished by the Banner of Truth Trust). At the same time, a brief review runs the danger of misrepresenting Edwards’ viewpoint for simply lacking all the materials or the time to dig through what is available.
The methodology of this paper, then, is designed to “make the best” of the fact that there is simply far too much Edwards available for review! Hence, to attempt to present a balanced and accurate viewpoint of the theology of Jonathan Edwards, this work will pursue its goal in two ways. First, the primary emphasis of Edwards’ thinking will be identified, and this topic will become the guiding consideration in materials to be reviewed. Secondly, different kinds of “Edwardsian” literature will be called into service. One primary text, Edwards’ A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, though published posthumously (1765), was certainly intended for publication by Edwards himself, and hence represents his “literary” style. A number of sermons will be examined, for here Edwards truly communicates to the people of his church the doctrines and beliefs that to him were central to the Christian faith. And, when profitable, personal writings from his memoirs or Miscellanies will be invoked. By this twofold approach it is hoped that an accurate, balanced presentation of Jonathan Edwards as theologian and Christian man can be presented.
Jonathan Edwards: The Man
Jonathan Edwards was born October 5, 1703 at East Windsor, Connecticut, the only son of Timothy and Esther Edwards. Jonathan had ten sisters, most of whom were six feet tall or taller! He grew up in Connecticut, and went to New Haven to study at Yale at the age of 13 (1716). He continued his advanced studies until 1722, when he then took up the pastorate of a small Presbyterian church in New York. Two years later, in 1724, he was elected tutor at Yale, and served in that capacity until called to be assistant pastor at Northampton to his aging grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, a man of no small reputation in New England himself. The next year he married Sarah Pierrepont, seven years younger than himself, daughter of James Pierrepont, minister of the New Haven church. He met Sarah while a graduate student at Yale. One could, with great profit, spend much time examining the unique and lasting relationship between Jonathan and Sarah Edwards; the spiritual bond between them, and the outlook of Sarah on spiritual things, are treasures to be held dearly in our modern world. Their eleven children are no less remarkable, as Elisabeth Dodds notes,
In 1900 a reporter tracked down 1,400 descendants of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. He found that they included 13 college presidents, 65 professors, two graduate school deans, 100 lawyers, 66 physicians, 80 holders of public office, including three senators and three governors of states. Members of his this clan had written 135 published books, and the women were repeatedly described as ‘great readers’ or ‘highly intelligent’…of course, there were platoons of missionaries.1
In 1729 Solomon Stoddard died, leaving the church at Northampton in the care and supervision of Jonathan. In 1731 Edwards spoke in Boston, preaching one of the primary texts which will shortly be reviewed, God Glorified in Man’s Dependence. The major themes of Edwards’ theology are to be found in this early sermon. He made an impression on a number of Christian leaders at this time.
Many historians mark the beginning of the “Great Awakening” in New England (not including Frelinghuysen’s work in the Middle Colonies) with the revival at Northampton. Whatever the case may be, the revival in 1734 certainly marked an important stage in the ministry of Jonathan Edwards. As the Great Awakening spread, so did the opposition to it. This called forth from Edwards’ two of his most popular works, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737) and The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. (1740) The distribution of these works spread the fame of the pastor at Northampton across the Atlantic, where many believers were very interested in information about the Awakening in the colonies. The great revivalist George Whitefield visited the Edwards home in October of 1740, as the Awakening was growing in strength. The next year Edwards preached what has become (and quite inaccurately) his most famous sermon at Enfield, Connecticut, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. As the work progressed, however, Edwards began to reflect on some of the excesses seen in the revival (especially in light of the objections of men such as Charles Chauncy of Boston), and there is a level of moderation (but certainly continued support for the revivals) in his 1742 work Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England and even more so in his 1746 work A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. In both Edwards defends the role of the emotions in religious worship, while also drawing a line in regards to what is, and what is not, properly ascribed to the Spirit of God.
By the late 1840s, however, the Great Awakening could be viewed as a past event, and dark clouds were on the horizon in Northampton. The Edwards home continued to be a place of great activity, even after the death of David Brainerd there in 1747. The next year brought on the controversy that would eventually lead to Edwards’ dismissal from his long-time pastorate by a vote of 230 to 23–a controversy that centered around the requirements for being a “communicant” at the Lord’s Supper in the church. Edwards wished to change the precedent established by his grandfather Solomon Stoddard, and it is a monument to the memory of Stoddard (as well as the intransigence of the New Englander) that despite Edwards’ fame and long time of ministry, he was dismissed for even attempting to change the status quo. Edwards asked the people of his church to read his recently published An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God, concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a compleat Standing and full Communion in the Visible Christian Church, but to no avail. Even if they had read the book, the majority would not have understood it anyway. The Edwards family stayed in Northampton for nearly a year after the dismissal, simply lacking any place to go. In 1751, however, he accepted a call to the little frontier outpost of Stockbridge, there to minister to a congregation made up almost totally of Indians. The move allowed Edwards to write some of his most important works, such as his great A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the modern prevailing Notions of Freedom of Will (1754) and The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin defended which was at the printer’s when Edwards died in 1758.
Edwards’ daughter Esther married Aaron Burr, who became president of Princeton in 1757. However, in the summer Burr died, leaving Esther a widow and Princeton without a president. The College at Princeton immediately called Edwards to be president. Edwards balked, but eventually accepted the post, leaving for Princeton in January of 1758. His wife stayed behind, with most of the children, to pack and prepare to follow him after the weather became better. He was received joyfully, and set about his work with great energy. However, a smallpox epidemic was sweeping the area, and on February 23 Edwards was inoculated against smallpox. The process of inoculation was still new and not fully understood, and Edwards became gravely ill. Finally, on March 22, 1758, with friends around his bedside, Edwards spoke his last words:
Shortly after leaving…messages for absent members of the family, ‘he looked about and said, “Now where is Jesus of Nazareth, my true and never-failing Friend?” ‘ Then when those at his bedside believed he was unconscious and expressed grief at what his absence would mean both to the College and to the church at large, they were surprised when he suddenly uttered a final sentence, ‘Trust God, and you need not fear.’ 2
Something of the spiritual depth of Edwards and his wife can be seen in Sarah’s response upon hearing of the news. She could write but briefly due to illness, but she took up pen to write a few lines to Esther at Princeton:
What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be.3
It is sad to note, however, that this was not the end of grief for the Edwards family. Esther never received the lines scribbled by her ill mother, for she died, suddenly, only sixteen days after her father, leaving two infants (Sally and Aaron, who became Vice-President of the United States, but lived a life that would have shamed Edwards had he lived to see it). To add even further difficulty, Sarah Edwards herself died October 2nd of the same year, while traveling to collect the orphans of her daughter.
To understand the theology of Jonathan Edwards, one must understand what it is to bow before the sovereign God. One must understand things such as holiness, justice, and sin. Edwards’ modern biographers, who do not share Edwards’ dedication to things of God, and do not understand such concepts, can only be baffled at the incredible contradiction of Jonathan Edwards. His writings must seem to them incredibly harsh and difficult. Sadly, even most modern Christians would scratch their heads in baffled bewilderment at much of what he said and preached. Not only is his theology not popular today in most Christian circles, but the very foundations of living which were taken by him as granted would be alien in much of “Christendom” today.
Before delving into the actual writings and sermons of Jonathan Edwards, in a respectful attempt at communicating the main elements of his theology in “simplified” form, it is this writer’s firm conviction that to properly understand Jonathan Edwards, one must experience his personal spirituality. One must understand what drove that incredible intellect, and yet kept him bound to the Word of God. It is not pretended that all can understand what Edwards is about to say, for this author would find himself in agreement with Edwards on the incapacity of natural man to receive the things of the Spirit of God. But, for the one to whom God has graciously granted that “glimpse of God’s glory” that radically changes the heart of man, Edwards’ words will be familiar indeed.
Below is reproduced a lengthy section from the Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards as found in his Works volume 1, pages xlvi-xlviii. It is felt that the length of the citation is justified by the importance of the material to understanding Edwards’ theology.
Since I came to Northampton, I have often had sweet complacency in God, in views of his glorious perfections, and of the excellency of Jesus Christ. God has appeared to me a glorious and lovely Being, chiefly on account of his holiness. The holiness of God has always appeared to me the most lovely of all his attributes. The doctrines of God’s absolute sovereignty, and free grace, in showing mercy to whom he would show mercy; and man’s absolute dependence on the operations of God’s Holy Spirit, have very often appeared to me as sweet and glorious doctrines. These doctrines have been much my delight. God’s sovereignty has ever appeared to me a great part of his glory. It has often been my delight to approach God, and adore him as a sovereign God, and ask sovereign mercy of him.
I have loved the doctrines of the gospel; they have been to my soul like green pastures. The gospel has seemed to me the richest treasure; the treasure that I have most desired, and longed that it might dwell richly in me. The way of salvation by Christ has appeared, in a general way, glorious and excellent, most pleasant and most beautiful. It has often seemed to me, that it would, in a great measure, spoil heaven, to receive it in any other way. That text has often been affecting and delightful to me, Isa. xxxii. 2. ‘A man shall be an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest,’ &c.
It has often appeared to me delightful, to be united to Christ; to have him for my Head, and to be a member of his body; also to have Christ for my Teacher and Prophet. I very often think with sweetness, and longings, and pantings of soul, of being a little child, taking hold of Christ, to be led by him through the wilderness of this world. That text, Matt. xviii. 3. has often been sweet to me, ‘Except ye be converted, and become as little children,’ &c. I love to think of coming to Christ, to receive salvation of him, poor in spirit, and quite empty of self, humbly exalting him alone; cut off entirely from my own root, in order to grow into and out of Christ: to have God in Christ to be all in all; and to live, by faith on the Son of God, a life of humble, unfeigned confidence in him. That scripture has often been sweet to me, Ps. cxv. 1. ‘Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake.’ And those words of Christ, Luke x. 21. ‘In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.’ That sovereignty of God, which Christ rejoiced in, seemed to me worthy of such joy; and that rejoicing seemed to show the excellency of Christ, and of what spirit he was.
Sometimes, only mentioning a single word caused my heart to burn within me; or only seeing the name of Christ, or the name of some attribute of God. And God has appeared glorious to me, on account of the Trinity. It has made me have exalting thoughts of God, that he subsists in three persons; Father, Son, Holy Ghost. The sweetest joys and delights I have experienced, have not been those that have arisen from a hope of my own good estate; but in a direct view of the glorious things of the gospel. When I enjoy this sweetness, it seems to carry me above the thoughts of my own estate; it seems at such times, a loss that I cannot bear, to take off my eye from the glorious, pleasant object I behold without me, to turn my eye in upon myself, and my own good estate.
My heart has been much on the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world. The histories of the past advancement of Christ’s kingdom have been sweet to me. When I have read histories of past ages, the pleasantest thing, in all my reading, has been, to read of the kingdom of Christ being promoted. And when I have expected, in my reading to come to any such thing, I have rejoiced in the prospect, all the way as I read. And my mind has been much entertained and delighted with the scripture promises and prophecies, which relate to the future glorious advancement of Christ’s kingdom upon earth.
I have sometimes had a sense of the excellent fulness of Christ, and his meetness and suitableness as a Saviour; whereby he has appeared to me, far above all, the chief of ten thousands. His blood and atonement have appeared sweet, and his righteousness sweet; which was always accompanied with ardency of spirit; and inward strugglings and breathings, and groanings that cannot be uttered, to be emptied of myself, and swallowed up in Christ.
Once, as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view, that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet, appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception—which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve and follow him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity. I have several other times had views very much of the same nature, and which have had the same effects.
I have, many times, had a sense of the glory of the Third Person in the Trinity, and his office as Sanctifier; in his holy operations, communicating divine light and life to the soul. God in the communications of his Holy Spirit, has appeared as an infinite fountain of divine glory and sweetness; being full, and sufficient to fill and satisfy the soul; pouring forth itself in sweet communications; like the sun in its glory, sweetly and pleasantly diffusing light and life. And I have sometimes an affecting sense of the excellency of the word of God as a word of life; as the light of life; a sweet, excellent, life-giving word; accompanied with a thirsting after that word, that it might dwell richly in my heart.
Often, since I lived in this town, I have had very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness; very frequently to such a degree, as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping, sometimes for a considerable time together; so that I have often been forced to shut myself up. I have had a vastly great sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart, than ever I had before my conversion. It has often appeared to me, that if God should mark iniquity against me, I should appear the very worst of all mankind; of all that have been since the beginning of the world to this time: and that I should have by far the lowest place in hell. When others, that have come to talk with me about their soul-concerns, have expressed the sense that they have had of their own wickedness, by saying, that it seemed to them, that they were as bad as the devil himself; I thought their expressions seemed exceedingly faint and feeble, to represent my own wickedness.
My wickedness, as I am in myself, has long appeared to me perfectly ineffable, and swallowing up all thought and imagination; like an infinite deluge, or mountains over my head. I know not how to express better what my sins appear to me to be, than by heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite by infinite. Very often, for these many years, these expressions are in my mind, and in my mouth, ‘Infinite upon infinite—Infinite upon infinite!’ When I look into my heart, and take a view of my wickedness, it looks like an abyss, infinitely deeper than hell. And it appears to me, that were it not for free grace, exalted and raised up to the infinite height of all the fulness and glory of the great Jehovah, and the arm of his power and grace stretched forth in all the majesty of his power, and in all the glory of his sovereignty, I should appear sunk down in my sins below hell itself; far beyond the sight of every thing, but the eye of sovereign grace, that can pierce even down to such a depth. And yet, it seems to me that my conviction of sin is exceedingly small and faint; it is enough to amaze me, that I have no more sense of my sin. I know certainly, that I have very little sense of my sinfulness. When I have had turns of weeping and crying for my sins, I thought I knew at the time, that my repentance was nothing to my sin.
I have greatly longed of late for a broken heart, and to lie low before God; and, when I ask for humility, I cannot bear the thoughts of being no more humble than other Christians. It seems to me, that though their degree of humility may be suitable for them, yet it would be a vile self-exaltation in me, not to be the lowest in humility of all mankind. Others speak of their longing to be ‘humbled to the dust;’ that may be a proper expression for them, but I always think of myself, that I ought, and it is an expression that has long been natural for me to us in prayer, ‘to lie infinitely low before God.’ And it is affecting to think, how ignorant I was, when a young Christian, of the bottomless, infinite depths of wickedness, pride, hypocrisy, and deceit, left in my heart.
Though it seems to me, that in some respects I was a far better Christian, for two or three years after my first conversion, than I am now; and lived in a more constant delight and pleasure; yet of late years, I have had a more full and constant sense of the absolute sovereignty of God, and a delight in that sovereignty; and have had more of a sense of the glory of Christ, as Mediator revealed in the gospel. On one Saturday night, in particular, I had such a discovery of the excellency of the gospel above all other doctrines, that I could not but say to myself, ‘This is my chosen light, my chosen doctrine;’ and of Christ, ‘This is my chosen Prophet.’ It appeared sweet, beyond all expression, to follow Christ, and to be taught, and enlightened, and instructed by him; to learn of him, and to live to him. Another Saturday night (Jan. 1739,) I had such a sense, how sweet and a blessed thing it was to walk in the way of duty; to do that which was right and meet to be done, and agreeable to the holy mind of God; that it caused me to break forth into a kind of loud weeping, which held me some time, so that I was forced to shut myself up, and fasten the doors. I could not but, as it were, cry out ‘How happy are they, who do that which is right in the sight of God! They are blessed indeed, they are the happy ones!’ I had, at the same time, a very affecting sense, how meet and suitable it was that God should govern the world, and order all things according to his own pleasure; and I rejoiced in it, that God reigned, and that his will was done.
The great themes of Edwards’ theology are all found here in personal expression—here is a man who loves the sovereignty of God. Here is one who can speak of the beauty of holiness. Most in the world hate the very concept of God’s sovereignty and His holiness, so how could Jonathan Edwards not be an enigma to them? Here we find the reason why the quiet, thoughtful minister from Northampton could preach Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. There was, to him, no inconsistency between God’s grace and His justice, God’s love and His wrath. Edwards’ God was not either/or, but both/and. This man loved the God of the Bible, not the God of his imagination. Edwards’ God was not made in the image of man.
We also see the centrality of Christ. The Lordship of Christ would not be a matter of debate in Edwards’ thinking as it is today. Jesus Christ, in His Person and His Work, was completely satisfactory and sufficient. He is reported to have said, “Though millions of sacrifices had been offered; yet nothing was done to purchase redemption before Christ’s incarnation, so nothing was done after His resurrection to purchase redemption for men. Nor will there be anything more done to all eternity.”4 The Lord Jesus was to him “sweetness” itself.
But we also see, in stark contrast, the depth of Edwards’ conviction of sin. Man’s nature as fallen is the counterpart to the sovereignty of God as the central conviction of his thought. It has been said that those who feel no conviction of sin either know little of God, or little of themselves, or both. When one has the view of the holiness of God reflected in Edwards’ memoirs above, and which shall permeate his writings to follow, one must also see sin in a dread fashion, even when that sin is part of one’s own life. While from the “world’s” view his life would be exemplary, yet Edwards knew in his heart his own pride, rebellion, and slothfulness. From the contrast of the great holiness of God and his own sin comes his rapture with the Gospel of grace. Indeed, it can be seen that without the elements of the true nature of God and a true apprehension of the fallenness of man, the grace of God seen in the Gospel would never be truly appreciated.
Edwards was a man of great intellectual powers. Fascinated with the writings of Newton and Locke, he bent his mind to the study of theology, basing his work on the idea that since God is Creator, then that which is around us in creation will be in harmony with what God has revealed through Scripture. Being a thorough-going Calvinist, Edwards is steeped in the thought patterns, and even at times in the phraseology, of John Calvin. Yet, he goes beyond Calvin at key points, entering into areas that the Reformer of Geneva left to “speculation,” perhaps we might theorize, because Calvin had gone into those areas, and had found them to contain more danger than good. One will certainly find a great deal of common ground, for example, between the 18th chapter of Book I of Calvin’s Institutes and Edwards sermon on the Divine Decrees (to be reviewed below). But one will also find a greater emphasis upon reason and logical argument in Edwards, along with a willingness to speculate on that which Calvin did not. We shall examine this at greater length below.
In this writer’s opinion, the primary focus, then, of Jonathan Edwards the theologian is co-terminous with that of Jonathan Edwards the passionate follower of a sovereign God. The nature and attributes of God—his eternality, Trinity, sovereignty, holiness and providence—along with His gracious election to salvation through the completed work of Jesus Christ, brought to reality in the life of the believer by the outpoured love of God (that is, in Edwards’ view, the Holy Spirit), comprises the pivotal, central focus of Edwards’ theology. Following, we shall demonstrate this from his writings in particular.
The Theology of Jonathan Edwards
As mentioned above, it is simply impossible, outside of an extensive literary effort, to do full justice to the immense body of material that is the theological writings of Jonathan Edwards. Hence, to facilitate the attempt at “brevity,” we shall look to the following writings/ sermons/treatises as our source of information.
On July 8th, 1731, the young Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon in Boston that well demonstrated, for anyone willing to listen, Edwards’ commitment to the Calvinistic heritage that was his, despite the declining popularity of such a perspective. The sermon was entitled God Glorified in Man’s Dependence. His first point was as follows:
First, All the good that they have in and through Christ; he is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. All the good of the fallen and redeemed creature is concerned in these four things, and cannot be better distributed than into them; but Christ is each of them to us, and we have none of them any otherwise than in him.5
This foundational sermon will serve to sound those thoughts and concepts that will reoccur like a theme in a Beethoven symphony throughout the length and breadth of the Edwardsian material. Here one of those themes is introduced: Christ, the focus of God’s work of redemption, by which (and through whom only) the believer has “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.” The union of believer with Christ is, for Edwards, the avenue by which the blessings of God in Jesus are ours.
This is nothing but the Calvinistic concept of the covenant of grace, as we shall see. But is this relationship with Christ the result of man’s seeking it? Certainly not, for he continues,
It is of him that we are in Christ Jesus, and come to have an interest in him, and so do receive those blessings which he is made unto us. It is God that gives us faith whereby we close with Christ.6
Drawing from the language of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1, Edwards follows consistently the concept of the sovereignty of God, here in election and grace. Here he openly asserts that God is the one who gives saving faith—a point that should remain clear in the readers mind when approaching Edwards’ discussion of justification, and the somewhat unclear comments made regarding the role and source of faith. Here Edwards is not dealing with the intricacies of attempting to unify the eternal decrees of God, men’s actions in time, and the grounds of justification, with all the attendant difficulties therein. Here he speaks with plainness:
Hence we may learn a reason why faith is that by which we come to have an interest in this redemption; for there is included in the nature of faith, a sensible acknowledgment of absolute dependence on God in this affair…Faith abases men, and exalts God; it gives all the glory of redemption to him alone.7
Is, then, “faith” that gives to man a role in salvation true, saving faith? Does it have its origin in God? Seemingly the answer for Edwards would be no. When he discusses the the “divine and supernatural light” that is part of God’s work of regeneration, it will become clear that there are certain marks or aspects of real, saving faith that are very important to Edwards. There seems little question where he would come down on the current “lordship salvation” controversy.
God is sovereign in electing men to grace, says Edwards. Because of this, he is glorified by our absolute dependence upon him:
God is glorified in the work of redemption in this, that there appears in it so absolute and universal a dependence of the redeemed on him…Those that are called and sanctified are to attribute it alone to the good pleasure of God’s goodness, by which they are distinguished. He is sovereign, and hath mercy on whom he will have mercy…Hence these doctrines and schemes of divinity that are in any respect opposite to such an absolute and universal dependence on God, derogate from his glory, and thwart the design of our redemption…However they may allow of a dependence of the redeemed on God, yet they deny a dependence that is so absolute and universal.8
By such strong approbation of the sovereignty and election of God, in a climate that was moving more and more toward an Arminian/Universalist direction (witness Chauncy), Edwards was firmly planting his feet in a well-tried heritage, and giving notice to all that his teaching and preaching would not be “new and novel” but rather solidly based in the acceptance of the teachings of the Word of God. Not only this, but those who would seek to find for man a role or part in his own salvation would find Jonathan Edwards a strong foe indeed.
Another theme so pre-eminent in Edwards’ theology is present here as well, that being the glory of God. What brings glory to God? And why is the glorification of God so important? Here Edwards’ close affinity to the Westminster divines and their work is seen.
We see from this first sermon the inter-relatedness for Edwards of theology “proper”; that is, of the doctrine of God and his attributes, and that of soteriology. One cannot study Edwards’ doctrine of God without dealing with His graciousness in salvation; and even more so is his doctrine of salvation utterly dependent upon a proper understanding of the nature of God. Here Edwards differs radically from so much in modern American thinking, that can hold one belief in regards to God and another belief that is utterly foreign and contradictory in regards to salvation. One aspect of Edwards that can be said with little fear of contradiction: he was greatly concerned with the consistency of his beliefs and preaching, and dedicated much time and effort to self-examination in this area. Sadly, for some today, it is this very concern for consistency that renders him “unfit” for modern consumption.
Therefore, the remaining writings shall touch again upon the subjects broached in this early sermon: God’s sovereignty, his decrees, his glory, his grace, and the resulting doctrine of salvation, focusing upon the nature of saving faith.
The book of Romans, particularly chapter 9, has always been a source of clear teaching on the sovereignty of God. Here, in an undated sermon, Edwards drew out the concept in clear language, discussing both the sovereignty of God alone, and more particularly, the sovereignty of God in election:
In speaking of this he enters into a more minute discussion of the sovereignty of God in electing some to eternal life, and rejecting others, than is found in any other part of the Bible; in the course of which he quotes several passages from the Old Testament, confirming and illustrating this doctrine.9
Most of Edwards’ sermons and writings are broken up into outline form, though certainly anyone familiar with them might wonder at times if a few points had gotten lost here and there! It is most difficult, at times, to remember, after an extended and closely reasoned argument, just where the next point picks up in the over-all scheme of things. In this sermon, as is normal for Edwards, we find him listing the particulars of that which he wishes to prove, followed by a point-by-point argument establishing his thesis. His first point is to define God’s sovereignty:
But the expression implies that it is God’s mere will and sovereign pleasure, which supremely orders this affair. It is the divine will without restraint, or constraint, or obligation….The sovereignty of God is his absolute, independent right of disposing of all creatures according to his own pleasure.10
Some have accused Edwards of wandering from the Calvinistic fold, but certainly these words demonstrate the error of such a charge. There is no modification of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty anywhere in Edwards. Some mistake some of the more speculative of his words as being representative of some kind of fundamental shift in thinking on his part; but, as we shall see when encountering some of these passages (see below at reference 43), he is always careful to safeguard those clear, very orthodox beliefs that are in perfect harmony with his expressions here. It must be remembered that in Edwards we do not find a simply slavish repetition of old Puritan concepts, but a new and living statement of them within a changing cultural context. Here is Puritanism meeting the new age of “enlightened” thought. Here is one of America’s greatest philosophers and intellects bravely making a statement of God’s absolute right to dispose of man as he wishes. Surely such a statement was not made without careful consideration of the ramifications of such faith. One who makes such stupendous statements must feel a responsibility to be consistent with them and to think thoroughly about their representation of God Himself. If his writings are any indication, Edwards took that responsibility soberly.
How does this sovereignty interface with salvation? Edwards answers:
What God’s sovereignty in the salvation of men implies. In answer to this inquiry, I observe, it implies that God can either bestow salvation on any of the children of men, or refuse it, without any prejudice to the glory of any of his attributes, except where he has been pleased to declare, that he will or will not bestow it…God was not obliged to promise that he would save all who believe in Christ…He may have mercy on the greatest of sinners, if he pleases, and the glory of none of his attributes will be in the least sullied. Such is the sufficiency of the satisfaction and righteousness of Christ, that none of the divine attributes stand in the way of the salvation of any of them.11
Salvation fully and totally of God—this is Edwards’ belief. The human will cannot stand in the way of God’s work in bringing those whom he chooses to himself. But the “wholeness” of Edwards’ thinking is evident here, too, for he is jealous of the attributes of God. How can God bring sinful man to himself without causing damage to his holiness? Through the full and complete satisfaction of the Jesus Christ. Because his holy demands are met in the death of Christ, the salvation of the elect is possible. What a tremendous work, then, must be the death of Christ, to be sufficient to safeguard the holiness of the Almighty! And so Edwards believed:
If the wicked man himself should be thrust into hell, and should endure the most extreme torments which are ever suffered there, it would not be a greater manifestation of God’s abhorrence of it, than the sufferings of the Son of God for it.12
Holiness and sacrifice, justice and grace, fully intertwined and completely harmonious. All of God, none of man, complete in and of itself, based fully on God’s unwavering will.
We are dependent not only on his wisdom to contrive a way to accomplish [salvation], and on his power to bring it to pass, but we are dependent on his mere will and pleasure in the affair.13
As Edwards was want to do (indeed, could it not be said that this is the hallmark of all great preaching, most notably amongst the Puritans?), he then made direct application of this doctrine to the people of God. What of God’s sovereignty? What should the response of man be? Does not preaching sovereignty cause men to hate God, to loathe him? Edwards replies,
The absolute, universal, and unlimited sovereignty of God requires, that we should adore him with all possible humility and reverence. It is impossible that we should go to excess in lowliness and reverence of that Being who may dispose of us to all eternity, as he pleases.14
A response of loathing, then, is surely not for God’s people, and does not figure in Edwards’ thinking. Surely the unregenerate man is going to see God’s sovereignty as a hateful thing, if he looks at things without seeing also God’s grace in Christ; but the regenerate man must needs see the necessity of falling before such a great King and worshipping him. While modern psychologists might decry such an abasing attitude, the one who knows God and man truly sees with Edwards the fitness of such an attitude. The fact that man in his natural state does not properly view God or himself is taken as revealed truth, and as a great stumbling block for many:
This is the stumbling-block on which thousands fall and perish; and if we go on contending with God about his sovereignty, it will be our eternal ruin. It is absolutely necessary that we should submit to God, as our absolute sovereign, and the sovereign over our souls; as one who may have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and harden whom he will.15
In June, 1735, the congregation of Christians at Northampton were treated to an exposition on God’s sovereignty entitled, The Sole Consideration, That God is God, Sufficient to Still All Objections to His Sovereignty which was based on the Psalmists’ words at Psalm 96:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” Here Edwards argues from the nature of God as God, to the necessity of sovereignty. Indeed, it would seem for him that absolute sovereignty is implicit in theism itself. The sermon is not lengthy, and the argument for sovereignty is straightforward and follows the lines laid down in the sermon just reviewed from Romans 9. It is the application of the concept that is so profound and insightful. By the skillful use of rhetorical questions, Edwards makes convincing use of the doctrine on a practical level, and ties it in with other important doctrines. In the context of the ungrateful person, he asks:
What thoughts have you of God, that you think he is more obliged to hear what you say to him, than you are to regard what he says to you?16
What an understanding of human nature! When all is well man ignores God as a needless thing; but when adversity strikes, things change quickly! But what does this tell us of man’s thoughts of God? Would one who sees the true nature of God treat him so lightly? Edwards continues by making practical application to people’s rejection of the judgment of God and the doctrine of original sin (in almost prophetic tones, given the mass movement away from this doctrine that was to come about during the rest of that century):
It is from little thoughts of God, that you quarrel against his justice in the condemnation of sinners, from the doctrine of original sin.17
In regards to the human penchant to act as “judge” of God’s dealings with men, and to accuse the Almighty of injustice, Edwards fires this salvo:
What horrid arrogance in worms of the dust, that they should think they have wisdom enough to examine and determine concerning what God doth, and to pass sentence on it as unjust!18
Few who battle with the teaching of works-salvation think, in our modern days, of the effectiveness of the Biblical presentation of the sovereignty of God against such falsehood. But Edwards saw this long ago as well:
If you had your eyes open to see that he is God indeed, you would wonder how you could think to commend yourselves to so great a Being by your gifts, by such poor affections, such broken prayers, wherein is so much hypocrisy, and so much selfishness.19
Finally, in reference to the very doctrine of election itself, Edwards asserts that it is from a deficient view of the majesty and nature of God that man rears up and hurls charges of injustice at the God of Israel. He writes, “It is from mean thoughts of God, that you contend with him, because he bestows grace on some, and not on others.”20 Surely such practical applications of this one doctrine to not only moral issues, but to other doctrines as well, shows the primacy of the teaching in Edwards’ mind.
To this point the writings examined have been of the sermonic order. Next we shall introduce one of Edwards’ better known works, A Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World. There is a noticeable shift in style, for he had done work on this material in preparation for publication before his death. The actual treatise was written in 1755 while at Stockbridge. Here Edwards the philosopher and theologian comes to the fore. Here also we encounter the issue of the relationship between reason and revelation in Edwards; the treatise begins with the acknowledgment of the foundational element of revelation in any such enterprise as determining the end for which God created the world. Yet, the fact remains that the first section of the work is “non-Scriptural” in that it is an examination of the issue based solely upon logical argumentation—reason. It is a closely argued attempt to demonstrate the “reasonableness” of the material that would then be presented from Scripture. First, Edwards writes,
Indeed this affair seems properly to be an affair of divine revelation. In order to be determined what was designed, in the creating of the astonishing fabric of the universe we behold, it becomes us to attend to, and rely on, what HE has told us, who was the architect…Nor is it to be supposed that mankind—who, while destitute of revelation, by the utmost improvements of their own reason, and advances in science and philosophy, could come to no clear and established determination who the author of the world was—would ever have obtained any tolerable settled judgment of the end which the author of it proposed to himself in so vast, complicated, and wonderful a work of his hands.21
Here the orthodox Reformed concept of the centrality of revelation is clearly set forth. Man, unaided by special or divine revelation, could not so much as come to a “clear and established determination” of who the author of the world was, let alone the purpose of his work! Man is presented as dependent upon divine revelation. Reason is not supreme, nor determinative. Yet, to stop here would present an unbalanced view of Edwards’ beliefs.
I confess there is a degree of indistinctness and obscurity in the close consideration of such subjects, and a great imperfection in the expressions we use concerning them; arising unavoidably from the infinite sublimity of the subject, and the incomprehensibleness of those things that are divine. Hence revelation is the surest guide in these matters: and what that teaches shall in the next place be considered. Nevertheless, the endeavors used to discover what the voice of reason is, so far as it can go, may serve to prepare the way, by obviating cavils insisted on by many; and to satisfy us, that what the word of God says of the matter is not unreasonable.22
Here the great philosopher bows to the central facet of his own belief: the fact of his own fallenness and his dependence upon God. Here it is seen in the recognition of the limitation of human reason, especially in dealing with topics outside of its purview. Edwards recognizes the “obscurity” of the logical argument that appears between his first statements seen above and the conclusion, given here, which appear immediately prior to his review of the Scriptural teaching on the subject. He attributes the difficulty of being limited to “reason” in regards to determining the ends for which God created the world first to the imperfection of the terms we use to describe the divine, or as he says, the “infinite sublimity of the subject”. But, he also admits the “incomprehensibleness of those things that are divine.” That is, reason and logic can define some boundaries, and make some basic statements about such things, but exact definition is outside of reason’s ability, limited as it is to simply the natural, when revelation is left outside of that data from which it can draw. Edwards freely owns the necessity of revelation, and speaks of it as the “surest guide” in these matters.
So why, in so much of his work, does he devote so much time to the closely argued logical presentations that are a hallmark of his philosophical writings? Because Edwards has a holistic view of the world; that is, since God is the Creator, and God is true, then his creation will be logical and ordered, just as God is. Hence, while reason cannot replace revelation, nor subserviate revelation, it can speak truly, within its own peculiar limitations, and give witness to the truth and consistency (harmony) of God’s revelation of himself and his actions in the world. Reason is seen here in a fashion like John the Baptist coming before Christ, preparing the way. Reason can function as a preparatory tool. While man, unaided by revelation, cannot, by his reason alone, come to truth about God (in opposition to Aquinas and later Roman Catholic natural theology), God’s revelation is not unreasonable nor contradictory. God has made the mind of man, and, while completely aware of the danger of pride and rebellion on the part of the creature, Edwards is convinced that it is important that we know “that what the word of God says of the matter is not unreasonable.” It could not be other for Edwards; God’s revelation is not by this set in the seat of judgment by human reason. It would be an error to say that Edwards would ever judge the word of God as “unreasonable.” Rather, his intent is to demonstrate the harmony that exists between reason that is based upon presuppositions that recognize God, and the revelation of God. Surely he would realize that man’s mind, and hence his reason, that continues in rebellion against God, would not fear being so proud as to declare God’s works “unjust” (see reference 18 above). But the regenerate mind, the mind enlightened by the Spirit of God and hence freed (to the extent given at this time) from the bondage to self and sin, is able to reason more clearly on these things, and to see the marvelous continuity of God’s revelation and the world around him. Here is the balance of Jonathan Edwards. A mind capable of such incredible thought and argument, fascinated with the world around him, also enraptured in love to the Creator. Does one wish to understand the fascination this man has held for believers over the past two hundred years? Here is a glimpse of the reason.
The first section of this treatise, then, is the “logical” or “rational” argument. It is fascinating that his conclusions here do not go as far as that provided by Scripture; that is, he is consistent in not attempting to make reason provide the positive answer to the question, for he knows it cannot. Rather, reason provides a broad framework, some guidelines, that are then shown to be consistent with the revelation of God. He begins by saying,
That no notion of God’s last end in the creation of the world, is agreeable to reason, which would truly imply any indigence, insufficiency, and mutability in God; or any dependence of the Creator on the creature, for any part of his perfection or happiness.23
Edwards argues that the only logical or rational perspective on God himself must include within it the concept of his eternity, immutability, and utter independence from any created thing. Not only would the modern concepts of “finite godism” cause him to shudder, but the frequent charge made by his modern interpreters of an incipient pantheism is hereby refuted. Surely this treatise will give us comments that, if taken in isolation, might indicate some kind of compromise of the utter transcendence of God. But, when the author begins by stating openly and forcefully that such a concept is against his thinking, we must needs be fair in giving that statement its full weight.
As Edwards moves into his presentation of the “rational” argument of God’s end in creating the world, he puts forth the concept that God intended, in creation, to exhibit his being in his work. He writes,
And if it was God’s intention, as there is great reason to think it was, that his works should exhibit an image of himself as their author, that it might brightly appear by his works what manner of being he is, and afford a proper representation of his divine excellencies, and especially his moral excellence, consisting in the disposition of his heart; then it is reasonable to suppose that his works are so wrought as to show this supreme respect to himself, wherein his moral excellence primarily consists.24
From this Edwards derives the concept that God’s primary purpose was in reference to himself; that is, that God wished to communicate that which was innate in his own being. Note, however, that this is not to say that this action in any way “completes” a deficiency in God! Rather, the purpose of the creation was the demonstration of His being itself:
Therefore to speak strictly according to truth, we may suppose, that a disposition in God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fulness, was what excited him to create the world; and so, that the emanation itself was aimed at by him as a last end of the creation.25
What, then, is the composition of this emanation? To what does it have reference? Edwards asserts that:
One part of that divine fulness which is communicated, is the divine knowledge. That communicated knowledge, which must be supposed to pertain to God’s last end in creating the world, is the creature’s knowledge of HIM. For this is the end of all other knowledge.26
The communication of true knowledge of himself, then, is part of the emanation of his “fulness” of which Edwards speaks. But at this point Edwards takes somewhat of a detour to examine a troubling question. If God then wishes to reveal true knowledge of Himself to his creatures, and we know that this revelation is of his own will and directed only to those creatures he wills it to (i.e., the elect), then what is the end result of such a revelation in eternity? Things become somewhat difficult to follow here:
In this view, those elect creatures which must be looked upon as the end of all the rest of the creation, considered with respect to the whole of their eternal duration, and as such make God’s end, must be viewed as being, as it were, one with God. They were respected as brought home to him, united with him, centering most perfectly, as it were swallowed up in him; so that his respect to them finally coincides, and becomes one and the same, with respect to himself…What has been said shows, that as all things are from God, as their first cause and fountain; so all things tend to him, and in their progress come nearer and nearer to him through all eternity: which argues, that he who is their first cause is their last end.27
Certainly one can see upon what grounds critics have based charges of pantheism or some kind of mystical concept of an eventual “oneness” of the elect with God. But is Edwards really saying that the elect eventually are “absorbed” into God, or, if we read closely, is he not saying that their end becomes one with the end of God in creation? This seems far more likely, in light of his comments later in the treatise:
If God has respect to something in the creature, which he views as of everlasting duration, and as rising higher and higher through that infinite duration, and that not with constantly diminishing (but perhaps an increasing) clarity; then he has respect to it, as, in the whole, of infinite height; though there never will be any particular time when it can be said already to have come to such a height. Let the most perfect union with God be represented by something at an infinite height above us; and the eternally increasing union of the saints with God, by something that is ascending constantly towards that infinite height, moving upwards with a given velocity; and that is to continue thus to move to all eternity. God, who views the whole of this eternally increasing height, views it as an infinite height. And if he has respect to it, and makes it his end, as in the whole of it, he has respect to it as an infinite height, though the time will never come when it can be said it has already arrived at this infinite height…We may judge of the end that the Creator aimed at, in the being, nature, and tendency he gives the creature, by the mark or term which they constantly aim at in their tendency and eternal progress; though the time will never come, when it can be said it is attained to, in the most absolutely perfect manner.28
Here it seems that Edwards feels the weight of the objections to the previous statements, and wishes to clarify his thoughts on the issue. While he continues to posit a “movement” of the creature in regards to union with God, he points out that, logically, an infinite distance would never be traversed, even in eternity. Hence there will never come a time when the creature “arrives” at the perfect union with God. The Creator/creation distinction, therefore, is safeguarded. Indeed, it might profitably asked if it was ever really endangered, as one can see how the creature could, theoretically, be in perfect union, without losing its nature as a creation, nor compromising God’s existence as unique Creator. One might also ask if Calvin was not the wiser when he avoided engaging just such theoretical topics as this by making such statements as,
…let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to hold to one rule of modesty and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word.29
It would seem that Edwards has either rejected such advice, or has, given his over-riding commitment to the harmony of creation (reason and revelation), stretched his own interpretation of Calvin’s words to the maximum. Ever thinking of the objections that could be voiced, Edwards now fields the criticism that his argument thus far might include within it the idea of change in God. If God finds happiness in the communication of his nature to the creature, does this not imply change in God? To which he replies,
For though these communications of God—these exercises, operations, and expressions of his glorious perfections, which God rejoices in—are in time; yet his joy in them is without beginning or change. They were always equally present in the divine mind. He beheld them with equal clearness, certainty, and fulness, in every respect, as he doth now. They were always equally present; as with him there is no variableness of succession.30
He here posits a concept of time in which, of course, God is not experiencing a progression of events. Time is then the creation of God, and he is present equally and fully at all points in time, just as he is present fully in all points in space, another aspect of the creation. Hence, there can be, by definition, no change in God, but the joy of his revelation of his fulness to man has been his experience in eternity.
With this the inquiry based upon reason alone ends, and the topic of Scripture is now engaged. One will notice a great increase, then, in the clarity of the statements that are made. The already established themes of Edwards’ theology—the centrality of the Being of God—will be seen here again as well.
When God is so often spoken of as the last as well as the first, the end as well as the beginning, it is implied, that as he is the first, efficient cause and fountain, from whence all things originate; so, he is the last, final cause for which they are made; the final term to which they all tend in their ultimate issue.31
The main thesis of the Scriptural section (and, of course, the whole treatise) is that the “emanation of being” discovered by reason as the ultimate end of God’s creation, is revealed more particularly in Scripture as the glory of God. He writes,
What God says in his word, naturally leads us to suppose, that the way in which he makes himself his end in his work or works, which he does for his own sake, is in making his glory his end…In these places we see, that the glory of God is spoken of as the end of God’s saints, the end for which he makes them, i.e., either gives them being, or gives them a being as saints, or both…and the end in which God’s design in this work is obtained and summed up, is his glory. This proves…that God’s glory is the end of the creation…The Scripture speaks of God’s glory, as his ultimate end of the goodness of the moral part of the creation; and that end, in relation to which chiefly the value of their virtue consists…When the church says, Not unto us, not unto us, O Jehovah, but to they name give glory, it would be absurd to say, that she only desires that God may have glory, as a necessary or convenient means of their own advancement and felicity. From these things it appears…that God’s glory is the end of the creation.32
This is the positive aspect; that is, God’s glory is seen in his salvation of the elect, and in their desire to ascribe glory to him, even throughout eternity. The concept of the regenerate heart’s love for the glory of God will be amplified in later materials. But on the negative side,
Here it is evident the last verse comes in, in connexion with the foregoing, as giving another reason of the destruction of the wicked, viz. showing the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy: higher degrees of their glory and happiness, in a relish of their own enjoyments, and a greater sense of their value, and of God’s free grace in bestowing them.33
God’s glory is seen, Edwards asserts, by the contrast between the riches of mercy poured out on the elect and the punishment of the wicked. Edwards then provides some definitions of Biblical terms in relationship to the thesis being put forward. What does it mean to “be glorified” in reference to God?
And it is manifest in many places, where we read of God’s glorifying himself, or of his being glorified, that one thing, directly intended, is making known his divine greatness and excellency.34
Here the conclusion of the rational argument (God’s making known His being) is connected with the Biblical presentation (God’s glory is his ultimate end). Never one to be satisfied with simply the abstract, Edwards ties this in with the praise of man by saying,
It is manifest the praise of God, as the phrase is used in Scripture, implies the high esteem and love of the heart, exalting thoughts of God, and complacense in his excellence andperfection.35
Echoes of his own experience in the woods that day in 1737! His experience of praise was centered in the contemplation of the majesty of God, and here this figures in the very definition of praise itself. Having taken great pains to logically argue from Scripture that the chief end of God in the creation of the world (which most men would have been happy to simply quote from the Westminster Catechism and be done with) is his own glory, he concludes,
For it appears, that all that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God’s works, is included in that one phrase, the glory of God; which is the name by which the ultimate end of God’s works is most commonly called in Scripture; and seems most aptly to signify the thing.
The thing signified by that name, the glory of God, when spoken of as the supreme and ultimate end of all God’s works, is the emanation and true external expression of God’s internal glory and fulness…Thus we see that the great end of God’s works, which is so variously expressed in Scripture, is indeed but ONE; and this one end is most properly and comprehensively called, THE GLORY OF GOD; by which name it is most commonly called in Scripture; and is fitly compared to an effulgence or emanation of light from a luminary.36
Led by Scripture, and aided by logic and reason, Jonathan Edwards gives to the world an answer to the ultimate question: “Why?” Few, of course, like the answer, or understand it at all. Some might feel he has gone too far, that God has not deigned to reveal the particulars. No matter what perspective one takes, one must be truly respectful of the effort made, and the consistency of the answer given.
Another example of the more speculative or philosophical work of Edwards is to be found in a sermon(?) entitled Concerning the Divine Decrees in General, and Election in Particular. Here Edwards struggles with some of the same concerns that Calvin did at the end of Book I of the Institutes, and on into the early chapters of Book II. They follow the same path, but, as normal, where Calvin would stop and say, “this is as far as the Bible allows us to go with certainty” Edwards says, “well, I think I can make out the path a little farther ahead.” The resulting statements one might ponder for quite some time, and ask how Calvin would have reacted to them; indeed, if Calvin had had the same thoughts, but not the desire/opportunity/courage to put them to paper. This writer feels that this is the case; that Edwards was probably following a road that very few had traveled before; but that if he had looked closely at the ground, he would have found the faint, two hundred year-old tracks of a French scholar and theologian—tracks going both directions!
Calvin had been ridiculed by Sebastian Castello as proposing “two wills” in God, to which he responded in Book I, chapter 18, section 1. Here Edwards addresses the same issue upon the proposition that God has decreed whatsoever comes to pass, including the actions of sinful men. The charge made against Calvin was still being made in Edwards day (and continues till today!):
The Arminians ridicule the distinction between the secret and revealed will of God, or, more properly expressed, the distinction between the decree and law of God; because we say he may decree one thing, and command another.37
He answers such a charge on the basis of an appeal to Scripture, pointing to the many instances in the Bible where just such a thing clearly took place. The primary example he uses is that of the death of Christ, a thing clearly decreed from eternity, yet involving the active sin of man, actions which are clearly against the legal or moral laws of God. From this Edwards moves into the Arminian concept of “foreknowledge” and what it means. Rather than following a linguistic path of connecting the term with the Old Testament concept of “knowledge” (yadah), Edwards allows the Arminian definition to stand, but then turns it on its head by stating,
Contingency, as it is holden by some, is at the same time contradicted by themselves, if they hold foreknowledge. This is all that follows from an absolute, unconditional, irreversible decree, that it is impossible but that the things decreed should be. The same exactly follows from foreknowledge, that it is absolutely impossible but that the thing certainly foreknown should precisely come to pass…The foreknowledge of God will necessarily infer a decree: for God could not foreknow that things would be, unless he had decreed they should be; and that because things would not be future, unless he had decreed they should be.38
This goes back to Edwards’ concept of time as created thing, and the impossibility, based upon this, of contingency, shadows of which were seen in the above discussion of the end for which God created the world. If God foreknows something, then it will surely come to pass, unless there can be error in God’s knowledge. Hence, there is no difference between this foreknowledge and decree, for it will surely come to pass no matter what word you use to describe it. But, someone might say, God knows what comes to pass, but what comes to pass is not part of his decree. But, Edwards retorts, this would mean that things can happen which are contrary to God’s will, and hence reduce his happiness. He argues,
If God is infinitely happy now, then every thing is now as God would have it to be now; if every thing, then those things that are contrary to his commands. If so, it is not ridiculous to say, that things which are contrary to God’s commands, are yet in a sense agreeable to his will?39
Well, why bother? is surely a response that any Calvinist has heard at least once or twice in life. Jonathan Edwards to the rescue:
They say, to what purpose are praying, and striving, and attending on means, if all was irreversibly determined by God before? But, to say that all was determined before these prayers and strivings, is a very wrong way of speaking, and begets those ideas in the mind, which correspond with no realities with respect to God. The decrees of our everlasting state were not before our prayers and strivings; for these are as much present with God from all eternity, as they are the moment they are present with us.40
The same God who decreed all things, also decreed the means as well, and that, Edwards stresses, congruently with all other decrees. Hence, there is no “dependence” upon a “previous” decree for the later decree; both are equally eternal and important. God has decreed that we pray and strive, and attend “on the means”. This is his decree just as surely as election and predestination. But, we hear again, this means that God decrees sin, and hence is the author thereof. Edwards (as Calvin) gladly owns God’s decree of sin. But neither would say that God then becomes the actual author thereof, since both refer to the purpose or intention of the action as determinative as to its goodness or evilness. He writes,
God decrees that they shall be sinful, for the sake of the good that he causes to arise from the sinfulness thereof; whereas man decrees them for the sake of the evil that is in them…for men act in committing it with a view to that which is evil.41
The same action is under scrutiny, but the one wills it for the good (God) while the man wills it for evil. Hence the difference between them, and the grounds for judgment as well. Of course, Edwards’ full understanding of how this (as Calvin would say) “secret impulse” of God’s decree comes over into temporal reality is to be found in his huge work on the Freedom of the Will. But how, then, does Edwards work out this seeming anomaly—that God’s decree would include in it evil? He begins,
So God, though he hates a thing as it is simply, may incline to it with reference to the universality of things. Though he hates sin in itself, yet he may will to permit it, for the greater promotion of holiness in this universality, including all things, and at all times…God inclines to excellency, which is harmony, but yet he may incline to suffer that which is unharmonious in itself, for the promotion of universal harmony, or for the promoting of the harmony that there is in the universality, and making it shine the brighter.42
The concept of “harmony” has been seen as foundational to Edwards’ thinking, but it must be maintained that this is not the same kind of pantheistic harmony of Eastern religions; this is the consistency of the nature of the Holy God. But, some might object, is this not simply “the ends justify the means?” This doesn’t seem to be an accurate description, for the saying itself assumes human motivations, and here we are discussing the eternal and infinite wisdom and being of God. God is the end, and the means as well! We are looking at the temporal aspects of the eternal decrees. It is from this vantage point that contradiction seems to arise, but, Edwards would say, this is simply due to the nature of the situation, not due to any actual contradiction on God’s part.
Then, in the midst of this discussion, one encounters a startlingly clear and cogent statement, comprising “section 10” of the discourse. Given the immense importance of this section, it is here given at length:
It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all; for then the effulgence would not answer the reality. For the same reason it is not proper that one should be manifested exceedingly, and another but very little. It is highly proper that the effulgent glory of God should answer his real excellency; that the splendour should be answerable to the real and essential glory, for the same reason that it is proper and excellent for God to glorify himself at all. Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not sine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all…And as it is necessary that there should be evil, because the display of the glory of God could not but be imperfect and incomplete without it, so evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionately imperfect; and the happiness of the creature would be imperfect upon another account also; for, as we have said, the sense of good is comparatively dull and flat, without the knowledge of evil.43
To which might be added his words from the above sermon on sovereignty,
It is agreeable to God’s design in the creation of the universe to exercise every attribute, and thus to manifest the glory of each of them.44
Here Edwards ventures an answer to yet another “ultimate” question that would cause most less intrepid writers to recoil in fear (and maybe rightly so!). The connection in Edwards’ thinking between the glory and holiness of God, and his own personal experience of sin, has already been noted from his personal memoirs. Here we find a theological extrapolation of that personal experience. That is not to say that Edwards is here simply importing experience into dogmatics; rather, he again finds a consistency between the two. Basically, Edwards is asserting that God’s glory must be equally displayed, and this involves (drawing from his work on the end for which God created) the display, to the creature, of his attributes. Since God’s justice and holiness could not be displayed outside of the existence of evil (sin), then, Edwards says, God decreed a perfect plan in which all of his attributes would be harmoniously communicated. Most draw back, however, when he writes, “And as it is necessary that there should be evil…” Upon first blush this seems almost dualistic, but upon closer examination it is clear that he is not asserting a necessary existence of evil collaterally with the existence of God; rather, he is stating that to complete the plan of God to display all of his attributes to man, and to create the highest happiness and fulfillment of man, evil becomes a necessary part of the plan of God by which he brings this about. One is indeed wise to ponder this question long and hard before brushing Mr. Edwards’ suggestion aside; at the same time, it is doubtful that he himself would have suggested that this scenario be accepted with dogmatic authority.
John Calvin was very strong in asserting that God’s decree was “no mere permission.”45 Yet Edwards uses the same term, “permission,” but in such a way as to allow him to say the same thing as Calvin! At the same time, God is definitely portrayed as the absolute and only cause of all that is good:
Hence God decrees from all eternity, to permit all the evil that ever he does permit; because God’s permitting is God’s forbearing to act or to prevent…God decrees all the good that ever comes to pass; and therefore there certainly will come to pass no more good, than he has absolutely decreed to cause; and there certainly and infallibly will no more believe, no more be godly, and no more be saved, than God has decreed that he will cause to believe, and cause to be godly, and will save.46
If this is so, then one can plainly see that the whole of God’s work is based upon his grace and sovereign purpose; no man can look at himself as “special” above another, for whatever we have, we have from God. We deserved nothing good, yet have so much of it.
If the foundation of that distinction that there is between one man and another, whereby one is a good man, and another a wicked man, be God’s pleasure, and his causation; then God has absolutely elected the particular persons that are to be godly.47
And in a rhetorical question to those who would say that such an “arbitrary” judgment or action on the part of God is not worthy of him, or that such is simply beyond our comprehension, Edwards asks,
And cannot a God of infinite wisdom and infinite power cause the nature of things to be such, and order them so after they are caused, as to have things as he chooses, or without his will’s being crossed, and things so coming to pass that he had rather have them otherwise?48
Indeed! There is much more in this rich treatise that could be profitably examined, but this final quotation will have to suffice. In regards to the foreknowledge of God being directly related to the very decree of God itself, Edwards notes:
And it is owing only to him, that is the first being, and that exists necessarily, of himself, that all other things, that are not in their own nature necessary, or necessarily future, but merely possible, are brought out of that state of mere possibility, into a state of futurition, to be certainly future.49
Here Edwards shows his familiarity with Scholastic theology, and the concepts of “necessary” and “possible” being. However, it would be wrong to import into his thinking, then, the natural theology that had even by that time become so closely related to such concepts. As has been seen, Edwards would not balk at a “synthesis” approach that saw the usefulness of certain of the Scholastic propositions (such as this distinction between “necessary” and “potential” being, which is so important to certain of Aquinas’ theistic proofs) while not buying into anything that would compromise the centrality of divine revelation, nor place more in the capacity of man than Scriptural revelation would allow.
To this point we have centered our inquiry, quite rightly it would seem, on the same areas that give determinative form to all of Edwards’ thinking and theology, that being the nature and attributes of God. Next, we move to the personal application of these truths.
Salvation: Grace, Conversion, and the Religious Affections
As has been noted, it is virtually impossible to draw lines between Edwards’ doctrine of God and his soteriology. They are, in his mind, completely intertwined. This has been seen already in the fact that God’s work of redemption is repeatedly addressed in the context of such high theological discussions as those attending sovereignty, eternity, and the decrees. But, Edwards did indeed address just this topic, and his comments are very enlightening.
One source of information on Jonathan Edwards’ view of grace is his Treatise on Grace which is not found in his collected Works.50 Here Edwards addresses the issue of saving grace and common grace, and differentiates between the two. The same problem faces the reviewer as that which was encountered in Edwards’ theology proper—this man strove for great consistency in his theology, and hence many concepts that would be nicely treated separately are intertwined in his writings. The discussion of grace moves directly into the marks of true conversion, which leads into the religious affections. For Edwards, the true mark of a Christian was to be found in an apprehension of the excellency of divine things. This key element of his thinking will round out our brief review of the core elements of his theology.
Edwards provides us with a clear thesis statement at the beginning of his Treatise on Grace:
And that special or saving grace in this sense is not only different from common grace in degree, but entirely diverse in nature and kind, and that natural men not only have not a sufficient degree of virtue to be saints, but that they have no degree of that grace that is in godly men, is what I have now to show.51
From here Edwards delves into the Scriptures and comes quickly to the conclusion,
So that it is manifest by this, that men that have been the subjects only of the first birth, have no degree of that moral principle or quality that those that are new born have, whereby they have a title to the kingdom of heaven.52
This is followed by further examination of many passages addressing the natural state of fallen man, and the difference between the natural man and the man who has been subject of the working of God’s Spirit. In addressing this, then, Edwards asserts that the disjunction between saved and unsaved, regenerate and unregenerate, is so drastic, so sharp, that conversion itself must be an immediate thing:
From what has been said, I would observe that it must needs be that conversion is wrought at once. That knowledge, that reformation and conviction that is preparatory to conversion may be gradual, and the work of grace after conversion may be gradually carried on, yet that work of grace upon the soul whereby a person is brought out of a state of total corruption and depravity into a state of grace, to an interest in Christ, and to be actually a child of God, is in a moment…By which it seems evident that it is done at once and not gradually; whereby Christ, through His great power, does but speak the powerful word and it is done, He does but call and the heart of the sinner immediately comes.53
The consistency between this and his theology proper in regards to sovereignty and providence hardly needs to be pointed out. But it must be remembered that in his context, this subject was a point of some debate, and would, indirectly, bear upon two of Edwards’ greatest battles: the defense of the Awakening against the likes of Chauncy, and the correct doctrine on who is truly a part of the church of God, which eventually led to his dismissal from the Northampton church.
For Jonathan Edwards, conversion was the work of God, which resulted in a radical change in man. Before conversion, man was totally unable to bring about this change by the exercise of his own will or faculties:
Therefore it follows that saving grace in the heart, can’t be produced in man by mere exercise of what perfections he has in him already, though never so much assisted by moral suasion, and never so much assisted in the exercise of his natural principles, unless there be something more than all this, viz., an immediate infusion or operation of the Divine Being upon the soul.54
It has already been said that the resulting change in the heart that comes from conversion is “radical”, but how so? Here we begin to get a glimpse (already seen in his earlier personal remarks) of Edwards’ view on the religious affections, to which we will turn briefly at a later time. How can we know that conversion has taken place? What is the nature of the regenerate soul? What will this person do? The answer, for Edwards, is “love.” The converted person will love God—all of God, including his holiness, mercy, grace, justice—all of God. He writes,
Divine love, as it has God for its object, may be thus described. ‘Tis the soul’s relish of the supreme excellency of the Divine nature, inclining the heart to God as the chief good. The first thing in Divine love, and that from which everything that appertains to it arises, is a relish of the excellency of the Divine nature; which the soul of man by nature has nothing of…When once the soul is brought to relish the excellency of the Divine nature, then it will naturally, and of course, incline to God every way…He that is once brought to see, or rather to taste, the superlative loveliness of the Divine Being, will need no more to make him long after the enjoyment of God, to make him rejoice in the happiness of God, and to desire that this supremely excellent Being may be pleased and glorified.55
The man who loves God is the one who longs to please God, to love God, to experience God; and that not because of any selfish reason, but solely for the sake of God himself. Remember the cry of his heart to be “annihilated”, utterly swept up in the contemplation of the majesty of God? Here is the essence of Edwards’ belief about the change wrought in the heart in salvation. In speaking of this Paul Helm wrote, “Edwards’ argument here…is that the natural man is capable of loving God for selfish reasons, but not of loving God as He is in himself.”56 Edwards wrote,
A natural principle of self-love may be the foundation of great affections towards God and Christ, without seeing anything of the beauty and glory of the divine nature. There is a certain gratitude that is a mere natural thing.57
But of the man at conversion he says in the same treatise, “There is a new understanding of the excellent nature of God and his wonderful perfections, some new view of Christ in his spiritual excellencies and fulness, or things are opened to him in a new manner, whereby he now understands those divine and spiritual doctrines which once were foolishness unto him.”58
Here is the evidence of the presence of the Spirit of God in a person’s life—a love for the divine nature, which is certainly not present by nature in man. It is fascinating at this juncture to point out that Edwards, in this treatise on grace, moves quite naturally into a discussion of theology proper again; here, transitioning into a discussion of the Person of the Holy Spirit, bringing forth the concept of the identification of the Holy Spirit as the “love of God.” Not only this, but this continues directly into his essay on the Trinity where he develops this idea all the way into what has been called his very own “ontological proof” of the Trinity. The point in bringing this out is the inter-connectedness of the nature of God with the salvation of man. Listen to his words,
He (the Spirit) is the deity wholly breathed forth in infinite, substantial, intelligent love: from the Father and Son first towards each other, and secondarily freely flowing out to the creature, and so standing forth as distinct personal subsistence…And so God is Himself the portion and purchased inheritance of His people. Thus God is the Alpha and Omega in this affair of redemption…By this, also, we may understand how the saints are said to be made ‘partakers of God’s holiness’, not only as they partake of holiness that God gives, but partake of that holiness by which He himself is holy. For it has been already observed, the holiness of God consists in that Divine love in which the essence of God really flows out…We have shown that the holiness and happiness of God consist in the Holy Spirit; and so the holiness and happiness of every holy or truly virtuous creature of God, in heaven or earth, consist in the communion of the same Spirit.59
While Edwards’ speculations on the nature of the Trinity would be fascinating indeed, they fall outside of the current stream of inquiry. From his treatise on grace we turn to his early (1734) work, A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine. Here we find the work of the Spirit in conversion represented as a spiritual and divine light, as he says in his thesis statement:
That there is such a thing as a spiritual and divine light, immediately imparted to the soul by God, of a different nature from any that is obtained by natural means.60
This is much as what was said about the difference between common grace and the saving grace of God above; indeed, the “supernatural light” might well be described as the work of the Holy Spirit, who brings true faith to the heart of the elect. We would expect, then, given Edwards’ consistency, that the description of this light would follow the same lines as those laid down differentiating saving grace from common grace, regenerate from unregenerate, and this is exactly what we find:
This spiritual light is not the suggesting of any new truths or propositions not contained in the word of God…This spiritual light primarily consists in the former of these, viz. A real sense and apprehension of the divine excellency of things revealed in the word of God. A spiritual and saving conviction of the truth and reality of these things, arises from such a sight of their divine excellency and glory; so that this conviction of their truth is an effect and natural consequence of this sight of their divine glory…There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing, but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness.61
There are some vital aspects of Edwards’ theology to be noted here. First, the divine light is not revelatory in the sense of adding to Scripture; rather, the divine light allows the prejudices of the heart, that stand in the way of full understanding, to be removed (“As the prejudices of the heart, against the truth of divine things, are hereby removed; so that the mind becomes susceptive of the due force of rational arguments for their truth.”)62 The light results in an “apprehension” of the beauty of the nature of God, and results in a firm conviction and faith that God is indeed true, just, loving and merciful.
The role of the mind, reason, again comes to the fore as Edwards turns to discuss the effect upon the reason of this supernatural light, this work of God:
Not that they had a stronger reason, or had their reason more improved; but their reason was sanctified, and those blinding prejudices, that the scribes and Pharisees were under, were removed by the sense they had of the excellency of Christ, and his doctrine…As he that beholds objects on the face of the earth, when the light of the sun is cast upon them, is under greater advantage to discern them in their true forms and natural relations, than he that sees them in a dim twilight…A true sense of the divine excellency of the things of God’s word doth more directly and immediately convince us of their truth; and that because the excellency of these things is so superlative…They believe the doctrines of God’s word to be divine, because they see a divine, and transcendent, and most evidently distinguishing glory in them; such a glory as, if clearly seen, does not leave room to doubt of their being of God, and not of men.
Such a conviction of the truths of religion as this, arising from a sense of their divine excellency, is included in saving faith…God, in letting in this light into the soul, deals with man according to his nature, and makes use of his rational faculties. But yet this light is not the less immediately from God for that; the faculties are made use of as the subject, and not as the cause.63
The truth of divine things, then, is indeed rational; but the mind blinded by sin cannot see this. The divine light dispels this darkness and allows the mind of man to function correctly again, as that mind can now appreciate the proper foundation for all thinking, that being the beauty of the nature of God himself. Possibly drawing from Calvin’s metaphors found in the Institutes Book I, chapter 2, sections 2 and 3, Edwards refers to the work of the Spirit as light cast into the dim shadows, resulting in clearer, more precise sight. And from this we see the connection between the spiritual enlightenment by the Spirit, and the intellectual conviction that follows, for the mind then has accessible to it that which was not available before: spiritual truth. This is all part of real, or “saving faith.” If one wishes to ask of Edwards how one knows who is, and who is not a Christian, by now the answer should be abundantly clear.
But again we find Edwards following the lines of Calvin in Book I, chapters 7-9 with his following comments on the relationship of the Spirit and the Scriptures:
It conveys to our minds these doctrines; it is the cause of a notion of them in our heads, but not of the sense of their divine excellency in our hearts…The mind cannot see the excellency of any doctrine, unless that doctrine be first in the mind; but seeing the excellency of the doctrine may be immediately from the Spirit of God; though the conveying of the doctrine or proposition itself may be by the word….As for instance, the notion that there is a Christ, and that Christ is holy and gracious, is conveyed to the mind by the word of God; but the sense of the excellency of Christ by reason of that holiness and grace, is nevertheless immediately the work of the Holy Spirit.64
The natural man, then, could read of God’s holiness in the Word of God, and would there encounter truth. But outside of a quickening by the author of those words, the heart will remain numb to the majesty and beauty of that truth. There is, then, a necessary inter-action of the rational and the spiritual for full comprehension; neither is complete without the other.
This light is the gift of God. It is the work of God. It cannot be produced by the actions of men or the exercise of natural abilities. Edwards writes,
It is rational to suppose that God would reserve that knowledge and wisdom, which is of such a divine and excellent nature, to be bestowed immediately by himself; and that it should not be left in the power of second causes…How rational is it to suppose that God, however he has left lower gifts to second causes, and in some sort in their power, yet should reserve this most excellent, divine, and important of all divine communications, in his own hands, to be bestowed immediately by himself, as a thing too great for second causes to be concerned in?…It is rational to suppose, that it should be beyond man’s power to obtain this light by the mere strength of natural reason; for it is not a thing that belongs to reason, to see the beauty and loveliness of spiritual things; it is not a speculative thing, but depends on the sense of the heart.65
This is another way of asserting sovereignty; man is incapable of “working up” this sense of the excellency of divine things; it is not something that is the result of second causes; it is, as befits its high character, the sovereignly bestowed gift of God, given to those he will and to none other. The gift not only “frees” reason, but it transcends reason in giving to the mind this sense of the sublimity of divine doctrine and truth. Indeed, it is Edwards’ assertion that this sense is not even within the realm of the reason at all (not meaning that it is unreasonable or irrational, but simply “other” than based on reason alone). He illustrates this by saying,
But if we take reason strictly—not for the faculty of mental perception in general, but for ratiocination, or a power of inferring by arguments—the perceiving of spiritual beauty and excellency no more belongs to reason, than it belongs to the sense of feeling to perceive colours, or to the power of seeing to perceive the sweetness of food. It is out of reason’s province to perceive the beauty or loveliness of any thing: such a perception does not belong to that faculty. Reason’s work is to perceive truth and not excellency.66
This experience of the “divine light,” which he would later simply identify as true, Christian “conversion,” was so important to Jonathan Edwards that he refused to abandon one of the logical conclusions of this belief (that being that only those who are so converted should be partakers of the Lord’s Supper in the church) despite what he knew could happen. His dedication to the truth of this teaching was stronger than all else, and he remained committed to it till the end of his days. As with all else, this was not simply to him a doctrinal tenet, or a theological point of debate; he lived his theology. He speaks of an experience that, seemingly, only those who have experienced it can understand. It is hard to give to this experience words of description, for, as Edwards said above, our language is inadequate for the depiction of heavenly things. But, to those who speak of a time in life where they saw, for the first time, the holiness and power of the Almighty God, Edwards is a brother and compatriot. These people speak of being drastically changed—their entire outlook on life is changed and altered, never to be the same again. Edwards spoke of this long ago:
Yea, the least glimpse of the glory of God in the face of Christ doth more exalt and ennoble the soul, than all the knowledge of those that have the greatest speculative understanding in divinity without grace…There is nothing so powerful as this to support persons in affliction, and to give the mind peace and brightness in this stormy and dark world.67
Summary and Conclusion
The theology of Jonathan Edwards is soundly Reformed. The same driving forces that forged the doctrines of John Calvin are to be found in Jonathan Edwards. Classically, the Reformed theological position could be identified in two ways: first, by its strong doctrine of the nature of God as the central and controlling aspect of the entire system; secondly, by its emphasis upon the fallen nature and capacities of man.
We have seen, in numerous and striking ways, the height of Edwards’ doctrine of God. For Jonathan Edwards, the nature and attributes of God–all of them—are absolutely core to all else. The very end for which God created the world, he preaches, is for his own glory. The bare consideration that God is God, he proclaims, is sufficient to still all objections to his sovereignty. Divine sovereignty is as much a part of belief in the Christian God for Edwards as his being sinless is for many others—he simply cannot conceive of a God who is anything but properly described in Psalm 115:3: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.”
From this basis Edwards tackles the “ultimate” questions and objections which are to him lodged against basic theism, not simply against his own belief system. His consistency both drives him, as well as provides to him, a strong (even “inflexible”) framework in which he is do to his work. He stresses the reality and inescapability of the divine decrees, arguing masterfully that there are not two wills in God, but one, and that his decrees are in perfect harmony with his nature as the omniscient, complete, perfectly sovereign Creator.
The glory of God must be displayed! All of God’s attributes must be revealed to mankind, including his justice, wrath, and holiness. The attributes of God are not for him abstracts, but an ever-present reality, indeed, an object of humble adoration and worship.
The work of this sovereign God in man is marked by the same characteristics as his being: he is completely sovereign in salvation. It is his to give mercy, or his to withhold it. When he gives of His Spirit, the result is an effective change of the recipient. Conversion for Edwards is a change, an enabling through the “divine and supernatural light” to appreciate the things of God. The person to whom this great gift has come is then struck with a love for God—not a watered down version of the deity, but the Holy and Just God. Jesus Christ becomes the center of all life for those joined to him. It is this love of the divine doctrines that separates the unregenerate from the regenerate, for such a love is beyond the ability of the natural man. This love of God— his nature, his gospel, his actions in the world—is so important to Edwards that nothing, including expulsion from his pulpit, could stop his proclamation of it.
No one, who has deep respect and admiration for Jonathan Edwards, can feel satisfied upon reaching the end of a review of his writings. One simply cannot escape the feeling that there is so much more to be said. Indeed, if one finds oneself in heartfelt agreement with Mr. Edwards on the doctrines of the faith, and feels, as he did, that these issues are central to the Christian experience, one will wish that all could be exposed to these writings. Hence, one who has had the wonderful opportunity to spend even a few dozen hours basking in the rich light of these works, marveling at the perception and insight of this humble servant of God, feels a true responsibility to bring some of these treasured insights to others.
For two hundred years and more the writings of Jonathan Edwards have fascinated readers, no matter what their background. Some have come away hating him, not for anything of himself, but for what he said and believed. Surely this would not have surprised him in the least. Others try to approach him with an air of neutrality, not deigning to even entertain a whole picture of the man, but (possibly out of self-preservation) rather zeroing in so closely on one particular aspect of his “philosophy” so as to avoid the confrontation that any honest person must have with the teaching that was his. But others, men and women who find in him a kindred spirit, turn to these writings and find in them what they also find in Calvin, or the more modern Warfield. There is a fraternity of those who smile knowingly upon reading about the Religious Affections, and this “divine and supernatural light” of which he speaks, resulting in this “apprehension of the excellency of divine things.” To these Edwards speaks of truth, not just to the reason, but to the heart as well. This writer has yet to find a clearer presentation of his own experience with this “divine light” than that given by his brother over two centuries ago.
This review, it is hoped, is not ending here, either for the writer, or for the readers. This should be a beginning. There are few sources of reading material that could be more profitably recommended to our nation, or more particularly, to the church of Christ today. Our secular society needs to listen to Jonathan Edwards call them back to personal holiness in humble obedience to the sovereign and holy God. There is much need to pray that we would learn to love the holiness of God. The writings of Edwards function like a strong dose of medicine in a sick church centered so much on self, with little or no concern for God and his glory. If this brief attempt will in any way aid or encourage someone to take to heart the truths here presented, it will have done that for which it was intended.
The words below were written originally about John Calvin of Geneva, but apply equally as well, as has been shown, to Jonathan Edwards of Northampton:
It was that we might know ourselves to be wholly in the hands of this God of perfect righteousness and goodness – not in those of men, whether ourselves or some other men – that he was so earnest for the doctrine of predestination: which is nothing more than the declaration of the supreme dominion of God. It was that our eternal felicity might hang wholly on God’s mighty love – and not on our sinful weakness – that he was so zealous for the doctrine of election; which is nothing more than the ascription of our entire salvation to God. As he contemplated the majesty of this Sovereign Father of men, his whole being bowed in reverence before Him, and his whole heart burned with zeal for His glory. As he remembered that his great God has become in His own Son the Redeemer of sinners, he passionately gave himself to the proclamation of the glory of His grace. Into His hands he committed himself without reserve: his whole spirit panted to be in all its movement subjected to His government – or, to be more specific, to the ‘leading of His Spirit.’ All that was good in him, all the good he hoped might be formed in him, he ascribed to the almighty working of this Divine Spirit. (B.B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, p. 23).
1. Elisabeth Dodds, “My Dear Companion” in Christian History Vol. 4, No. 4, page 16. 2. Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Southampton: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987) p. 441. 3. Ibid., p. 442. 4. Christian History Vol. 4, No. 4, (no author given), pg. 4. 5. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards in Two Volumes, Edited by Edward Hickman (Southampton: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), 2:3. (Hereafter, Works). 6. Works 2:3. 7. Works 2:7. 8. Works 2:3, 4, 6. 9. Works 2:849. 10. Works 2:850. 11. Ibid. 12. Works 2:851. 13. Works 2:853. 14. Works 2:854. 15. Ibid. 16. Works 2:109. 17. Ibid. 18. Works 2:110. 19. Ibid. 20. Ibid. 21. Works 1:97. 22. Works 1:106. 23. Works 1:97. 24. Works 1:98. 25. Works 1:100. 26. Works 1:101. 27. Works 1:101-102. 28. Works 1:120. 29. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion Edited by McNiell (Philadelphia:Westminster Press, 1960), Book I, Chapter 14, Section 4, page 164. 30. Works 1:102. 31. Works 1:106. 32. Works 1:107-109. 33. Works 1:115. 34. Works 1:118. 35. Ibid. 36. Works 1:119. 37. Works 2:526. 38. Works 2:527, 532. 39. Works 2:527. 40. Ibid. 41. Works 2:527, 529. 42. Works 2:528. 43. Ibid. 44. Works 2:853. 45. Calvin, Institutes, I:18.1, p. 228. 46. Works 2:529, 532. 47. Works 2:531. 48. Works 2:532. 49. Ibid. 50. Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Grace & Other Writings Edited by Paul Helm (Greenwood, South Carolina: The Attic Press, 1971). 51. Edwards, Treatise, p. 26. 52. Edwards, Treatise, p. 27. 53. Edwards, Treatise, pp. 33-35. 54. Edwards, Treatise, p. 39. 55. Edwards, Treatise, pp. 48-49. 56. Paul Helm in Edwards, Treatise, p. 11. 57. Works 1:275. 58. Works 1:282. 59. Edwards, Treatise, pp. 63, 68, 73, 75. 60. Works 2:13. 61. Works 2:13-14. 62. Works 2:14. 63. Works 2:14-15. 64. Works 2:15. 65. Works 2:16. 66. Works 2:17. 67. Ibid.
Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by McNiell. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.
Dodds, Elisabeth. “My Dear Companion” in Christian History Magazine, Volume IV, No. 4.
Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards in Two Volumes. Edited by Edward Hickman. Southampton: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984. (First published in London, 1834)
________, Treatise on Grace & Other Writings. Edited by Paul Helm. Greenwood, South Carolina: The Attic Press, Inc., 1971.
Gerstner, John H. Jonathan Edwards: A Mini-Theology. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987.
Lloyd-Jones, D.M. The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors. Southampton: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.
Murray, Iain H. Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Southampton: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.