Jonathan Edwards: An Appreciation

Founders Journal · Summer 2003 · web edition only

Jonathan Edwards: An Appreciation

Tom J. Nettles

Happy Birthday, Jonathan Edwards! By the time fall of 2003 is well under way, the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards will be upon us. Baptists should breathe a collective word of gratitude to God for the positive impact of such a gifted servant for the cause of the gospel in general and for the positive impact on Baptists specifically. This edition of the Founders Journal is given to that privilege and duty.

Jonathan Edwards was born on October 5, 1703, the fifth child and first son of eleven children born to Timothy and Esther Edwards. Timothy Edwards had gone to the parish church in East Windsor, Massachusetts, in 1694 at twenty-five years of age and stayed there for life. He was zealous for the cause of the Gospel and for the piety and education of his children. Jonathan was the happy recipient of this care. He never seemed to resent it, but found it one of his chief graces to have been reared and educated in such an atmosphere. He learned to push himself much harder than his father ever dreamed of doing.

He accomplished his undergraduate work at Yale 1716-20 and finished the masters in 1722. From 1722 to 1724 he served as temporary pastor for two churches, less than a year each, in New York and Bolton, Connecticut. One of the most spiritually traumatic periods of his life came during the three years he spent as tutor at Yale during a very unsettled time at the college when its administration was most unstable. In 1726 he went to assist his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in the church at Northampton. In 1727 he married the love of his life, Sarah Pierpont. His grandfather died in 1729 and Edwards became pastor of the church. He stayed there until he was dismissed in 1750 in a controversy over the proper recipients of communion.

An unexpected and powerful intrusion of God’s Spirit fell on the town of Northampton in 1735 and traveled north to Northfield and as far south as Stratford, Guilford, Lyme, and Groton, Connecticut. Edwards was in the midst of a rigorous defense of justification by faith, experiencing criticism for his stout Reformed biblicism, when the massive work of conversion and refreshment occurred. Edwards recorded the phenomenon and analyzed the variety of spiritual experiences in his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls. He at once confirmed the Puritan morphology of conversion while modifying it by describing variety in the experiences and warning against carnal confidence that all such traumas issued in genuine conversion. The foundation he established in this writing set the course for his life’s work. All of his writings from that point until his death explored some aspect of genuine spiritual experience. The character of human freedom and as it relates to the two great realities of God’s absolute sovereignty and the pervasive effects of human sin constitutes the matrix from which Christian experience must be born, or re-born. None spoke so profoundly and searchingly of this as Jonathan Edwards.

The article by Jeff Robinson gives a summary of Edwards’s great work and most thorough examination of human affections, and perhaps the most important book ever written in America, Religious Affections. Every Christian, but particularly every minister of the Gospel, should read Edwards’s book and be chastened to greater spiritual jealousy for the honor of God and a more discerning but compassionate shepherd’s heart. Jeff’s article will help you see the value of this and suggest some contemporary issues to which it relates. One can sense the first-hand encounter that he has had with this captivating and searching treatment of Christian assurance.

None should forget, however, that Edwards was first and foremost a pastoral evangelist. He spent all the energy of every mental fiber and every creative impulse to impress on the minds and hearts of his people the infinitely important necessity of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. None could paint the human condition more bleakly and show its utter desperation so alarmingly; and none could show the attractiveness and compelling beauties of the Lord Jesus Christ with greater earnestness and freeness than Edwards. Nor has any uninspired author pressed back the scenes and purposes of eternity so far as Edwards. He sought to arrange every element of the gospel and its historical manifestation within the context of its ultimate purpose, its reason for being just as it is. Sometimes it appears that he has been taken to the mouth of hell and shown what it is like to be under an unrestrained torrent of divine wrath and then commissioned to go and tell what he saw. Then subsequently he was swept up to heaven to see the Lord Jesus Christ in his glory and in the ceaseless flow of divine love between the Father and the risen and ascended Redeemer and commissioned, not to tell no man, but to expand human language as much as possible to describe the loveliness of what he saw. His evangelism has that kind of first hand urgency.

Peter Beck’s article gives us a concise and clear snapshot of the coherent theology behind Edwards’s work as an evangelist. What kinds of appeals did he issue to his hearers, and how could he as a faithful Calvinist make such urgent demands and extend such gracious promises to an assembly of sinners, bound by their hostile affections and subject to the eternal decrees of divine justice and mercy? Mr. Beck unfolds for us the theology behind this consistent and sincere aspect of Edwards’s sermons. Readers have the rare treat of illustrations coming from some of the as yet unpublished sermon material in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

Edwards sticks to the mind, and the heart. Those who study him thoroughly, and with sympathy, find it hard to conceive of biblical truth in an arrangement other than that presented by Edwards. He captures their manner of expression and the framework within which they perceive the relevance of the Gospel message. Perhaps that is not always good. Absent his facility in philosophical reasoning disciplined by his massive and thorough biblical knowledge in the context of an immersion in the history of Christian theology, Edwards imitators might become abstruse and more metaphysical than clearly expository. Edwards was not that way, but some of his followers have been and in so doing they completely reversed the theological concerns of Edwards. At the same time, a disciplined appreciation of Edwards within the context of a rigorously biblical orientation to preaching can produce edifying and convicting preaching. A meditative reading of his sermons can give food for thought and produce earnest desires for more of God for months and even years.

Baptists were affected that way. With rare exceptions, they resisted the metaphysical cravings and enjoyed Edwards in the context of their unalterable devotion to the dictates of biblical revelation. But they certainly did enjoy him and benefit from his spiritual power and distinctive arrangement of Reformed orthodoxy. Present day Baptist life cannot be understood apart from being aware of the massive influence he exerted. It might safely be contended that The Southern Baptist Convention was born, theologically, out of the energy of the writings of Jonathan Edwards. My article on Edwards and His Impact on Baptists attempts to show just a bit of this. Missions as well as the defense of religious liberty has a definite Edwardsean flavor.

We pray that the issue of the Founders Journal will inspire and enable you to live more to the glory of God.