A sense of God’s majesty combined with desire for deep spiritual intimacy characterizes one of America’s greatest evangelical thinkers.1 Known as the theologian of God’s sovereignty, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) made enduring contributions in the fields of theology, philosophy, and the psychology of religion. A nurturing pastor, frontier missionary, and bold revivalist preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Edwards exemplifies a man who integrated reason (the mind) and personal devotion (the heart) in unwavering dedication to the sovereign God revealed in creation and Scripture. These convictions helped Edwards stand firm during a time when a new “enlightenment” threatened Christianity, much as it does today.
Born October 5, 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut (part of New England in colonial America), Jonathan Edwards descended from a family of highly regarded clergymen. His father, Timothy Edwards, was a Congregationalist pastor as was his mother’s father. The fifth of eleven children, Jonathan was his parents’ only son. He “grew up in an atmosphere of Puritan piety, affection and learning.”2
Vigorous academic instruction at home led a precocious preteen Edwards to write a sophisticated essay on the immateriality of the human soul. At this same tender age, he also penned essays on the flying spider and on the rainbow—the first written expressions of a lifelong interest in the natural world. Scholars have noted that these writings “reveal remarkable powers of observation and deduction.”3 Edwards’ writing concerning rainbows clearly implies his early mastery of the optical theories set forth by Sir Isaac Newton.4
As a child, Edwards began jotting down his reflections and observations on various topics in a notebook––a practice that continued throughout his entire life. He later incorporated these notes in his writings. Upon his death, he left nine volumes of notebooks entitled “Miscellaneous Observations,” containing some 1,360 entries.
At age 13 Edwards entered a school considered a bastion of Christian education. This school later became Yale University. After receiving a master’s degree and serving a short stint in pastoral ministry, Edwards returned to Yale as a senior tutor. While there, he experienced a profound spiritual awakening later described in his Personal Narrative. This event gave Edwards a renewed awareness of God’s absolute sovereignty and mankind’s utter dependence upon God’s power and grace. These central theological truths influenced Edwards’ entire understanding of Christian theology and his approach to ministry.
Subsequent to his profound experience, Edwards married Sarah Pierrepont, the deeply pious daughter of one of New England’s prominent Puritan families. Over the years, Sarah and Jonathan had eleven children of their own.
Theologian of Sovereign Grace
By the age of 24, Edwards had become the assistant pastor of a Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts. He worked under the supervision of his maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Upon his grandfather’s death two years later, Edwards took over the pastoral leadership of the church. For more than twenty years at this parish (which became one of the most significant outside of Boston), Edwards preached and wrote. He set forth a body of theological work that included A Treatise on Religious Affections, Freedom of Will, and Original Sin and which earned him a reputation as one of the most influential evangelical theologians of all time.
Because many Puritan Christians had migrated from England to enjoy religious freedom in the new world, colonial America embraced Puritanism as a major theological, social, and political force. Edwards’ Puritan theology represented a version of Reformed orthodoxy—one with special emphasis upon the evidence of a changed life and the pastoral elements of the Christian faith.5 Remaining clearly within the Augustinian-Calvinistic theological tradition, Edwards became well known for his defense of three Reformed distinctives: the sovereignty of God, original sin, and salvation solely by grace. Imperative to Edwards’ overall theology and ministry, these theological principles warrant consideration, especially today, in an age when evangelical denominations tend to neglect them.
1. Sovereignty of God: The doctrine of God’s sovereignty permeates Edwards’ sermons and writings—his entire theological system.6 The way Edwards viewed God as both the transcendent Creator and the absolute Ruler of the world is especially well-developed in his book End for Which God Created the World. God foreordains and perfectly controls all things, which can by no means be frustrated by the will of the creature. The world exists in complete and utter dependence upon God, and God’s sovereign purposes extend to His acts in creation, providence, and redemption. Edwards, in keeping with the historic Reformed tradition, viewed the simultaneous truth of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility as paradoxical and humanly incomprehensible but not contradictory in nature.
2. Original Sin: Edwards believed that the entire human race sinned in Adam’s fall (Gen. 3). All humanity inherited sinfulness, guilt, and moral corruption through relationship with Adam.7 The Fall eradicated humanity’s original righteousness in creation and distorted the image of God in people.
Humanity (in its state of sin) suffers from a depraved nature and is therefore alienated from a holy and just God. Edwards stressed that the sinner’s heart becomes hardened and his or her will enslaved to wrongdoing. Thus, the sinner often shows open antagonism and contempt towards God. This sober and pessimistic view of human nature stood in sharp contrast to the optimistic view of human nature that emerged in the colonies just prior to the American Revolution, and that persists to this day. Edwards’ sermons, especially his later evangelistic messages, clearly reflect this diagnosis of the fallen human condition. A formal defense of his view of human nature appears in his work Original Sin, published posthumously.
3. Salvation Solely by Grace: Edwards’ view of the absolute necessity of divine grace in salvation flows naturally from his view of mankind’s state of sinful depravity. In his book Freedom of Will, he argues that the human will is not an independent faculty. Rather, the will of man responds according to its nature (i.e., according to its prevailing motives or character), which for all humans since the Fall is marred by sin. Therefore, Edwards concludes that man is helpless to save himself or even to cooperate in the process.
Edwards reasons that the sinner by nature never chooses God unless God intervenes with a special efficacious and irresistible grace. This sovereign grace illumines the mind, inclines the will, and implants (in Edwards’ own words) a “sense of the heart.” As in Reformed theology, Edwards asserts that regeneration (the spiritual rebirth) logically precedes and is the necessary basis for a person’s ultimate repentance, faith, and conversion. Thus salvation is solely a work of God’s grace.
The changed human heart in redemption became a frequent theme as Edwards spoke and wrote. As theologian Mark Noll notes, for Edwards “true Christianity involved not just an understanding of God and the facts of Scripture but a new ‘sense’ of divine beauty, holiness, and truth.”8 Edwards expressed a keen appreciation for the importance of integrating both head and heart in the Christian’s service to God.
Apologist in the Enlightenment
Edwards’ lifetime overlapped the eighteenth-century philosophical movement called the Enlightenment period.9 According to one of its best known advocates, Immanuel Kant, “enlightenment” meant critically scrutinizing, no longer blindly trusting in the authorities of the past—such as the Bible, the church, and the state. Everything must stand before the bar of human reason and conscience. Enlightenment thinkers affirmed innate human goodness and the intrinsic rationality of the human mind. This powerful paradigm shift posed a direct challenge to historic Christianity by declaring the supremacy of human reason over divine revelation.
As a philosophizing divine (philosophical theologian) Jonathan Edwards’ wrote a body of apologetic work that is largely a Christian theistic response to the advancing claims of the Enlightenment.10 Edwards argued that all realities of life and being uniquely depend upon God, including the world, knowledge, moral virtue, and of course, salvation from sin. The Enlightenment view of human autonomy was the very antithesis of Edwards’ theological description of fallen humans as desperate, weak, depraved, and utterly dependent creatures. Edwards strongly critiqued the Enlightenment’s “new moral philosophy” and the movements toward it within Christianity. He argued that morality is rooted and grounded in God and in His revealed Word.
True morality then flows, he asserted, from God’s gracious acts toward humanity. In Edwards’ own words: “Nothing is of the nature of true virtue, in which God is not the first and the last.”11 His posthumously published work, Nature of True Virtue, explores this relationship between God and human virtue.
When colonial America experienced the profound revivalist movement known as the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards held center stage. Church historian Williston Walker called this revival event (lasting approximately 20 years) the “most far-reaching and transforming movement in the eighteenth century religious life of America.”12 The breezes of revival began blowing in sections of New England in the late 1720s and early 1730s and then gusted throughout colonial America, impacting tens of thousands of people with the gospel of Jesus Christ during the 1730s and 1740s.
These revival winds blasted through Edwards’ own town of Northampton beginning in 1734-1735, when evangelistic services led to the mass conversion of hundreds of people to Christianity. And, the numbers steadily increased. Through the preaching of George Whitefield, an itinerant Anglican, the number of converts swelled into the thousands throughout the colonies. The large crowds attracted by Whitefield in Philadelphia even impressed Benjamin Franklin, Edwards’ contemporary.13 On some occasions, when Edwards and Whitefield combined their fire-and-brimstone-type preaching, they drew several thousand people a day for weeks on end.
Writing about the effects of the Awakening in his hometown, Edwards noted: “There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world . . . souls did, as it were, come by flocks to Jesus Christ.”14
Edwards preached a bold and uncompromising message of “justification by faith alone.” His most famous sermon, however, the one that appears in American literature anthologies, is entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Considered a terrifying message by some for its vivid metaphors and explicit references to divine punishment, the sermon displays Edwards’ remarkable rhetorical skills. It also demonstrates his profound insights into the human psyche.
Astutely aware of the psychology of religion, Edwards not only shaped the preaching of the First Great Awakening, but he also provided a fair-minded psychological/theological analysis of this extraordinary religious phenomenon. He strongly criticized the various excesses of the movement—emotionalism, hysteria, disorder, and ecclesiastical and civil disruptions. Seeking to correct these problems, Edwards confronted evangelist George Whitefield for occasionally encouraging their practice. Ultimately Edwards concluded that the Awakening was a genuine work of God because it produced enduring change in peoples’ lives, intense worship, and long-term community and social change.
Edwards wrote a book describing the spiritual happenings in Northampton entitled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. Extremely popular throughout the colonies, the book brought international attention to the Awakening through three editions and twenty printings. The Awakening so strongly impacted Edwards that he began to believe that a latter-day millennial dawn was beginning in colonial America.15
Edwards later wrote a classic work addressing the psychology of religion, A Treatise on Religious Affections. Considered one of the two best books yet written on this subject (along with William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience), Edwards’ work provides a penetrating analysis of the phenomenon of religious experience.16 In it, he defines the “marks of the true religion,” which include both virtuous attitudes and practices.
More than a Preacher
The Northampton church dismissed Edwards (then in his late 40’s) when a contentious ecclesiastical dispute arose concerning the proper qualifications for those receiving the Lord’s Supper (holy communion). Edwards differed with his church, arguing that only those who clearly exhibited signs of Christian faith and virtue should partake. Leaving Northampton, he chose to oversee a congregation in the frontier town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Several hundred Indians lived near the settlement, and Edwards also carried the gospel to them. Along with discharging his pastoral and missionary duties, he finished some of his most important writings during this period.
Hampered by language barriers and ill health at Stockbridge, Edwards accepted a call (at age 54) to serve as president of New Jersey College (later Princeton University). Shortly after his inauguration the next year, he contracted smallpox from an inoculation. Jonathan Edwards died from the disease in Princeton on March 22, 1758.
By his example, Jonathan Edwards challenges Christians today. This man fully engaged his head and his heart as he sought to live according to the gospel of Jesus Christ. With the coming of the American Revolution and its optimistic view of human nature, Edwards’ staunch Puritanism began to lose significant ground to Arminianism (with emphasis on the human will) and Unitarianism (with emphasis on inclusivism), which hold large territory to this day. And yet, Edwards’ legacy as an extraordinary Christian thinker who stood close to God—in awe of His majesty and ever aware of His sovereignty—gives Christians (both then and now) someone worthy to emulate.
- Arminianism: A theological tradition traced back to Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) that reacted to certain Reformed (Calvinistic) theological distinctives concerning divine election and salvation. Among other things, Arminians strongly emphasize human freedom asserting that salvation is both “graspable and resistible.”
- Augustinian–Calvinistic Tradition: A historical theological tradition (or consensus) that strongly emphasizes such doctrinal distinctives as original sin, salvation solely by God’s grace, divine election, and the absolute sovereignty of God. See also Reformed.
- Puritanism: A dynamic Christian movement that began in the sixteenth century and sought to reform the Church of England along biblical lines. Many Puritans came to colonial America after experiencing significant persecution in England. Puritanism was staunchly Calvinistic in theological orientation and laid special emphasis upon preaching and pastoral care. The Puritan approach to the Christian life emphasized hard work, excellence in education, and deep personal piety. Puritan thinkers played an important role in the emergence of modern science in the middle of the seventeenth century and also influenced the formation of democracy in colonial America. In modern times Puritans have been unfairly maligned as “dour killjoys.”
- Reformed: A theological tradition traced back to the Protestant reformer and biblical scholar John Calvin (1509-1564) that emphasizes the absolute sovereignty of God in creation and in salvation. Reformed theology strongly emphasizes mankind’s enslavement to sin and God’s autonomous and gracious acts in salvation. For the Reformed, salvation is “neither graspable (in sin) nor resistible (by grace).”
- Unitarianism: A religious tradition that rejects the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the authority of the Bible. Unitarians affirm the strict unity of God’s nature and person as well as the inherent goodness and rationality of man.
- For introductory articles on the life and thought of Jonathan Edwards, see Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 8, s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan;” Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan;” Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1967), s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan;” Ian P. McGreal, ed., Great Thinkers of the Western World (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992), 261-65.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- Paul Edwards.
- Paul Edwards.
- Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 174.
- McGreal, 262-63.
- Edwards’ own distinctive theological approach to the doctrine of original sin was known as “constituted identity.”
- Elwell, ed., s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan.”
- Elwell, ed., s.v. “Enlightenment, The.”
- Trevor A. Hart, gen. ed., The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan.”
- As cited in Walter A. Elwell, s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan.”
- Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 464.
- Alister E. McGrath, An Introduction to Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 309.
- As cited in Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2d ed. (Dallas: Word, 1995), 346.
- Millennial dawn signifies the beginning of the millennium. For Edwards, the First Great Awakening might have been the possible beginning of God’s gracious reign evidenced by the mass conversions to Christ.
Sidebar: Jonathan Edwards’ Writings
Edwards’ most famous sermon, “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God,” is too long to publish here in its entirety, but this excerpt provides a window to his fiery preaching style.
-Their foot shall slide in due time- Deut. xxxii. 35
There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. Men's hands cannot be strong when God rises up. The strongest have no power to resist him, nor can any deliver out of his hands.-He is not only able to cast wicked men into hell, but he can most easily do it. Sometimes an earthly prince meets with a great deal of difficulty to subdue a rebel, who has found means to fortify himself, and has made himself strong by the numbers of his followers. But it is not so with God. There is no fortress that is any defense from the power of God. Though hand join in hand, and vast multitudes of God's enemies combine and associate themselves, they are easily broken in pieces. They are as great heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind; or large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames. We find it easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the earth; so it is easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread that any thing hangs by: thus easy is it for God, when he pleases, to cast his enemies down to hell. What are we, that we should think to stand before him, at whose rebuke the earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down? . . .
They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They do not only justly deserve to be cast down thither, but the sentence of the law of God, that eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between him and mankind, is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell. John iii. 18. "He that believeth not is condemned already." So that every unconverted man properly belongs to hell; that is his place; from thence he is, John viii. 23. "Ye are from beneath." And thither he is bound; it is the place that justice, and God's word, and the sentence of his unchangeable law assign to him. . . .
All wicked men's pains and contrivance which they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell one moment. Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do. Every one lays out matters in his own mind how he shall avoid damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives well for himself, and that his schemes will not fail. They hear indeed that there are but few saved, and that the greater part of men that have died heretofore are gone to hell; but each one imagines that he lays out matters better for his own escape than others have done. He does not intend to come to that place of torment; he says within himself, that he intends to take effectual care, and to order matters so for himself as not to fail.
But the foolish children of men miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, and in confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow. The greater part of those who heretofore have lived under the same means of grace, and are now dead, are undoubtedly gone to hell; and it was not because they were not as wise as those who are now alive: it was not because they did not lay out matters as well for themselves to secure their own escape.
Notes on the Created World
57. It is very fit and becoming of God who is infinitely wise, so to order things that there should be a voice of His in His words, instructing those that behold him and painting forth and showing divine mysteries and things more immediately appertaining to Himself and His spiritual kingdom. The works of God are but a kind voice or language of God to instruct intelligent beings in things pertaining to Himself. And why should we not think that he would teach and instruct His words in this way as well as in others, viz., by representing divine things by His works and so painting them forth, especially since we know that God hath so much delighted in this way of instruction. . . .
70. If we look on these shadows of divine things as the voice of God purposely by them teaching us these and those spiritual and divine things, to show of what excellent advantage it will be, how agreeably and clearly it will tend to convey instruction to our minds, and to impress things on the mind and to affect the mind, by that we may, as it were, have God speaking to us. Wherever we are, and whatever we are about, we may see divine things excellently represented and held forth. And it will abundantly tend to confirm the Scriptures, for there is an excellent agreement between these things and the holy Scripture. . . .
156. The book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature in two ways, viz., by declaring to us those spiritual mysteries that are indeed signified and typified in the constitution of the natural world; and secondly, in actually making application of the signs and types in the book of nature as representations of those spiritual mysteries in many instances. . . .
211. The immense magnificence of the visible world in inconceivable vastness, the incomprehensible height of the heavens, etc., is but a type of the infinite magnificence, height and glory of God’s world in the spiritual world: the most incomprehensible expression of His power, wisdom, holiness and love in what is wrought and brought to pass in the world, and the exceeding greatness of the moral and natural good, the light, knowledge, holiness and happiness which shall be communicated to it, and therefore to that magnificence of the world, height of heaven. These things are often compared in such expression: Thy mercy is great above the heavens, thy truth reacheth; thou hast for thy glory above the heavens, etc.