Jonathan Edwards on the Christian Life

[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe complained that Jonathan Edwards’s (1703-58) sermons on sin and suffering were “refined poetry of torture.” After staying up one night reading Edwards’s treatise on the will, Mark Twain reported that “Edwards’s God shines red and hideous in the glow from the fires of hell, their only right and proper adornment. By God, I was ashamed to be in such company.”

[2] Generations of Americans have drawn similar conclusions after reading his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon in their high school and college literature classes. They would be surprised to learn that Edwards was obsessed by God’s beauty not wrath, and that, as historian Patrick Sherry recently argued, Edwards made beauty more central to theology than anyone else in the history of Christian thought, including Augustine and (the 20th-century Swiss Catholic) Hans Urs von Balthasar.

[3] They would also be surprised to learn that Edwards is widely regarded as America’s greatest philosopher before the twentieth century, and arguably this continent’s greatest theologian ever. One measure of his greatness is Yale University Press’s critical edition of his works, which has 26 volumes–but even that represents only half of his written products. Another token of Edward’s importance is the 3-volume Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, which contains far more references to Edwards than to any other single figure.

[4] Perhaps most important for readers of this journal, Edwards is widely recognized as America’s greatest theologian. Nearly twenty years ago Robert Jenson published a monograph entitled America’s Theologian. The nearest competitor to Edwards for that moniker, H. Richard Niebuhr, confessed he was greatly indebted to Edwards and saw himself as extending the Edwardsian vision.

Beauty and the Christian God

[5] What then does America’s theologian contribute to twenty-first-century thinking about Christian life? I think first of his theological aesthetics, and the fresh outlook on life it can provide. He taught that the essence of true religious experience is to be overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God, to be drawn to the glory of his perfections, and to sense his irresistible love. George Marsden once wrote that it is something like being overwhelmed by the beauty of a great work of art or music. We can become so enthralled by the beauty that we lose consciousness of self and self-interest and become absorbed by the magnificent object. So also we can become drawn out of self-absorption by the power of the beauty of a truly loveable person. Our hearts are changed by an irresistible power. But this power gently lures; it does not coerce. Edwards taught that our eyes are opened when we are captivated by the beautiful love and glory of God in Christ, when we see this love most powerfully demonstrated in Christ’s sacrificial love for the undeserving. Then we feel forced to abandon love for self as the central principle of our lives and turn to the love of God.

[6] Edwards describes our side of this experience as like being given a sixth sense: a sense of the beauty, glory and love of God. He observes, “The Bible speaks of giving eyes to see, ears to hear, unstopping the ears of the deaf, and opening the eyes of them that were born blind, and turning from darkness to light.” Therefore the spiritual knowledge gained in true conversion is a kind of “sensible” knowledge—as different from intellectual knowledge as the taste of honey is different from the mere intellectual understanding that honey is sweet.

[7] True Christian experience, then, is sensible and affective. The Christian, says Edwards, does not “merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. . . . For as God is infinitely the Greatest Being, so He is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory; God . . . is the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty.”[2]

Conversion and spiritual formation

[8] Edwards had plenty to say to current debates in the church about what it means to convert and how one grows in grace. On conversion, he avoids the head (beliefs as the best test of salvation) vs. heart (it’s a matter of how you feel about Jesus) dichotomy, saying that the heart of true spirituality is what he called the “affections,” which are the basic inclinations of the soul, the root of everything we think, feel and choose. Conversion comes with a vision of the beauty of God in Jesus Christ, and results in transformed affections, which then affect every part of us—our feelings, beliefs and choices. The best sign of true conversion is Christian practice, which is most reliably seen over the long run. So after the Great Awakening’s excesses, Edwards became uncomfortable with declaring that someone was regenerate because of an emotional experience, and decided that only the test of time, proven by Christian practice, was a reliable sign of true religion.

[9] For spiritual growth, Edwards emphasized a host of practices that don’t receive a lot of attention today: fasting and prayer, daily Bible study, intercession for worldwide revival and existing churches and ministers, regular recollection of present and past sins, exhortations and warnings to others, perseverance through times of suffering, and the continual “striving” for holiness and “Christian knowledge” (of the Bible and Christian doctrine).[3] He also emphasized balance in the Christian life. True spirituality, he taught, is balanced between assurance of salvation and fear of God, joy in Christ and mourning for sin, love for God and love for others, love for both friends and strangers, love for neighbor and family, and concern for others’ bodies as well as their souls. It cares about its own sins and not just others’, it trusts God for both salvation and financial provision, and perseveres in faith through both prosperity and trouble. Finally, it is regular at both public worship and secret prayer.[4]

Teacher of preachers

[10] Most of us are familiar with the “Sinners” sermon. Even if we don’t like its threatening message, we can admire Edwards’s use of imagery—which was so skillful that, according to notetakers present, some of those listening feared the floor would open up beneath them and they’d fall into hell.

[11] But Edwards the fire-breather was also Edwards the Enlightenment rationalist who looked for the best arguments no matter who made them. He can teach preachers and laity alike that reason is a gift from God, even if it is found on the lips of those who hate God. He can teach thinking Christians today that God pours his rain and shines his sun—and his gifts of truth—on the churched and unchurched alike, both believers and unbelievers. Edwards learned from deists while undermining their system. As the early church put it, he plundered the Egyptians while escaping their clutches. He read all the good literature he could get his hands on, and not only literature but also journalism, science, history, philosophy and theology. He didn’t care who wrote as long as they made good use of reason and had something to teach him. He is a model of a Christian mind that fears nothing in the wider world, but joyfully appropriates what is of use to understand that world and its Creator.

[12] Edwards was a model preacher. He didn’t have a strong voice, and was barely animated in the pulpit. But it is said that his original hearers were often surprised the sermon hour had come to an end so quickly—so captivated were they by the imagery and reasoning they were hearing. What was his secret? Part of it was his incomparable ability to bring to bear upon contemporary problems the depths and riches of the biblical drama. Another part was his skill at making—as Wilson Kimnach has put it—what is true become real. Edwards was famous for distinguishing between historical knowledge of the Bible and “spiritual knowledge” of its story of redemption. This would come only when the “divine and supernatural light” shone through the biblical text, and so opened the reader’s spiritual eyes that she could “see” the vivid reality of “divine things.” Today’s preachers could learn from this singular determination to not only tell the history of redemption, but to so pray and preach that that story becomes more real than any other story.

[13] Preachers can also learn from Edwards’s interpretation of the Bible. No part of it could be abstracted from the rest of the canon and its complete story of redemption. Edwards believed, with the Reformers, that Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. One can assume a divine unity undergirding the book’s whole, and should use that conviction to help interpret problem passages. Difficult passages should always be seen in the light of the whole story and its more transparent sections.

Catalyst for renewal?

[14] Many modern Christians have a difficult time cheering Edwards’s work in revival and missions. To them, fear plays far too important a role in revival preaching. And if revival is the culmination of mission that drives the engine of history, then fear plays a key role in the work of redemption. But should it? Both revival–and fear as a part of it–are repellant to the modern mind.

[15] Let’s look first at Edwards’s claim that revival is the engine of history. Is this credible? Think of the early Christian church, whose rise Edwards called a religious revival. Few would doubt that the rise of Christianity turned the course of the Roman Empire, whose later history in turn shaped the beginning of the Middle Ages. All histories of the high and later Middle Ages show the overwhelming dominance of the church in its culture—much of which was driven by such “revivals” as the Benedictine, Franciscan and other monastic movements. Arguably, the American civil war was precipitated by the Second Great Awakening and the abolitionist movement which it spawned.

[16] And what about fear? Harry Stout has explained how Edwards believed fear of judgment was an important element in revival preaching. Was he wrong to promote such preaching? Is it always wrong for religion to produce fear? What about slaveholders’ fears that God might be angered by their slaveholding? Or the fear of anyone who has abused another human being, that their sin might be judged in this life or the next? Anyone who believes that sin matters, and that much human misery is the result of sin, should consider what role religious fear can play in checking social evil. It is probable that down through the ages, many thousands—perhaps millions—have come to faith because of fear. It’s also probable that in many cases that fear was later transformed into loving awe before God’s beautiful love. Edwards would say that churches which condemn all use of fear in preaching are missing something integral to both faith and human psychology.

[17] If fear can play a role in social and churchly renewal, so can Edwards’s distinction between natural and moral ability. Like Luther, Edwards said that we human beings are morally bound to sin because of our sinful natures. But at the same time we have natural ability not to sin. For example, the proud man is bound to tell others about his accomplishments. In a sense, he can’t help it. But he also has a mouth that speaks only when his mind tells it to. There is nothing in nature that forces him to speak those words of self-congratulation. So on the one hand, he is bound to praise himself, but on the other, he is responsible for his sin of pride because nothing is forcing his lips to form those words. This is why Edwards says he is both bound and free at the same time. Morally he is bound by the pride of his sinful nature, while naturally he is free to choose not to let his lips form those proud words.

[18] Society risks disintegration if it accepts the principle that moral necessity (a sinner is bound by his sinful nature) removes responsibility (“I couldn’t help it and so am not to blame”). We’ve already seen this in cases where criminals are acquitted because they plead their desires were overwhelming. But then the more one is dominated by greed, cruelty or malice, the more one would be pardoned for being mean and acting cruelly. Edwards’s remedy to this modern illogic is to use his concept of moral vs. natural necessity to show that the criminal with a criminal nature is not thereby absolved of responsibility—for he was still naturally free to choose against crime.

[19] This principle can also be used for religious renewal. Souls outside of grace who plead they are helpless to approach God—since Scripture claims the moral inability of the soul to reform itself—can be told there is nothing in nature that is stopping them from going to church or reading the Bible. This is how Calvinist preachers have preached revivals from the Great Awakening and after, with great success at times. It is also how both individual and church renewal can proceed: we can use our natural abilities to avail ourselves of the means of grace (preaching, fellowship, sacraments, Bible reading), thus—as Edwards put it—building the pile of logs on top of Mount Carmel like Elijah in the hope that God will send down fire. The fires of revival and renewal have been poured out on countless individuals and churches since, even and especially on those who believed they were morally helpless to change.

[20] Lutherans might be put off by Edwards’s enormous emphasis on sanctification, and fear that this will lead to a kind of works-righteousness. I have argued elsewhere that it does not,[5] but I would add in the same breath that the Lutheran emphasis on justification is a healthy rejoinder to Edwards-philes who are daunted by the high bar he raises for the Christian life. Yet for some fresh angles on what it means to live the Christian life in this postmodern and post-Christian society, Edwards might be a good thinker to explore.

[1] This article is adapted from two chapters in McDermott, ed., Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America’s Theologian (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[2] “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” in Smith, Stout and Minkema, eds., A Jonathan Edwards Reader (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 111; The Nature of True Virtue, in WJE 8:550-51.

[3] For his recommendations on the spiritual life, see his letter to a young convert: “Letter to Deborah Hatheway, “ in Letters and Personal Writings, vol. 16, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. George S. Claghorne (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 90-95.

[4] For more on Edwards’s prescriptions for spiritual formation, see Storms, Signs of the Spirit, and McDermott, Seeing God.

[5] McDermott, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification—More Protestant or Catholic?” Pro Ecclesia 17:1 (Winter 2007), 92-111.