Few dispute that Jonathan Edwards is an influential figure in American history. His biographer George Marsden suggests that Edwards was “the polestar of the most formidable and influential theology” during the first half of the nineteenth century (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, Yale University Press). Earlier this year, Time magazine dubbed “new Calvinism” as one of the ten ideas changing the world right now. Read the writings associated with this movement and you will find Edwards’s name quoted as frequently as any other. This influential Great Awakening preacher has been called America’s greatest philosopher and theologian; his political influence was such that John Adams complained to Thomas Jefferson about the “hundred thousand votes” that simple association with Edwards’ name automatically garnered his opponent. (Marsden)
Documenting influence in itself does not merit commendation; there are plenty of scoundrels in history whose influence we can only regret. Few of Edwards’s critics would go that far, but there are many whose assessment is hardly complimentary. Mark Twain labeled him a “resplendent intellect gone mad.” (Marsden) Most critiques suggest Edwards promoted an uncompromising old-time Calvinism, his legacy amounting to little more than blue laws and a stifled culture.
Popular perception of Edwards is shaped by his famous 1741 sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Anthologized in many high school and college literature texts, the sermon includes a vivid description that many modern ears find offensive: “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead . . . and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf . . . and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock.”
Hell was a real place in Edwards’s thinking, and it would be unfair to minimize the seriousness with which Edwards emphasized that sin could not go unpunished by a holy God. But to reduce Edwards to a “fire and brimstone” preacher and Edwards’s God to an unmerciful judge is to misread this sermon, as well as Edwards’s overall ministry. “Heaven” and “love” are the two most frequent themes in his sermons, and to Edwards, God’s wrath and mercy could be understood together only in the person and work of Christ.
I first encountered Edwards’s writings in my teens. Someone recommended I read his Resolutions, written in 1721-23, when Edwards himself was still a teen. What impressed me was the intertwining of the spiritual and practical. Exercising dietary restraint, looking for objects of charity, and “constantly endeavouring to find out some new invention” are mixed in with resolutions for spiritual devotion, avoiding temptation, and doing “whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory.” Reading a bit more in Edwards, I found it refreshing how he interspersed his observations on insects and current affairs with theological and spiritual reflections. I recall a friend summarizing this as “seeing natural things as spiritual and spiritual things as natural.”
There are many worthwhile biographies of Edwards’s varied career as a preacher, missionary, scholar, and, for a short period, President of Princeton University before his sudden death from smallpox in 1758. George Marsden’s biography, which provides a clear sense of Edwards’s humanity, and Ian Murray’s, which gives insights into Edwards’s spiritual journey, I count among my favourites, although Perry Miller’s biography has done more to reclaim Edwards’ reputation in modern scholarship.
The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, opened in 2003, has been digitizing his manuscripts and serving as a hub for research into Edwards. Adding all these words to the Edwards collection is fitting; Edwards himself was a prodigious writer, frequently stopping at the side of the road or getting out of bed to record his thoughts. His manuscripts—which presently comprise 73 volumes, with their transcription not yet complete—provide a more thorough account of Edwards intellectual life than “those of any other individual who has a name in either the theological or literary world.”
But apart from academic or spiritual interests, why spend time on Edwards today? In light of the recent discussions in Comment regarding the relationship between the Great Commission and Cultural Mandate, it seems to me that Edwards provides a variant perspective into the debate. My purpose here is not to recruit Edwards to any one school. (It should be noted that in his book Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, Daryl Hart suggests Edwards should be viewed as originating the pietist school of Reformed theology—the modern expression of which Hart suggests “are the folks [who identify with] the literature produced by the Banner of Truth Trust.” Hart is critical of this aspect of Edwards, suggesting that Edwards “unintentionally undermined the Calvinism he intended to defend.” Having grown up in this tradition, I disagree with Hart’s assessment but would also concur that there is more to Edwards than is usually embraced within this tradition.)
I agree with George Marsden who, when addressing the hypothetical “If Edwards were alive, would he be teaching at Westminster, Calvin, or Trinity Evangelical Divinity School?” question, observed that Edwards and the Puritan tradition could be found in all three schools. They “highly esteemed theological rigor, established a culture modeled on Christian teaching, and were ever on guard for the dangers of head knowledge without heart religion” (Reformed and American, Eerdmans). Any contemporary assessment of Edwards would be incomplete without mentioning John Piper, whose ministry has done much to promote an appreciation of Edwards. J.I. Packer, in recommending Piper’s Desiring God, notes that “Jonathan Edwards, whose ghost walks through most of Piper’s pages, would be delighted with his disciple.”
There are at least four interconnected themes that I would like to highlight from Edwards that deserve more careful reflection as we consider questions relating to the church and the city.
The first theme comes from Edwards’s reflections on the purpose for which the world exists. For some time prior to his death, Edwards was working on two dissertations: The End for Which God Created the World and The Nature of True Virtue. The key insight emerging from this work, completed and published together posthumously by Samuel Hopkins, regards the connection between human happiness and the glory of God. Rather than contrasting the two as competing ultimate purposes, Edwards contends that the world is created for God’s glory. However, God’s glory is furthered by human happiness, and therefore human happiness—rightly understood—ought to be seen not as a competition but as part of God’s glory. Human happiness, therefore, is to be pursued—although Edwards clearly distinguishes how this is to be pursued from the prescriptions of his Enlightenment contemporaries.
This ties to a second theme: the integration of a person’s various faculties. When discussing the distinctions between will, heart and mind, Edwards notes that such distinctions are useful for discussion but it should never be forgotten that it is a “distinction, not a separation.” This understanding helps illuminate the way in which Edwards understood the connection between human happiness and the glory of God. Edwards would respond both to those who reduced religion to something simply belonging to the soul and mystical activities, as well as to those who critiqued religious enthusiasm as irrational excess, by pointing to the unity of the human person. Our passions and intellect, bodies and souls, minds and spirits must be considered as they interrelate. True religion, then, results in a holy passion for God that manifests itself in all of life. In his sermon “True Excellency of a Gospel Minister,” Edwards states this clearly: “True piety is not a thing remaining only in the head or consisting in any speculative knowledge or opinions, or outward morality, or forms of religion; it reaches the heart, is chiefly seated there, and burns there. There is a holy ardor in everything that belongs to true grace; true faith is an ardent thing . . .”
So true religion results in God’s glory and man’s happiness, and in Edwards’s mind, there is no conflict between the two. But how does that relate to everyday life? Could it not be interpreted as focusing all of our being toward future glory when the believer will be with God? Edwards spent a lot of time writing and reflecting on the coming kingdom, in which the full realization of God’s glory would be accomplished. But—and this is an often-overlooked point—this preoccupation prompted him to be more interested in the events of current history. Viewing, as he did, the universe as a “chariot in which God rides and makes progress towards the last end of all things,” Edwards was a keen observer of current events in his times. He often points out signs of the coming millennium. The signs he was looking for were not just apocalyptic. Current events, including the regular rising of the sun or the singing of the birds in spring, pointed to “the commencement of the glorious times of the church.”
This was not just something to be observed or studied but inevitably led to Christian engagement in the world. As Sang Hyun Lee writes, “Edwards’s insistence on the inevitability and necessity of the practical consequences of the regenerate is rooted in the inevitability with which the sovereign God will accommodate his own aim.” Edwards himself brought this to a very practical level. “(H)oliness shall then be, as it were, inscribed on everything, on all men’s common business and employments, and the common utensils of life, all shall be, as it were, dedicated to God and improved for holy purposes; everything shall then be done to the glory of God, Isaiah 23:18, ‘And her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to the Lord.'”
A fourth theme to draw from Edwards is the close relationship he makes between the glory of God and the happiness of God. He describes how “both the holiness and the happiness of the Godhead” exist in inter-Trinitarian love and how this expresses itself in the unfolding of history. “The happiness of the Deity, as all other true happiness, consists in love and society.”
While it is beyond our scope here to delve into the full theological and philosophical implications of this, it is important to understand that the glory and happiness of God are not static concepts. God, as Edwards understood the Scripture’s teaching of Him, was not a static being who distributed from his fixed array of attributes—justice, grace, and mercy—in an arbitrary manner (as some would caricature Edwards’s God, based on their misreading of Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God). Rather, Edwards’s God was in relationship with Himself in His three persons and in relationship with His creatures in the world. Although the unfolding of history had the millennium and God’s full glory in view, God’s glory and happiness in time was increased by the worship and obedience of His people. This gave the present world real meaning and importance, not just as a prelude to eternity, but as contributing to God’s present glory and happiness.
My simple purpose here is to argue that Jonathan Edwards has something to say into our present discussion on seeking the advancement of the church and the peace of the city. Understanding that human happiness can only be properly achieved in the context of God’s glory; that there is a close relationship between God’s glory and His happiness; that the present world matters in itself as well as points to an unfolding future history; and that this glory is not only expressed in the “spiritual” things of life, but also in the “ordinary” things of everyday life—these all speak to the fact that the cultural mandate and the Great Commission are inextricably connected. John Piper has summarized the effect of this well when he says “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”
In this discussion, too, I think Edwards would allow for our making distinctions for purposes of arguments as we think through the calling of believers in the present world. However, he would warn us not to separate what are really interconnected parts of the same whole. He might critique framing the debate as a choice between “saving souls” or “saving the world,” suggesting that we are elevating secondary ends into primary ones. It is the glory of God that is the primary purpose of the world. Both the salvation of souls and the unfolding history of the world give us reason to delight in God for who He is, bringing us satisfaction and Him glory.
A greater dose of the Edwardsian spirit in our conversations, focusing on God for who He is rather than just for what He does, might be helpful. In Religious Affections, Edwards writes of admiring “divine things for the beauty of their moral excellency (as) the beginning and spring of all holy affections.” He continues: “A love to God for the beauty of his moral attributes, leads to, and necessarily causes a delight in God for all his attributes; for his moral attributes can’t be without his natural attributes: for infinite holiness supposes infinite wisdom, and an infinite capacity and greatness; and all the attributes of God do as it were imply one another.”
This doesn’t answer all of the questions that face us—but it does put them into perspective.