7 May 2007

Heaven (6): a World of Love: Insight from Jonathan Edwards on the History of Redemption

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Church History, Contemporary Ethics, eschatology, Jesus, Jonathan Edwards, Kingdom

Few figures in history have been as abused by American mythology as Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). His legendary sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” has earned him that enduring place. Yet Edwards reputation as a hell-fire and brimstone pulpitier is considerably overrated according to Sydney Ahlstrom. Out of a thousand or so extant sermons less than a dozen could be classified as imprecatory. (BTW if you have never actually read this famous sermon then you owe it to yourself to do so. I have read it several times and it is a convicting sermon).

What has long been known to historians and theologians and even becoming more known among American Christians is that Edwards is America’s greatest theologian. Edwards is justly remembered for his important role in the Great Awakening that swept through England and the American Colonies.Not quite the typical picture of a revivalist Edwards became a brilliant defender these outpourings of the Spirit as well as a cautious critic of the Awakenings.The magnitude of Jonathan Edwards standing in the history of ideas is all the more remarkable when it is realized he was basically a backwoods preacher.

However, from his early youth Edwards had the disposition to be scholar.He was born on October 5, 1703 in Windsor, Connecticut.The son of a pastor, Timothy Edwards, he was surrounded by ten sisters.When he was a mere thirteen years old he enrolled in YaleCollege and graduated four year later at the head of his class.One of the readings he had at the age of fourteen was John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. This book would make a lasting impression upon the young Edwards. (For Restorationists it is worth noting that this book also had a huge impact on Alexander Campbell … and it continues to flow in our spiritual DNA).

After a brief ministry with a Presbyterian congregation in New York, Edwards returned to Yale as a tutor and took his Master’s degree.In 1727, Jonathan moved his newly acquired wife, Sarah Pierrepont, to Northampton to work with the legendary Solomon Stoddard.By 1729 Stoddard passed away leaving a young Edwards as sole minister to a famous congregation. Young Edwards had become concerned with the spiritual apathy that reigned among the young people.He says they frequented the tavern, exhibited immoral behavior, a disregard for the Sabbath and a general disrespect prevailed among that class of citizens. Yet these very young people became the catalyst for a remarkable revival in Northampton that lead eventually to the conversion of around 300 people to Christ.

The publication of A Faithful Narrative of a Surprising Work of God by Edwards in 1737 garnered attention around the English speaking world for the budding theologian.Inspiring such men as George Whitefield, Isaac Watts and John Wesley, Edwards became an intellectual leader for the Great Awakening. (He published The Religious Affections as an examination of the Awakening).

But by 1750 Edwards reached the end of his strained relationship with Northampton.Controversies over the Lord’s Supper lead to his departure for a small Indian mission church in Stockbridge, MA where he remained until 1757.His ministry at Stockbridge is often seen as his greatest period of reflection as he produced such works as Freedom of the Will and Original Sin during this period. What is often overlooked in Edwards legacy is his respect for Native Americans. He became an able advocate for Indian rights and dignity. He learned Mohican language, conversed and preached in it. He made his home among the natives unlike previous missionaries.

Jonathan Edwards accepted the call to the Presidency of Princeton in 1757 on the condition that he could pursue his dream of a comprehensive theological work on the Christian faith to be called “The History of Redemption.” Unfortunately for Christians Edwards died from a tainted small pox inoculation before he could assume his role. Edwards last words to his family as he slipped into eternity were “Trust in God, and you need not fear.”

In our next installment we will look at what Edwards has to say regarding the History of Redemption …


Bobby Valentine

12 Responses to “Heaven (6): a World of Love: Insight from Jonathan Edwards on the History of Redemption”

  1. cwinwc Says:

    “Controversies over the Lord’s Supper lead to his departure for a small Indian mission church in Stockbridge, MA….”

    Do you know what those “controversies” were? I know we had one of our own a couple of years ago when we moved our “Communion Table” to the back of our our Auditorium due to it’s declining appearance and to facilitate serving the Lord’s Supper.
    I actually had a couple of people tell me, “I can’t commune without that table.” Once we suggested “idolatry” seemed to be their problem things subsided.

    I enjoyed getting to meet you face to face at Coogies. Take care.

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Cecil, by 1750 Edwards had evolved in his thinking regarding the Lord’s Supper. The backdrop is the Half-Way Covenant that Edwards had come to reject. He came to believe that only those in good standing of the church could participate in the Table. His strict policy was met with considerable resistance and he ended up having to leave. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification but it is perhaps the essence of the issue.

    Bobby Valentine

  3. Steve Says:

    Glad you did this. Have never had an interest in him before since I took the well known sound bite for his essence. Thanks

  4. cwinwc Says:

    Sounds like Edwards could have been an elder in some of our churches. Thanks for the insight.

  5. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Steve the scholarly literature on Edwards is immense and of late simple is snow balling. The Yale University “Works of Jonathan Edwards” project has been in swing since the 1950s with some of the most prominent American and British scholars involved (i.e. Paul Ramsey, Perry Miller, Harry Stout and George Marsden). That set is approaching 20 volumes and there are still 1200 unpublished sermons and other studies in the series. A marvelous one volume intro to Edwards own writings is called simply “A JONATHAN EDWARDS READER” published by Yale University Press. George Marsden’s recent bio [JONATHAN EDWARDS: A LIFE”] of Edwards is rich and readable. But Edwards is far and away the greatest theologian ever “think” in American soil. The figure of American mythology is a gross injustice.

    Cecil, I suppose Edwards could be like some of our elders in the past. But his theology is far better. His arguments regarding the Supper was rooted in a deep conviction that holiness mattered to God. He used a wedding analogy. How could one who lived a life in which they demonstrated a complete disregard for their “covenant” with God (never attended “church”, never prayed, never …) and then show up for the Supper only … it was like a wife who slept with every man in town and yet demanded roses for her anniversary from her husband. Edwards has a very “high” view of the sacraments and the integrity of the church. In the course of events, however, he picked a very bad time to pursue his understanding (Marsden’s bio goes into this in detail if you are interested). The town practically ran him out of town … but he was a man of principle not a man of opportunity.

    Bobby Valentine

  6. Anonymous Says:

    it was like a wife who slept with every man in town and yet demanded roses for her anniversary from her husband.>>>

    Of course it is not like that at all. The LS can be a peaceful worship of unity, or a tool to divide. As Paul wrote it is a place to examine one self, not each other.

    Jesus can likely more relate to the wife who slept with every man in town, than the town’s other wives sitting next to their husbands looking down at that women. But at least they have principles though their husbands may not! “Those in good standing in the church” sounds like similiar idolatry as the physical table worshippers. But it is not a new approach, and very similiar to the Catholic church stance of the Eucharist.

  7. cwinwc Says:

    Thanks Bobby and thank you for your scholarship.

  8. ben overby Says:

    Glad Edwards is getting some of the attention he deserves. For those of us who love and admire the work of John Piper, there’s no under estimating the influence Edwards has had on his ministry and teaching.

    Reading Edwards takes patience. He’s methodical in the way he handles various subjects. Reminds me a bit of Acquinas in the way he anticipates and answers objections in advance.

    You mentioned the Yale collection. For those who may not be aware of it, many of his works are available on line at http://edwards.yale.edu/archive/

  9. lisa leichner Says:

    Just letting you know I’m reading. 🙂

  10. David U Says:

    Bobby, I am so sorry we didn’t hook up at Pepperdine. I wanted to make your class, but always had a conflict with the timing. Sorry about your car troubles!

    I thought the lectureship was AWESOME…..like it is EVERY year.
    I am already excited for next year, and let’s be intentional about hooking up.

    Your brother,

  11. Danny Says:

    Interesting post. Another window opened for me.

    Enjoyed your class and visiting with you at Pepperdine. And I am much looking forward to your book!

  12. Jim Says:

    A very good post. I have long had great respect for Edwards, both as a scholar, a theologian, and a churchman.

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