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Jonathan Edwards (theology)

Jonathan Edwards (born October 5, 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut - died March 22, 1758) was a colonial American Congregational preacher and theologian. He is known as one of the greatest and most profound American evangelical theologians. His work is very broad in scope, but he is often associated with his defense of calvinist theology and the puritan heritage.

His father Timothy Edwards (1669-1758), son of a prosperous merchant of Hartford, had graduated at Harvard University, was minister at East Windsor, and eked out his salary by tutoring boys for college. His mother, a daughter of the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, of Northampton, Mass., seems to have been a woman of unusual mental gifts and independence of character. Jonathan, the only son, was the fifth of eleven children. The boy was trained for college by his father and by his elder sisters, who all received an excellent education. When ten years old he wrote a semi-humorous tract on the immateriality of the soul; he was interested in natural history, and at the age of twelve wrote a remarkable essay on the habits of the "flying spider."

He entered Yale College in 1716, at just under the age of thirteen. In the following year he became acquainted with John Locke's Essay, which influenced him profoundly. During his college course he kept note books labelled "The Mind," "Natural Science" (containing a discussion of the atomic theory),"The Scriptures" and "Miscellanies," had a grand plan for a work on natural and mental philosophy, and drew up for himself rules for its composition. Even before his graduation in September 1720 as valedictorian and head of his class, he seems to have had a well formulated philosophy. The two years after his graduation he spent in New Haven studying theology.

In 1722-1723 he was for eight months stated supply of a small Presbyterian Church in New York City, which invited him to remain, but he declined the call, spent two months in study at home, and then in 1724-1726 was one of the two tutors at Yale, earning for himself the name of a "pillar tutor"; by his steadfast loyalty to the college and its orthodox teaching at the time when Yale's rector (Cutler) and one of her tutors had gone over to the Episcopal Church.

The years 1720 to 1726 are partially recorded in his diary and in the resolutions for his own conduct which he drew up at this time. He had long been an eager seeker after salvation and was not fully satisfied as to his own "conversion" until an experience in his last year in college, when he lost his feeling that the election of some to salvation and of others to eternal damnation was "a horrible doctrine," and reckoned it "exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet." He now took a great and new joy in the beauties of nature, and delighted in the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon. Balancing these mystic joys is the stern tone of his Resolutions, in which he is almost ascetic in his eagerness to live earnestly and soberly, to waste no time, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.

On the 5th of February 1727 he was ordained minister at Northampton and assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. He was a student minister, not a visiting pastor, his rule being thirteen hours of study a day. In the same year he married Sarah Pierrepont, then aged seventeen, daughter of James Pierrepont[?] (1659-1714), a founder of Yale, and through her mother great-granddaughter of Thomas Hooker[?]. Of her piety and almost nun-like love of God and belief in His personal love for her, Edwards had known when she was only thirteen, and had written of it with spiritual enthusiasm; she was of a bright and cheerful disposition, a practical housekeeper, a model wife and the mother of his twelve children. Solomon Stoddard died on the 11th of February 1729, leaving to his grandson the difficult task of the sole ministerial charge of one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in the colony, and one proud of its morality, its culture and its reputation.

In 1731 Edwards preached at Boston the "Public Lecture" afterwards published under the title God Glorified -in Man's Dependence. This was his first public attack on Arminianism. The leading thought was God's absolute sovereignty in the work of redemption: that while it behoved God to create man holy, it was of His "good pleasure" and "mere and arbitrary grace" that any man was now made holy, and that God might deny this grace without any disparagement to any of His perfections. In 1733 a revival of religion began in Northampton, and reached such intensity in the winter of 1734 and the following spring as to threaten the business of the town. In six months nearly three hundred were admitted to the church. The revival gave Edwards an opportunity of studying the process of conversion in all its phases and varieties, and he recorded his observations with psychological minuteness and discrimination in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton (1737). A year later he published Discourses on Various Important Subjects, the five sermons which had proved most effective in the revival, and of these none, he tells us, was so immediately effective as that on the Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, from the text, "That every mouth may be stopped." Another sermon, published in 1734, on the Reality of Spiritual Light set forth what he regarded as the inner, moving principle of the revival, the doctrine of a special grace in the immediate ,and supernatural divine illumination of the soul.

In the spring of 1735 the movement began to subside and a reaction set in. But the relapse was brief, and the Northampton revival, which had spread through the Connecticut valley and whose fame had reached England and Scotland, was followed in 1739-1740 by the Great Awakening, distinctively under the leadership of Edwards. It was at this time that Edwards became acquainted with George Whitefield and preached one of his most famous sermons, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in Enfield, CT in 1741. The movement met with no sympathy from the orthodox leaders of the church. In 1741 Edwards published in its defence The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, dealing particularly with the phenomena most criticized, the swoonings, outcries and convulsions. These "bodily effects," he insisted, were not distinguishing marks of the work of the Spirit of God; but so bitter was the feeling against the revival in the more strictly Puritan churches that in 1742 he was forced to write a second apology, Thoughts on the Revival in New England, his main argument being the great moral improvement of the country. In the same pamphlet he defends an appeal to the emotions, and advocates preaching terror when necessary, even to children, who in God's sight "are young vipers . . . if not Christ's." He considers "bodily effects" incidentals to the real work of God, but his own mystic devotion and the experiences of his wife during the Awakening (which he gives in detail) make him think that the divine visitation usually overpowers the body, a view in support of which he quotes Scripture. In reply to Edwards, Charles Chauncy[?] anonymously wrote The Late Religious Commotions in New England Considered (1743), urging conduct as the sole test of conversion; and the general convention of Congregational ministers in the Province of Massachusetts Bay protested "against disorders in practice which have of late obtained in various parts of the land."

In spite of Edwards's able pamphlet, the impression had become widespread that "bodily effects" were recognized by the promoters of the Great Awakening as the true tests of conversion. To offset this feeling Edwards preached at Northampton during the years 1742 and 1743 a series of sermons published under the title of Religious Affections (1746), a restatement in a more philosophical and general tone of his ideas as to "distinguishing marks." In 1747 he joined the movement started in Scotland called the "concert in prayer," and in the same year published An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom on Earth. In 1749 he published a memoir of David Brainerd; the latter had lived in his family for several months, had been constantly attended by Edwards's daughter Jerusha, to whom he had been engaged to be married, and had died at Northampton on the 7th of October 1747; and he had been a case in point for the theories of conversion held by Edwards, who had made elaborate notes of Brainerd's conversations and confessions.

In 1748 there had come a crisis in his relations with his congregation. The Half-Way Covenant adopted by the synods of 1657 and 1662 had made baptism alone the condition to the civil privileges of church membership, but not of participation in the sacrament of the Supper. Edwards's grandfather and predecessor, Solomon Stoddard, had been even more liberal, holding that the Supper was a converting ordinance and that baptism was a sufficient title to all the privileges of the church. As early as 1744 Edwards, in his sermons on the Religious Affections, had plainly intimated his dislike of this practice. In the same year he had published in a church meeting the names of certain young people, members of the church, who were suspected of reading improper books, and also the names of those who were to be called as witnesses in the case. But witnesses and accused were not distinguished on this list, and the congregation was in an uproar. A great many, fearing a scandal, now opposed an investigation which all had previously favoured. Edwards's preaching became unpopular; for four years no candidate presented himself for admission to the church; and when one did in 1748, and was met with Edwards's formal but mild and gentle tests, as expressed in the Distinguishing Marks and later in Qualifications for Full Communion (1749) the candidate refused to submit to them; the church backed him and the break was complete. Even permission to discuss his views in the pulpit was refused him. The ecclesiastical council voted that the pastoral relation be dissolved. The church by a vote of more than 200 to 23 ratified the action of the council, and finally a town meeting voted that Edwards should not be allowed to occupy the Northampton pulpit, though he did this on occasion as late as May 1755. He evinced no rancour or spite; his "Farewell Sermon" was dignified and temperate; nor is it to be ascribed to chagrin that in a letter to Scotland after his dismissal he expresses his preference for Presbyterian to Congregational church government. His position at the time was not unpopular throughout New England, and it is needless to say that his doctrine that the Lord's Supper is not a cause of regeneration and that communicants should be professing Christians has since (very largely through the efforts of his pupil Joseph Bellamy) become a standard of New England Congregationalism.

Edwards with his large family was now thrown upon the world, but offers of aid quickly came to him. A parish in Scotland could have been procured, and he was called to a Virginia church. He declined both, to become in 1750 pastor of the church in Stockbridge and a missionary to the Housatonic Indians. To the Indians he preached through an interpreter, and their interests he boldly and successfully defended by attacking the whites who were using their official position among them to increase their private fortunes. In Stockbridge he wrote the Humble Relation, also called Reply to Williams (1752), which was an answer to Solomon Williams[?] (1700-1776), a relative and a bitter opponent of Edwards as to the qualifications for full communion; and he there composed the treatises on which his reputation as a philosophical theologian chiefly rests, the essay on Original Sin, the Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, the Dissertation Concerning the End for which God created the World, and the great work on the Will, written in four months and a half, and published in 1754 under the title, An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Motions Respecting that Freedom of the Will which is supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency.

In 1757, on the death of President Burr, who five years before had married Edwards's daughter Esther and was the father of future US vice-president Aaron Burr, he reluctantly accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he was installed on the 16th of February 1758. Almost immediately afterwards he was inoculated for smallpox, which was raging in Princeton and vicinity, and, always feeble, he died of the inoculation on the 28th of March 1758. He was buried in the old cemetery at Princeton. He was slender and fully six feet tall, and with his oval, gentle, almost feminine face looked the scholar and the mystic. Edwards had three sons and eight daughters.

Philosophy and Theology

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The Edwardean System. It is difficult to separate Edwards's philosophy from his theology, except as the former is contained in the early notes on the Mind, where he says that matter exists only in i,dea; that space is God; that minds only are real; that in metaphysical strictness there is no being but God; that entity is the greatest and only good; and that God as infinite entity, wherein the agreement of being with being is absolute, is the supreme excellency, the supreme good. It seems certain that these conclusions were independent of Berkeley and Malebranche, and were not drawn from Arthur Collier[?]'s Clavis universalis (1713), with which they have much in common, but were suggested, in part at least, by Locke's doctrine of ideas, Newton's theory of colours, and Cudworth's Platonism, with all of which Edwards was early familiar. But they were never developed systematically, and the conception of the material universe here contended for does not again explicitly reappear in any of his writings. The fundamental metaphysical postulate that being and God are ultimately identical remained, however, the philosophical basis of all his thinking, and reverence f or this being as the supreme good remained the fundamental disposition of his mind. That he did not interpret this idea in a Spinozistic sense was due to his more spiritual conception of "being" and to the reaction on his philosophy of his theology. The theological interest, indeed, came in the end to predominate, and philosophy to appear as an instrument for the defence of Calvinism. Perhaps the best criticism of Edwards's philosophy as a whole is that, instead of being elaborated on purely rational principles, it is mixed up with a system of theological conceptions with which it is never thoroughly combined, and that it is exposed to all the disturbing effects of theological controversy. Moreover, of one of his most central convictions, that of the sovereignty of God in election, he confesses that he could give no account.

Edwards's reputation as a thinker is chiefly associated with his treatise on the Will, which is still sometimes called "the one large contribution that America has made to the deeper philosophic thought of the world." The aim of this treatise was to refute the doctrine of free-will, since he considered it the logical, as distinguished from the sentimental, ground of most of the Arminian objections to Calvinism. He defines the will as that by which the mind chooses anything. To act voluntarily, he says, is to act electively. So far he and his opponents are agreed. But choice, he holds, is not arbitrary; it is determined in every case by "that motive which as it stands in the view of the mind is the strongest," and that "motive is strongest which presents in the immediate object of volition the greatest apparent good," that is, the greatest degree of agreeableness or pleasure. What this is in a given case depends on a multitude of circumstances, external and internal, all contributing to form the "cause" of which the voluntary act and its consequences are the "effect." Edwards contends that the connexion between cause and effect here is as "sure and perfect" as in the realm of physical nature and constitutes a "moral necessity." He reduces the opposite doctrine to three assumptions, all of which he shows to be untenable:

  1. "a self-determining power in the will"
  2. "indifference--that the mind previous to the act of volition (is) in equilibrio"
  3. "contingence--as opposed to--any fixed and certain connexion (of the volition) with some previous ground or reason for its existence."

Although he denies liberty to the will in this sense "indeed, strictly speaking, neither liberty nor necessity," he says, is properly applied to the will, "for the will itself is not an agent that has a will" he nevertheless insists that the subject willing is a free moral agent, and argues that without the determinate connexion between volition and motive which he asserts and the libertarians deny, moral agency would be impossible. Liberty, he holds, is simply freedom from constraint, "the power that any one has to do as he pleases." This power man possesses. And that the right or wrong of choice depends not on the cause of choice but on its nature, he illustrates by the example of Christ, whose acts were necessarily holy, yet truly virtuous, praiseworthy and rewardable. Even God Himself, Edwards here maintains, has no other liberty than this, to carry out without constraint His will, wisdom and inclination.

There is no necessary connexion between Edwards's doctrine of the motivation of choice and the system of Calvinism with which it is congruent. Similar doctrines have more frequently perhaps been associated with theological scepticism. But for him the alternative was between Calvinism and Arminianism, simply because of the historical situation, and in the refutation of Arminianism on the assumptions common to both sides of the controversy, he must be considered completely successful. As a general argument his account of the determination of the will is defective, notably in his abstract conception of the will and in his inadequate, but suggestive, treatment of causation, in regard to which he anticipates in important respects the doctrine of Hume. Instead of making the motive to choice a factor within the concrete process of volition, he regards it as a cause antecedent to the exercise of a special mental faculty. Yet his conception of this faculty as functioning only in and through motive and character, inclination and desire, certainly carries us a long way beyond the abstraction in which his opponents stuck, that of a bare faculty without any assignable content. Modern psychology has strengthened the contention for a fixed connexion between motive and act by reference to subconscious and unconscious processes of which Edwards, who thought that nothing could affect the mind which was unperceived, little dreamed; at the same time. at least in some of its developments, especially in its freer use 01 genetic and organic conceptions, it has rendered much in the older forms of statement obsolete, and has given a new meaning to the idea of self-determination, which, as applied to an abstract power, Edwards rightly rejected as absurd.

Edwards's controversy with the Arminians was continued in the essay on Original Sin, which was in the press at the time of his death. He here breaks with Augustine and the Westminster Confession by arguing, consistently with his theory of the Will, that Adam had no more freedom of will than we have, but had a special endowment, a supernatural gift of grace, which by rebellion against God was lost, and that this gift was withdrawn from his descendants, not because of any fictitious imputation of guilt, but because of their real participation in his guilt by actual identity with him in his transgression.

The Dissertation on the Nature of True Virtue, posthumously published, is justly regarded as one of the most original works on ethics of the 18th century, and is the more remarkable as reproducing, with no essential modification, ideas on the subject written in the author's youth in the notes on the Mind. Virtue is conceived as the beauty of moral qualities. Now beauty, in Edwards's view, always consists in a harmonious relation in the elements involved, an agreement of being with being. He conceives, therefore, of virtue, or moral beauty, as consisting in the cordial agreement or consent to intelligent being. He defines it as benevolence (good-will), or rather as a disposition to benevolence, towards being in general. This disposition, he argues, has no regard primarily to beauty in the object, nor is it primarily based on gratitude. Its first object is being, "simply considered," and it is accordingly proportioned, other things being equal, to the object's "degree of existence." He admits, however, benevolent being as a second object, on the ground that such an object, having a like virtuous propensity, "is, as it were, enlarged, extends to, and in some sort comprehends being in general." In brief, since God is the "being of beings" and comprehends, in the fullest extent, benevolent consent to being in general, true virtue consists essentially in a supreme love to God. Thus the principle of virtue Edwards has nothing to say of morality is identical with the principle of religion. From this standpoint Edwards combats every lower view. He will not admit that there is any evidence of true virtue in the approbation of virtue and hatred of vice, in the workings of conscience or in the exercises of the natural affections; he thinks that these may all spring from self-love and the association of ideas, from "instinct" or from a moral sense of a secondary kind entirely different from "a sense or relish of the essential beauty of true virtue." Nor does he recognize the possibility of a natural development of true virtue out of the sentiments directed on the "private systems"; on the contrary, he sets the love of particular being, when not subordinated to being in general, in opposition to the latter and as equivalent to treating it with the greatest contempt. All that he allows is that the perception of natural beauty may, by its resemblance to the primary spiritual beauty, quicken the disposition to divine love in those who are already under the influence of a truly virtuous temper.

Closely connected with the essay on Virtue is the boldly speculative Dissertation on the End for which God Created the World. As, according to the doctrine of virtue, God's virtue consists primarily in love to Himself, so His final end in creation is conceived to be, not as the Arminians held, the happiness of His creatures, but His own glory. Edwards supposes in the nature of God an original disposition, to an "emanation" of His being, and it is the excellency of this divine being, particularly in the elect, which is, in his view, the final cause and motive of the world.

Edwards makes no attempt to reconcile the pantheistic element in his philosophy with the individuality implied in moral government. He seems to waver between the opinion that finite individuals have no independent being and the opinion that they have it in an infinitesimal degree; and the conception of "degrees of existence" in the essay on Virtue is not developed to elucidate the point. His theological conception of God, at any rate, was not abstractly pantheistic, in spite of the abstractness of his language about "being," but frankly theistic and trinitarian. He held the doctrine of the trinitarian distinctions indeed to be a necessity of reason. His Essay on the Trinity, first printed in 1903, was long supposed to have been withheld from publication because of its containing Arian or Sabellian tendencies. It contains in fact nothing more questionable than an attempted deduction of the orthodox Nicene doctrine, unpalatable, however, to Edwards's immediate disciples, who were too little speculative to appreciate his statement of the subordination of the "persons" in the divine "oeconomy," and who openly derided the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son as "eternal nonsense"; and this perhaps was the original reason why the essay was not published.

Though so typically a scholar and abstract thinker on the one hand and on the other a mystic, Edwards is best known to the present generation as a preacher of hell fire. The particular reason for this seems to lie in a single sermon preached at Enfield, Connecticut, in July 1741 from the text, "Their foot shall slide in due time," and commonly known from its title, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The occasion of this sermon is usually overlooked. It was preached to a congregation who were careless and loose in their lives at a time when"the neighbouring towns were in great distress for their souls." A contemporary account of it says that in spite of Edwards's academic style of preaching, the assembly was "deeply impressed and bowed down, with an awful conviction of their sin and danger. There was such a breathing of distress and weeping, that the preacher was obliged to speak to the people and desire silence, that he might be heard."

Edwards preached other sermons of this type, but this one was the most extreme. The style of the imprecatory sermon, however, was no more peculiar to him than to his period. He was not a great preacher in the ordinary meaning of the word. His gestures were scanty, his voice was not powerful, but he was desperately in earnest, and he held his audience whether his sermon contained a picturesque and detailed description of the torments of the damned, or, as was often the case, spoke of the love and peace of God in the heart cf man. He was an earnest, devout Christian, and a man of blameless life. His insight into the spiritual life was profound. Certainly the most able metaphysician and the most influential religious thinker of America, he must rank in theology, dialectics[?], mysticism and philosophy with Calvin and Fhnelon, Augustine and Aquinas, Spinoza and Novalis; with Berkeley and Home as the great English philosophers of the 18th century; and with Hamilton and Franklin as the three American thinkers of the same century of more than provincial importance.

Edwards's main aim had been to revivify Calvinism, modifying it for the needs of the time, and to promote a warm and vital Christian piety. The tendency of his successors was to state the matter roughly to take some one of his theories and develop it to an extreme. Of his immediate followers Joseph Bellamy[?] is distinctly Edwardean in the keen logic and in the spirit of his True Religion Delineated, but he breaks with his master in his theory of general (not limited) atonement. Samuel Hopkins laid even greater stress than Edwards on the theorem that virtue consists in disinterested benevolence; but he went counter to Edwards in holding that unconditional resignation to God's decrees, or more concretely, willingness to be damned for the glory of God, was the test of true regeneration; for Edwards, though often quoted as holding this doctrine, protested against it in the strongest terms. Hopkins, moreover, denied Edwards's identity theory of original sin, saying that our sin was a result of Adam's and not identical with it; and he went much further than Edwards in his objection to "means of grace," claiming that the unregenerate were more and more guilty for continual rejection of the gospel if they were outwardly righteous and availed themselves of the means of grace. Stephen West (1735-1819), too, out-Edwardsed Edwards in his defence of the treatise on the Freedom of the Will, and John Smalley (1734-1820) developed the idea of a natural (not moral) inability on the part of man to obey God. Emmons, like Hopkins, considered both sin and holiness exercises of the will. Timothy Dwight[?] (1752-1847) urged the use of the means of grace, thought Hopkins and Emmons pantheistic, and boldly disagreed with their theory of "exercises," reckoning virtue and sin as the result of moral choice or disposition, a position that was also upheld by Asa Burton (1752-1836), who thought that on regeneration the disposition of man got a new relish or "taste."


0. E. Winslow, Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758: A Biography (New York, 1940)
Conrad Cherry, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. A Reappraisal (New York, 1966)
DJ. Elwood, The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York, 1961)
Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards. A New Biography (Edinburgh, 1987).

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