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Born: 1703, East (now South) Windsor, Connecticut

Died: 1758, Princeton, New Jersey

Major Works: Religious Affections (1746), Freedom of the Will (1754), Original Sin (1758), The Nature of True Virtue (1765), The End for which God Created the World (1765)

Major Ideas

The world was created out of and is maintained only by the abundance, grace, and love of the sovereign and radically transcendent God, who foreordains all of life according to his providential but hidden will.

Although themselves endowed with will and reason, both of which operate solely within God's providential and determinative designs, human creatures have inhering in them the Original Sin of Adam and thus live a completely contingent existence in God's redemptive scheme without the reception of grace.

In the apprehension of God's will and in the plan of salvation, human reason, nature, and works do not suffice; God's grace alone is effectual, and it is bestowed only in divinely mysterious election of the saints, who are themselves justified in God's sight only by faith.

Such faith, itself a gift of unconditional grace, occurs at an "affective" or experiential level, beyond the capacity of reason, as "a divine and supernatural light" enters the heart and permits human consent to the whole of being.

Until recent decades, Jonathan Edwards was largely remembered in the American cultural tradition as a prototypically grim and severe representative of the most dour forms of Calvinism, an avatar in fact of a frequently caricatured strain of the Puritan legacy Such a recollection relates only loosely to the man. It is accurate to consider Edwards a thinker secured in the theological legacy of John Calvin. It is true also that Edwards stands in familial and marital lineage with the Mathers, the Hookers, the Stoddards, and so on. And it is true as well that some examples of his work like the famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (preached at Enfield in 1741) are cast in what seems a "hell-fire and brimstone" mode. In this particular sermon, the key image presents the human state in the metaphor of a spider, dangling over the abyss of death, suspended there on a slender thread in the grasp of a capricious and punitive God.

With the gains made by more recent scholarly work, however, the picture of the authentic Edwards becomes clearer, and the portrait that emerges is of a man indisputably among the most philosophically subtle in the Calvinist intellectual tradition. If his majestic intellect was bent toward keeping alive his bequest from American Puritanism, it was committed in full to sustaining the most rigorous and thoughtful elements of that inheritance in an age that everywhere conspired against them. And, indeed, when all of Edwards's extant work is taken into account, even "sensationalist" sermons of the Enfield stripe gain altered relief in the context of Edwards's patient and nuanced theological discourse. At least one measure of his sheer magnitude as a thinker is revealed, ironically, in the fact that, virtually singlehandedly, he managed to keep alive for several more generations in America a commanding system of thought that, in his time, was quickly being displaced by several forms of liberal religion.

In 1727, a year or so after completing his education at Yale, Edwards accepted a pastorate--second only perhaps to some in Boston--with the large and very influential congregation at Northampton, there first as an associate and later as successor of his revered maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who had preached there for over fifty years. Although as a student Edwards had already achieved some reputation as a thinker, the post must have seemed virtually a birthright, for Edwards's own father, Timothy, was a career-long and highly regarded minister in East Windsor, Connecticut, and young Jonathan was related not only to the Stoddards and the theological dynasty of the Mather family but, by marriage, both to the old great Puritan Thomas Hooker and to one of the founders of Yale, John Pierrepont. By upbringing, by education, and by lineage, then, Jonathan Edwards was aligned with the fundamental creeds of that Calvinist tradition at the heart of the earlier American Puritan hegemony in New England, and he spent his own intellectual career in an effort to be true to this tradition in ways that might sustain it in the face of new claims on thought in the eighteenth century.

Unfortunately for him Edwards shared his own age with powerful liberalizing viewpoints from without and within New England Congregationalism, which made his ministry in Northampton a rocky affair. The Age of Reason, quickly overtaking American culture sponsored the modified deism of people like Benjamin Franklin--Edwards's contemporary--as well as a general species of cultural optimism about the supremacy of reason over faith and about the potential progress of the human estate and this outlook of course, threatened beliefs in the predestinating and providential designs of a sovereign God and in the innately sinful character of humankind. Such a cultural movement also abetted old foes of Puritan thought like Arminianism, with its promises of salvation not by God's grace alone but by the capacity of free human will to accept the elected state. Slightly later still, the enlightened religion of a Charles Chauncy would insist even further that human moral capacity was the key to salvation under the shadow of a u niformly benevolent deity: The problems for any sustained Puritanism were compounded when, in the 1740s, waves of revivalism swept through New England. Often marked by theories of universal redemption, by emotive preaching and by "quick" and impassioned conversion the anti-intellectual character of this Great Awakening offered for many a powerful alternative to the stricter requirements of faith posed in old Congregationalist orthodoxy.

But Edwards also detected concessions in the old faith from within his community of belief, including. liberal tendencies in the thought of his own widely beloved grandfather Stoddard, which had increased since the Synod of 1662. These erosions from within the Puritan tradition, beyond deviations from Calvinist theological tenets, had mainly to do with loosened requirements for church membership and for receiving communion, both now available even to those who could not claim a decisive spiritual experience that would put them among the "visible saints." In any event, Edwards attempted to redress these threats from without and attenuations from within by renewing the theological system with full doctrinal consistency and intellectual rigor, but his efforts, especially his refusal to administer the Lord's Supper, finally led to his being dismissed from his pastorate in Northampton in 1750.

Most of the remainder of Edwards's career was spent in a form of exile as he ministered to a few white families and several hundred Indians at the settlement in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Even with his numerous responsibilities there, he was afforded a quietude in Stockbridge for his mature religious and philosophical deliberations, and, at this remove from the theological controversies left behind, he returned to those large themes of Calvinism that he sought to reinvigorate within the crucible of eighteenth-century intellectual conditions. Although some of his most important works were published posthumously, their power and persuasiveness created enough of a following to insure conservation of major elements of the theological system for several more decades. His situation in "defeat," in short, permitted the work that was his triumph as a thinker, the work that resulted in his finally victorious admission into the pantheon of America's greatest thinkers.

The Sovereignty of God

At the center of Calvinist creed is the doctrine of the radically transcendent and sovereign God, and for Jonathan Edwards, who faced contemporary theological viewpoints that veered away from any such idea, the doctrine remained a centripetal force of belief and faith, even as he worked to restore its fullest efficacy in and for his own time. Although this committed belief permeates the whole body of his writing--treatises, sermons, notebooks, and autobiographical works--it receives its fullest elaboration in his Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World. In this work, Edwards makes completely and emphatically clear his notion that all of being depends immediately and ultimately on the character and will of the Creator, however hidden from human view might be the nature of that source or the terms of its sustaining motive.

For a section of the dissertation, Edwards assays what human reason can contribute to an understanding of God's purposes in creating and maintaining the world, and he surmises that the partial evidences to be found by looking at the created order, nature and history, posit a God whose end in creation was the completely fulfilled expression of his own glory and perfection. The metaphor Edwards seizes to explain this creative superabundance is the sun, which, fulfilling its defining nature, does not need or require any recipient of its emanating warmth but nonetheless sends out its rays as vital elements of its own character. God, though entirely self-sufficient, sends out emanations of his own glorious nature, and the world was created out of that surplusage of divine being, as if--Edwards thinks--God were not complete without this self-emanation, this overflowing self-expression. As it reflects, or gives, emanations back to its source, then, the world participates dependently in God's purpose of expressing h is own goodness and holiness.

Although Edwards finds no initial regard for the world of physical nature or human history in this creating act, he nevertheless sees that the created world is a kind of secondary beneficiary of God's perfected nature as it brims over to provide to humankind "images or shadows of divine things," much as the sun provides light and warmth. Given the finally and inviolably hidden character of the divinity at the source of such images or shadows, however, Edwards recognizes the limits of reason in this matter and turns to the question of what revelation discloses respecting the ends of the creation. In measuring what "the scriptures have truly revealed," he argues that the providential acts of God and the maintenance of moral government among human beings--both decisively figured in the redemptive work of Christ--are subordinate ends in the creation that also, ultimately, work to the purposes of glorifying God. Thus, such ends point to the presence of God in the world and suggest that there is continuing revelat ion of divine being in the world, boded in "images and shadows" for the possession of humankind. To the extent that the human creature in its dependence can consent faithfully to these emanations in the creation from the Creator, then to that same extent "the glory of God [the sole end of the creation] is both exhibited and acknowledged." Even as Edwards insists that such faithful consent is impossible without one's being elected for God's grace, revelation thus completes reason in its comprehension of the dialectic in the world of the real presence of the hidden God. In answering those theologies that would inflate the capacities of man and truncate the sovereignty of God, Edwards would preach the hidden "God glorified in man's dependence," but, in the redemptive economy, he would also preach that the world continued to receive "a divine and supernatural light."

Original Sin and the Dynamics of Redemption

Despite the view of the participation of the world in effulgences of divine being, which Edwards argued against the most legalistic Calvinism of his age, he remained solidly committed to the doctrine of Original Sin. Stripped by the fall of the spiritual nature that belonged to humankind as created in the image of God, human beings are born into and retain only an animal and physical nature, which, Edwards claims, is completed bereft "of the things of religion." They are by nature innately depraved and alienated from God, so corrupted in will that they cannot by nature choose the course of faith apart from the grace of God. Though men and women are endowed with rational capacity, it is severely constricted in matters of the spirit-clearly and utterly inadequate in the dynamics of salvation.

Consistent with his rendition of the doctrine of God's sovereignty, Edwards asserts throughout his writings the dependent character of human volition in the moral realm and the matter of justification by faith in the soteriological realm, both hinged ineluctably on the principle of sola gratia, salvation only by God's free and irresistible gift of grace. Indeed, neither "true virtue" nor "justifying faith" are possible but for those elected to sainthood, those who have, been predestined from eternity to receive grace.

The dynamics of salvation, in Edwards's hands, were designed to address two alternative schemes present in the age. First there were those revivalist interlopers who generated "human" means for universal, instantaneous conversion experiences, and then there were those Congregationalist communities that were offering halfway (or more) status to the children of church members and, later, to others, when church membership had formerly been reserved for those "visibly" elected by God, those who had experienced the grace that made both faith in arid consent to God possible. Although himself a revivalist, Edwards could not abide the former, the cheap grace they expounded in vulgarly emotive terms being for him a slur on God's predestinatory scheme and a scandal to authentic faith. With respect to those closer to home, he feared conquest by the Arminian view of the human capacity to choose grace. For him in answer to both alternatives, the fundamental requirement was a faith that suddenly or gradually permitted the human heart to know and love God, but this justifying faith, he insists throughout his writings, comes only after God's grace, which itself is not earned or chosen but bestowed by God on those sinners he has elected. For Edwards, the salvific plan could not but occur under the executive principle of God's sovereignty.

Faith and Virtue

Even if he fought against the excesses of revivalist emotionalism, Jonathan Edwards was nonetheless committed to renew the emphasis on "emotion" in the processes of the regeneration of human spiritual existence. For those sinners elected by God to receive grace, a grace they could neither choose nor resist, it was by means of the "affections" that God turned the heart toward the horizon of authentic faith. In works like the majestic Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, like the studied autobiography of the "Personal Narrative," and like the Narrative of Surprising Conversions, Edwards took great pains to isolate and emphasize the intuitive, emotive, suasive nature of God's actions upon the hearts of those who would be redeemed, and in this effort to distinguish the true marks of the "religious affections" from those counterfeit emotions stirred up by extremists among the revival preachers, he put his own unique stamp on a theological legacy he thought was turning overly rationalist and legalistic.

In restoring the emotional to religion, Edwards was not interested in the excesses of exuberant expression, except as these revealed the cheapened enthusiasms he sought to resist. Edwards maintains that, within the framework of election and grace, those redeemed would pass through an inward and heartfelt experience that would turn the sinner toward God, prepare the heart for the reception of grace, and ultimately enable that faith eventuating in an intuitive knowledge of God. This experience occurs in the domain of the affections--in the sphere of inward sensibility--as the person undergoes the preparation of his heart for the redemption of his spiritual nature. The creature first suffers the sensations of his own sinful nature (what Thomas Hooker had called "a true sight of sin") and the contingent nature of his life. This is followed with an apprehension by way of natural and biblical revelation of the whelming sense of God's beauty, power, and majesty, an understanding felt now, as never before, by "the r easons of the heart." Such a deepened persuasion teaches, far past mere cognitive assent, the inward convictions of man's dependency and the necessity of grace as the soul is penetrated by a divine light, itself finally illuminating the soul with the fullest "knowledge" of and faith in God the human being can obtain. Thus, beginning with and ending in the sovereign God, the regenerative process in its way replicates God's purposes in creating the world: An emanation stemming from God arrives for the creature who, returning in faith to God, sends a glorifying remanation back to the divine source.

As God's grace makes redeeming faith possible, so too does "the nature of true virtue" operate within the framework of this sovereign system of divine being. The regenerate heart, the redeemed spiritual principle gained in and through the religious affections, also enlivens renewed moral capacity in the human being. But this heightened moral existence must be understood, Edwards thinks, less as right deeds than as an inner disposition of the soul toward the ultimate goodness of divine being, a beautiful harmony of human life with divine life. While authentic faith provides the fullest possible knowledge of God, true virtue consists in the participation of the redeemed heart in the goodness of the God-created world or, as Edwards put it, "in the consent of [human] being to Being itself." As always for Edwards, the whole matter of life is from God, for God, with God, to God-the purpose for which the created order stands,

In addressing the religious issues and alternatives of his day, then, Jonathan Edwards brought to the Protestant tradition in America a theological and philosophical subtlety altogether rare in the history of Christian thought. His powerful and distinct quality of mind, conditioned by a sustaining faith, secures his place in the annals of religious thought, even as his disciples (notably Samuel Hopkins) were finally unable to work at the same capacious level of intellectual control or with the same degree of nuance and refinement. Strong currents of religious and cultural opinion would quickly erode the credibility of Edwards's system in a culture obviously following a different channel. Nonetheless, for those who pursue viable accounts of the experiential character of religious life, of the psychology of faith, or of the ecology of religious perception, Jonathan Edwards remains a rich resource.

Further Reading

Carse, James. Jonathan Edwards and the Visibility of God. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967. In this brief monograph, Carse concentrates on Edwards's interpretations of the forms and means of God's revelation of himself in history and nature.

Cherry, Conrad. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990. Published originally in 1966, this critical study, emphasizing the ways Edwards took up large "public" issues of religious thought, remains the most astute, patiently reasoned, and thorough treatment of Edwards's work.

Delattre, Roland A. Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968. An inquiry into Edwards's moral thought, this study argues that Edwards presents a religious ethics that cannot be understood apart from the aesthetic dimensions of his theology.

Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. New York: Meridian Books, 1959. Published originally in 1949, this work, by a leading authority on the New England mind, helped to initiate the contemporary critical study of Edwards as a figure in the canon of American letters.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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