A sense of God’s majesty combined with desire for deep spiritual intimacy characterizes one of America’s greatest evangelical thinkers.1 Known as the theologian of God’s sovereignty, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) made enduring contributions in the fields of theology, philosophy, and the psychology of religion. A nurturing pastor, frontier missionary, and bold revivalist preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Edwards exemplifies a man who integrated reason (the mind) and personal devotion (the heart) in unwavering dedication to the sovereign God revealed in creation and Scripture. These convictions helped Edwards stand firm during a time when a new “enlightenment” threatened Christianity, much as it does today.
Born October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Connecticut (during America’s colonial period), Jonathan Edwards descended from a family of highly regarded clergymen. His father, Timothy Edwards, was a Congregationalist pastor as was his mother’s father. The fifth of eleven children, Jonathan was his parents’ only son. He “grew up in an atmosphere of Puritan piety, affection and learning.”2
Vigorous academic instruction at home led a precocious preteen Edwards to write a sophisticated essay on the immateriality of the human soul. At this same tender age, he also penned essays on the flying spider and on the rainbow—his first written expressions of a lifelong interest in the natural world. Scholars have noted that these writings “reveal remarkable powers of observation and deduction.”3 Edwards’ writing on rainbows clearly implies his early mastery of the optical theories set forth by Sir Isaac Newton.4
As a child, Edwards began jotting down his reflections and observations on various topics in a notebook, a practice that continued throughout his entire life. He later incorporated these notes in his writings. Upon his death, he left nine volumes of notebooks entitled “Miscellaneous Observations,” containing some 1,360 entries.
At age 13, Edwards entered a school considered a bastion of Christian education—the eventual Yale University. After receiving a master’s degree and serving a short stint in pastoral ministry, Edwards returned to Yale as a senior tutor. While there, he experienced a profound spiritual awakening later described in his Personal Narrative. This event gave Edwards a renewed awareness of God’s absolute sovereignty and humanity’s utter dependence upon God’s power and grace. These central theological truths influenced Edwards’ entire understanding of Christian theology and his approach to ministry.
Subsequent to his profound experience, Edwards married Sarah Pierrepont, the deeply pious daughter of one of New England’s prominent Puritan families. Over the years, Sarah and Jonathan had eleven children of their own.
Theologian of Sovereign Grace
By the age of 24, Edwards had become the assistant pastor of a Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts. He worked under the supervision of his maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Upon his grandfather’s death two years later, Edwards took over the pastoral leadership of the church. For more than twenty years at this parish (which became one of the most significant outside of Boston), Edwards preached and wrote. He set forth a body of theological work that included A Treatise on Religious Affections, Freedom of Will, and Original Sin. These works earned him a reputation as one of the most influential evangelical theologians of all time.
Because many Puritan Christians had migrated from England to enjoy religious freedom in the New World, colonial America embraced Puritanism as a major theological, social, and political force. Edwards’ Puritan theology represented a version of Reformed orthodoxy—one with special emphasis upon the evidence of a changed life and the pastoral elements of the Christian faith.5 Remaining clearly within the Augustinian-Calvinistic theological tradition, Edwards became well known for his defense of three Reformed distinctives: (1) the sovereignty of God, (2) original sin, and (3) salvation solely by grace. Imperative to Edwards’ overall theology and ministry, these theological principles warrant consideration, especially today, in an age when evangelical denominations tend to neglect them.
1. Sovereignty of God: The doctrine of God’s sovereignty permeates Edwards’ sermons and writings—his entire theological system.6 His book End for Which God Created the World especially develops Edwards’ view of God as both the transcendent Creator and the absolute Ruler of the world. God foreordains and perfectly controls all things, which can by no means be frustrated by the will of the creature. The world exists in complete and utter dependence upon God, and God’s sovereign purposes extend to His acts in creation, providence, and redemption. Edwards, in keeping with the historic Reformed tradition, viewed the simultaneous truth of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility as paradoxical and incomprehensible to humans yet not contradictory in nature.
2. Original Sin: Edwards believed that the entire human race sinned in Adam’s fall (Genesis 3). All humanity inherited sinfulness, guilt, and moral corruption through relationship with Adam.7 The Fall eradicated humanity’s original righteousness in creation and distorted the image of God in people.
In its state of sin, humanity suffers from a depraved nature and is therefore alienated from a holy and just God. Edwards stressed that the sinner’s heart becomes hardened and his or her will enslaved to wrongdoing. Thus, the sinner often shows open antagonism and contempt towards God. This sober and pessimistic view of human nature stood in sharp contrast to the optimistic view that emerged in the colonies just prior to the American Revolution, and that persists to this day. Edwards’ sermons, especially his later evangelistic messages, clearly reflect this diagnosis of the fallen human condition. A formal defense of his view of human nature appears in his work Original Sin, published posthumously.
3. Salvation Solely by Grace: Edwards’ view of the absolute necessity of divine grace in salvation flows naturally from his view of humankind’s state of sinful depravity. In his book Freedom of Will, he argues that the human will is not an independent faculty. Rather, a person’s will responds according to its nature (i.e., according to its prevailing motives or character), which, for all people, has been marred by sin since the Fall. Therefore, Edwards concludes that humanity is helpless to save itself or even to cooperate in the process.
Edwards reasons that the sinner by nature never chooses God unless God intervenes with a special efficacious and irresistible grace. This sovereign grace illumines the mind, inclines the will, and implants (in Edwards’ own words) a “sense of the heart.” As in Reformed theology, Edwards asserts that regeneration (the spiritual rebirth) logically precedes and is the necessary basis for a person’s ultimate repentance, faith, and conversion. Thus salvation is solely a work of God’s grace.
The changed human heart in redemption became a frequent theme as Edwards spoke and wrote. As theologian Mark Noll notes, for Edwards “true Christianity involved not just an understanding of God and the facts of Scripture but a new ‘sense’ of divine beauty, holiness, and truth.”8 Edwards expressed a keen appreciation for the importance of integrating both head and heart in the Christian’s service to God.
This series will conclude next week with an examination of Edwards’ role as an apologist of the Enlightenment era and a revival leader.
1. For introductory articles on the life and thoughts of Jonathan Edwards, see Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 8, s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan;” Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan;” Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1967), s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan;” Ian P. McGreal, ed., Great Thinkers of the Western World (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992), 261–65.
2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan.”
3. Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan.”
5. Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 174.
6. Ibid., 262–63.
7. Edwards’ own distinctive theological approach to the doctrine of original sin was known as “constituted identity.”
8. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, s.v. “Edwards, Jonathan.”