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Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards may be one of America’s greatest thinkers, but what exactly did he believe and what else did he contribute to Christianity? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of Jonathan Edwards—and why he still matters today.
Who Was Jonathan Edwards?
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was born in New England in colonial America. He would become a nurturing pastor, frontier missionary, and bold revivalist preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, he preached arguably the most famous sermon in Christian history—“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Known as the theologian of God’s sovereignty and the apologist to the Enlightenment, Edwards as a philosophizing divine (philosophical theologian) wrote a body of apologetic work that is largely a Christian theistic response to the advancing claims of the Enlightenment. When colonial America experienced the profound revivalist movement known as the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards held center stage. He died from a smallpox inoculation at age 54 shortly after beginning his presidency at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University).
What Did Jonathan Edwards Write?
Among several works, Edwards’ two most important theological and apologetics-oriented books are A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and The Freedom of the Will. In the first he provides a penetrating analysis of the phenomenon of religious experience (inherently, the psychology of religion). In the second work, he tackles from a Calvinistic theological perspective the freedom of the human will in light of humankind’s fall into sin and God’s sovereign work of grace in salvation.
What Did Jonathan Edwards Believe?
Christians of various traditions continue to defend several of Jonathan Edwards’ beliefs. The following shows perhaps Edwards’ three most important ideas or arguments for the God of Christianity:
- He viewed the simultaneous truth of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (called compatibilism) as paradoxical and humanly incomprehensible, but not actually contradictory in nature.
- All humanity inherited sinfulness, guilt, and moral corruption through relationship with Adam. 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 still persists in much of evangelicalism to this day.
- Edwards argued that all realities of life and being—including the world, knowledge, moral virtue, and, of course, salvation from sin—depend upon God. The Enlightenment view of human autonomy was the very antithesis of Edwards’ theological description of fallen humans as desperate, weak, depraved, and utterly dependent creatures.
Why Does Jonathan Edwards Matter Today?
Jonathan Edwards is criticized in certain theological circles for his alleged pessimistic and deterministic form of Puritanical Calvinism. Yet, his untiring work as a Puritan theologian and philosopher made him one of America’s greatest thinkers. He made enduring contributions in the fields of theology, philosophy, and the psychology of religion. When evangelical Christians today speak of someone coming forth at an altar call to receive Christ, they are describing a religious practice that has its historical roots in the revivalism of which Edwards wrote about and evaluated theologically. Edwards’ legacy as an extraordinary Christian thinker who stood close to God—in awe of His majesty and sovereignty—gives Christians (both then and now) someone worthy to respect.
Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal; St. Anselm; St. Athanasius; St. Thomas Aquinas
Reflections: Your Turn
Edwards wrote about people’s religious experiences. How important is a person’s experiences with God and do such experiences serve to support the truth of religious faith?
- Here’s an article I wrote on the life and accomplishments of Jonathan Edwards: “Jonathan Edwards: An Awakening of Heart and Mind.”
- For a biography of Edwards, see Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M. Marsden.
Thanks Ken. I found Marsden’s book one of the best biographies I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Edward’s book on the Freedom of the Will is still rather difficult for me to get my arms around. If you know of a good review/critique of this book, I would appreciate hearing about it.
Check out Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America’s Theologian edited by Gerald R. McDermott. I don’t know how much it addresses the Freedom of the Will but McDermott is a good Reformed (Anglican) theologian and he wrote a couple of the book’s chapters.
Best regards in Christ.
You asked the question “How important is a person’s experiences with God and do such experiences serve to support the truth of religious faith?” I think it is central to the growth of one’s faith, and maybe even a “test of one’s faith.” One can hear lots of arguments and decide about what is reasonable. But without absolute truth the clincher comes when you step out in that faith and you feel – believe – God responding to you. Like God said, “Abraham believed and was declared righteous.” Abraham didn’t “know,” but he believed – a step in the growth of that faith which after many such steps becomes his “knowledge,” his truth.
I appreciate your comments.
Best regards in Christ.
As to your question about our experiences with God, it would seem to me that if God is God in three Persons, and we humans are persons, it would seem important that we would have experiences and “conversation” with God, as is demonstrated in Scripture, and is common between persons, albeit Lord with His lowly and humble beloveds. It seems that God values relationship and”friendship” with us and to not have any evidence of that in our lives, would, I think, belie the type of connectedness He desires. I’m not sure these experiences would convince anyone of the truth of our faith who doesn’t want to be convinced, but it would, hopefully, cause curiosity and further exploration of our delight in these experiences.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
You ask, “How important is a person’s experiences with God and do such experiences serve to support the truth of religious faith?”
To answer the first part of the question, I would say, it is not only very important but a very exciting part of one’s faith and walk with God. It is comforting to think that God allows us to experience Him spiritually, emotionally, and even intellectually.
To answer the second part of your question, I quote Dr. Craig,
“First of all, it is very important to understand that the witness of the Holy Spirit is not just a subjective religious experience. This is an objective reality. It is a witness which God himself bears with our spirit. It is as objective as light rays impinging upon your retina and causing you to see something. This is an objective work and activity of God on the spirit. So this isn’t just some sort of a subjective religious experience that arises from your own emotions and feelings.
Having said that, that does not mean that the witness of the Holy Spirit serves as objective evidence for the Christian faith as the reader seems to think. That is a misunderstanding of what one is talking about here. The witness of the Holy Spirit is not construed as evidence from which you then infer that God exists, as though one infers from this experience that the best explanation of this experience is that there really is a God…” – Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/religious-experience-subjective-or-objective#ixzz4CvVkjXTt
Thank you Kenneth for these educational and thought provoking articles. I admire you and the whole RTB team.
Very good, David.
Thank you for your comments and quote.
Best regards in Christ.