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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.
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.