Jonathan Edwards is one of my heroes in the faith. He was one of the great revivalist preachers and apologists during the First Great Awakening, an immense movement of God in Colonial America that pervaded multiple aspects of colonial life. It brought a renewed emphasis on righteous living, religious devotion, and even served as a bridge between the cultural division between blacks and whites.[i] More importantly, the First Great Awakening was a revival whereby thousands of people were converted and there was a renewed prominence given to the nature and character of God.
Today, Edwards is often polarized as a “Hell, fire, and brimstone” preacher because of sermons such as, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and “The Justifice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.” (I’ve written briefly elsewhere about Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. You can read it here) However, it is unfair to caricature Edwards as such a man without allowing him the opportunity to speak for himself. These sermons do not exist in a vacuum and it is important to be familiar with Edwards the man in order to fairly assess his theology.
Edwards: The Man (1703-1758)
Timothy Edwards fathered eleven children, and only one boy, Jonathan. From his early childhood, his father, who was a Congregational pastor in their hometown of Windsor, Connecticut, trained him for the pastrate.[ii] Even as a boy, Jonathan took an interest in spiritual things, often secluding himself from other children his age in order to spend time in prayer. I read one story that said when Edwards was nine years old he built a fort. This is common behavior for a boy—I built forts too. However, Edwards’ fort was specifically built for prayer.
At the age of fifteen, Edwards became a student at Yale (1717) and under the leadership of Rector Timothy Cutler, he was forced to grapple with his Calvinist roots on an intellectual level.[iii] He had grown to believe in the sovereignty of God, but it brought him great distress. He wrestled deeply with divine sovereignty, man’s inability to be righteous, and human accountability to live righteously. In other words, Edwards could not understand how God could be good, yet condemn his creatures when they were not able to exercise faith on their own.[iv]
These were not simply theological musings of a slightly interested man, but, on the contrary, Edwards viewed the answers to these questions as determining all manner of life, for it appears that he believed the content of one’s theology determines worldview and lifestyle. All theological training aside, Edwards believed the answers to his questions would determine the direction and fate of his own soul. It was not until a few years later that he had a conversion experience, which revolved around the overwhelming glory and beauty of God.[v] Rather than hell, wrath, and fury, the glory and beauty of God became the major themes in his theology. When he was able to reconcile his discomfort with the beauty of God he finally experienced comfort in his soul. The beauty and excellency of God brought a metaphysical shift (a reinterpretation of reality), which allowed Edwards to view God’s attributes as working in harmony—especially seemingly contrary attributes such as love and wrath.
So, while it appears that he was a preacher who had a certain affinity for preaching the wrath of God and the destruction of the wicked, Edwards spent much more time depicting the beauty and excellency of the Triune God.[vi] This foundational reality ultimately led Edwards to his answer regarding the love and wrath of God.
In the coming days I hope to show how Edwards’ answer serves as an example of how our understanding of the inner workings of God’s attributes, specifically His love and wrath, ultimately reflects our Doctrine of God.
[i] Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 91.
[ii] John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory: With Complete Text of The End For Which God Created the World, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998, 51.
[iii] George M. Marsden, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 18-19.
[iv] Ibid., 18-19.
[v] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century, vol. III, Revised ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1975), 317.
[vi] Noll, 95-96.