Jonathan Edwards

In typical New England Calvinist fashion, Jonathan Edwards (170358) defined theology as "the doctrine of living to God by Christ.'' In many other ways, Edwards was a typical New England theologian, a Calvinist concerned about piety in a local congregation. Yet no other theologian in America would equal him in intellectual depth or enduring influence on generations of successors. For a hundred years after his death, competing schools of theology either struggled for his mantle or strove to overcome his logic. He never lacked for critics: Arminians of every variety would continue to view him as a monumental defender of Calvinist error while some conservative Calvinists would long view his theology as a source of heresy. His admirers, however, formed an Edwardean theological culture that entrenched itself in the leading Reformed seminaries of the nation even as some of them crafted theological revisions that Edwards could never have accepted.1

Edwards drew the common distinction between the two kinds of theological knowledge, the first speculative, derived from the exercise of the understanding, and the second practical, consisting of the "sense of the heart,'' the gracious inclination of both the understanding and the will. The aim of theology was to nurture a "sense" of divine things that took one deeper into their nature than the speculative understanding alone could penetrate and to "guide and influence us in our practice.'' His favorite text in systematic theology was the Theoretico-Practica Theologia of the Reformed theologian Petrus van Mastricht (i630-i706) — a teacher at Utrecht in the Netherlands from 1677 until his death—who made a point of showing that every speculative truth in theology had a practical implication. Just as Edwards strove to overcome a sharp distinction between the will and the understanding, so he tried also to ensure a close linkage between the speculative and the practical. A ''speculative knowledge'' was of ''infinite importance'' for without it there could be no ''practical knowledge.''2

Edwards was the grandson of Solomon Stoddard, and he bore the weight of Stoddard's heritage. After graduating from Yale College in 1720, receiving the master's of arts degree there in 1723, preaching in Connecticut and New York for a year, and teaching two years as a tutor at Yale, he became in 1726 Stoddard's assistant in Northampton. In 1729, after Stoddard's death, he became the sole pastor. He shared Stoddard's revivalist inclinations. Although he deplored the excesses of the separatists, he defended the revivals against the Old Lights, and his Treatise on Religious Affections (1746) remains the best defense of revivalism published in colonial America. When he challenged Stoddard's theories about sacraments and church membership, however, his congregation dismissed him, and in 1750 he accepted an invitation to serve the Housatonic and Mohawk mission in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He died in i758 within three months of assuming the presidency of the College of New Jersey (Princeton).

Some feared that his support for revivals encouraged the theological populists, but Edwards joined Charles Chauncy in thinking it lamentable when uneducated exhorters presumed to preach and teach. He believed that theologians, learned in divinity, had the high calling ''to spend themselves, in order to impart knowledge''; their congregations had the Christian duty ''to apply themselves to receive it.'' When his Northampton congregation proved unwilling to apply themselves, Edwards told them that they had a covenant with him—and with God—to heed his teaching. He could sound like a religious populist when he assured pious but uneducated Christians that their knowledge of God's glory was worth more than ''all the human knowledge that is taught in all the most famous colleges and universities in the world.'' But he belonged to New England's theological aristocracy, and he defended its prerogatives against usurpers.3

He entertained no doubts about either the value of rationality or the rationality of theology. Edwards wrote about moral philosophy, metaphysics, atomist theory, optics, the corpuscular theory of light, and the nature of gravity. In essays written when he was a student at Yale between 1716 and 1720, he displayed a knowledge of Newtonian science, and his reading of John Locke, probably when he was a tutor at the college, confirmed an interest in philosophy that went back to his undergraduate years. In 1729 he began to think about writing a ''Rational Account'' of all the ''Main Doctrines of the Christian Religion,'' and in the mid-i740s he projected a book to ''shew how all the arts and sciences, the more they are perfected, the more they issue in divinity, and coincide with it, and appear to be as parts of it.'' Theology for Edwards remained the highest expression of rationality, though he also thought that it offered the clearest insights into reason's limits.4

While some read him chiefly as a philosophical theologian, immersed in conversation with Locke, Malebranche, the Cambridge Platonists, or the British moralists, others, like his first biographer Samuel Hopkins, emphasized that he ''studied the Bible more than all other books'' and that his most frequent recourse as a theologian was to such works of biblical criticism as Matthew Poole's Synopsis Criticorum (1669-76) and Matthew Henry's Exposition of the Old and New Testaments (1708-10). In response especially to the deists, he occupied himself with the critical study of scripture, writing on inspiration; the scope of the canon; authorship of biblical texts, including the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; and the historicity of biblical reports. He was, in fact, both a philosophical and a biblical theologian, and for him these two sides of theology coincided. Both as a philosopher and as an exegete, he sought to preserve Calvinist orthodoxy, including the standard Calvinist balance between reason and revelation. Nevertheless, he recast conventional categories, and his vision of divine ''excellency'' inspired a way of thinking that shaped his views of rationality, ethics, metaphysics, biblical interpretation, and the meaning of the practicality of theology.5

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment