WHEN I WAS A student at a secularist university, in a secularist philosophy course, my secularist professor opened class one day with an astonished look on his face. He said he wanted to share with us something he had just read. It was a treatise on "Nothingness," arguing that the concept is merely a word, since "nothing" does not exist.
"Now this," the professor marveled, "is a philosopher! And it's Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century Puritan! And he wrote this when he was only 14 years old!"
Oct. 5 marks the 300th anniversary of this child prodigy's birth. He grew up to be one of America's greatest thinkers-the most important theologian from these shores, a philosopher whose ideas reverberated throughout America's literature, arts, and culture, and a leader of what is now hailed as the greatest university in the country. This highly intellectual theologian was also one of America's greatest evangelists, a parish pastor whose preaching ignited the First Great Awakening.
Edwards was both orthodox and innovative. He was doctrinally and confessionally rigorous while engaging the secular thought of the age in a creative way and bringing thousands to Christ. Three hundred years later, Edwards's ideas remain relevant, and he looms large as a Christian culture warrior worth emulating today.
Pastor, missionary, president
Edwards represents the pinnacle of the American Puritan tradition, though by the time he was born-only three years before Benjamin Franklin-it had already largely passed away. He was born in East Windsor, Conn., the fifth of 11 children, his father being the local pastor. As a boy, he showed precocious talent. By the age of 12, he was reading heavy-duty philosophers and writing discourses such as a refutation of the materiality of the soul and a closely observed account of the behavior of spiders. Just before his 13th birthday, he went off to Yale College, where he graduated with all honors at 17.
After that, he pastored a congregation in New York City and then one in Bolton, Conn., lasting less than a year in both positions, and tutored at Yale for two years. Then in 1726 he took a call to the church in Northampton, Mass. There he served for the better part of his life. After he led his parishioners through one of the greatest spiritual awakenings in history, they voted him out of office in 1750.
From there he was called to Stockbridge, Mass., where he worked as a missionary to Indians. His new congregation consisted of 12 white families and over 200 Indian families. While doing the difficult yet productive work of a missionary, he wrote one of his most acclaimed theological works, Freedom of the Will.
In 1758, he became the third president of Princeton University. He served there only briefly, but his selection demonstrated the connection in those days between Christianity and academia. (According to this year's U.S. News & World Report ranking of colleges and universities, Princeton is tied with Harvard as the best in the nation, though President Edwards would hardly put up with faculty members such as Peter Singer-who advocates infanticide, the killing of the handicapped, and animal-human sex-who holds an endowed chair in, of all things, ethics.) Edwards died of a botched smallpox inoculation in 1758 at the age of 55.
At a time when the Enlightenment was threatening Christianity, the Age of Reason supplanting the Age of Revelation, Edwards boldly engaged the new ideas. But whereas the liberals of his day (and ours) sought to change Christianity to conform with the culture and with the latest fashionable ideas, Edwards did the opposite. Instead of letting the new ways of thinking swallow up Christianity, Edwards found a way for Christianity to swallow up the new ways of thinking.
Just as Thomas Aquinas reconciled classical philosophy with Christianity, Edwards reconciled the Enlightenment with Christianity. While fighting and refuting its atheistic-and deistic-side, Edwards took the valid contributions of Enlightenment thinkers and reappropriated them according to a biblical worldview. He made cynical, skeptical thinkers like Hobbes (for whom human nature is "nasty, brutish, and short") and Hume (with his chain of deterministic causality) serve the biblical doctrine of the Fall. More significantly, he Christianized the empirical thinking of John Locke.
But Edwards did more than Christianize the Enlightenment. He added to the Enlightenment what was missing. To an "Age of Reason," Edwards showed the part emotions also rightly play in human life. Instead of advocating an arid rationalism, which the Romantics would later react against, Edwards anticipated them in cultivating also the inner life of feeling, emotion, and experience.
All the while, Edwards upheld a conservative Christianity, centered upon the authority of the Bible. He also was a confessional Calvinist. He took on the various liberalisms and heresies of his day, always refusing to compromise doctrine in any way.
But while keeping a strong hold on his theological foundations, he also built on them and added to the structure. He could be said to have brought the senses back to Calvinism. With his Lockean psychology emphasizing the importance of sense-perception, Edwards wrote about the wonders of what we see, hear, and touch in the world around us. The whole realm of nature and of physical existence, according to Edwards, is God's creation, and therefore His self-expression. Not that God can be known propositionally through nature apart from His Word. Rather, it is the beauty of nature that testifies to the "excellence" of God and to His love.
Edwards thus emphasized aesthetics in a way that had been somewhat lost in American Puritanism. He also emphasized concrete existence and materiality in a way that had sometimes been lost in the "spiritual" preoccupations of Christians. Edwards's reveling in the wonders of simple existence is a healthy tonic for those who believe in the creation and the incarnation, in contrast to both the gnostic tendency of many Christians who reject the physical world and the life-denying tenets of contemporary existentialists for whom existence is "meaningless."
Although his earliest child-philosopher writings are centered in a Christian faith, Edwards experienced a "spiritual awakening." From his graduation from Yale through his time as a teacher there (1720-1726), between the ages of 17 and 23, he struggled to attain true and complete "conversion." His spiritual highs and lows, worries about his election, and his experiences of mystic rapture are described in his "Personal Narrative" and in his religious diaries. By the time he took the call to the church at Northampton, he was converted in his head and in his heart.
He wanted nothing less for the people in his congregation. By his preaching and personal spiritual counseling, his people started to change. As he describes in his Narrative of Surprising Conversions, "the spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us." By 1735, the whole town, he wrote, "seemed to be full of the presence of God: It was never so full of love, nor so full of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then." During his sermons, people would weep with sorrow for their sins and with joy for their salvation.
The revival spread from Northampton throughout New England, and then, as more and more preachers took up the cause, throughout the American colonies. This "First Great Awakening" crossed the ocean back into the old country, into Scotland and England, where it would inspire John Wesley in his own evangelistic work.
Edwards's most famous work-known from countless American literature anthologies-is his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." That harrowing sermon, so powerful in its imagery of the wrath of God-who holds the sinner over the pit of hell "much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire"-makes a Stephen King horror story seem like a nursery rhyme. His other sermons, such as "Justification by Faith Alone," "The Excellency of Christ," and "The Peace Which Christ Gives" are less known, but though they do not make it into the anthologies, they are just as powerful and were even more instrumental in the Great Awakening.
Their power did not come from emotional declamations or rhetorical tricks. Edwards reportedly read his sermons in a quiet voice.
Soon after the awakening, though, came bouts of spiritual depression, fanaticism, excess emotionalism, and what Edwards considered flat out works of Satan. He sought to distinguish authentic spiritual rebirth from its counterfeits in his A Treatise on Religious Affections. After awhile, his own congregation, because of theological disputes and Edwards's refusal to give the Lord's Supper to those whom he did not know to be Christians, turned against him and dismissed him from office.
An American genius
Edwards's influence went beyond theology. His understanding of the beauty of nature and its connection to its Creator bore fruit in the magnificent landscape paintings of the Hudson River artists. His awareness of the limits and the sinfulness of human nature is evident in the fiction of Hawthorne and Melville, with its awareness of the darkness that dwells in the human heart. His rehabilitation of Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers made them palatable to the American Founders, who used them, in a Christian way, to forge the constitutional republic.
His ideas were not without fault. One can disagree with his theology, in whole or in part. One can blame him for opening the door to certain kinds of spiritual subjectivism, to replacing faith in God's promises with subjective experiences (even though this was not his intent). One can argue that he opened the door to the excesses of the Romantics and the pantheism of the Transcendentalists (even though he would have fought them tooth and nail).
But the main point of his thought and his spiritual life can be found in those ambitious treatises written when he was only 14 years old, in which he was reflecting on Locke, the creation, and God as the summation of all existence, concluding that "all other excellence is in strictness only a shadow of His."