Why Caution About Jonathan Edwards Is In Order

Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) is America’s most famous theologian and perhaps its most famous philosopher too. He is an important and influential figure and worth seeking to understand for those reasons alone. We should think about Edwards for other reasons, however, He is the theologian par excellence of the Young, Restless, and Reformed (or New Calvinist) movement. His influence is evident throughout the work of the leadership of the group, perhaps most notably in the work of John Piper. Importance and influence, however, do not necessarily equate to orthodoxy or to edification.

He was an American, Colonial, Congregationalist minister and theologian with some ties to American Presbyterianism. He is beloved by and influential in the YRR and New Calvinist movements for three reasons: 1) he advocated divine sovereignty clearly; 2) under his ministry in New England the Colonies experienced what is now known as the First Great Awakening; 3) he was a theologian of religious affections.

Religious Affections And The QIRE

Each of these features has connections to the YRR/New Calvinists movements. Let us start with the third. Inasmuch as the YRR/New Calvinist movements are products of modern Evangelical movement, they have roots in Pietism, which, in brief, was a reaction to the European and British state-churches. The Pietists feared what they (and their theological offspring) called “dead orthodoxy,” i.e., a mere confession of an orthodox faith without sufficient evidence of what people today call “lived experience.” The Pietists reacted to the perceived “dead orthodoxy” of the state-churches by prioritizing religious experience above confessional orthodoxy—although the earlier generations of Pietists affirmed orthodoxy, the later Pietists abandoned it in favor of religious liberalism—and they sought perceptible evidence (e.g., religious and social activism) of new life and they set up tests to measure, if you will, the temperature of one’s religious experience. Edwards’ Treatise On Religious Affections (1746) did just that: it set up tests to measure the quality of religious experience. In Recovering the Reformed Confession I characterized the Pietist desire for a certain quality of religious experience as the QIRE: the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience.

Traditional Reformed theology has always valued religious experience. After all, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) begins with comfort or consolation:

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who, with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins and redeemed me from all the power of the devil and so preserves me that, without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; indeed that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live for him.

The Heidelberg Catechism, was not the product of the Pietists. It was the product of the system against which the Pietists rebelled. Reformed orthodoxy did not set religious experience against orthodoxy. Rather, they sought to marry the two and understood that genuine orthodoxy produces piety and true piety reinforces orthodoxy. In Pietism and in Edwards, however, that marriage was seriously damaged so that piety was re-defined almost solely in terms of personal religious experience and orthodoxy was either damaged (Edwards) and eventually eclipsed (later Pietism). NB: Pietism is not to be confused with piety. All the confessional Reformed Christians value a thorough and warm Reformed piety but Pietism is another species altogether.

Edwards has been frequently described in the secondary literature as a student of John Locke (1632–1704), which he was until he was not. His theology and philosophy were ultimately influenced by Cambridge Platonism with serious consequences. His view of religious affections should be understood without considering his debt to the Platonists. For Edwards there is an ideal set of religious affections and the Treatise is an attempt to describe the ideal so that the Christian may measure himself. One simply finds no such thing in Scripture. Edwards approach to piety, in this respect, marked a departure from the older Reformed piety. Certainly they spoke about affections but they did not speak about them as Edwards did because they were not Platonists. We may see some of the fruit of Edwards’ turn to religious experience in his narrative regarding Phoebe Bartlett. His account of his wife’s religious experience, including levitation, is also troubling and illustrative of the QIRE.

Pantheism, Theosis, And Justification

His debt to Platonism also affected his doctrines of God and justification. Charles Hodge described Edwards as a Pantheist.1 This alone should give one pause and yet it does not seem to have hindered his reputation among the YRR/New Calvinist enthusiasts. Pantheism is the doctrine that God is everything. As the Reformed churches understand Scripture, the distinction between the Creator and the creature is fundamental to Christian theology, piety, and practice. To confuse the two is a fundamental error, which touches and corrupts everything else. This is not a Reformed peculiarity. This has always been a basic Christian conviction, even if the church before the Reformation was not always consistent with it. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) asserted it clearly at the beginning of his Summa Theologica even if, under the influence of Dionysius, he was not ultimately consistent with it. Before him Anselm affirmed it and before him Augustine and before him Athanasius. The Creator/creature distinction, which in RRC I called the categorical distinction, is basic to the biblical narrative: “In the beginning God…” (Gen 1:1). You and I were formed from the dust of the earth.

One of Edwards’ revisions of Reformed theology was his fiddling with the doctrine of justification, the article of faith on which the church stands or falls. This is a notorious bone of contention among Edwards scholars. It is like an intractable and immovable rugby scrum, with neither side able to move the other. I am on the side of those who are suspicious of Edwards’ regarding justification. It is not that Edwards never said orthodox and orthodox sounding things on justification. He did. The problem is that he said other things that are not easily squared with what the Reformed churches confess. Further, because of his pantheism there is an underlying problem in his doctrine of justification, a doctrine of theosis (divinization). Michael McClymond described this problem in a 2003 essay. I catalogued most of the literature on this question in RRC up to about 2007:

Thomas A. Schafer, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification By Faith,” Church History 20 (1951): 55–67. More recently, George Hunsinger, W. Robert Godfrey, and others have also raised questions about Edwards’ doctrine of justification. See, George Hunsinger, “Dispositional Soteriology: Jonathan Edwards on Justification by Faith Alone,” Westminster Theological Journal 66 (2004): 107–20; W. Robert Godfrey, “Jonathan Edwards and Authentic Spiritual Experience” (Paper presented at the Knowing the Mind of God: Papers Read at the 2003 Westminster Conference, London, 2004); Gary Steward, “Faith and Obedience in Jonathan Edwards’ Understanding of Justification By Faith Alone” (Unpublished paper, 2006). John Gerstner and Jonathan Neil Gerstner, Samuel Logan, Jeffrey Waddington, and Brooks Holifield have defended Edwards’ orthodoxy on justification. See John H. Gerstner and Jonathan Neil Gerstner, “Edwardsean Preparation for Salvation,” Westminster Theological Journal 42 (1979): 5–71; Samuel T. Logan, Jr., “The Doctrine of Justification in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards,” Westminster Theological Journal 46 (1984): 26–52; Jeffrey C. Waddington, “Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Ambiguous and Somewhat Precarious Doctrine of Justification,” Westminster Theological Journal 66 (2004): 357–72; Holifield, Theology in America, 119–120. In 2012, Josh Moody, ed., Jonathan Edwards and Justification (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012), including essays seeking to defend Edwards on justification but, by my lights, did not succeed. It does not adequately address the problems that so many have observed, not only the profound underlying problem identified by McClymond but also what Hunsinger aptly described as his “dispositional” doctrine of justification. Gerald McDermott recognizes that Edwards does not fit neatly in a Protestant box on justification. He recognized that, according to Edwards, we are justified because we are sanctified. When Edwards’ defenders cite his use of the language of imputation they do not seem to grasp adequately is that there have long been versions of the doctrine of justification, going back to Gropper and Contarini in the 16th century, that have taught both justification by sanctification and by imputation.2 Luther addressed this in 1518–19 in his doctrine of double justification. We are justified coram Deo (before God) on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and before men (coram hominibus) by our sanctification. The latter is really vindication but Luther and the rest of the magisterial Protestants prioritized the forensic, the legal (imputation) over the realistic.

The Great Awakening(s)

My friend and colleague D. G. Hart regularly describes the 1GA is the First “Pretty-Good Awakening.” The YRR/New Calvinist movements are invested in this episode in Colonial American religious history because they see it as a paradigm for what they hope to happen in our time, a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit during which many were brought to Christ by faithful preaching of the gospel. In fact, the 1GA was a more complicated event the outcome of which is not at all certain. As I documented in RRC there is good reason to think that the 1GA did not lead to church growth but rather to the opposite. If a revival means that people are being brought to new life and true faith in Christ (that is the thing for which we hope, right?) then we should expect to see those converts uniting to the visible church but there is evidence that did not happen. That should give one pause before making the 1GA a paradigm for any contemporary revival. Second, there other ways we do not want the 1GA to become a paradigm for any future revival. One of the darker aspects of the 1GA was the absolute certainty of its proponents that it was a work of the Spirit and that anyone, however orthodoxy he may be, who expressed any doubts or criticisms was to be, in contemporary parlance, cancelled and denounced as unregenerate. This was a regular feature of the rhetoric of the pro-1GA advocates in the 18th century and it has unfortunately re-appeared from time to time. Third, as it turns out, it is more difficult to distinguish the 1GA from the 2GA assumptions to the contrary notwithstanding. There are organic links between the 1GA and 2GA, and there were enough manifest problems with the 2GA (e.g., the heresy and abuses of Charles Finney, the “Burned Over District” and the like) that advocates of the 1GA should be cautious lest they bring with any future revival the same defects that gave us the 2GA.

Divine Sovereignty?

As I have already suggested, there were significant problems in Edwards’ doctrine of God, which necessarily sits at the headwaters of Reformed theology. What we say under the doctrine of God ripples or reverberates throughout the rest of our theology. So it was with Edwards. His account of the way God relates to the world raises questions about the orthodoxy of his view of divine sovereignty. On this see the essays by Richard Muller (linked below in the resources).

To be clear, this essay is not advocating that no one should read Edwards. Rather, it is an attempt to alert the reader to issues in Edwards theology and history of which he may not be aware. It is always good to read an author intelligently. Many laity, ruling elders, and pastors, however, may not be aware of these questions surrounding Edwards theology, piety, and practice since he has regularly been presented to us as a paradigm of Reformed orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Caveat lector: There is a good case to be made that he was neither but that rather he was a creative, idiosyncratic, problematic and (mostly) Congregational, Colonial theologian who should be read as such and not as a paradigm for Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

The reader should remember that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches do not confess Jonathan Edwards. We confess an understanding of God’s Word on certain important questions in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards, among others. That is the baseline for the Reformed faith. We measure the orthodoxy of a theologian, whether from the 18th century or the 21st, by the Word as we confess it. When we read the Reformed confessions we see no confusion on the doctrine of God, no doctrine of theosis, no ambiguity on justification, and no call for revival or extreme religious experiences of the sort that marked the QIRE during the 1GA and which continue mark the Reformed Pietists of our day.

©R. Scott Clark


1. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Co, 1873), 2.219.

2. R. Scott Clark, “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered: Celebrating the Legacy of Reformed Systematic Theology and the Westminster Assembly (Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne Spear). (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107–34.


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  1. I first started to put Edwards on a pedestal when I heard R.C. Sproul refer to him as one of the five greatest theologians of all time. R.C.’s lecture was with regards to Augustinian vs. Pelagian systems. Since then I have heard rumblings of problems with Edwards but was not sure of the details. Thanks for these insight Dr. Clark.

  2. Dear Dr. Clark, thank you for the test!

    I am astonished – I was eventually able to register and get access to Yale.edu. That was only the beginning of the process to locate Richard A. Muller’s first resource: J.E. free will. I found it!

    Then I faced many challenges deciphering the historical arguments related to the philosophical and rational ideas, Platonism, and new terms about free will in the various camps of ‘thinkers’ for and against J. Edwards. At the conclusion I concluded their common problem: they each rejected the Wisdom of God that forms the Theology, Piety and Practice in BC 13, HC 8, CD Head II (rejections 2 & 6), WCF IX, WSC 82, and WLC 149, and of course, the Word of God, The Bible. Where does one begin with others who reject the Confessions, Catechisms, Canons and Creeds but comes to worship God?

    When I listen to/study the philosophical arguments of evidence-based scientists who recognize that God is the Creator, the Son is the Redeemer, and the Spirit is the Regenerating Sanctifier, then there is value called wisdom of God. Philosophy is removed from the imagination of men and based in logical distinctions: natural vs supernatural. But when philosophy is used by men to reject God, arguments are void, a dark wilderness without hope: theology, piety or practice.

    Though reading about J. Edwards is painful, it is not as painful as reading his ideas, and that is much less painful than meeting people in the Church who are committed to J. Edwards. Thank you for these resources and the distinctions you provide. Perhaps the pain and misery of studying the historical ‘free will’ distinctions will actually help me engage (winsomely) people caught up in 1GA and J.Edwards.

  3. Yom mentioned Edwards’ account of his wife’s religious experience, including levitation. Do you have a source in Edwards where he mentions that? I was amazed and a little disturbed to read that!

    • The 1st place I saw this was in M. Lloyd-Jones. I document it in RRC. It’s also mentioned in one of the two Marsden biographies of Edwards (the larger or the smaller, I don’t recall).

  4. Hodge actually says Edwards’s theory of identity “in its consequences, is essentially pantheistic.” For all his view’s problems, that’s not quite a statement that Edwards is a pantheist.

    • Peter,

      Yours is essentially a quibble. If something is essentially pantheist, it is pantheist. To be essential is to be so necessary that without it, a thing is not what it is. It is of the substance of a thing. Pantheism is of the essence of Edwards’ doctrine of God.

  5. “In its consequences, is essentially pantheistic” is a far cry from saying his thoughts are in their essence pantheist. “A quibble”? More like an honest and helpful distinction.

    • Joe,

      You shall have to explain to me then what is the definition of essence. If someone says to me, “he is essentially overweight,“ that means that such a person is fat. I don’t see how the word essentially can be taken to mean, “but not actually.“ Perhaps you can help me understand how this can be?

      Further, this is just one of several issues associated with his doctrine of God. these things are well-known and well documented in the secondary literature, as you can see above.

  6. Using A for an assertion, when any assertion’s consequences are false, then the assertion is false, if the stated consequences are really the consequences. If A implies B, and B is false, then A is false. It doesn’t matter if A doesn’t state B.

    If we only consider what a theory states, then almost no theories being defended either defend, have found, or state, false consequences, for that reason. False consequences refute any assertion. For a theory to be “essentially” discredited as false, it would mean the base assertion or assertions, and whatever they imply, being false, but that there may be statements said along with, that are not implied by the base assertions, that remain true. So I think Hodge might mean “logical consequences.” If something logically implies pantheism, and pantheism is false, then that which logically implied it, is false. To defend it, one would have to re-check if it really implies the pantheism, and re-check if pantheism is false.

  7. Doubtless there are blemishes in Jonathan Edwards’ theology, as there are in the theology of Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Bunyan, John Owen, William Cunningham and many other exceedingly eminent men in the history of the Christian Church. In these cases, one Scottish minister advised his congregation to do what the cow does when it finds something unpleasant in the grass: spit it out and carry on feeding. Skip JE where he is weak or erroneous and concentrate on the places where he is profound and deeply edifying.

    • Douglas,

      I understand that, as Crisp says, it is difficult for those who know Edwards as a devotional writer, to face the grave problems with his theology but honesty compels us.

      Crisp: Edwards Was A Panentheist

      More On Edwards, Affections, Romanticism, And Pantheism

      Pantheism (or, if Crisp is correct, panentheism) is no mere “blemish” on Edwards theology. No, Calvin was not a Pantheist, nor was Luther, nor was Bunyan, nor was Owen. Pantheism is a fundamental error not a blemish. It changes everything, as indeed a number of Edwards scholars have recognized.

      The ambiguities in his doctrine of justification are not mere “blemishes.” Were it just a blemish, I wouldn’t have drawn attention to it in Recovering the Reformed Confession nor again here. All the confessional Protestants agree that justification is the article of the standing or falling of the church. How can corrupting a foundational truth be a mere blemish?

      His view of religious affections could possibly be a blemish. I have talked to many, however, who have labored under Edwards view of affections, who have struggled and doubted and lived with guilt and failure. On that level, it seems to me to be more than a blemish but a symptom of a deeper problem, his debt to Platonism, which vitiated his theology.

  8. I would regard these faults that you mention as speculative and inconsistent parts of his theology, whose inconsistency he did not realise. The heart of his theology is orthodox and has been recognised as such by the Christian Church in Britain since his writings started crossing the Atlantic (c. 1740s). They have been prized ever since. We are reasonably well aware of his faults, and don’t bother to read those things, just as we read Richard Baxter’s Reformed Pastor but not most of his other stuff. The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (to which I belong) has used Edward’s on the Affections and his Life of Brainerd for examining students for the ministry certainly since the 1960s and possibly far longer. Are you sure that the people that you mention had the “root of the matter”?

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