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.
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.
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- How to support Heidelmedia: use the donate button below
- Recovering the Reformed Confession
- On Being Reformed Now $19.99 Until December 31, 2020
- Criticizing Edwards On Religious Affections Does Not Lead To Dead Orthodoxy: There Is Another Way
- Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice: A Parting of Ways in the Reformed Tradition,” Jonathan Edwards Studies 1, no. 1 (2011): 3–22.
- Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and Francis Turretin on Necessity, Contingency, and Freedom of Will. In Response to Paul Helm,” Jonathan Edwards Studies 4, no. 3 (2014): 266–85.
- Paul Helm on Edwards’ Religious Affections
- Helm Replies to Lucas on the Nature of “Affections” in Edwards
- Heidelcast Series: I Am That I Am (On the Doctrine of God)
- Understanding The New Calvinists: Neither New Nor Calvinists
- Piper’s Rejection Of The Gratitude Ethic Is A Rejection Of The Reformation
- Book Review: Young, Restless, And No Longer Reformed
- Resources On Defining Reformed
- The QIRE Distilled To Its Essence
- Discussing QIRC And QIRE On Presbycast
- In Case You Weren’t Sure What QIRE Means