Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
America has produced many great minds; many men and women whose intellects have made them notables in the history books. One whose name shines as bright as any that could be named is Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was contemporary with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, but unlike them, he could not be called a child of the Enlightenment. He was a pastor of a medium sized Congregational church in New England, and one of the most remarkable things about him is that he was able to transcend the cultural outlook of those around him. Unlike even men like Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, two of the greatest theologians of the next century, he did not buy into the widespread belief that Christians shared the same basic evaluation of the world as non-Christians. He saw clearly that Jesus Christ not only saves souls but can save minds too. His sermons, which were heard by farmers and ironmongers and millers, as well as by schoolmasters and physicians, were weighty, highly organized examples of forceful yet spiritual reasoning. For example, his sermon on “Christian Knowledge” (from Hebrews 5:12) he maintains, “There is no other way by which any means of grace whatsoever can be of any benefit, but by knowledge. All teaching is vain, without learning. Therefore the preaching of the gospel would be wholly to no purpose, if it conveyed no knowledge to the mind…If men have no knowledge of these things, the faculty of reason in them will be wholly in vain…Therefore a man cannot have his faculty of understanding to any good purpose, further than he has knowledge of divine truth.”
In our day of cozy sermonettes this sounds like a theological lecture, but Edwards was convinced that God had created man’s mind to hear God’s truth, so he could not shortchange the Apostles and Prophets. These weekly deliveries of solid doctrine did not dry his people up. In fact the very reverse is true. Edwards was at the center of powerful spiritual revivals on two separate occasions. His most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a fairly untypical message, was preached in the midst of revival in 1741.
As a writer Edwards showed himself to be a profound philosopher-theologian. He had a knack for close analysis, a skill he had honed by his notable investigating of spiders and their webs. Such a profound thinker was Edwards that he is usually accounted America’s greatest theologian and one of her greatest philosophers. I am not sure he deserves the first accolade. He did have some unorthodox views about reality (he was an idealist who also held to continuous creation), and his teaching of omni-causality makes it scarcely possible to make anyone but God the author of sin. But the broad scale of his Christian vision is a small marvel, and his determination to put truth ahead of status and security was admirable. Edwards died of smallpox in 1758, shortly after assuming the presidency of the College of New Jersey (Princeton).