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Shall We Read Jonathan Edwards?

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Date February 4, 2015

I am asked whether, in my judgment, it is profitable for the minister of today to read the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and (I suppose) those of other similarly notable theologians of the past. The question may perhaps have been suggested to my friend by my own remark that I had recently been re-reading Edwards on the Will.1 I may as well indicate at once, as later, that I shall make an affirmative answer to this question, for I certainly believe that it would be decidedly advantageous, not only for the modern minister but if possible for the layman also, to devote at least some portion of his time to authors of this class. The advantage would consist in the quickening of spiritual impulse, in the acquisition of intellectual stimulus and power, and in much needed theological definiteness.

For the purpose of this paper Jonathan Edwards will be taken merely as one of a group of men to whom the universal church is immensely indebted, and who have severally been ‘beacon lights’ along the path of its history – great names which will never be allowed to die so long as the church shall live, and which, to the minister at least, ought to be something more than mere names of otherwise unknown personalities. I have in mind among others, John Calvin, author of the famous Institutes,2 which systematized the doctrines of the ‘Reformed’ churches with a literary skill that, it is said, exerted a marked influence on the formation of French prose, and with a logical power that led his opponents to stigmatize his book as ‘The Koran of the Heretics’. There are also Augustine, whose Confessions and City of God are classics in the literature of religion; and Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed orator and prince of preachers in the sub-apostolic church. Surely it is well to become as intimately acquainted as circumstances may permit with men who consecrated intellects of the highest order to the services of the Christian faith, who laid the foundations and reared the edifice of the Christian church wherein we minister, who secured for us our noble heritage, and who are even now – to quote a sentence from Lord Byron,

The dead but scepter’d sovrans
Who rule us from their urns.

Of course, I know that a minister’s time is limited. He cannot read everything. There are only twenty-four hours in a day for any man, really less, and the range of literature is vast. But if time be limited, there is all the more need to husband it well, and to use what one has in the wisest way; while, as to literature, we might well throw most of our magazines and papers into the fire for the sake of those books which have been creative in their influence, or which have won the controversial battle for those principles we so justly prize. Using our time with a wise economy, we may find that we really have more time for forming these noble acquaintances than we thought.

1. Edwards Provides a Spiritual Impulse

But taking up now the three points of advantage I have already suggested, and only using Jonathan Edwards as illustration chiefly, let us consider first, the gain in the quickening of spiritual impulse. These men, besides being master-minds of the church, great scholars, and great thinkers, were great saints as well -great Christians; and I know no method of securing spiritual impulse superior to that of getting one’s own soul in as close and sympathetic contact as possible with some other soul whose nobility and moral power have become recognized as of the highest order. We may know some men whom we have never seen better than others who walk the streets with us, and men who are dead may be nearer to us than others whom we meet every day. Such, to us, are the most truly alive of any. To me no one is more truly living today than Jesus of Nazareth, and after him the Apostle Paul; and the more of such as these we can people our world with, the better it will be for us; for every man is known by the intellectual company he keeps. And noblest company leaves noblest impressions.

We should covet high converse with high souls. Such an one was Jonathan Edwards. He is commonly thought of as a great logician, and as a redoubtable champion of the Calvinistic theology. What one has said of him is indeed true, viz.: that ‘Calvinism had probably never so powerful a defender,’ and Robert Hall asserted that ‘he ranks with the brightest luminaries of the Christian church, not excluding any country or any age, since the apostolic.’ It is, however, not so generally known that after labouring as a pastor with, as one says, ‘intense zeal’ for more than twenty-three years, his labours being rewarded with large accessions to the church not only of persons of mature years but also of young people, he became a missionary to the Indians.

Edwards was a great scholar and a great student, but he was also a great preacher. His congregations often filled the church, and they were not infrequently deeply moved by his power. Earnestly evangelical, he was at the same time quite as earnestly evangelistic. His sermons have been described as ‘plain and searching,’ but they were delivered with that ‘manifest depth of feeling and conviction which has been likened to “white heat”.’ Professor George P. Fisher records that ‘his piety was most profound and sincere.’ He says that

he mingled logic and the utmost ardour in theological inquiry with a devout and contemplative turn of mind characteristic of the mystic. His diaries record heavenly visions – or experiences that almost deserve this name – of the glory of God and the beauty of Christ.

‘In Jonathan Edwards,’ asserts Professor Fisher, ‘we find an enthusiasm of devotion, for a parallel to which we must resort to the lives of the holiest of the medieval saints.’ One of Whitefield’s sermons so impressed and affected him that he wept during the entire time of its delivery. He was a most remarkable man – one of those whom it is well worth while to know. At seventeen he graduated from Yale University; at twenty-four he became assistant pastor at Northampton as colleague to his maternal grandfather Stoddard; and two years later at his grandfather’s death, full pastor. A few years afterward in this same pastorate a powerful revival occurred in the church and parish, which under himself and the Tennants, extended throughout New England. In regard to his own personal religious experiences (for he did not live in an atmosphere solely intellectual), take the following passages quoted from his diary:

As I was walking there, and looking up in the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I knew not how to express it. I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together; it was a sweet and gentle and holy majesty, and also a majestic sweetness; a high and great and holy gentleness … I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time, and in the day spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky to behold the sweet glory of God in these things, in the meantime singing forth with a low voice my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.

Of another occasion he records:

Once as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view, that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as mediator between God and man and his wonderful, great, full, pure, and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension … The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception – which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to be in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone … I have, several other times, had experiences of very much the same nature, and which have had the same effects.

It is unquestionably of incalculable spiritual advantage to know any such man as this. Indeed we can hardly afford not to know him.

2. Edwards Provides Intellectual Stimulus

The second advantage mentioned was that of intellectual stimulus. Books are dangerous as well as helpful. Much that is read would be just as well, or even better unread than read. The result of reading them is mental dissipation, and the result of that is intellectual paralysis. The larger part of our current literature is the product of no higher motive than the income which is expected to accrue to the authors and publishers. Such as they are ‘worldlings in the world of books,’ as Mrs. Browning calls them, and they are to beware of by all who are and would be wise. ‘For the wicked there,’ she says,

Are winged like angels; every knife that strikes
Is edged with elemental fire to assail
A spiritual life; the beautiful seems right
By force of beauty, and the feeble wrong
Because of weakness; power is justified,
Though armed against St. Michael.

But then fortunately we are not limited to such as these. For on the other hand, she says:

In the book-world, true,
There’s no lack neither of God’s saints and kings,
That shake the ashes of the grave aside
From their calm locks, and, undiscomfited,
Look steadfast truths against Time’s changing mask.

And so we are to take our choice; but the wise man will choose comradeship with ‘God’s saints and kings,’ and secure for himself the manifold advantage that comes thereby.

In the realm of art there is no greater or more illustrious name than that of Michael Angelo [sic], at whose feet every genuine artist is glad to sit, and whose inspiration and power he is glad to acknowledge. Sir Joshua Reynolds, at the close of his course of lectures before the Royal Academy, expressed his own estimate of the value of the continued study of the works of this greatest of the masters, by saying: ‘I should desire that the last word which I should pronounce in this academy, and from this place, might be the name of Michael Angelo.’ The famous English portrait-painter confessed his indebtedness to the influence of the Italian; and what other painter of eminence would not? for his own eminence depends upon the imprint which his work may carry of the Master’s hand, and to the stimulus to endeavour which he has received from him. Soon or late every artist must stand (to use a phrase of Tennyson’s) ‘at the bar of Michael Angelo.’

The same is true in our own peculiar domain as ministers – the domain of theology and religion. The author, whom we cannot look up to as standing to us in a relation of master to scholar, the author whom we recognise as being merely on our own intellectual level, the author who does not make us think, and who is easy to read, is the one whom it will not injure us to pass by. Dr. Shedd somewhere remarks that we ought not as a rule, to spend any time on books that we feel that we ourselves could have written. That a book is difficult may be its excellence. It is its excellence, if its difficulty compels us to grapple with it as one athlete with another. The book, hard to understand at first reading, is not on that account to be thrown aside, any more than the sunshine is to be ignored because our eyes are at first pained by the light. Presently they will become adjusted to it and the pain will cease. The study of geometry is valuable to him who may never become a surveyor or civil engineer as well as to him who enters those professions, for the study itself is a sharpening of the mental faculties and similar in value to a course in logic. On the other hand, ‘Euclid without a master,’ or ‘Geometry made easy,’ would be worth nothing.

My own experience is that those authors which I have come to prize most are those which I have been compelled to read twice or three times in order to make the first reading of much profit, or perhaps to read over and over paragraphs and sentences when reading them for the first time. I valued Principal Forsyth’s Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, not only because it grappled with my mind and made me think. It was not easy to read. But it was not obscure. Edwards on the Will constituted no intellectual pastime; rather it was an intellectual gymnastic. And in that lay no small part of its value. It is the grit of the grindstone that puts the edge on the knife. I have never had the opportunity of reading Calvin’s Institutes but I would covet it if I had; and I would not expect to find it ‘light reading’ either.

3. Edwards’ Provides Theological Definiteness

The third and last element of advantage I noted was that of theological definiteness. Theology has come to be too generally undervalued, and, I fear, even by ministers. It is discounted in favour, as they say, of ‘religion’, but only by those whose religion is largely a matter of sentiment and emotion. A balloon sailing overhead may be a pretty and quite interesting spectacle, but it is at the mercy of every current of air that blows, and nobody can tell where it will land. To be dogmatic in the proper way I consider no opprobrium, and to have a definite theology – which simply means to know what one believes and why he believes it, and to be able to state it in clear and intelligible terms – is, I think, an element of power, and something to be coveted by every preacher. It makes his preaching positive; it furnishes him with a form of doctrine which secures a certain harmony of one sermon with another; it anchors him against the various drifts of opinion which he cannot avoid, and which otherwise would be likely to carry him along with them; it keeps him in line with the mighty men who, in the fierce doctrinal controversies of the past, were compelled to examine every aspect of their faith and to state it in terms of precision, and thus to determine definitely just what the Scripture teaching is and what it is not.

Thus were created the creeds of the church. It is well for us all to understand that in the course of twenty Christian centuries certain things have been settled for all time in the domain of orthodox belief, and that such men as Athanasius and Augustine, Anselm and Bernard, Calvin and Grotius, Edwards and John Owen, did not live in vain. What is needed today, I venture to assert, is not less theology but more, and especially in view of the fact that there were never more ‘fads’ and vagaries current in religion than at the present time, one cause of which – possibly the chief cause – is the lack of a definite and clear-cut theology. At any rate, surely the preacher ought to know something of the history of doctrine in the church; something of the way in which the great doctrinal symbols have been formed; something of the splendid and heroic men who shaped them at the peril, not infrequently, of their lives; and distinctly what those symbols are.

Is the will free, or is it not? and if it be free, in what sense is it free? What vastly important questions these are, and how they go down to the roots of things in religion! Are we Calvinists or Arminians, which? Does it make any difference which? If we are Calvinists, why are we? I think we ought to know – ought to know not merely because of an intellectual interest, but because we need to know; for how can we be strong preachers otherwise? Such stalwarts in the faith as Jonathan Edwards and others will help us in answering such questions as these.

Professor Shedd says of the now scarcely known Reformed Pastor3 of Richard Baxter whom he describes as a ‘wonderful and successful minister,’ that ‘it should be read through once in each year by every clergyman,’ while this same Baxter, writing the narrative of his own life and times, says that

next to practical divinity, no books so suited with my disposition as Aquinas, Scotus, Durandus, Ockham, and their disciples; because I thought they narrowly searched after truth, and brought things out of the darkness of confusion. For I could never from my first studies, endure confusion.

I conclude this discussion with an additional quotation from Dr Shedd, because it has reference particularly to Jonathan Edwards. He says that as a theologian

he was equal to any that have been mentioned, whether we consider the depth and subtlety of his understanding, the comprehension and cogency of his logic, or the profundity and purity of his religious experience

and he adds that

he deserves the patient study of the American clergyman, in particular, because more than any other American theologian, he forms an historical connection with the theologians of the past, and stands confessedly at the head of our scientific theology.

Shall we follow this counsel? By all means say I, if possible. If it be not possible, let us not boast of it, but rather let us lament the impoverishment we must necessarily suffer, even though we cannot avoid it.

Notes

The following books by Jonathan Edwards are published by the Banner of Truth:

The Works of Jonathan Edwards4
Charity and its Fruits5
The Religious Affections6
Jonathan Edwards on Revival7
Jonathan Edwards on Knowing Christ8

There is also a 536-page illustrated biography of Edwards written by Iain Murray,9 and a study on Edwards’ preaching by John Carrick.10

  1. ‘A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will, which is supposed to be essential to moral agency, virtue and vice, reward and punishment, praise and blame’, in Volume 1 of the Trust’s edition of Edwards’ Works.
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      I am asked whether, in my judgment, it is profitable for the minister of today to read the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and (I suppose) those of other similarly notable theologians of the past. The question may perhaps have been suggested to my friend by my own remark that I had recently been re-reading Edwards […]

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      I am asked whether, in my judgment, it is profitable for the minister of today to read the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and (I suppose) those of other similarly notable theologians of the past. The question may perhaps have been suggested to my friend by my own remark that I had recently been re-reading Edwards […]


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      I am asked whether, in my judgment, it is profitable for the minister of today to read the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and (I suppose) those of other similarly notable theologians of the past. The question may perhaps have been suggested to my friend by my own remark that I had recently been re-reading Edwards […]

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      Christian Love as Manifested in Heart and Life

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      I am asked whether, in my judgment, it is profitable for the minister of today to read the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and (I suppose) those of other similarly notable theologians of the past. The question may perhaps have been suggested to my friend by my own remark that I had recently been re-reading Edwards […]


    • price $19.00 $17.10

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      I am asked whether, in my judgment, it is profitable for the minister of today to read the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and (I suppose) those of other similarly notable theologians of the past. The question may perhaps have been suggested to my friend by my own remark that I had recently been re-reading Edwards […]

    • Jonathan Edwards On Revival
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      I am asked whether, in my judgment, it is profitable for the minister of today to read the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and (I suppose) those of other similarly notable theologians of the past. The question may perhaps have been suggested to my friend by my own remark that I had recently been re-reading Edwards […]

    • Jonathan Edwards On Knowing Christ
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      I am asked whether, in my judgment, it is profitable for the minister of today to read the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and (I suppose) those of other similarly notable theologians of the past. The question may perhaps have been suggested to my friend by my own remark that I had recently been re-reading Edwards […]

    • Jonathan Edwards

      Jonathan Edwards

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      I am asked whether, in my judgment, it is profitable for the minister of today to read the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and (I suppose) those of other similarly notable theologians of the past. The question may perhaps have been suggested to my friend by my own remark that I had recently been re-reading Edwards […]

    • Preaching of Jonathan Edwards
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      I am asked whether, in my judgment, it is profitable for the minister of today to read the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and (I suppose) those of other similarly notable theologians of the past. The question may perhaps have been suggested to my friend by my own remark that I had recently been re-reading Edwards […]

This essay first appeared in The Review and Expositor, vol. 15, no.2, (April 1918). Notes added.

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