A Personal Encounter with Jonathan Edwards

Published in The Reformed Journal 28 (11): 13-17.

Reprinted by permission of Eerdmans Publishing Company.
All rights reserved.

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

When I was in seminary, a wise professor told me that besides the Bible I should choose one great theologian and apply myself throughout life to understanding and mastering his thought. This way I would sink at least one shaft deep into reality, rather than always dabbling on the surface of things. I might, in time, become this man's peer and know at least one system with which to bring other ideas into fruitful dialogue. It was good advice.

The theologian I have devoted myself to is Jonathan Edwards. All I knew of Edwards when I went to seminary was that he preached a sermon called "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in which he said something about hanging over Hell by a slender thread. My first real encounter with Edwards was when I read his "Essay on the Trinity"1 and wrote a paper on it for church history.

It had two lasting effects on me: First, it gave a conceptual framework with which to grasp, at least in part, the meaning of saying God is three in one. In brief, there is God the Father, the fountain of being, who from all eternity has had a perfectly clear and distinct image and idea of himself; and this image is the eternally begotten Son. Between this Son and Father there flows a stream of infinitely vigorous love and perfectly holy communion; and this is God the Spirit.

Besides these concepts, the essay taught me something about mystery and Scripture. To those who would accuse him of trying to reduce God to manageable proportions, Edwards responded: "The Word reveals much more concerning the Trinity than we have realized and the effort to see and understand this clearly increases rather than decreases the marvel of God's being."2 Properly speaking, it is the knowledge, not the ignorance, of God that inspires awe and true worship.

The next work of Edwards that I read was The Freedom of the Will – a work which in the opinion of some "raised its author to the same rank as a metaphysician with Locke and Leibnitz."3 I wrote a paper on it my senior year in seminary as an independent project. I found it totally compelling philosophically, and in perfect harmony with my emerging biblical theology. St. Paul and Jonathan Edwards conspired to demolish my previous notions about freedom. The book was a defense of Calvinistic divinity,4 but Edwards says in the preface, "I should not take it at all amiss to be called a Calvinist, for distinctions' sake: though I utterly disclaim a dependence on Calvin, or believing the doctrines which I hold, because he believed and taught them, and cannot justly be charged with believing in everything just as he taught."5

In a capsule, the book argues that God's moral government over mankind, his treating them as moral agents, making them the objects of his commands, counsels, calls [and] warnings … is not inconsistent with a determining disposal of all events, of every kind throughout the universe, in his providence; either by positive efficiency or permission.6 There is no such thing as freedom of the will in the Arminian sense of a will that ultimately determines itself. The will, rather, is determined by "that motive which as it stands in the view of the mind, is the strongest."7 But motives are given, not ultimately controllable, by the will.

All men are enslaved, as St. Paul says, either to sin or the righteousness (Romans 6:16-23, cf. John 8:34, 1 John 3:9). But the slavery to sin, the inability to love and trust God (cf. Romans 8:8) does not excuse the sinner. The reason for this is that the inability is moral, not physical. It is not inability that prevents a man from believing when he would like to believe. Rather, it is a moral corruption of the heart that renders motives to believe ineffectual. The person thus enslaved to sin cannot believe without the miracle of regeneration, but is nevertheless accountable because of the evil of his heart that disposes him to be unmoved by reasonable motives in the gospel. In this way, Edwards tries to show that the Arminian notion of the will's ability to determine itself is not a prerequisite of moral accountability. Rather, in Edwards' words, "All inability that excuses may be resolved into one thing, namely, want of natural capacity or strength; either capacity of understanding, or external strength."8

A pastor and missionary all his life, Jonathan Edwards wrote what is probably the greatest defense and explanation of the Augustinian-Reformed view of the will which exists today. It is primarily due to his book, The Freedom of the Will, that scholars again and again in the secondary literature called Edwards "the greatest philosopher-theologian yet to grace the American scene."9 Aside from its intrinsic power, perhaps the clearest witness to its merit is its enduring impact on theology and philosophy.

A hundred years after Jonathan Edwards had died, he still could not be ignored. When Charles G. Finney, the evangelist, wanted to level his guns against the Calvinistic view of the will, he did not see any of his own contemporaries or even Calvin himself as the chief adversary. There was one great Goliath among the Calvinists that had to be slain: Jonathan Edwards' The Freedom of the Will. Finney's assessment of the book, in a word:

Ridiculous! Edwards I revere; his blunders I deplore. I speak thus of this Treatise on the Will, because while it abounds with unwarrantable assumptions, distinctions without difference, and metaphysical subtleties, it has been adopted as the textbook of a multitude of what are called Calvinistic divines for scores of years.10

Finney devotes three chapters in his Lectures on Systematic Theology to Edwards' view of natural and moral ability. He concludes:

It is amazing to see how so great and good a man could involve himself in a metaphysical fog, and bewilder himself and his readers to such a degree, that an absolutely senseless distinction should pass into the current phraseology, philosophy, and theology of the church, and a score of theological dogmas be built upon the assumption of its truth.11

But for all its vehemence, Finney's slingshot missed the mark and the great and godly Goliath strides into the middle of the twentieth century relentlessly exerting his power in theology and philosophy alike. In 1949, Harvard Professor Perry Miller chastised the prejudice in academic circles against Edwards and the frequent caricature of him as an antiquarian specimen of Hell-fire preaching from the long-lost times of the Great Awakening. Miller's own assessment of Edwards: "He speaks with an insight into science and psychology so much ahead of his time that our own can hardly be said to have caught up with him."12

Beginning in 1957, the Yale University Press began to publish a new critical edition of Edwards' works. The fifth volume appeared in 1977, and with the renewed interest in Edwards, the critical assessments of On The Freedom of the Will are underway again: A. E. Murphy in the Philosophical Review,13 A. N. Prior in the Review of Metaphysics,14 H. G. Townsend in Church History,15 W. P. Jeanes in the Scottish Journal of Theology16 and most recently James Strauss in a collection of essays called Grace Unlimited.17 Whether or not the giant will again endure the attack and stride into the twenty-first century, only time will tell. At least one thing is sure: If you want to read one of the world's greatest books on one of life's most fundamental and difficult problems, read Jonathan Edwards' On the Freedom of the Will.

That was all I read of Edwards that I read in seminary. After graduation and before my wife and I took off for graduate work in Germany we spent some restful days on a small farm in Barnesville, Georgia. Here I had my third encounter with Edwards. Sitting on one of those old-fashioned two-seater swings in the backyard under a big hickory tree, with pen in hand, I read The Nature of True Virtue. I have a long entry in my journal from July 14, 1971, in which I try to understand, with Edwards' help, why a Christian is obligated to forgive wrongs when there seems to be a moral law in our hearts that cries out against evil in the world. Depending on your view of God, you may agree or not that this encounter with The Nature of True Virtue was an auspicious gift of his providence, because nine months later my "doctor-father" in Germany suggested I write my dissertation on Jesus' command, "Love your enemy."

The Nature of True Virtue is Edwards’ only purely non-polemic work. If you have ever felt an aesthetic sense of awe at beholding a pure idea given lucid expression, then you may understand what I mean when I say that this book aroused in me a deeply pleasurable aesthetic experience. But more importantly, it gave me a brand new awareness that ultimately the categories of morality resolve into categories of aesthetics, and one of the last things you can say about virtue is that it is "a kind of beautiful nature, form or quality."18 Perry Miller said that "the book is not a reasoning about virtue, but a beholding of it." Edwards gazes upon the conception of virtue "until it yields up meaning beyond meaning, and the simulacra fall away. The book approaches, as nearly as any creation in our literature, a naked idea."19 I think it was perfectly in accord with Edwards' intention that when I finished that book I not only had a deep longing to be a good man, but I also wrote a poem called "Georgia Woods," because nothing looked the same when I put the book down.

During my three years in Germany, I read three more works of Edwards and two biographies (by Samuel Hopkins and Henry Bamford Parkes). Noël and I read to each other a collection of his sermons called Charity and Its Fruits, a 360-page exposition of I Corinthians 13. We both agreed that it was terribly verbose and repetitive, but it did help me clothe with nitty-gritty experience that "naked idea" in The Nature of True Virtue. What did it mean to this intensely religious Puritan to be a good man? Did it only mean not telling jokes on Sunday and warning people to flee the flames of Hell? Did goodness relate only to the personal habits, or did it reach out to embrace a larger social dimension? Here are a couple of quotes to give the flavor of Edwards' answer:

We ought to seek the spiritual good of others; and if we have a Christian spirit, we shall desire and seek their spiritual welfare and happiness, their salvation from Hell, and that they may glorify and enjoy God forever. And the same spirit will dispose us to desire and seek the temporal prosperity of others, as says the apostle (I Corinthians 10:24), "Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth."

And as the spirit of charity, or Christian love, is opposed to a selfish spirit, in that it is merciful and liberal, so it is in this, also, that it disposes a person to be public-spirited. A man of a right spirit is not a man of narrow and private views, but is greatly interested and concerned for the good of the community to which he belongs, and particularly of the city or village in which he resides, and for the true welfare of the society of which he is a member. God commanded the Jews that were carried away captive to Babylon to seek the good of that city, though it was not their native place, but only the city of their captivity. His injunction was (Jeremiah 29:7), "Seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it." And a man of truly Christian spirit will be earnest for the good of his country, and of the place of his residence, and will be disposed to lay himself out for its improvement.20

Just off the kitchen in our little apartment in Munich there was a pantry about 8 by 5 feet, a most unlikely place to read a Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World, but that is where I read it. From my perspective, now I would say that if there were one book which captures the essence or well-spring of Edwards' theology, this would be it. Edwards' answer to the question of why God created the world is this, to emanate the fullness of his glory for his people to know, praise and enjoy. Here is the heart of his theology in his own words:

It appears that all that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God's works is included in that one phrase, the glory of God. In the creatures' knowing, esteeming, loving, rejoicing in and praising God, the glory of God is both exhibited and acknowledged; his fullness is received and returned. Here is both the emanation and remanation. The refulgence shines upon and into the creature, and is reflected back to the luminary. The beams of glory come from God, and are something of God and are refunded back again to their original. So that the whole is of God and in God, and to God, and God is the beginning, middle and end in this affair.21

That is the heart and center of Jonathan Edwards and, I believe, of the Bible too. That kind of reading can turn a pantry into a vestibule of Heaven.

The last work of Edwards I read in Germany was his A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. For several months it was the meat of my Sunday evening meditation. I can remember writing letters week after week to former teachers, to friends and to my parents about the effect this book was having on me. Far more than The Nature of True Virtue, this book convicted me of sinful lukewarmness in my affections toward God and inspired in me a passion to know and love him as I ought. The thesis of the book is very simple: "True religion, in great part, consists in the Affections."22 Perhaps the reason the book moved me so is because it was Edwards' effort to save the best of two worlds—the very worlds in which I grew up and now live.

On the one hand, Edwards wanted to defend the genuine and necessary place of the affections in religious experience. He had been more responsible than any man for the revival fervor that deluged New England in the 15 years following 1734. Charles Chauncy of Boston led the opposition to this Great Awakening with its "swooning away and falling to the Ground … bitter Shriekings and Screamings; Convulsion-like Tremblings and Agitations, Strugglings and Tumblings."23 He charged that it was "a plain stubborn Fact that, the Passions have, generally, in these Times, been applied to as though the main Thing in Religion was to throw them to Disturbance."24 He insisted, "The plain truth is that an enlightened Mind and not raised Affections ought always to be the Guide of those who call themselves Men …"25 Edwards took the other side and said, "I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided they are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with."26

But in that sentence Edwards shows that he did not condone the enthusiastic excesses of the Great Awakening. And excesses there were. One diary of the period "describes a meeting in which a man cried out, 'Come to Christ,' without intermission for half an hour; and an old woman in the back seat denounced lawyers for an equal space, in boistrous [sic] rivalry, which over her head 'a mean fellow preached'."27 This and a hundred other emotional aberrations Edwards could not condone, even though he had helped spawn them. It took time for him to sort out the true, spiritual affections from the false, merely human ones. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, published in 1746, was his mature effort to describe the signs of truly gracious and holy affections. It amounts to a "yes" and a "no" to revivalistic religion: yes to the place of appropriate emotions springing from perceptions of truth, but no to the frenzies, private revelations, irrational swooning and false assurances of godliness.

Revival fervor and the reasonable apprehension of truth—these were the two worlds Edwards struggled to bring together. My father is an evangelist. He has conducted revivals for over 35 years and I respect him very highly. But I am an academic theologian, heavily analytic and given to much study. It's not surprising, then, that A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections should seem to me a very contemporary and helpful message. I said it was my food for many weeks. Let me give just one sampling that still feeds me. Edwards describes the man with truly gracious affections like this:

The less apt he is to be afraid of the natural evil, having "his heart fixed trusting God" and so "not afraid of evil tidings;" the more apt he is to be alarmed with the appearance of moral evil, or the evil of sin. As he has more holy boldness, so he has less of self-confidence … and more modesty. As he is more sure than others of deliverance from hell, so he has more of a sense of the desert of it. He is less apt than others to be moved with solemn warnings, and with God's frowns, and with the calamities of others. He has the firmest comfort, but the softest heart: richer than others, but poorest of all in spirit: the tallest and strongest saint, but the least and tenderest child among them.28

Since returning to the States and becoming a college teacher, my devotion to Jonathan Edwards has continued, but time would fail to describe the encounters with Humble Inquiry, Doctrine of Original Sin, Narrative of Surprising Conversions, Treatise on Grace, the unfinished History of Redemption, Diary of David Brainerd, and three more biographies (Winslow, Dwight, Miller). We must save space for a look at the man himself. What I choose to tell is a reflection of what in this man—and his wife—has touched me most deeply.

Edwards was born in 1703 in Windsor, Connecticut. He was the only son of Timothy Edwards, the local pastor, but he had 10 sisters. They say Timothy used to lament that God had blessed him with 60 feet of daughters. He taught Jonathan Latin when he was 6 and sent him off to Yale when he was 12. At 14 he read what was to be a seminal influence in his thought, John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding. He said later that he got more pleasure out of it "than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold from some newly discovered treasure."29 He graduated from Yale in 1720, gave the valedictory address in Latin, and then continued his studies there two more years. At 19 he took a pastorate in New York for 8 months, but decided to return to Yale as a tutor between 1723 and 1726.

In the summer of 1723 he fell in love with Sarah Pierrepont and he wrote on the front page of his Greek grammar the only kind of love song his heart was capable of:

They say there is a young lady in (New Haven) who is loved of that Great Being who made and rules the world and that there are certain seasons in which this Great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight; and that she hardly cares for anything except to meditate on him…. She is a wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind, especially after this great God has manifested himself to her. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly, and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what. She loves to be along walking in the fields, and groves, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.30

She was 13 years old at the time. But four years later, five months after Edwards had been installed as pastor of the prestigious church of Northampton, Massachusetts, they were married. He was 23 and she was 17. In the next 23 years they had 11 children of their own; eight daughters and three sons.

Edwards was the pastor at Northampton for 23 years. It was a traditional congregational church, which in 1735 had 620 communicants.31 During this time he achieved notoriety for his leadership in the Great Awakening in the mid-30s and early 40s, which I have already discussed. But in 1750 Edwards was dismissed by his congregation. One reason was a tactless personal blunder on Edwards' part in which he implicated some innocent young people in an obscenity scandal in 1744. This made some key people so hostile that his days were numbered.32 But the straw that broke the camel's back was Edwards' public repudiation of a long-standing tradition in New England of not requiring profession of saving faith in order to be a communicant of the Lord’s Supper. He wrote a detailed treatise to prove "that none ought to be admitted to the communion and privileges of members of the visible church of Christ in complete standing, but such as are in profession, and in the eye of the church's Christian judgment, godly or gracious persons."33

After his dismissal, he accepted a call to Stockbridge, in western Massachusetts, as pastor of the church and missionary to the Indians. He worked there seven years, until January 1858, when he was called to be president of Princeton. After two months in office he died of smallpox at 54 years of age.

When Edwards was in college, he wrote 70 resolutions. One that he kept his whole life was number six: "Resolved: to live with all my might while I do live."34 For him, that came to mean a single-hearted, passionate devotion to the study of divinity. When the trustees at Princeton called him to be president, he wrote back that he was not at all suited to such a public office, that he could write better than he could speak and that his writing was not finished. "My heart is so much in these studies," he wrote, "that I cannot find it in my heart to be willing to put myself into an incapacity to pursue them any more in the future part of my life."35

During his 23-year pastorate at Northampton, Edwards delivered the usual two-hour messages each week, catechized the children, and counseled people in his study. He did not visit from house-to-house except when called. This meant that he could spend 13-14 hours a day in his study. He said, "I think Christ has commended rising early in the morning by his rising from the grave very early."36 So he rose between 4:00 and 5:00 to study, always with pen in hand,37 thinking out every flash of insight to its full and recording it in his notebooks. Even on his travels he would pin pieces of paper to his coat to remind himself at home of an insight he had had on the way.38 In the evening he would spend an hour with his family after dinner before retiring to his study. And none of his children rebelled or went astray, but held their father in highest regard all his life.

Edwards' six-foot-one frame was not robust, and his health was always precarious. He could maintain the rigor of his study schedule only with strict attention to diet and exercise. Everything was calculated to optimizing his efficiency and power in study. He abstained from every quantity and kind of food that made him sick or sleepy.39 His exercise in the winter was to chop firewood a half-hour each day, and in the summer he would ride into the fields and walk alone in meditation. These excursions reveal that, for all his rationalism, Edwards had a healthy dose of the romantic and mystic in him. He wrote in his diary: "Sometimes on fair days I find myself more particularly disposed to regard the glories of the world than to betake myself to the study of serious religion."40 Edwards describes one of these field trips as follows:

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, gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet appeared also great above the heavens. 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 a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust; and to be full of Christ alone; to love him; to serve and follow him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity. I have several other times had views very much of the same nature, and which have had the same effects.41

On February 13, 1759, one month after he had assumed the presidency of Princeton, Edwards was inoculated for smallpox. It backfired. The pustules in his throat became so large that he could take no fluids to fight the fever. When he knew that there was no chance left, he called his daughter, Lucy, and gave her his last words—no grumbling that he was being taken in the prime of his life with the great History of Redemption yet unwritten,42 but instead, with confidence in God's good sovereignty, words of consolation to his family:

Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a father who will never fail you….43

He died on March 22, and his physician wrote the hard letter to his wife, who was still in Stockbridge. She was quite sick when the letter arrived, but the God who held her life was the God that Jonathan Edwards preached. So on April 3 she wrote to her daughter, Esther:

What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left to us! We are all given to God; and there I am and love to be.

Your ever affectionate mother,
Sarah Edwards.44

Charity and Its Fruits (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1969) p.167, 169.

  1. "An Essay on the Trinity" in Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings, ed. Paul Helm (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1971) pp. 99-131. 

  2. Ibid., p. 128. 

  3. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. I ed. Edward Hickman, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), p. clx. All citations from the Works refer to this edition. 

  4. Works, p. cxlv. 

  5. Works, I, p. 3. 

  6. Works, I, p. 87. 

  7. Works, I, p. 5. 

  8. Works, I, p. 51. 

  9. James D. Strauss, "A Puritan in a Post-Puritan World – Jonathan Edwards" in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1975) p. 243. 

  10. Charles G. Finney, Finney's Lectures on Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.) p. 333. 

  11. Finney's Lectures, p. 332. 

  12. Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1973) p. xiii. 

  13. "Jonathan Edwards on Free Will and Moral Agency," vol. 68 (April, 1959) pp. 181-202. 

  14. "Limited Indeterminism," vol. 16 (September 1962) pp. 55-61; also vol. 16 (December 1947) pp. 366-370. 

  15. "The Will and the Understanding in the Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards," vol. 16 (December 1947) pp. 210-220. 

  16. "Jonathan Edwards' Conception of Freedom of the Will," vol. 14 (March, 1961) pp. 1-41. 

  17. See note 9. 

  18. Works, I, p. 140. 

  19. Jonathan Edwards, p. 286 

  20. Works, I. pp. 119, 120. 

  21. Works, I. p. 236. 

  22. Charles Chauncy, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (Boston, 1743) p. 77. 

  23. Seasonable Thoughts, p. 302. 

  24. Seasonable Thoughts, p. 327. 

  25. Quoted in C. H. Faust and T. H. Johnson, Jonathan Edwards (New York: Hill and Wong, 1962) p. xxiii. 

  26. Ola "Winslow, Jonathan Edwards (New York: Octagon Books, 1973) p. 197. 

  27. Works, I., p. 309. 

  28. Works, I, p. xvii. 

  29. Works, I, p. xxxix. 

  30. Works, I, p. 350. 

  31. Works, I, p. cvx. 

  32. Works, I, p. 436. 

  33. Works, I, p. xx. 

  34. Works, I, p. clxxv. 

  35. Works, I, p. xxxvi. 

  36. Works, I, p. xviii. 

  37. Works, I, p. xxxviii. 

  38. Works, I, p. xxxv, xxxviii. 

  39. Quoted in Elizabeth Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971) p. 22. 

  40. Works, I, p. xlvii 

  41. He describes this proposed work in Works, I, p. clxxiv. 

  42. Works, I, p. clxxviii. 

  43. Works, I, p. clxxix.