Slavery and Jonathan Edwards
Pastor John, it appears that eighteenth-century theologian Jonathan Edwards and his wife owned household and farming slaves — perhaps as many as six in total — and seem to have owned at least one slave at all times, even up until Jonathan’s death. How does his slaveholding factor into your evaluation of Jonathan Edwards’ theological legacy?
Instead of trying to explain how it could be, I think the most helpful thing to do at this point would be just to answer the question: “What effect does this have on you — you lover of Edwards? What difference does that make to you? Does that affect you at all?” Here are five responses or effects that it has on me.
1. Assess Your Awe.
It warns me not to idolize or idealize any man except Jesus. Something is going to show up and disillusion me if I pick out a dead man or a living man as somebody that I am going to idealize. There is no ideal man — except Jesus. So, that is the first thing. It is a warning to measure my admiration carefully.
2. Read With Caution.
It cautions me that if he had blind spots on that issue, he may well have had blind spots on other issues, which means that I am going to read with some more care. I think our vigilance in reading is heightened when we know that a man has blown it in one area.
We say, “Well, we have got a fallible man on our hands here. Therefore, we will now read with some special vigilance, lest we be sucked into approving everything that he says on any issue at all.” So, let it have a salutary and cautioning effect on how we read an author, including Edwards.
3. Marvel at God’s grace.
It makes me marvel that God uses any of us. I have documented numerous of my besetting sins. I came back to Bethlehem — people can go and listen to these sermons — after my eight-month leave, in which I had done a lot of soul-searching. In the sermons I gave to the Bethlehem College & Seminary chapel, called “I Act the Miracle,” and to the church, I tried to describe the most recurrent sins of John Piper.
It was a very sobering season for me, and I simply have to marvel that I survived 33 years in the pastorate as an imperfect man. And I didn’t just survive, I loved it. And the people — by and large, I think — loved me. God did some good, and I know those sins better than anybody, except maybe Noël. So, I am not quick to point my finger at Edwards, but I am quick to marvel that he was used, and I have been used, and I am amazed.
4. Zero in on Messy Sins.
Edwards’ failure in that regard teaches me that sanctification has blank spots, like knowledge has blind spots. Here is what I mean. We can be making good progress in five areas of our lives and doing badly in a sixth area — a blank area where the Holy Spirit, for some reason, isn’t exerting all the power that he could, and we are resistant and are still holding onto some sin.
We can be knowing rightly in five areas, and we can be mistaken in a sixth area. What I see in Edwards’ failure regarding slavery is a reminder that not only does knowledge have blind spots, but sanctification has blank spots. Therefore, all of us should search our lives, instead of just congratulating ourselves on the four areas of progress. Look at that fifth or sixth area that is still such a mess in your life, and pray. Appropriate the gospel and the grace of God to fight it.
5. Let Failure Fuel Prayer.
Edwards’ failure here makes me pray for light in my life and in my day. What are my blind spots? What are my days’ and my church’s blind spots? What is the church blind to today — the things that in two hundred years, the godly will look back and say, “How could they possibly have done that or believed that or let that happen or gone that way?”
And so, given how amazingly godly Edwards was, I do not presume that any level of sanctification I attain in this life means there is not something else to be ferreted out. “Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins,” Psalm 19:13 prays. So, I hope that the flaws of my greatest teachers — and Jonathan Edwards is about the greatest — will do me good in the end, and I hope we don’t have to hide them in order to realize they can serve us.