Jonathan Edwards may be the greatest American theologian and philosopher—and perhaps also the greatest mind—America has yet produced. Edwards’ theological genius lay in his ability to summarize effectively the main thrusts of the Reformation and Puritanism and yet not merely to reiterate these, but to apply them to crucial problems in his own century.

Edwards’ theology is rooted in Calvinism. Many of his major works are simply consistent applications of Calvin’s teaching on God’s grace and sovereignty. Edwards is undoubtedly the most powerful theologian writing in the Reformed tradition before the twentieth century.

But the sources of his thinking range far beyond Calvinism. He was influenced by various currents of thought in the seventeenth century. Some of these, like Cambridge Platonism and the philosophy of John Locke, utterly contradict one another, and seem far removed from Reformation thought. And Edwards’ theology makes considerable use of reason and natural theology. But above all else Edwards was nurtured by Puritan spiritual theology. In many ways, he is the Johann Sebastian Bach of Puritanism, perfecting and summarizing this movement’s emphasis on Christian experience at a time when it was out of fashion.

Confronting a Dead Orthodoxy

Edwards applied his theological synthesis in confronting two critical problems in the eighteenth century. One of these crises was internal: the loss of spiritual power within the Puritan renewal movement. Another crisis lay both within the church and around it: the developing climate of humanistic rationalism, the secular drift of Western culture. Edwards’ great achievement was the creation of a theology which confronted both of these crises head-on, opposing a humanist Enlightenment in society with an evangelical awakening in the church.

Edwards’ theology was forged in the flames of the Awakening. When he took over his grandfather’s congregation in Northampton, he found it in a condition of sleepwalking formalism, typical of New England’s spiritual decline. From 1650 on, the Puritan laity had been drifting away from “the power of godliness” which had characterized the first generation. They could still give correct answers to the catechism, but their hearts were fixed not on God, but on land and trade.

Edwards’ remedy for the church was aimed at a form of the same disease that was assaulting the culture: the darkening and disabling of the mind through indwelling sin. This affliction was invisible to the intellectual leaders of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They had pinned all their hopes on the powers of human reason set free from superstition, and had thus compounded the problem by relying on the darkened mind for light.

The Puritans had applied Luther’s and Calvin’s understanding of total depravity to the religious understanding. They were dissatisfied even with Calvinist orthodoxy if it was merely “notional” in character—that is, simply the product of learning or conditioning. For the Puritans, orthodox doctrine had to be accompanied by repentance personal trust in Christ, and the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit awakening and illuminating the heart. Head and heart were expected to function together in the Spirit-led life.

Edwards’ development of Calvin’s emphasis on the work of the Spirit was simply the summation of the Puritan attack on dead orthodoxy. In stressing the need for the illumination of biblical truth by “a divine and supernatural light,” Edwards used John Locke’s philosophy of mind more as a storehouse of convenient metaphors than as a theological source. He would not have attributed the awakening impact of his sermons to any rhetoric of sensation, but to the Spirit’s penetration beneath the surface convictions of human reason to awaken “a sense of the heart” focused on the glory of the divine nature and the excellence of Christ.

Confronting the Enlightenment

Edwards’ religious psychology was enriched by the Puritan emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, but it was also set against the oversimplified categories of Enlightenment psychology. He opposed the effort to divide human nature into separate compartments of mind, will, and emotion, and insisted that all of these faculties are rooted in the heart, the center of human personality. Thus he believed that what we think is inevitably the product of the set of our wills, and that this in turn results from the basic direction of our hearts’ desires.

Edwards took for granted that all our actions spring from our desires. Either we delight in the living God and seek to serve and obey him, or we are captive to desires which are set on lesser goods. His great work on Freedom of the Will is thus not an abstract Calvinist treatise. It is a grappling with the concept that we are free to do whatever we want, but that we will never want to do God’s will without a vision of his divine nature imparted by the Spirit

English rationalists had tried to build an ethical system rooted in self-interest. Adam Smith’s economics expresses this approach: individual self-interest can be pursued with a clear conscience because it tends inevitably toward the good of the whole. But Edwards insists that true virtue can only arise out of a heart which has been spiritually transformed so that it sees God, and seeks his will and the public good rather than private interests.

Apart from this regenerating vision, Edwards sees human nature trapped in its own semi-conscious rebellion against God, expressing hatred toward him in every act. Enlightenment rationalists thought they were conducting a disinterested search for truth. Edwards told them they were evading the real God by choosing to believe in a more manageable deity.

In a comparatively few sermons, he used the rhetoric of hellfire, which Puritans shared with the Counter-Reformation, to drive home the sense of guilt, and give a compassionate call to repentance. But this was not a prevailing theme in Edwards’ theology, since he spoke more of God’s love than of the fires of hell. We only remember “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” because it is such a good example of its genre, and because it was useful to later critics who wanted to “defend” humanity from Puritanism.

A God-Centered Universe

The themes which Edwards prefers to develop are those connected with God’s glory and his grace. Edwards’ universe, like his theology, is relentlessly God-centered. All things proceed from the infinite God, glorious in his divine beauty and excellence. God’s love is poured out on his creation, and yet his own worth is so immeasurably great that his object in creating the world can only have been to exhibit his glory. All theories of salvation which call attention to human works (Roman Catholicism) or human ability (Arminian Protestantism) only detract from the grandeur of his love revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and made real in our hearts only by the illumination of the Spirit.

Enlightenment rationalism had sought to disconnect the world from God’s immediate control. Edwards had learned much from the scientific genius of Isaac Newton, but his theology was a radical attack on the clockwork universe, governed by immanent natural laws, which Newtonian physics seemed to postulate.

The philosophical framework Edwards adopted for this theological attack was a form of panentheism (the concept that all creation has no independent existence from God, but is sustained as an emanation from his being). Today most Christians still think in terms of a universe which God has set in motion and placed under the control of inherent natural laws, although it is still believed that God may intervene and upset those laws if he chooses to work a miracle. Edwards, on the other hand, believed that God’s providence was literally the binding force of atoms—that the universe would collapse and disappear unless God sustained its existence from one moment to the next. For Edwards, the world has no momentum which can sustain it apart from God, and he is in immediate control of every event from moment to moment.

With this view of the universe, Edwards was, in a sense, ahead of his time. His view seems to anticipate the post-Newtonian physics of the twentieth century, in which all matter is ultimately seen in terms of interacting fields of energy, and the forces governing these are rather mysterious. But as usual, Edwards’ view was grounded in Scripture, which affirms that Christ is “upholding all things by his word of power” (Heb. 1:3, RSV), and that “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Edwards’ thinking, like his universe was relentlessly God-centered.

Edwards’ theology was also, being in the Reformation tradition, centered on Christ. He has given us matchless statements on the work of Christ (“Justification by Faith”) and on his person (“The Excellency of Christ”). Examining the passage in Revelation 5 in which Christ is presented first as a lion and then as a lamb, Edwards develops the thesis that “There is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ.” This conjunction is dialectical in character: Christ combines infinite glory and greatest humility, majesty and meekness, obedience and dominion, sovereignty and resignation, self-sufficiency and trust in God. The resulting sermon, as Edwards’ biographer Perry Miller has said, is a theological masterpiece.

Though Edwards did not produce any summary work of systematic theology, he was surely a systematic thinker. In his notebooks we can trace the growth of his major themes over years of thought, and even specific works like Freedom of the Will and God’s Chief End in Creating the World. Edwards seems to have felt that his whole literary production would ultimately fit together in a summa which he called “A Rational Account of the Main Doctrines of the Christian Religion,” which would be designed to show “how all arts and sciences, the more they are perfected, the more they issue in divinity.”

Theology and Awakening

The strength of Edwards’ theology was that it responded to contemporary occasions of crisis, rather than simply reiterating a party line adopted in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. Edwards was delighted when the Great Awakening in America seemed to be producing a renaissance of Christian experience. When the Awakening developed problems, however, he became a relentless critic, warning against extremes of emotion and sensationalism.

He began by explaining and defending the Awakening—first in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, which reported what happened in his congregation in 1734, and later in Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741). In Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742), however, he gave equal space to a critique of spiritual pride and theological aberrations which had developed during the revival. Finally, in the Treatise on Religious Affections (1746) he focused on one of the oldest Puritan themes—the distinction between “common grace” experiences of the unregenerate and true conversion. In the treatise he set out a rigorous analysis of the differences between carnal religiosity, which evokes a great deal of commotion, and true spirituality, which touches the heart with the vision of God’s excellence, and frees it from self- centeredness. In all these works Edwards defended the role of the emotions in the life of faith. While Charles Chauncy and other liberal critics sneered at the intense emotions generated by the Awakening, Edwards affirmed again and again that reason and emotion both have their place in the Christian life. Edwards admitted that the Awakening had produced some bizarre experiences, but insisted that these did not discredit revivalism or an intensely felt piety.

During the course of the Awakening, Edwards developed the distinctive eschatological outlook which motivated and directed American evangelicalism for the century. Up to this point, American Puritans had preferred classical premillennialism to the amillennial outlook of the Reformers. Sensing the profound impact spiritual awakening made on the church, and could make on a society, Edwards became convinced that the postmillennial outlook of Daniel Whitby was true to Scripture. His view of the future is set out in the sermons on “The History of Redemption,” and in the “Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement,” which sought to promote concerted prayer for worldwide spiritual awakening.

The future Edwards was aiming toward was one in which the entire visible church was spiritually renewed and unified, while all false Christianity (both Romanism and Protestant rationalism) was overthrown. The result of this awakening in the church would be a transformed culture, and “universal peace and a good understanding among the nations of the world … united in one amiable society.” Movement toward this goal would not be instantaneous; it would come in a long series of alternating declines and outpourings of the Spirit, energizing the church for new assaults on the powers of darkness, until these were cast down, and all the earth was “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Hab. 2:14 RSV). Those who believed strongly in this goal, like Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight, Lyman Beecher, and Charles Finney, were strongly motivated to attack cultural evil and unify the church to evangelize and transform society.

Losing the Vision

American evangelicalism abandoned these goals at the end of the ninteenth century, opting for a pessimistic image of the future. Only the Social Gospel retained the Edwardsean vision in a secularized form, forgetting Edwards’ clear vision of the depth and power of evil, which could only be attenuated by an extraordinary presence of the Spirit. In America in the twentieth century, both evangelicals and liberals have expected ordinary graces and aimed at pedestrian goals.

Today a later generation is finding new relevance in Edwards’ vision of the scope of Christian mission. Once again we are being called to “explicit union in extraordinary prayer for spiritual awakening and world evangelization” (to quote the 1984 Lausanne Prayer Conference’s citation of Edwards). At such a time, we can hope that Christian activists will read Edwards to see the depth of spiritual renewal he expected as a prerequisite for transforming the church and the surrounding culture. And we can hope that they will also catch the vision of a theology which offers radical opposition to the basic principles of secular thought.

Richard Lovelace is professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the author of Dynamics of Spirituality and Homosexuality: What Should Christians Do About It?