Tag-Team Wrestling with Jonathan Edwards

Scott Clark has a fuller entry of reservations about Edwards than what follows, but his post seemed like a good reason to jump on the bandwagon (what is a bandwagon, anyway?). The paragraphs below are from a chapter, “Jonathan Edwards and the Origins of Experimental Calvinism, in collection of essays co-edited by Sean Michael Lucas, Stephen J. Nichols, and mmmeeeEEE:

In an introductory essay to the book, Reformed Theology in America, George M. Marsden provides what still is a remarkably useful map of the Reformed tradition in the United States. According to Marsden, who experienced first-hand the different constituencies of American Reformed life, there exist three distinct and yet overlapping ways of answering the question, “what does it mean to be Reformed?” In one group, which he identifies with the church of his upbringing, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the answer comes with careful attention to precise doctrinal formulation. Here only Christians who take subscription to the Reformed creeds are “fully within the pale.” For another group being Reformed means cultural transformation, a pose most noticeable to Marsden during his years in the Christian Reformed Church. According to this outlook, Reformed Christianity is characterized by a “world-and-life view” that applies Christian principles to all walks of life. The last answer to the question of what it means to be Reformed comes from those who regard themselves as both Reformed and evangelical, and for whom being Reformed is best embodied in such evangelical forms of piety as evangelistic fervor, “personal devotion, Methodist mores, and openness in expressing one’s evangelical commitment.” In sum, Marsden identifies three schools of Reformed thought and spirituality, namely, the doctrinalist, the culturalist and the pietist.

This map of twentieth-century North American Reformed life raises an interesting question regarding Jonathan Edwards: if he were alive today with which school would he identify? To give the question bite, let me raise the stakes by asking whether Edwards would be teaching at Westminster Seminary, Calvin Seminary, or Trinity Evangelical Divinity School? No fair avoiding an answer by responding that Edwards would not be teaching but instead would be the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Marsden provides a helpful preliminary answer by arguing that the Puritan tradition in which Edwards stood embodied all three schools since the Puritans highly esteemed theological rigor, established a culture modelled on Christian teaching, and were ever on guard for the dangers of head knowledge without heart religion.

As helpful as this partial answer may be, Edwards does not easily fit in any of the schools that Marsden identifies. For instance, it is not altogether clear that Edwards would pass a licensure or ordination exam in the OPC, nor is it certain that the Kuyperians in Annapolis, Toronto and Grand Rapids would make him a poster boy for their efforts to press the Lordship of Christ in the arenas of faith-based initiatives, labor unions and office furniture. The one school where Edwards fits best is that of Reformed pietism, though if Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is its best manifestation it is not certain that Edwards would be a natural fit with that school’s Scandanavian free church tradition, Doug Sweeney’s protests to the contrary. Perhaps the best way to characterize Edwards is as an experimental Calvinist, which would make his modern-day soul mates the folks who write for and edit the books and literature produced by the Banner of Truth Trust in Edinburgh. In fact, the one correction that Marsden’s otherwise helpful guide to the Reformed tradition could use is to suggest that the pietist school is best represented by the sorts of themes that the Banner folk have developed over the last forty years or so. They are earnestly Calvinistic in their soteriology and very friendly toward revivals as an ongoing means of saving souls and edifying the faithful. What could be a better way of describing Jonathan Edwards?

If the Banner of Truth Trust is the modern-day embodiment of Edward’s theology and piety, then a plausible argument may be that in the Northampton pastor’s ministry and writings we see the origins of the pietist school of Reformed Christianity. While this line of reasoning is not inherently startling — after all the Banner’s recently retired executive has written a glowing biography of Edwards — it does raise questions to which experimental Calvinists may need to give greater heed. For instance, if experimental Calvinism is a combination of the Reformed doctines of grace and pietistic forms of devotion, and if Edwards was one of the first exponents of this outlook, are there aspects of Edwards’ thought and ministry that raise doubts about such a mix of theology and piety? Here specifically the nature of conversion about which Edwards wrote so extensively in Religious Affections comes to mind. Did his laudable effort to detect signs of regeneration actually betray Reformed teaching on conversion and so compromise Calvinism’s doctrine of salvation? What follows is an exploration of Edwards’ teaching on conversion and its manifestation in holy affections in the context of historic Reformed teaching on regeneration and the Christian life. The point of this endeavor is not to detract from Edwards’ greatness but to generate a better understanding of Reformed teaching about conversion and how the great theologian and pastor of eighteenth-century Massachusetts may have unintentionally undermined the Calvinism that he intended to defend.

3 thoughts on “Tag-Team Wrestling with Jonathan Edwards

  1. It has always seemed like the reformed confessions had little to say about conversion. Was this mostly because of a lack of controversy about the issue among Catholics, Lutherans, and the Reformed or was it mainly a way to deal with broad disagreement among the reformed when the standards were written?

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  2. Before Edwards there were Halyburton and Witsius, and before them Durham and Rutherford, and before them the Apostle Paul. I don’t think that “we see the origins of the pietist school of Reformed Christianity” in Edwards.

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  3. Douglas is right; it’s hard to see Edwards as beginning the Reformed Pietist strain. If (and I think you are right here) the Banner of Truth embodies this strain, it should be noted that most of their core catalogue is 17th rather than 18th century writings. You see the Pietist concern over conversion in Joseph Alleine’s 1633-1668 “Alarm to the Unconverted”, and “experimental piety” in, well, dozens of puritan books, such as Willaim Gurnall’s Christian in Complete Armor.
    Since we’re tag-teaming on Scott’s blog, we may add his citation of Edwards’ interpretation of Song of Songs, of which Scott accurately says “Christ is Savior and Lord to be sure, but he is also an intimate object of “romantic, almost erotic religious affection.” That too has Reformed precedent: Samuel Rutherford writes in one of his sermons, ““You shall lay soul and head down in the bosom, and between the breasts of Jesus Christ; that bed must be soft and delicious, it is perfumed with uncreated glory.” Edwards may perhaps carry the trends in Reformed Pietism further than his predecessors, but he isn’t the originator of it.
    By the way, it’s surely obvious now (in a way perhaps not so obvious in 2003) where in America Edwards would teach: Puritan Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids. If he were in the UK, London Theological Seminary might be the best fit; certainly the founder, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, would have welcomed him.

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