Jonathan Edwards: A Brief Theological Biography (Pt. 2)

Edward’s Theology

There are several key themes in the theology of Edwards, today I would like to take up two. These key themes are the concepts of freedom and divine grace, “which can be regarded as a pivotal notion of his theology.”[1]

A sermon which Edwards preached at his grandfather’s memorial service entitled “Living Unconverted under Eminent Means of Grace” and his valedictory address exemplifies Edwards’ emphasis on Divine grace. During his day English Arminianism was on the rise and the works of Englishmen like Samuel Clarke, John Tillotson, and Isaac Barrow were on the rise in the colonies[2]. “This theology placed a great emphasis on the “conditional” nature of God’s promises and implied that God, in bestowing the promised salvation took account of some value in the fulfillment of the condition on man’s part.”[3] This type of theology can be seen as reflecting American notions of self-sufficiency and independence.

Edwards was very vocal against any type of theology which placed any aspect of salvation in the hands of man. At one point he was even appointed to be the literary spokesman of an organization which sought to combat the Arminianism of the settlement at Springfield.[4] Edwards was firm on his stance that “we are justified only by faith in Christ, and not any matter of virtue or goodness of our own.”[5] Edwards believed that righteousness was imputed to the believer and not earned by the believer. Faith alone was what made imputation of righteousness possible, no action which a person can perform has merit for receiving God’s grace. Yet even in noticing that faith is what makes imputation of righteousness possible makes it seem as though faith is a condition for receiving grace. Edwards vehemently disagrees with this and believes that “faith cannot be called the condition of receiving, for it is the receiving itself; Christ holds out, and the believers receive.”[6] Understanding faith as a condition for receiving grace makes salvation dependent upon our righteousness, if faith is something we do or have then our salvation is based upon us and not the work of Christ. Thus for Edwards faith cannot be a condition for salvation, but is the gift given to us so that believers might receive Christ’s righteousness which is necessary for salvation. Edwards’ theology of salvation illustrates his belief in the absolute dependence of man on God.

If man is absolutely dependent upon God for all things including his salvation, then we might ask to what extent are humans morally responsible? Edward’s theology of dependence and grace demands an explanation for how a person might be held morally responsible before God. It seems intuitive to believe that a person cannot be blamed or praised for a decision they did not freely make. Thus if a person is saved by grace alone and does nothing to merit salvation it is questionable to believe that they were free in being saved. Can moral responsibility and God predestining people to be saved be compatible notions? The Arminianism that Edwards was battling did not believe that this was so. Accordingly, if a person was not free in their decision for or against God they should not be held responsible for that decision. This view is very much in line with the modern view that claims that in order for a decision to be free and not determined it must be uncaused, or contingent[7]. Edwards however would disagree with this definition of freedom. Edwards believed something is free when it is not constrained from doing what it wills; how one comes to perform the particular act of willing has no bearing on freedom[8]. This notion of freedom allowed Edwards to combat Arminianism by maintaining the complete dependence upon God’s grace and human responsibility.

Conclusion

Just like all other theology, Edwards theology was heavily influenced by the culture he was living in. Although we have only covered two areas of his theology, we see that he was highly influenced by theologians and rationalistic philosophers of his day. His theology of grace is the result of his reaction to Arminianism which was gaining popularity in his day. If Arminianism were not gaining popularity in the colonies it is questionable if Edwards would have placed such an emphasis upon grace in his sermons and theology. The other thing which highly influenced Edward’s theology was Newton’s philosophy. Newtonian science was highly en vogue during his day and saw nature as being completely determined.[9] Thus much of Edward’s philosophy of freedom was done in a time in which questions of moral responsibility and freedom were being asked in religious and scientific settings. One last thing should be said about Edward’s theology; Edwards was not a man who did theology for the sake of theology. His theology, which was often the product of controversies[10], was done for the sake of the church. He was a man who was very sensitive to the issues of his day, and how those issues affected the lives of Christians in New England. It is precisely for this reason why Edwards is such an important figure to understand. Edwards did much to shape the nature of Christianity in America. His theology, which was not done in the abstract, was essentially pastoral. His theology of God’s sovereignty and grace and justification by faith alone is what motivated him during the First Great Awakening. The form of Christianity which was birthed out of the Great Awakening in America helped shape evangelicalism around the world.[11] So in order to understand America’s role in shaping world Christianity we must go back to the Edward’s theology and this theology’s influence during the Great Awakening.

__________________________________________


[1] Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings, edited by Paul Helm (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1971), 5.

[2] Thomas Shafer, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith,” Church History 20, no. 4 (December 1951): 55.

[3] Shafer, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith,” 55.

[4] Shafer, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith,” 56.

[5] Shafer, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith,” 56.

[6] Edwards, Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings, 96.

[7] Steve Holmes, “Edwards on the Will,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 1, no. 3 (November 1999): 271.

[8] Charles Crittenden, “Edwards, Jonathan,” In The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008,) 235.

[9] Crittende, “Edwards, Jonathan,” 235.

[10] Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory, 7.

[11] Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 15.

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