Preaching in the Tradition of Jonathan Edwards

My hope in writing this post is that you would be encouraged to learn about preaching from one of the greatest American (British!) preachers that ever lived….

As you know I am very interested in the theology of Jonathan Edwards. Over my career as a student at Fuller I have written many papers on Jonathan Edwards. Among these papers I have written about his “battle” against Arminianism and Arianism in pre-revolutionary New England. I have written about his personal spirituality. I have written about his metaphysics and his hamartiology, I have also written about his theology in relation to Hispanic theology. However one subject that I haven’t really delved into is his actual preaching. As I think about this, it’s actually quite ironic, I have delved into some rather obscure aspects of Edwards’ theology but Edwards is probably most well known among lay people and non-Christians for his preaching. Not only was his preaching highly influential in the Great Awakening, but his preaching has also become a part of American literary history. His sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of the most famous sermons in American history. In fact most high school students are required to read this sermon in their high school American literature classes. I remember reading this sermon in high school and being stunned by it. As a student who is passionate about theology and as a minister to college students it makes sense for me to study one of my theological/pastoral heroes: Jonathan Edwards. So in this brief blog I will recount what I have learned, (through a project for a communication class) from him and the tradition represented by him.

Before I point out what I learned I want to briefly recount how I went about studying Jonathan Edwards’ preaching and the tradition that followed him. I spent most of my time reading. I began by reading three of Edwards’ sermons: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” and “A History of the Work of Redemption.” As far as secondary literature goes I read several chapters in Douglas Sweeny’s book Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word and the entirety of John Piper’s book The Supremacy of God in Preaching. In this book Piper highlights the goal of preaching. Piper says that the goal of preaching is expository exultation. He sees this as being in line with Jonathan Edward’s way of preaching. Finally I listened to three of John Piper’s sermons.

Organization

In desiring to find out what is distinctive about Jonathan Edward’s preaching and the preaching of the tradition that follows him I learned several things. One of the first things that I learned about was his organization of sermons. Edwards organized his sermons into three main parts: 1-the text, 2-the doctrine, and 3-the application. The first part exegeted the text. The second part identified and developed the thesis for his sermon. The last part applied the doctrine to his parishioner’s lives. According to Douglas Sweeny this was the typical Puritan way to divide a sermon. As I read Edward’s sermons I realized that his “text” section was significantly shorter than the “doctrine” and even shorter than the “application” section. Thinking back to my own sermons I realized that they follow this same pattern. I usually begin with an introduction/hook to catch the audience’s attention, then I spend the majority of time on the text and doctrine and I wrap things up with a shorter application/conclusion. The lengths of these sections are inverse of the lengths of Edward’s sections. (As I think about why the text section is so much shorter than the other sections, a viable hypothesis is that Christians in Edwards day were much more Biblical literate so he didn’t have to spend as much time explaining what they Bible said because people in his day knew the main contours of Scripture.)

Style of Preaching

I also learned about Edward’s style of preaching. Sweeny says that a common caricature of Edwards is one in which Edwards “read his sermons in monotone, rarely looking up from his notes, putting parishioners to sleep with dry academic droning.”[1] Sweeny says that history does not confirm this stereotype. Citing a biography of Edwards written by Samuel Hopkins he says that “Mr. Edwards had the most universal character of a good preacher of almost any minister in his age.”[2] Hopkins points out that his appearance at the pulpit “was with a good grace, and his delivery easy, natural, and very solemn…He had not a strong loud voice… (but spoke) with a great degree of inward fervor.”[3] Although Edwards relied heavily upon his notes, Edwards realized that this was a deficiency in his preaching and took the effort to memorize them instead of reading them. Like Edwards I have a tendency to manuscript my sermons. I do not try to memorize them but I practice my sermon several times before delivering it so that I can internalize it and preach with “a great degree of inward fervor.” It would be wise for me to heed Edwards’ advice and learn to let go of my notes, however I find it so difficult to deliver impromptu speeches.

Piper on Edwards’ Preaching

In his study of Edwards’ preaching John Piper points out ten characteristics of Edward’s preaching[4]. In my opinion four of the most important characteristics are 1-his aim to stir up “holy affections,” 2-his aim to enlighten the mind, 3-his aim to saturate his listeners with scripture, and 4-his desire to be fully yielded to the Holy Spirit while preaching. In listening to Piper’s sermons it became very apparent that Edwards’ preaching has had much influence upon Piper’s preaching. The first characteristic of Edwards’ preaching is one that I desire to emulate in my own preaching. Edwards says “If true religion lies much in the affections, we may infer that such a way of preaching the word….as has a tendency deeply to affect the hearts of those who attend…is much to be desired.” Edwards did not seek to manipulate people’s emotions but he did aim to stir their hearts. I firmly believe that preaching that touches people’s heart is preaching that changes lives. I would like to delve deeper into Edwards’ sermons to see how he does this.

There is so much more that I learned about preaching from Edwards and the tradition that followed him. Studying this aspect of Edwards’ ministry had the effect of confirming my belief that the study of Edwards is a worthwhile task, and I hope it does the same for you.

edwards-preaching


[1] Douglas Sweeny, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 75.

[2] Sweeny, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, 77.

[3] Sweeny, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, 78.

[4] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 83-105.

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