Edwards and Franklin (Pt. 3)

Last time we took a look at the difference between Jonathan Edwards’ and Benjamin Franklin’s religious upbringings. Today we will take a look at the difference in their attitudes towards tradition.

Jonathan and Benjamin on Tradition

Benjamin Franklin is known for being a progressive thinker. His progressivism and tendency to break from tradition is especially seen in his attitude towards morality. Like most people of his day, he still placed a high emphasis on virtue, however most of his virtues were individual virtues rather than communal virtues. This is where Benjamin sticks out as a progressive for his age. He was known to reconstruct virtues based upon what was best or most pragmatic for him personally rather than what was virtuous in the eyes of the community. Consider for instance his take on chastity: “Rarely use venery (gratification of sexual desire) but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or injury of your or another’s peace or reputation.” This basically sounds like “sex is between two consenting adults, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else its fine.” His very words could be placed into the mouths of most Americans today. The point is that Franklin still held on to virtues, but they were not religiously based virtues, they were pragmatically derived virtues

Jonathan Edwards on the other hand lived a life of tension between tradition and “modernity.” Edwards grew up in a traditionalist community, which looked back at its Puritan forefathers, for inspiration and guidance. However Edwards was also hungry to learn from the eminent scientists and philosophers of the day, with Locke holding an important position in his mind early on. Edwards was attracted to cosmopolitan, progressive authors, nevertheless he was versed in the Puritan Divines, especially Ames. Edwards never deviated from Orthodoxy, but was constantly at work translating Orthodoxy into terms that were intelligible for the people of his day. He never abandoned his Reformed Theology, but rather he was always reforming in light of what was going on in culture. Edwards could be considered a pioneer of what people today called “theological retrieval.” He worked and did his theology in dialogue with the theological traditions that came before him so that he might effectively address the issues of his own day. He was very aware of the fact the he was part of a tradition and part of a community whose roots were founded upon a certain tradition.

Check out what Josh Moody (Senior Pastor of College Church in Wheaton and PhD from Cambridge) has to say about Edwards interaction with tradition and “modernity/The Enlightenment”:

Edwards neither ignored nor capitulated to the Enlightenment’s materialistic/mechanistic view of life and the universe. Instead he “re-formed” the Enlightenment on specifically biblical terms and constructed intellectual bridges to cultural attitudes, along which the orthodox gospel could more readily transverse.

Or you could imagine his engagement with Enlightenment thinking as sending Trojan horses full of gospel truths into contemporary minds. He carefully used “sense,” “idea” and “light”—Enlightenment buzzwords—in sermons and his more erudite works, and he invested those terms with biblical material and content.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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