Book Notes: Jonathan Edwards, America’s Evangelical

I’m currently reading Philip F. Gura’s brief, lively biography Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical, which holds special interest for me because the great 18th-century theologian and preacher spent the first two decades of his career in my adopted hometown of Northampton, Mass. The issues of church discipline and unity that Edwards confronted seem uncomfortably familiar, 250 years on.

Casual students of church history know Edwards only as the author of the infamous “spider” sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where he thunders that God’s unmerited mercy is the only thing keeping Him from dropping your loathsome soul into the pit of hell. This leads modern readers to picture Edwards as a dour, witch-burning sort of fellow, because we’re no longer comfortable with the theology of damnation that was pretty standard in his day. According to Gura’s very sympathetic portrait of the Puritan minister, Edwards’ true passion was not fire-and-brimstone but awakening sincere “religious affections” in a church that had become hidebound and hypocritical. He preached and wrote copiously on the beauty of God’s holiness and the love and joy that arise in a heart transformed by grace.

Because he was a Calvinist, however, he insisted that spiritual transformation happened solely on God’s initiative. He fought all his life against Arminian tendencies in the New England churches, as Enlightenment philosophy and the colonists’ increasing economic security made people more inclined to trust their own efforts to attain salvation. Ironically, the spiritual revival known as the Great Awakening, which Edwards helped spark, also released a spirit of resistance to church authority that made the absolutely sovereign God of Calvinism seem less appealing.

Gura reveals the power struggles behind Edwards’ ouster from his Northampton pulpit, which is sometimes misperceived as a triumph of liberalism over repression. Two teenage sons of prominent families were getting their kicks from a forbidden textbook on female anatomy, and the congregation was not happy with Edwards’ attempts to discipline them. It’s easy to side against Edwards as Puritan censor, when the material in question seems laughably tame by our standards. When Gura points out that the boys were using the book to sexually harass young women, and that the underlying issue was the minister’s moral authority over wealthy and powerful laymen, one feels more sympathy for the beleaguered cleric. Edwards reportedly had a happy marriage (with 13 children, surely no prude), and respected his wife’s piety so much that he made her born-again experience a central feature of one of his narratives of the revival.

Despite the very different cultural context, Edwards’ story closely mirrors some important tensions that persist in the churches today. One such is the role of communion (a/k/a the Mass or the Eucharist). Is it a privilege reserved for those with certain beliefs or religious experiences, or is it more like an altar call? In the 17th century, the Puritan churches had required testimony of a born-again experience before one could be admitted as a full member with communion privileges – a status that had social and political implications as well as spiritual ones. Edwards’ grandfather and predecessor in the Northampton pulpit, Solomon Stoddard, had eliminated this requirement as not based in Scripture, arguing also that it inappropriately set men up as judges of one another’s spiritual state. Stoddard opined that the experience of taking communion might trigger a spiritual transformation in itself. Edwards continued this policy until late in his Northampton career, when he was deeply disappointed to see that many who had been caught up in the revival enthusiasms quickly backslid into immoral behavior. Requiring born-again testimony was his way of distinguishing the victims of temporary hysteria from those whose hearts had really been changed by God. Unfortunately, it also cost him his job.

Nowadays, we see the same tension between two visions of the Lord’s Supper, and by extension the church. One impulse leads us to form a community of the pure; the other stresses radical openness. So, on the one hand, you have the Catholic Church, which restricts communion not only to Christians, but to Catholics, and within that sect, to those who do not openly defy church teaching in selected areas (particularly abortion). On the other hand, you have my Episcopal parish, which extends communion to “all who are worshipping with us,” baptized or not. The looming schism in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality similarly forces us to ask how much doctrinal variation and error we can tolerate and still remain one body. (FYI, I am in favor of full acceptance of gays and lesbians; that and the 1982 Hymnal are the only things keeping me away from Mother Rome’s embrace.)

Picking heroes and villains in this debate misses the point. The church needs both impulses in order to fulfill its mission. Communion and membership rules should always be informed by Jesus’ willingness to mingle with sinners before they became cleansed. (Having briefly attended a church where you were expected to be “slain in the spirit” every week, I’m suspicious of demands for Christians to work up a particular emotion on cue.) On the other hand, if one can fully participate in church life without having made a commitment to Christ, the church edges toward irrelevance; it becomes hard to answer the aging boomer who asks “Can’t I worship God just as well looking at the sunrise from my hot tub?”  

How should that “commitment to Christ” be manifested, then? Baptism has the virtue of being an objective, bright-line rule, compared to the fuzziness and potential emotional dishonesty of experiential signs. Again, Edwards’ trajectory is instructive. His efforts on behalf of the religious revival stemmed from his perception that many people’s faith had become empty formalism. However, once the Holy Spirit is on the loose, it’s hard to put Him back in the bottle again. Edwards found himself struggling to reassert his moral authority as a clergyman after God had seemed to speak directly through low-status laypeople such as women and children. The balancing act between openness and leadership never ends.

I wasn’t expecting to find this much common ground with Edwards, since I instinctively recoil from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (all people deserve hell but God arbitrarily saves a few). Gura’s book summarizes Edwards’ creative attempt to reconcile this doctrine with free will and moral responsibility. According to the Puritan preacher, we are all free to do whatever we want to do, and therefore morally accountable for doing it. But what we want to do is determined by the good or evil disposition that God predestined us to have. Thus Jesus, for instance, was simultaneously free to sin but incapable of sinning.

This analysis made me realize that the problem I have with Calvinism is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s unkind. The whole idea of calculating our moral deserts is sort of beside the point if you believe in salvation by grace. Let’s even assume Edwards is right that we all deserve damnation. However, if God has decided to save some people anyhow, out of the goodness of His love, why wouldn’t he choose to save everyone, if it were totally up to Him? Isn’t His love infinite?

Edwards’ psychology also makes me uneasy. At least by Gura’s description, he believed our dispositions were fixed, unless changed instantaneously by God’s
grace. This all-or-nothing mentality stands in stark contrast to contemplative traditions like Buddhism or medieval Catholicism that heavily emphasized spiritual practice; through cultivating good spiritual habits, they say, one can gradually change one’s character and reorient one’s affections. This seems healthier to me than the bipolar cycle of revivalism. Evangelical Protestantism’s move away from “slow and steady” spiritual disciplines, in favor of emotional moments of decision, may be both a symptom of its co-optation by anti-intellectual and subjectivist tendencies in American culture, and a reason why its critique of this culture is less effective than it might be.

3 comments on “Book Notes: Jonathan Edwards, America’s Evangelical

  1. Susan says:

    Jendi, This week on radio, the achievements of John Edwards’ descendents were read and contrasted to the descendents of a notorious historical person whose name I can’t recall. Edwards’ lineage had hundreds each of the following: clergymen, university presidents and professors, and public servants. The notorious person had descendents who were involved in illicit activities. The distinction between the two was that the grace of God was clearly on Edwards’ descendents. Edwards’ writings along with all things PURTIAN can be found at Ligonier Ministries’ Soli Deo Gloria publishing. They’ve got Puritan pulpit sermons, personal journals of missionary travels to the Indians, The New England Primer, and scholarly research. I’d like to add Jendi, as a former member of an Episcopal church in Boston {my aunt is a Franciscan nun in the Roman Catholic Church}, I was curious to read your take on the homosexual crisis in the church. I have a brother who struggles with his identity. What caught my attention was your belief that it was up to YOU to make an informed decision on homosexuality. I used to think like that. About 20 years ago, I was the only woman living in an all gay condo building in the Castro district of San Francisco. I never thought twice about God’s word or his plan for my life. However, God changed me when I SURRENDERED my life and will to my Savior. Personally, this decision has cost me just about everything I had in the life I used to live on Beacon Hill and the prestigious appointment I had at Harvard University. In my dark night of the soul, seeking God for answers to my questions, God placed an additional burden in my heart for my brother’s salvation. I felt like I was spiritually limping along myself, putting my foot out into untried waters, and I thought I sounded like a fool as I tried to encourage my brother to read the bible. Each time, he would just mock the notion and shut me down. Then, a breakthrough came two years ago at Xmas when I held a bible in my hand and asked him if he’d like to read it, and to my joy, he accepted it with appreciation. During this time period, one night, I lie prone on the floor and read about an hour of Leviticus, asking God to deliver my brother from same sex attraction. After praying, I went to bed, and awoke in the middle of the night to a horrific demonic encounter. Behind homosexuality is a bullying spirit that drives fear into the hearts of its victims. But God is faithful! This Xmas, for the first time, I got a Christian Xmas card from my brother and not the ususal cartoon-type card. I know that my redeemer lives and is doing a mighty work of restoration for my brother’s soul. Allelujah! Looking back, I know we wouldn’t be this far ahead including the new life God has prepared for me, had I not accepted by faith that being a Christian means OBEYING GOD NO MATTER WHAT! No matter what it costs.

    Cheers to the new year, a year of open doors!
    Susan

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Susan. I pray that you and your brother find the spiritual healing you seek. For an alternate interpretation of the Bible verses on homosexuality, I recommend http://www.whosoever.org/bible/index.html . For me, taking the Bible seriously as God’s Word doesn’t mean uncritically adopting all elements of the first-century B.C. worldview, where those people’s cultural and scientific assumptions are not central to the Gospel message. We know a lot more about human sexuality from a biological and psychological standpoint than we did 2,000 years ago. If God didn’t want our knowledge of the world to evolve, or if He wanted us to ignore that information when applying ourselves to the most important task of all – knowing Him – why didn’t He just end history as soon as the last book of the New Testament was written?

  3. zhenimsja says:

    Hello, comrade! I am totally accede to this way of assumption and all of joined.

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