Earlier this year I saw an interview that John Piper did of Rick Warren. During the course of their conversation one thing that came up and stuck in my mind was their admiration for Jonathan Edwards (1702-1758), and their mutual opinion that his was perhaps the greatest mind, in any discipline, to emerge from
America in the time since it was colonized by Europe. My own exposure to Edwards’ work at that time was quite limited, consisting of reading one collection of his sermons. Edwards was a preacher par excellence and his sermons are as powerful as any preacher of any age, from the apostle Paul onward. His exposition was firmly grounded in the Bible, his explanation was clear and easily understood, and the application spoke to the concerns of our own time as well as his.
Those thoughts of Edwards’ were in mind as I began reading Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word by Douglas A. Sweeney, (
: IVP Academic, 2009). Sweeney is a scholar who has written extensively on Edwards and is very familiar with both the vast body of work written by Edwards as well as the tremendous amount of literature written in the time since Edwards’ death about him and his work. In this volume Sweeney’s task is not academic but eminently practical, providing “a state-of-the-art discussion of his life in order to use him as a model of Christian faith, thought and ministry.” (17) Sweeney does this by briefly reviewing each major stage of Edwards’ life, not merely as biography but also with one eye on the Bible, showing its role in shaping all parts of Edwards’ ministry. Downers Grove, IL
Sweeney begins with an introduction to the world in which Edwards grew up, demonstrating similarities and points of difference between his world and our own time. One main difference was the place that the church had in society and the relative familiarity that the average person may have had with the contents of the Bible. Another difference was in regard to college education. Sweeney estimates that in early 18th century
New England roughly 1 in 1,000 people, (presumably all men) had a college education and that most of those so educated received education for the purpose of going into the ministry.
Edwards was born into a preacher’s family and began to prepare for that profession at an early age. His father was a pastor and so was his maternal grandfather and he began studying Latin at home at age 6. His parents must have been a bit more open-minded about educating women than my own great-grandfather was, because Edwards’ ten sisters were all taught Latin, while my grandmother and her sisters were forbidden from attending high school. Edwards entered Yale at age 13 and graduated at 17. Over the next six years he completed a master’s degree, was a tutor at Yale, and served briefly as pastor of two small congregations. At the age of 23 he was called to be an associate pastor of the church in
, serving alongside his grandfather for three years, and then as the congregation’s only pastor for 21 years. Northampton, MA
Throughout his pastorate Edwards preached three times a week. He spent much time studying the Bible and was passionate in bringing forth its truth in the lives of his church members. He believed the Bible was the essential lens for viewing the entire world, writing “all that is visible to the eye is unintelligible and vain, without the Word of God to instruct and guide the mind.” (92) Sweeney explains that “for Edwards, God’s Word and Spirit illuminate our worldly wisdom, rendering our knowledge more clear, beautiful and real than ever before.” (93) For the Christian, this knowledge and use of the Bible remains of critical importance, as we live in a world that is both fallen and soaked in sin and yet also under the lordship of the resurrected Christ. Writing this morning of the human problem with evil, Paul Tripp said “Evil doesn't always look evil, and sin often looks so good---this is part of what makes it so bad. In order for sin to do its evil work, it must present itself as something that is anything but evil.” Only the Bible exposes evil and reveals our only possible redemption from it. Speaking of Christ, John 1:4-5 says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
One of the central points of Edwards preaching and teaching was that union with Christ is essential to the act of salvation. Salvation is more than a verbal “yes” to God’s offered redemption. In saying “yes” to God we are joined to Christ and filled by the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 1:13-15 says, “In him [Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” As a result of our assent to God’s invitation “the Holy Spirit inhabits our bodies, reorients our souls by uniting them with Christ, lets us share in the Lord’s righteousness and bears fruit in our lives.” (117) Today there is a renewed emphasis on the idea of union with Christ and its importance in strengthening our faith as we serve Christ in the world. Just last month J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham each published a book on this topic, both of which were reviewed by The Gospel Coalition. (Disclaimer: I studied systematic theology with Dr. Billings.)
Despite the high view that Piper and Warren hold of Edwards, those feelings were not held by the members of his congregation, which removed him as their pastor in 1750. What was perhaps his congregation’s loss was of great benefit to the Christian world, both then and now. Freed from the responsibilities of preaching and congregational care with a large church, both of which he dearly loved, he eventually landed a position as pastor of a mission to the Native Americans in Stockbridge, MA. Sweeney shares many details of Edwards’ service in Stockbridge that demonstrates that he was truly and deeply involved in ministry there, including extensive advocacy on behalf of his Native American congregation.
Stockbridge was also the place where Edwards could devote sufficient time to a number of writing projects he had sketched out earlier. These include his major theological works, Freedom of the Will, Original Sin, and Two Dissertations:
I. Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. II. The Nature of True Virtue, as well as many other writings.
One thought that was persistently present in Edwards ministry was the idea of “spiritual affections,” or the idea that those who call themselves Christian should lead lives that are changed and are different in noticeable ways from the non-Christians they may live among. Conversion to Christ was more than something spoken once and then forgotten but was to be embodied in life. Sweeney describes Edwards theology on conversion this way: “…God is real and vitally active in our world, that he designed us to cooperate in his kingdom purposes, and that we need his Spirit to do so” adding later “There is such a thing as conversion, Edwards recited ceaselessly, a divine and supernatural light available to us even now. It can show you divine truth. It can liberate your will from self-destructive inclinations. It can help you find fulfillment in the things that truly satisfy. It can put you in touch with God, save your soul and make your daily life exciting and important.” (164)
In early 1758 Edwards was appointed to the position of President of the school that would become
. His presidency was short-lived, as he died from complications of a smallpox vaccination two months after taking office. Princeton University
In his closing chapter Sweeney presents seven theses that modern readers of Edwards can use to understand and apply his theology in their own settings. I will touch just briefly on three of these. Theses 1 and 2 are “Edwards shows us the importance of working to help people gain a vivid sense, an urgent impression, of God’s activity in our world” and Edwards shows us that true religion is primarily a matter of holy affections.” In my mind these two ideas are closely linked. God is alive and active today. He is not some remote, absent being who started the world and left it run until its battery goes dead. This living God has called, and continues to call, people to himself, and those who are called should manifest his presence in their lives. Their lives should bring “salt and light” to the world.
And thesis 7 is “Edwards shows us the necessity of remaining in God’s Word.” While on the one hand it may seem patently obvious that the Christian should do this, nearly every person who walks a Christian life with intentionality can look back and see times in their life when they began to stray from the path, and they know that those were times when they were not continually taking in God’s Word.
Sweeney’s book is short, 200 pages, and does not require advanced theological education to understand. It is thoroughly footnoted, to guide the interested reader to a deeper understanding of Edwards’ theology. It has whet my appetite to read more deeply of what has come from Edwards’ pen. Edwards was a prolific author, writing long-hand a body of work that most of us would find daunting to even consider. Two excellent places to read his work, without spending any money, are the CCEL and the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale.
Reading the collection of Edwards’ sermons that I noted earlier has shaped my own preaching, for the better. I am glad for Sweeney’s overview of Edwards’ life of ministry, as it reminds me of the importance of grounding ministry biblically and theologically on an ongoing basis, and it gives me a taste for a pastor and theologian, who in the words of Hebrews 11:4b, “And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”