Being the leading spokesman for New England’s Puritan Church, Jonathan Edwards was an excellent example of a balance between intellectual and religious tradition. This made him at once one of the most powerful and persuasive preachers of his time and the object of radical criticism from famous authors and renowned theologians.
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All of them do not doubt the effectiveness of Edwards’ sermons, but they hesitate about his overall theological theory about God and the tactics by which he brought people closer to God. The following words of Oliver Wendel Holmes seem to express the common view of the critics of Edwards’ works: “Edwards’s system seems in light of today, to the last degree barbaric, mechanical, materialistic, pessimistic. If he had lived a hundred years later, and breathed the air of freedom, he could not have written with such old-world barbarism. The truth is that [his] whole system of beliefs is gently fading out of enlightened human intelligence, and we are hardly a condition to realize what a tyranny it once exerted over many of the strongest needs” (Noll 345).
This conclusion was made nearly a century and a half after the proclamation of Edward’s ideas and it still remains a rather controversial one. Though Holmes believes that Edward’s theory was barbaric, mechanical, materialistic, and pessimistic, we consider his approach to be the one corresponding to the time and the place where he lived and to the needs of the society that required God’s direction and guidance.
The main work Holmes’s critic is directed to is Jonathan Edwards’ famous 1741 sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The latter serves as an embodiment of the author’s ideas and, therefore, is often chosen as an object of the critics’ attacks.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God was not a mere example of Puritan preaching, but a sort of revival program, therefore, this work cannot be called a barbaric sample: any new ideas arouse the society’s movement from barbarism to a new stage of its development.
The adjective mechanical also cannot be applied to Edwards’ sermon. The sermon was delivered in Edwards’ typical quiet voice, thus the audience became more convinced in what the preacher was saying; the intimate atmosphere of the sermon did not allow the author to turn it into a violent harangue. Edward sincerely believed in what he was rendering to the audience, that is why the sermon a priori could not sound mechanical.
The main thesis that Edwards makes in his work is that God is now enduring the people’s conduct and deeds, but one day there will come a judgment. This statement seems rather pessimistic; especially it is true when the author analyzes the problem from such angels as the mercy of God, the coldness of the human heart, the seeming security. The sermon seems rather pessimistic when Edwards describes the utter pain, obscure cry, and feeling of regret of those who are in Hell and who warn their fellows of the dangers they may encounter there. But the feeling of pessimism is a rather superficial one, the reader is, on the contrary, expected to get the feeling of anticipation of some revival to happen. This anticipation oppresses the seeming pessimism of the sermon.
We should also admit that the pessimism was chosen by the author as a means to shock the audience before its revival. By saying that God is less angry with people who are screaming in Hell than with some of the audience, Edwards shocks the hearers as he wants to revive them.
Holmes’ suggestion about Edwards’ living a hundred years later and the new assumption of theology that Edwards might have acquired then does no seem persuasive. First of all, the author of the Sinners did not live a hundred years later and did not breathe “the air of freedom” (Edwards 2). Second, it would have been ridiculous to consider the ideas of Edwards’ theology in terms of later American ideas.
When creating his preach Edwards was ruled by two things only: the knowledge of the Bible and the knowledge of his society. Adapted a bit for present days, the sermon under consideration can play a significant role in understanding God’s will.
This is the best proof of Holmes’s critic being inadequate. Only the profound knowledge of the setting in which Edwards preached and the well-roundness of Edwards’ ministry empowers a critic to argue Edwards’ righteousness. None of these terms was typical for Holmes.
Borgmann, Andy. “The True Jonathan Edwards.” 2Timothy42.org. 2002. Web.
“Edwards, Jonathan, 1703–58, American Theologian and Metaphysician.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2004.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. Enfield, Conn., 1741. Speech online. Web.
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Edwards, Rem B. “The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 14: Sermons and Discourses, 1723-1729.” The Review of Metaphysics 52.205 (1998): 140.
Guelzo, Allen C. “America’s Theologian: Piety and Intellect.” The Christian Century. 2003: 30+.
Meaney, Thomas. “The Great Awakener.” Policy Review (2005): 92+.
Noll, Mark. God at the Center: Jonathan Edwards on True Virtue. Christian Century, 1993.