Biography of Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards was an 18th-century revivalist pastor and a Puritan theologian whose sermons greatly influenced the Protestant theology during The Great Awakening (1740-1742)1. He was born in October 1703 in Connecticut to a Congregational minister as the only boy in the family. Edwards’s father, a church minister, and elder siblings groomed him for college. At age thirteen, he joined Yale in 1716, where he studied divinity graduating with masters in 1723. As a student, Edwards interacted with the works of Locke and Newton, which helped shape his perspective on natural philosophy.
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Edwards had objections to the Calvinist theological system on God’s omnipotence. However, in 1721, upon a “delightful conviction,” he began to believe strongly in the sovereignty of God, a major turning point in his life2. He has ordained the Northampton student minister in 1727, becoming an assistant to Solomon Stoddard, his grandfather3. Edwards wedded Sarah Pierpont in 1727, and together they were blessed with eleven children. In 1729, Edwards assumed the responsibility of leadership by being the minister of one of the largest and most wealthy churches in the colony following the death of his grandfather.
From 1731, Edwards, in his sermons and lectures, focused on “God’s absolute sovereignty” in salvation4. He led a religious revival in 1733 in the town that saw many people become converted to Christ, marking the beginning of the First Great Awakening of the mid-18th century. The period saw the revival wave spread throughout Connecticut, resulting in multitudes converting to Christ. Edwards’s sermons and writings during this period talked about the doctrine of revival and God’s grace.
Later, criticism of the doctrine began when the open communion that was viewed as a converting rite was discontinued. The Northampton congregations strongly believed in the communion as taught by Edwards’s grandfather. However, the disagreement in the church resulted in the dismissal of Edwards in 1750. He later relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he continued to minister to the Native Americans. In 1758, he was appointed to head the College of New Jersey, a position he held until his death from smallpox in the same year.
Edwards is acknowledged as a notable American theologian for his broad theological work championing for the Reformed theology. Analysis of his work indicates that Edwards primarily anchored his theology on primarily on the metaphysics of Puritanism and determinism. Edwards believed that free will is compatible with theological determinism while libertarianism is incompatible with the concept of self-determination5. His support for theological determinism was grounded in God’s sovereignty and precognition, the concept of causal freedom, and the source of motivation.
Jonathan Edwards is renowned for several books and essays. His three most important books touched on theology and revival. In the Images or Shadows of Divine Things, Edwards writes that natural things are “images or representations” of spiritual matters6. He uses nature and events as an analogy of God’s manifestation to humans. In The Nature of True Virtue, Edwards explains his conception of ‘ethical fittingness’ in nature. He notes that humans have the power to know and conform to natural moral norms. In addition, nature prescribes how people should understand the self and morality. On Knowing Christ is a compilation of Edwards’s 10 most influential sermons in which he warns nonbelievers of God’s wrath, reveals God’s grace, and expresses discontent with man’s sinful ways.
Edwards first had an eight-month stint as a preacher in 1723 when he served as a clergyman of a Protestant Church in New York. Later, in 1726, he moved to Yale as a tutor, where he was renowned for his orthodox teachings in a period when other ministers crossed over to the Anglican Church7. A year later, Edwards became an ordained pastor in Northampton, where he served under his grandfather, Stoddard. He took full charge in 1729 following the death of Stoddard and remained the church pastor until his dismissal in 1750. Edwards also ministered to the Native Americans when he moved to Massachusetts before his death in 1758.
Summary of Edwards’s Doctrine of Salvation
In his work, Jonathan Edwards, who comes from a Reformed Orthodoxy context, advances various arguments for the doctrine of salvation. He demonstrates that salvation comes by grace through Christ, the mediator, not through self-righteousness. He writes, “We are justified only by faith in Christ, not by any manner of virtue or goodness of our own”8. In this regard, he affirms that righteousness or justification is God-given and comes only by faith in Christ. In explaining what justification means, Edwards writes that one becomes justified when “God approves him as free from the guilt of sin and its deserved punishment”9. A ‘justified’ person qualifies by the right for a reward.
According to Nichols, Edwards’s view is that it just goes beyond simply the forgiveness of sin10. It entails being righteous in judgment and showing the obedience that justifies a positive reward. For example, Edwards writes that Christ’s justification came after he completed the work that the Father appointed him to do, i.e., temptation, death, and resurrection11. In contrast, Adam failed to remain in perfect obedience with God, and therefore he could not be justified. The statement reflects the Reformed Orthodoxy perspective on justification. For Edwards, justification serves two roles. First, salvation entitles one to the redemption of sin and averts God’s wrath. Second, ‘justified’ people are admitted to glory as a positive payback for their righteous life.
To atone for heinous sin, man needed a righteous being of infinite dignity. Therefore, a person cannot become righteous before God without being united to Christ. Edwards states, “It is not suitable that God should give the sinner an interest in Christ from regard to any qualification or action of him”12. He reiterates his view that unless a man is united with Christ, he is wicked and therefore has no shred of righteousness to endear him to God. The text in his writings says that it is the belief in Christ that “justifies the ungodly”13. Therefore, Edwards emphasizes that man only becomes worthy of God’s love after justification.
Edwards also believes that man alone cannot earn God’s grace is that he contravened a divine law. Humans are subject to this law, though they have violated it already. In the light of the law of God, we remain condemned, and therefore, we cannot do anything to earn God’s favor. To illustrate this point, Edward says, “it is inconsistent with the honor of the Majesty of the King of Heaven and Earth to accept anything from a condemned malefactor”14.
It is after the condemnation is reversed that man can become worthy of God’s reward. According to Holmes, Edwards’s argument goes contrary to the Arminian perspective on justification, which holds that humans bear the natural sin and thus cannot observe the obedience commanded in God’s law15. In essence, Arminians believe that Christ’s death paid for our human imperfections, which means that our “imperfect obedience” could be acceptable before the Lord16. This view could be taken to mean that salvation comes out man’s own merit with the Christ as the helper.
However, Edwards discredits this argument by pointing out that such a view ignores the role of the “perfect obedience” in justification17. In his view, the view disregards God’s holiness that is central to Christ’s atonement. According to Edwards, “what we need is Christ dying to enable our imperfect obedience to be accepted” and therefore, it would be unfair if anything short of perfect obedience were allowed18. In effect, the view would imply that there is no sin or imperfect obedience.
Edwards anchors the doctrine of salvation in the Holy Scriptures. He cites scriptures from the Old Testament and the letters of the Apostle Paul to support his doctrine. Edwards avers that Paul’s doctrine centers on salvation by faith. He further writes that the apostle’s statement that justification is not earned referred to the canon law. In this regard, the Arminian teaching of persevering obedience implies a recurring act salvation19. In Edwards view, this scenario would mean salvation is conditional.
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According to Holmes, Edwards’s argument shows his belief that the interpretation of the Ten Commandments by the early Christians was erroneous20. They considered the Commandments as the divine standard for justification as opposed to a moral law prescribed by the Lord to his children. Edwards argues that God’s grace existed before the Ten Commandments. He notes that the covenant of grace is evident in Abraham’s search for a son. Therefore, Paul excluded all laws and works when he wrote that salvation comes only by faith.
To illustrate further, Edwards points out Paul’s consistent use of the word ‘works’ means that he was referring to all laws, not just the canonical law. Our guilt stems from the sin against the moral law, not the ceremonial rules. Therefore, ‘justification’ cannot be received by obeying the ceremonial law because it is the “moral law that is written in our hearts”21. Humans are condemned by the moral law and require a Savior. The justification comes by obeying the moral elements of the law. Edwards asserts that the saints in the Old Testament received ‘justification’ through faith in Christ as those in the New Testament did.
Edwards reiterates the goodness and kindness of God to the nonbeliever in the context of salvation. He writes, “it shows a more abundant goodness in the giver when he shows kindness without any excellence”, which indicates God’s unbounded love and beneficence for humanity22. This attribute calls for glory to God for the gift of salvation. Therefore, salvation comes freely from God and is manifested in his grace to persons who lack the excellence or virtue to warrant such gifts.
Critique of the Doctrine of Salvation
Edwards’s doctrine of justification has received criticism and affirmation almost in equal measure. The strength of this doctrine lies in its description of the twofold righteousness, echoing the Reformation and Puritan perspectives. Edwards defines justification as being absolved from guilt and receiving the entitlement to life eternal23. In this view, the pardon from sin entails the remission from sin and acceptance through the union with Christ. Therefore, a person united with the Savior receives the righteousness that comes from Christ’s obedience.
Edwards advances two aspects of righteousness. A believer is first freed from guilt, which was a form of righteousness that Adam received. The second element relates to living according to the moral law, a feat only Christ accomplished. It is through the union with Christ in salvation that a believer receives the imputed righteousness24. Therefore, salvation is founded on the union with Christ.
The second strength of Edwards’s doctrine is that it outlines the means of achieving the union with Christ or justification. Edwards reiterates that justification is received through justification alone. According to Hopkins, Edwards’s proposition suggests that Christ is the only means of justification25. It means that faith is not a precondition for salvation. The scriptures say that genuine faith is what connects believers to Christ, giving them the imputed righteousness. Hopkins describes faith as the “soul’s acquiescing in the divine sufficiency”26. He writes that Edwards’s interpretation of faith resonates well with the Reformer’s definition.
Faith is the force that connects a person to Christ. Therefore, receiving Christ requires faith to facilitate the union. Edwards stresses that justification or the union with Christ is achieved through faith27. His stance is consistent with the Reformed theology as explained by theologians. Bombaro concurs with Edwards on the argument that faith is a non-meritorious means of connecting with Christ28. Furthermore, faith demands an absolute reliance on Christ alone without extending any credit to self-righteousness. Therefore, faith, in essence, does not require any form of personal goodness on the part of the believer. Bombaro reasons that, for Edwards, the union with Christ is similar to a marriage covenant in which we receive Christ’s righteousness and are freed from sin and all wickedness29.
Therefore, Edwards’s doctrine contributes to the understanding of faith and redemption. Chris Chun writes that faith and salvation are distinct processes in the doctrine that constitute a single divine action30. In this view, faith is the force leading to the union with Christ. The doctrine builds on the views of Luther and Calvin on justification, which is one of its key strengths. He maintains the earlier view that salvation is a gift that earns one Christ’s righteousness. Both Luther and Calvin were Reformers whose doctrines emphasized that man does not contribute to his salvation in any way. Thus, faith is a non-meritorious gift to believers.
Huggins explains how Edwards manages to retain the view that salvation is a gift and emphasize on the imputed righteousness31. He writes that, for Edwards, faith is a divine gift that serves as a precondition for the justification of believers. The elect receive the gift of faith that enables them to delight in salvation. Therefore, the justification and Christ’s righteousness received by a believer accords him the benefits of Christ’s long-suffering and perfect obedience. Humans earn Christ’s righteousness through faith, which serves as the bond between a believer and Christ. According to McDermott, this description of faith avoids the difficulty of explaining if salvation comes before faith or vice versa32. Therefore, man receives Christ’s righteousness through faith.
Critics argue that Edwards’s notion that salvation comes by faith alone akin to justification through self-righteousness. McDermott holds the Edwards’s justification view centers more on faith than on Christ’s righteousness33.
In this regard, the salvation view reflects the Edwards’s theological inclination towards the interrelated concepts of “love, faith, and obedience”34. Another weakness with Edwards’s doctrine relates to the opaqueness that surrounds the order between faith and justification. Edwards is rather incoherent regarding what between faith and salvation comes first. McDermott argues that Edwards’s teachings suggest that faith precedes salvation for believers35. He further notes that this view draws from some elements of the New England belief system that considers faith to be a precondition for salvation.
Although Edwards emphasizes on the centrality of “faith, love, and obedience” in the justification, his argument does not diverge widely from the teachings of the other Reformers36. Evidently, Edwards’s teachings on salvation by faith alone appear to be a rebuttal to the Arminian doctrine that holds that human free will can exist harmoniously with God’s sovereignty. He feels that faith is analogous to the love for the Lord. Therefore, connecting with Christ is, in essence, the soul’s acknowledgement of God’s love and holiness. This argument contradicts Edwards’s view that salvation comes by faith alone.
Edwards appears to echo the Augustinian doctrine of God benevolence towards his own attributes, such as goodness. Holmes states that faith and love are all God’s gifts given to man with the intention of rewarding them later37. He notes that Edwards understands this view, which explains why his rejection of the merit of individual works. Therefore, certain elements of Edwards’s doctrine, especially the concept of salvation by faith alone, are shrouded in ambiguity.
Bombaro, John. “Jonathan Edwards’s vision of salvation.” The Westminster Theological Journal 65, no. 1 (2003): 45-67.
Chun, Chris. “The Theology of Jonathan Edwards.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 17, no. 3 (2015): 363-365.
Edwards, Jonathan. Altogether Lovely: Jonathan Edwards on the Glory and Excellency of Jesus Christ. Edited by Don Kistler. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997.
Edwards, Jonathan. A History of the Work of Redemption: Vol. 9 of the Works of Jonathan Edwards. Edited by John F. Wilson. London: Yale University Press, 1989.
Edwards, Jonathan. Images or Shadows of Divine Things. Edited by Perry Miller. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.
Edwards, Jonathan. On Knowing Christ. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995.
Edwards, Jonathan. The Nature of True Virtue. United States of America: University of Michigan Press, 1960.
Edwards, Jonathan. On Revival. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995.
Edwards, Jonathan. Scientific and Philosophical Writings: The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Edited by Wallace E. Anderson. London: Yale University Press, 1980.
Holmes, Stephen. God of Grace and God of Glory: An Account of the Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.
Hopkins, Samuel. The Life and Character of Mr. Jonathan Edwards. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2008.
Huggins, Jonathan. “Jonathan Edwards and Justification: Embodying a Living Tradition.” Journal of Reformed Theology 8, no. 2 (2014): 169-202.
McDermott, Gerald R. “Jonathan Edwards and the salvation of non-Christians.” Pro Ecclesia 9, no. 2 (2000): 208-227.
Nichols, Stephen. Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001.
Rivera, Ted. “Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Hermeneutic’: A Case study of the sermon ‘Christian knowledge.’” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 2 (2006): 273-186.
- Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption, Vol. 9 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (London: Yale University Press, 1989), 48.
- Ibid, 64.
- Chris Chun, “The Theology of Jonathan Edwards,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 17, no. 3 (2015): 364.
- Ibid, 365.
- Stephen Nichols, Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 91.
- Jonathan Edwards, Images or Shadows of Divine Things, Edited by Perry Miller (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), 77.
- Stephen Nichols, Jonathan Edwards, 82.
- Ibid, 94.
- Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption, 114.
- Stephen Nichols, Jonathan Edwards, 87.
- Jonathan Edwards, Altogether Lovely: Jonathan Edwards on the Glory and Excellency of Jesus Christ (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 90.
- Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue (United States of America: University of Michigan Press, 1960), 34.
- Ibid, 41.
- Ted Rivera, “Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Hermeneutic’: A Case study of the sermon ‘Christian knowledge,’” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 2 (2006): 273.
- Stephen Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory: An Account of the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 44.
- Ibid, 45.
- Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 37.
- Ibid, 63.
- Stephen Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory, 53.
- Ibid, 67.
- Jonathan Edwards, On Revival (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), 117.
- Ibid, 124.
- Jonathan Edwards, Scientific and Philosophical Writings: The Works of Jonathan Edwards (London: Yale University Press, 1980), 85.
- Ibid, 91.
- Samuel Hopkins, The Life and Character of Mr. Jonathan Edwards (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2008), 19.
- Ibid, 34.
- Jonathan Edwards, On Revival, 63.
- John Bombaro, “Jonathan Edwards’s vision of salvation,” The Westminster Theological Journal 65, no. 1 (2003): 47.
- Ibid, 75.
- Chris Chun, “The Theology of Jonathan Edwards,” 81.
- Jonathan Huggins, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification: Embodying a Living Tradition.” Journal of Reformed Theology 8, no. 2 (2014), 171.
- Gerald R. McDermott, “Jonathan Edwards and the salvation of non-Christians,” Pro Ecclesia 9, no. 2 (2000): 209.
- Ibid, 211.
- Ibid, 213.
- Gerald R. McDermott, “Jonathan Edwards and the salvation of non-Christians, 213.
- Stephen Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory, 67.
- Ibid, 56.