Learning from the life of Jonathan Edwards (1)

Learning from the life of Jonathan Edwards (1)

A sizeable 615 pages (the last 100 or so being footnotes and appendices), this is the sort of book that strikes fear into all but the most avid of readers. It looks unwieldy and intimidating but I think that it is so good that it merits a long review over 4 parts.

Part I: His Early Years, Revival & Other Stuff

At first glance, the writing style is clear, concise and not given to long, winding, overly verbose descriptive prose, that is often a death knell to these kinds of biographies. Erm….embarrassingly I have just read the following sentence, discussing Edward’s need to present his MA thesis at Yale: ‘This oration, called a Quaestio, took the medieval form of a syllogistic disputation in defense of a proposition.’ (p82)  I know. I know. Headache inducing, but strangely poetic at the same time. Still, this sort of ‘intelligent’ language is used sparingly in order that us mere mortals (who are not friends of Don Carson – let’s face it the only human alive truly able to understand that sentence) may generally understand the force and flow of the book.

I found Marsden’s account of Edwards time at seminary very enlightening and often amusing. Consider the following, ‘College students could be unruly…..many took advantage of the freedom from their families to cut loose….perennial problems with drinking and rowdiness….the trustees strengthened the penalties for frequenting taverns, bringing rum into the dorms without permission (!), and contempt for tutors.’ (Pp101-102). Brilliant (not in terms of their behaviour) –but  there is something bizarre about a load of dour faced, wig wearing puritanical types wandering about in pubs, ducking and diving from their tutors whilst studying to become future pastors! According to the book, Edwards liked his cider, sometimes ordering his junior students to fill his cup up to 10 times a day! (The sort of behaviour that would have John Macarthur blogging like mad whilst making Mark Driscoll look like a bit of a ‘white wine spritzer’ boy!) Besides this, Edwards does come across as a bit self-absorbed in his student days, but then that is surely a truism for every teenager in history! Certainly, it is an oft-used criticism of many of the Puritans from around those times. (To my shame, he sounds like the sort of square that I used to pick on in my own school days!) The point being is that, from the outset, the biographer is clear that Edwards, great man though he was, had many faults and quirks, and instead of damaging him, his fallen humanity somehow makes his achievements all the more impressive.

There is little doubt that Edwards was a fascinating man, having presided over two influential spiritual revivals in his lifetime. The first was in 1734 and the second, sparked by a visit from George Whitfield, began in 1740 and spread throughout New England. They were marked by extremes of behaviour including, crying, laughing, falling over, trance like states and general euphoria that would sometimes go on for days. His wife, Sarah, was affected in this way, and it is suggested at one point that she had to go to the doctors for some medication to calm her down! Of course, ‘the awakenings’ sparked huge debate and led to schisms across the Christian world as to the reality and helpfulness of some of the excesses. What ensued was a weighty theological debate over the placement of the emotions over reason when it came to the supernatural work of God’s Spirit in revival (sounds oh so familiar).

Edward’s position was that it was impossible to separate the mind and the will. When it came to the matter of preaching, in particular, what was important to him was not what a person remembered after the event but what they experienced during the delivery of the Word. For Edward’s, preaching must, above all, touch the affections not merely the intellect. (A lesson forgotten by many today who occupy the pulpit as ‘teachers’ – they expand the mind only – but not ‘preachers’ – they stir the soul and stimulate the mind). Interestingly, Edward’s was not overly concerned if a person fell down in his meeting as long as it was in response to the intelligent preaching of God’s Word (modern revivalists take note – not a guitar riff in sight). His opponents, however, argued for a more conservative, intellectually led approach to the faith, which he felt led to a dry and emotionally suppressed religion, missing the deep experience of God by His Spirit.

Note to self here:

(1) It is not hard to see how these two streams of thought and practice have taken root and probably source much of the division within evangelical Christianity today when it comes to ‘moves’ of the Holy Spirit.

(2) Interestingly, these revivals came about by the expository preaching of God’s Word and not through ‘music’ (often mislabelled ‘worship’ in modern churches).

(3) We must be careful not to view ‘manifestations’ as evidence of God’s Holy Spirit at work but rather ongoing fruit, particularly a growing love of God and His Word.Conversely, we must be careful not to dismiss a move of the Spirit because of ‘bizarre’ manifestations. How much the gift of discernment is needed in our churches today!

(4) It is not how we feel that marks us out as a child of God, but surely what we practice.

Edwards put it like this when speaking about how Christians could be far more effective witnesses in the world. By being, ‘lively in the service of God and our generation, than by the liveliness and forwardness of our tongues, and making a business of proclaiming on the house tops, with our mouths, the holy and eminent acts and exercises of our hearts.’ (p289)

What I admired about this part of the book, was that whilst Edwards was loathe to judge some of the excesses of the revival (God alone knows the heart was his defence), he was still one of its biggest critics and sought often to ensure that they did not stray outside of clear, biblical principles.

Part 2 to follow.