Jonathan Edwards: Why you should know him and thank him (if you could)



Jonathan Edwards may have been the most important American pastor, in terms of his impact on the theology of churches in America today. While it is true that the average person has heard of Jonathan Edwards, or was forced to read some of his work in high school, that same person may not have much more than a surface-level understanding of this great American pastor. While there are many veins of theology that Jonathan Edwards impacted, one of these has found its greatest reach and serious “staying power” in the American Evangelical church. Jonathan Edwards is most noted for the part that he played in the first great awakening in America. This “fire and brimstone” preacher lead many to consider the great things of the eternal world.[1] Edward’s passion for the Bible led him to emphasize the most crucial doctrines for the then English colony. This helped to safeguard Biblical orthodoxy for generations to come.

Edwards was an astute man, entering Vale at age thirteen. He was a notable Calvinist, who preached in Northampton, Massachusetts.[2]

Hell

The most widely recognized doctrine was Jonathan Edward’s view of Hell. In the modern world, the idea that there is a God who will send the unrighteous to a literal Hell is out of fashion. And without the brilliant preaching of this New England pastor, who is to say whether or not this would be a point of orthodoxy in American evangelicalism. Bruce W. Davidson, a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University, argues,

Besides using it as a motivator in his awakening sermons, Edwards developed the doctrine of hell in at least two contexts: (1) as an instrument of theophany, a mirror for manifesting the greatness of the divine Being; and (2) as the final arena for exposing human wickedness and God’s triumph over it in redemptive history.[3]

What Davidson puts forth is important to understand. Edwards doesn’t just agree with the doctrine of hell. It was crucial to his theological influence in preaching. To say it another way, to hear a sermon preached by Edwards, without the mention of hell in it would have been a rare occurrence.

Edwards was under attack for his belief that hell was — actually — a beautiful doctrine that brings God even further glory. One such man that attacked Edwards was Francis Hutcheson, who was a contemporary of Edwards and had just written a book arguing for man-centered ethical systems. In one publication Hutcheson writes, “Can God be morally justified in the condemnation of sinners that He has made? . . . The whole purpose of Edwards’s treatise on the will could be reduced to the one task of solving the paradox of man’s being responsible for his condemnation despite his subjection to God’s decrees.”[4] Edwards would go on to refute this, by acknowledging that when Hell is out of the picture many theological issues evaporate. Edwards wasn’t fearful to wade through difficult doctrines, because he desired to seek, find, and preach the true God of the Bible.

Edwards has affected the fact that American evangelicalism still preaches the doctrine of a literal Hell. Without such ardent vigor for this doctrine, one could only imagine what American churches would hold as orthodoxy. American Christianity owes much to Jonathan Edwards and his zeal for the bible and for worshiping the true God.

[1] Bruce Shelley, “A New Order of the Ages,” in Church History in Plain Language, 5th ed. (S.l.: ZONDERVAN, 2021), pp. 401-405 [2] A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang, and Randy Petersen, “Great Awakening Under Jonathan Edwards,” in The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revel, 1999), pp. 134-136. [3] Davidson, Bruce W. 2011. “Glorious Damnation: Hell as an Essential Element in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54 (4): 809–22. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a6h&AN=ATLA0001875755&site=ehost-live. [4] Norman Fiering, Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981) 200–260.

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