Results tagged “Jonathan Edwards” from Reformation21 Blog

An Authoritative Appeal to Tradition?

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Reformed evangelicals sometimes speak and write as if they believe that we have little or no use for tradition. On the other hand, there are Reformed evangelicals who--while debating a subject--appeal to a renown theologian from bygone days and write in such a way as to insist that mere citations from such an author settles the matter. God neither needs our ignorance nor our intellectual arrogance. We should respect tradition but remember that all tradition is to be brought to the judgment bar of Scripture. We must also recognize that our tradition colors or flavors our reading of Scripture and that this is not always a bad thing. To deny that we read Scripture from a particular tradition or vantage point is naïve. To deny Scripture its right to evaluate a tradition is dangerous. It would be a good thing for us to remember that Scripture itself is a form of tradition - divinely authoritative tradition (1 Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Thess. 3:6; 1 Tim. 6:3). 

Nevertheless, the question remains, "What do we do with theological tradition?" Perhaps it would be more helpful if we asked what is happening when someone cites a tradition (or, more specifically the teaching) of a bygone theologian as an appeal to authority? Having been a student of Jonathan Edwards for many years now, I find Edwards to be a helpful case study in the use of tradition. If I cite Edwards authoritatively, what I am actually doing is using shorthand for the longer expression, "Edwards says such and such and I have been persuaded that what he says on this point is absolutely biblical." At the end of the day, it is something like this or close to it that we intend when we cite a favorite theologian or tradition. 

If we remember that our Lord gave us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13; 1st John 4:6; 5:6) we will recall that Jesus did not give the Spirit to us as the first generation to lead. The Spirit has been working with his church for over two thousand years (not to mention his involvement in the old covenant era) and it may be that previous generations have learned a thing or two from their Spirit-directed study of God's Word. 

The Sacred Scriptures are infallible and inerrant. Historical theology isn't. But that does not make historical theology or more broadly church history useless. We must avoid the Scylla of utter rejection of tradition and the Charybdis of confusing post-biblical or extra-biblical tradition with Scripture. Another way to put this is to note that sola Scriptura is not nuda Scriptura. Scripture is the alone divinely authoritative source of doctrine and practice but it is not the only source of such. Scripture is the norming norm that is not normed by any other norm and all other traditions are norms that are normed by Scripture. 

Our favorite theologians, whether past or present, and our traditions, are not infallible nor inerrant. However, insofar as these are consistent with Scripture they share a derivative authority. Traditions are more or less consistent with the Bible. Take Jonathan Edwards as an example again. I am persuaded that Edwards was a fairly thoroughly biblical theologian. However, even I take exception to certain views that Edwards held. While I think his understanding of the relationship of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is stellar, as is his formulation of the concept of the affections, he is not infallible. Quite a number of Edwards scholars have suggested that he held to continuous creation, occasionalism and idealism.

It is arguable whether Edwards actually held to continuous creation and occasionalism. These ideas are often confounded but they are in fact distinct though conjoined concepts. Continuous creation is the idea that God creates anew at each and every moment. This appears to run roughshod over the standard distinction between creation and providence. Edwards himself pointed out that creation was the first instance and providence the second and following acts of the same divine act. This undermines the integrity of created matter in order to uphold the reality that God's powerful word undergirds all reality. 

Occasionalism is the idea that God is the only causal agent in the Universe. If this is the case, then those creatures who have been designed by God to be secondary causes would be an illusion. Rather than creatures being secondary causes upheld by God as the primary cause and bringing about effects, these apparent cause and effect relations would simply be occasions for God to act. Various Christian theologians and philosophers have embraced and advocated these ideas but it is doubtful that there is a biblical basis for either idea considered separately or conjointly. 

That Jonathan Edwards was an idealist is less controversial. To be more precise, Edwards is classified as a Trinitarian theistic idealist. Idealism is understood as a philosophical position that stands over against realism. Realism teaches that we humans know what we know because we come into contact with extra-mental objects that actually do exist in reality. I see a brown tree with green leaves because is just such a tree in the foreground which I perceive. Idealism suggests that in order for something to exist it must be perceived. There are different kinds of idealism in the world of philosophy but Edwards' form was that extra-mental objects are known truly by a human when the ideas in the mind correspond with the ideas in the mind of God. If I see a brown tree with green leaves it because God has the idea of the brown tree with green leaves and my idea is true if it corresponds or coheres with God's idea of the tree. I do not believe this theistic idealism is biblically necessary. 

I happen to believe that the Bible does teach a specific kind of epistemology, namely covenantal realism. God is original and everything else in creation is derivative. What I know truly I know because God has created me and my environment so that I might know things truly when my faculties function properly. The fall and the entrance of sin interferes with the proper function of my faculties (what we call total depravity) but God does and can communicate with his creation in nature and in Scripture. In other words, I believe this is a better description of biblical ontology and epistemology than what Edwards held to. The point of this example is not that I waste my time when I read Jonathan Edwards. Rather, it is that we need to find a healthy way to appreciate the good of our favorite theologians while at the same time being even handed in our willingness to disagree with them over and against the teachings of Scripture. 

Tradition can be a good thing. As I noted above, Scripture is divinely authoritative tradition. However, all other tradition must be held up to the standard of God's Word. We have seen how one example (i.e. of Jonathan Edwards) rightly held in high regard, was not infallible. God's Word is infallible. Don't trash tradition - but don't put it in the place of the only infallible rule of faith and practice (WCF 1.2, 1.9) either.

Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Waddington (PhD., Westminster Theological Seminary) is the stated supply of Knox OPC in Lansdowne, PA. He is the co-editor, with Dr. Lane Tipton, of Resurrection and Eschatology. Jeff is also a regular panelist on Christ the Center and East of Eden, podcasts of the Reformed Forum.

Edwards and Interpreting Providence

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Like many eighteenth-century Reformed pastors, Jonathan Edwards was confident in his ability to discern God's purposes in earthly events. For example, during a 1736 drought, he explained that God was chastising New Englanders for the "corruption in our hearts." Similarly, during a plague of crop-destroying worms in the 1740s, he suggested that the people's neglect of the poor had precipitated the infestation.

This kind of assurance about God's intentions has become passé among most conservative Christians today. But not everyone across the American religious and political spectrum has given up on such close providential readings. I was reminded of this fact recently when I became a minor player in a kerfuffle with radio host Glenn Beck over presidential politics. Beck is a Mormon, an ardent supporter of Ted Cruz, and an opponent of Donald Trump. He said recently that evangelicals who support Trump are not "listening to their God." God has made it clear, Beck says, that Cruz is the chosen man for this election. 

Asked to comment on this story by Breitbart News, I replied that "the Bible certainly offers principles on how to think about government and politics. The Bible does not, however, tell us which individual candidates to vote for...There are many reasons why devout Christians should hesitate to vote for Donald Trump, but God has not revealed Ted Cruz as the divinely anointed alternative, either." In reply, Beck said on his radio program "To you, Dr. Kidd. To you. To you God hasn't revealed Cruz as divinely anointed." But Beck believes that "Ted Cruz actually was anointed for this time."

In the midst of this brouhaha, I happened also to read Gerald McDermott's fascinating book chapter "Jonathan Edwards and the National Covenant: Was He Right?"  In that piece, McDermott examines Edwards' confident readings of worms, droughts, and other instances of how earthly events reflected God's disciplining hand. Today we associate such prophetic readings with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and now Beck, who may have a more natural openness to the idea of God's ongoing revelations because of his Mormonism. Whatever their individual merits or personal beliefs, contemporary figures like these have nothing like the theological or intellectual chops of Edwards. What has changed? Why has the interpretation of God's purposes in current events become theologically marginal, in a way that it was not in the eighteenth century? Have we lost courage in explaining God's ways to man?

Over-readings of God's providence were relatively easy targets of ridicule for the new skeptics and deists of the eighteenth century. For them, Edwards' kind of interpretation raised obvious questions with no easy answers. Does an absence of drought or worms mean that people are without sin? What did it mean when non-Christians around the world enjoyed abundant harvests, and heavily Christian regions went without? And what of Matthew 5:45's statement that God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust"? Many traditional Christians abandoned close providential readings of current events because, with all due respect to Edwards, those interpretations are easier to defend when no one is asking difficult questions about them. 

Yet Gerald McDermott suggests that we also lost good things when we gave up on providential readings of history. Christians certainly believe that God is the Lord of history, and that all things have meaning and purpose within God's economy. No ruler comes to power, and no nation falls, without God's sovereign permission. Providential interpretations of a nation's suffering and turmoil remind us that we stand under universal moral standards. No matter how powerful and wealthy, no nation (perhaps especially those with high rates of professed Christian faith) can expect to provoke God forever with no consequences.

The most appropriate occasions when we can make modest assertions about God's historical interventions are when we detect dynamics of reaping and sowing. For example, the financial meltdown of 2008 was clearly connected to irresponsible practices and products, like the infamous "credit default swaps." At a minimum, we can say that in 2008, God let our nation reap what we had sown financially. We are still trying to recover from the disaster that ensued.

Similarly, Abraham Lincoln interpreted the Civil War as God's judgment on both North and South for their sinful complicity in slavery. In his greatest speech, the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln asked that if God "gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense [slavery] came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?" Moreover, "if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'" Lincoln, who was influenced by his parents' Calvinism even though he never joined a church, used a providential reading of the Civil War to call the nation to humility, and to enjoin all Americans to accept the destruction of slavery.

In this life we see "through a glass darkly" [I Cor. 13:12], so we should always be modest about interpreting current events. We should be quick to say that "perhaps" God is showing us something in today's struggles, because we hardly have all the information that our Father does. We should be slow to say "thus saith the Lord," except about those matters explicitly revealed in Scripture. Thus, we might say in this year's election that, weighed on the balance of scriptural principles, we tend to prefer candidate A's positions over candidate B's. But declaring a candidate God's "anointed" one is presumptuous, at best. 

Again, we may not be as prepared as Edwards to explicate God's message in a drought, but we do need to remember that God remains sovereign over that drought. We may not grasp His immediate purposes, but God's judgments have not ceased. 

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of books including George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014).

The Westminster Conference will take place later this year, God willing, in central London at Regent Hall on Oxford Street. As usual, there are two days of lectures and discussion, Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th December. The outline for the two days is below, and the brochure can be downloaded to obtain the booking form. More information can be found at the conference website.

Sin and sanctification in John Owen (Sinclair Ferguson ~ Elder at St. Peter's Free Church, Dundee). John Owen is one of the monumental figures of the seventeenth century. His profound scriptural sensitivity to sin and understanding of sanctification form some of the deepest currents of his work both as a theologian and as a pastor. This paper will explore these complementary and contradictory elements of Christian experience through the lens of Owen's wrestling with the issues.

"On the side of God": Andrew Fuller's pastoral theology
(Jeremy Walker ~ Pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley). Andrew Fuller is recognised as a theologian and for his friendship with and support of William Carey. However, these labours cannot be divorced from his principles and practices as a pastor and a preacher. This was his primary calling. It informed and was expressed in everything else in which he was involved. This paper will draw together some of the convictions recorded, conclusions reached and counsels expressed by Andrew Fuller in the realm of pastoral theology.

The atonement and evangelistic preaching in John Owen (David Pfeiffer ~ Minister of Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church). Apparent tensions between convictions about the definite extent of the atonement joined with commitments to the freeness of the gospel offer are perennial issues in Christ's church. Few men have contended for the former more effectively than John Owen and his works breathe a lively and transparent concern that lost men should trust in the only Saviour of sinners. David Pfeiffer will help us to see these elements of Owen's labour in healthy parallel.

Erasmus and the Greek New Testament (Peter Hallihan ~ retired from pastoral ministry; Editorial Consultant for TBS). Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536) was the genius sometimes described as the prince of the humanists. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to learning and religion was his edition of the Greek New Testament of 1516, which became the basis of most vernacular translations of the Scriptures for the next three centuries. Peter Hallihan will give us insights into the man and his work, tracing some of his influences and influence.

Jonathan Edwards and the religious affections
(Paul Helm ~ formerly Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King's College, London). The name of Jonathan Edwards, together with select elements of his theology, has become more prominent in the thinking and practice of Reformed evangelicals in recent years. Ready reference is made to well-known but not always well-understood works such as Edwards' study of the religious affections. Paul Helm will take a fresh look at this book, emphasising its setting and its sources, helping us grasp the substance and application of Edwards' work.

Isaac Watts and the gift of prayer
(Benedict Bird ~ ThM Student and Greek Teacher at London Theological Seminary). Best known for his hymnody, Isaac Watts was also an influential theologian. He considered prayer to be not only a duty but a precious privilege, and he wrote to assist the saints in learning to pray. He showed that prayer is a gift, but one that can be developed. Prayer is not always high on the agenda in the church of Christ, and not often developed to a high degree when it is. In his Guide to Prayer, Watts directs us still to cultivate "this holy skill of conversation with God."
Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will has exercised considerable influence on contemporary Reformed thought about divine sovereignty and human freedom. For many, Edwards' work represents the gold standard of Reformed thinking about these topics. Recent scholarship on divine and human freedom in the era of Reformed orthodoxy suggests however that Edwards' views were in certain respects idiosyncratic in relation to the broader tradition. 

Readers interested in exploring this issue will benefit from the recent exchanges between Richard Muller and Paul Helm in the new journal, Jonathan Edwards Studies. For more details about how to access the relevant articles, check out this post at The Junius Blog.

Was Jonathan Edwards a Puritan?

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Just who were the Puritans? Was Jonathan Edwards a Puritan? Was Matthew Henry a Puritan? Is Nacho Libre a Puritan? The answers to these questions are not uniform, but I think that once we answer the first question the following questions answer themselves. 

Around 1564 the term "Puritan" emerged, primarily as a pejorative term aimed at clergymen in the Elizabethan church who wanted further reformation to take place. They objected to wearing those things that look like dog collars, and wanted to cleanse the church of other "Romish" elements. This movement was peculiar to the Church of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These so-called "Puritans" experienced various successes and setbacks, with the major setback - probably a defeat - taking place in the early 1660s. Their glory years were the 1640s (Westminster Confession) and 1650s (Savoy). 

By the eighteenth century Puritanism was effectively dead. In fact, I think the movement died - though (thankfully) not the Puritans themselves - with the Act of Uniformity on St. Barholomew's Day (1662). John Bunyan even reminisces about "the Puritans": "the man was a godly old Puritan, for so the godly were called in times past." 

Puritanism moves to Dissent in 1660. But even if we allow for Puritanism to remain as a historical phenomenon after 1660, then surely the end date comes in 1689 with the Act of Toleration. After 1689 we have what has been called "Protestant Nonconformity."

In New England the context is obviously a little different, and the so-called Puritans were becoming "Yankees" by the early eighteenth century. "Puritanism" was displaced by "Evangelicalism." A state-supported church in New England was possible in the early eighteenth century, but even by the 1670s the church leaders could see the writing on the wall: that is, they could not depend on the civil leaders to take their concerns seriously (certainly not by the 1720s).   

Theologically, Puritanism was not quite as monolithic as we might think or as some might like to think. Sure, most were "Calvinists"; but there were Puritans who were Antinomians; others, such as John Goodwin, were Arminians, though John Goodwin enjoyed the great affection of his Calvinist friend, Thomas Goodwin. There were ecclesiological disagreements between the Puritans (even the Presbyterians disagreed with one another), but also some intense soteriological debates among them, too. 

The Puritan national church during the Cromwellian era (1650s) incorporated Baptists. In fact, as far as I am able to tell, paedobaptist attitudes towards the antipaedobaptists softened as the century wore on, especially after the Great Ejection! 

Thus the term "Puritan" to describe one's theology can pose all sorts of problems. Put together in a room a bunch of Johns, such as John Owen, John Bunyan, John Howe, John Milton, John Goodwin, John Cotton, and John Eaton (all "Puritans"), and you've got an almighty amount of disagreement between them. Add Baxter, who might just have "won" by poisoning them all with his medical home remedies - unless he decided to swallow another bullet for its good medicinal effects - and you don't just have disagreement, but theological carnage.

Politically speaking they are also at odds with each other. Oliver Cromwell and John Milton had much stronger radical sympathies than other Puritans. 

There are also major eschatological (remember: don't use that word in the pulpit) issues among the Puritans that require us to limit the term "Puritanism" to a specific historical context. The millennial glory that many of them hope would take place around 1660 proved to be a source of great embarrassment for those (Thomas Goodwin) who lived long enough to experience the 1660s-1670s.

So, was Jonathan Edwards a Puritan? No, he was not a Puritan. That may be a disappointment for some and a relief for others. But my admiration for the man doesn't depend on whether he was a Puritan or not. Edwards may have had the "spirit" of Puritanism in him, for he read them with profit. But he can't be described as a Puritan if the term is to have any historical meaning. There is also the fact that Edwards had a theology that was in some ways "innovative." But I don't think I want to get into that right now...

(BTW, Matthew Henry was also not a Puritan, even though his father was. Regarding Nacho Libre, I am inclined to believe he is the exception that proves the rule).

All of this is to say, I love most of the Puritans, but not all of them. Some of their theology disgusts me; some of their theology delights me. But if there is one label that ought to stand the test of the centuries it is "Confessional." 

Pastor Mark Jones is off to sing, "I am, I am, a real [Confessional] man."