5 Reasons Why You Should Read Jonathan Edwards
A few years ago, I allowed a friend to talk me into running in a 5k. (Now, I realize some of you are snickering even as you proudly remind yourself of that 26.2 sticker on your back windshield; but, prior to that, all I had ever run was my mouth! So, if you mighty marathoners can humor a mere mortal for a moment, I will proceed.) The day of the race, I warmed up and stretched with a myriad of participants. Most of them appeared to be experienced runners. I literally prayed that the Lord would let me do two things: 1) Finish; and 2) Finish ahead of the senior saints mall-walking club that had signed up for the race. As the announcer called the runners to ready, I was consigned to the group that was to start running with the third section--and, by “third section,” I mean back with the mall-walking club. However, as the race ensued, I actually found myself keeping about a 9 minute pace. I was feeling pretty good about myself, until some guy in a one-piece gold lame´ jump suit ran by me--as though I was sitting still. To make matters more humiliating, he was literally juggling tennis balls as he easily passed me. I have to admit, at that moment, I wondered why I had even entered the race. It was hard to keep running. In the end, I pulled ahead of the mall-walking ladies and finished that race.
Now, you are probably wondering, "Unless the guy in the jumpsuit was wearing a powdered wig, what in the world does this tragicomedy possibly have to do with why we should read Jonathan Edwards today?" Well, perhaps you have felt “talked into” reading Edwards. Maybe a friend or minister has sung the Northampton pastor’s praises. Perhaps, you were persuaded by John Piper’s passion for this Puritan preacher-theologian. Whatever the case, you find yourself amid myriad fans of Edwards, yet you are not even sure if you should jump in. Maybe, you lined up at the starting line with the first section runners in A Dissertation on the Nature of True Virtue, when you probably would have been better advised to join some of us back here in the sermon section. You find yourself bogged down, looking for a reason to keep reading. Whether you are an Edwards marathoner or a mere mortal, I would like to suggest a few reasons why we should read him, today. Others have offered their own excellent suggestions as to why we should read the Puritans, in general. Some have laid out compelling reasons why Edwards should be at the top of our list. I want to limit myself to a handful of personal reasons I have found Edwards to be so rewarding, frankly, essential to my life, ministry, and academics. While I am sure some of you could add your own, very helpful reasons to this list, here’s what I am thinking about why we should read Edwards:
1) JE was intoxicated with God's majestic Triunity. Like Augustine, Calvin, and Owen before him, JE’s theological and homiletical programs were shot through with the majesty of the Trinity. When speaking of any one member of the Godhead, he always seems to be honoring and honing in on the other two. He makes you believe there is a Trinity! He makes you believe that the Father loved and sent the Son, the Son loved and obeyed the Father, and the Spirit is their love personified, in the true sense of the word. The Trinity suffuses his sermons and Miscellanies, as well as, treatises, such as Nature of True Virtue, and Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. As is widely known, JE warned faithfully of the reality of hell. But, the fact is he also wooed persuasively to heaven. Strikingly, he describes heaven as a “world of love,” in which saints will forever bask in the deluge river of love that flows between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Who thinks like that, these days?!?!? There are times, especially when reading his sermons, that I feel I have been lifted in to the very presence of the Triune God. Edwards was enamored, enflamed with love to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He can help you burn with passion for the Trinity, too!
2) JE was properly doctrinal in his preaching. W.T.G. Shedd once spoke of “boned preaching.” He lamented sermons that have had their theological sub-structure removed. What was left was a flabby façade of true preaching. One needs only read a selection of JE’s sermons, to see the undeniable doctrinal sturdiness. You could take your pick of a handful of preachments, from across his sermonic corpus, and find consistency of doctrinal conviction. In fact, I think JE may be the exemplar of how straightforward doctrine is to be woven into the body of a sermon. The theology explicates the biblical text and excites biblical application. Indeed, his use/application/improvement sections always naturally flow from his doctrinal sections. JE also shows us how a doctrinally rich homiletic serves apologetic (i.e., Deism, Islam) and polemic (i.e., Arminian) purposes.
3) JE was Redemptive-Historical before Redemptive History was popular. JE’s theological and homiletic program pulsates with tri-covenantal, Christ- centered, redemptive-historical method and content. Even before Vos, JE was doing some of the most thoroughgoing Biblical Theology in the context of regular preaching ministry. The great thing about JE’s BT is that it was never forced, never strained. It seemed to come easily to him. I am truly amazed at how often and how naturally JE wove a tri-covenantalism (redemption, works, grace) into his preaching. Whether you want to tackle the whole History of the Work of Redemption series, or the single sermon/lecture, East of Eden, you will find JE to be a masterful Biblical Theologian. He set the history of God’s redemptive purposes against the dawn of Enlightenment historia humana. JE’s thoroughgoing redemptive historical preaching lies at heart of the podcast East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards that Dr. Jeffrey C. Waddington, Rev. Nick Batzig, and I started--in which we seek to offer in-depth discussion of all things JE.
4) JE makes Christology a preeminent and pastoral matter. A Ph.D. student from the divinity department of a major university once asked me, “Does JE even have a Christology?”Sadly, much scholarship, following the train of Perry Miller since 1949, saw JE through the lens of his philosophical writings. Today, with the Yale publications of so many of his sermons, Miscellanies, Notes on Scripture and the Blank Bible, more attention is being paid to JE’s homiletic, exegetical and meditative writings on Scripture. While most are familiar with Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, we need to marinate in sermons, like Jesus Christ, the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever, or Safety, Rest, and Sweet Refreshment to be Found in Christ, or The Agony of Christ, or Christ Exalted. For rich, Christocentric exposition, his explication and application of the person and work of Christ rival Owen, in my opinion. He waxes Calvinian on the threefold office of Christ in The Excellencies of Christ. Interestingly, what is one of my three or four favorite sermons, The Most High, a Prayer-hearing God, JE assures us our prayers are heard, as Christ has merited a hearing for them. Our prayers, are, as it were, delivered to the Father in the hands of Jesus.
5) JE was relentlessly biblical without being a bald Biblicist. I often wonder how men like Calvin, Owen, and JE did what they did without programs like Accordance or Logos! Their encyclopedic knowledge of and facility with the Bible is staggering to me. Owen’s assessment of the Bibline bleeding Bunyan, was just as true of JE. This manifests itself in a couple of ways that I especially appreciate. First, JE’s worldview was totally shaped and governed by the Bible. His epistemology necessitated special revelation, as in his sermon on Christian Knowledge. Charity and Its Fruits and The Nature of True Virtue offer a thoroughgoing biblical ethic. A History of the Work of Redemption sermon series, show how the Bible, for JE, was the only lens through which one could make sense of history. His sermons follow the standard Puritan plain style, with its tri-partite Exposition, Doctrine, and Application format. His exposition sections, while brief relative to the other two sermon sections, are, nonetheless, models of exegetical and hermeneutical sophistication. His sensitivity to literary, historical, canonical, and theological contexts prove that JE was not naively biblicist in his approach. And, while one might expect his sermons to be rich repositories of biblical material, he devoted an overwhelming number of Miscellanies to, often, very detailed and thoughtful reflection on Scripture. Toward the end of his life and ministry, in his initial letter to the Trustees of the College of New Jersey, he listed as contributing to his hesitancy to accept their invitation to the office of President, his desire to revise and complete The History of the Work of Redemption series and A Harmony of the Old and New Testaments, both of which show his enduring desire to make the Bible the center of his theological and pastoral program. I once heard J.I. Packer say that he wanted to be, like Luther and Calvin before him, simply a “Bible teacher.” I tend to think, at the end of the day, JE saw himself as just that – a Bible teacher/preacher. In our next post, we will continue our consideration of why we should read JE today. I’ll give you a hint: my remaining reasons have to do with things, like fitness, sweetness, difficulty, famous faithful pastors and the not-so-famous faithful pastors.
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