Edwards in the Hands of Social Justice

Edwards in the Hands of Social Justice

The recent call to say “Farewell” to Jonathan Edwards was replaced with a more manageable observation to take the good and dismiss the bad. This initial call was based on Edwards’s ownership of a female slave named Venus. Let’s assume two propositions. First, in order to examine the rationality of the present “cancel culture,” suppose the first impulse to bid Edwards farewell remained as the unvarnished desire and, thus, something we would attempt to do. What would the advice be in such an instance? Stop reading Jonathan Edwards? Ignore any Edwardsean influence in American culture or evangelical theology? Would the first be safe, and would the second be possible? Second proposition: if, for the sake of proceeding with the discussion (taking seriously the proposal to accept the good while rejecting the evil), one admitted that Edwards was wrong in possessing a slave in his household (and it is by no means certain that that can be proved), would it not still be a tough call to bid him farewell without wrecking modern evangelical Christianity? Would it be desirable? We will look at four areas in which an attempt to extricate Edwards would be, not only impossible, but unalloyed intellectual suicide.

Without the influence of Edwards, the idea of “disinterested benevolence’ would have had to find another thinker for its provenance. But that would be most unlikely, unless it could be tied to an ethical system other than that set forth by Jonathan Edwards in The Nature of True Virtue. Edwards defined true virtue as “benevolence toward being in general.” He contrasted this to a number of ethical systems that had some degree of self-love or private interest as fundamental to virtue, in which care for other beings and love of beauty and love of apparent virtue in others is sublimated to self-love. Edwards argues that “a benevolent propensity of heart to being in general, and a temper or disposition to love God supremely, are in effect the same thing.” Benevolence toward a private sphere, no matter how extensive, is simply a veiled form of self-love and stops short of one’s chief object of benevolence—being in general—which means God, for he is the only self-existent being and is the source and sustaining power of all other being.  Edwards shows that the command to love God with all the heart, mind, soul, and strength is the most consistently defensible of all systems of virtue. Arising from the ministers to whom he was tutor came the concept of “disinterested benevolence.” Though Samuel Hopkins had his own critique of the aesthetic qualities of Edwards’s concept as well as Edwards’s discussions of secondary virtue and negative moral virtue, he could not have produced his activist ethic apart from Edwards. After all, Edwards’s twelfth sign of true “Religious Affections” was that “Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice.” This not only included personal holiness and devotion to Christ sustained throughout life, but an active doing of good: “They prosecute the business of religion, and the service of God with great earnestness and diligence, as the work which they devote themselves to, and make the main business of their lives” (387, RA). Hopkins could operate as an ethicist because Edwards had cleared the ground of skepticism, sentimentality, utilitarianism, and rationalism. Hopkins took the highest point of virtue in humanity as propounded by Edwards—a disinterested benevolence toward being in general—turned it around and made that standard a necessity also for the true goodness of God. God must be as interested in the happiness of his creatures as he is in being worshiped and loved by them. Even so, men must have, not an ethic driven by any degree of self-love, but by a consuming desire for the welfare of one’s neighbor. Hopkins saw himself as a corrector of certain flaws in Edwards’s concept of virtue. His line of reasoning, whether better or worse, arose only in conjunction with Edwards’s majestic concept of benevolence toward being in general. Hopkins initiated his personal assault on slavery bolstered by the idea of disinterested benevolence.

Without the influence of Edwards, the Particular Baptist Missionary Society would have had to find another thinker to articulate the difference between natural ability and moral ability. But that would be most unlikely unless it found its way into the circle of Andrew Fuller and company by some way other than that that of Jonathan Edwards’s classic volume A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the modern prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will, which is supposed to be essential to Moral Agency, Vertue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame. Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, Jr., John Sutcliff, Samuel Pearce, and William Carey all read Edwards and found the particular explanation he gave of that distinction the very key for the escaping of hyper-Calvinism. Fuller wrote, “In them I found familiar and faithful brethren; and who, partly by reflection, and partly by reading the writings of Edwards, Bellamy, Brainerd, & c. had begun to doubt of the system of False Calvinism to which they had been inclined when they first entered on the ministry, or rather to be decided against it” (56, Memoir). Edwards closed his discussion on this issue by stating, “The thing wanting is not a being able, but a being willing.  There are faculties of mind, and capacity of nature, and everything else, sufficient, but a disposition: nothing is wanting but a will.” Andrew Fuller, in his confession of faith, indicates a saturation with the Edwardsean language and doctrine when he stated, “Men are now born and grow up with a vile propensity to moral evil, and that herein lies their inability to keep God’s law, and as such it is a moral and a criminal inability. Were they of a right disposition of mind there is nothing now in the law of God but what they could perform; but being wholly under the dominion of sin they have no heart remaining for God, but are full of wicked aversion to him.  . . .  I believe the inability of men to spiritual things to be wholly of the moral, and therefore of the criminal kind, and that it is their duty to love the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in him for salvation though they do not” ( 102, 106, Memoir). From this idea, combined with an Edwardsean eschatological hope and call to prayer, also arose William Carey’s An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. Whatever Edwards’s faults might have been, this grace we can embrace, even as Fuller did. The connections to the rise of missions among Baptists in America are too obvious to need explanation presently.

Without the influence of Edwards, the American evangelical theology of revival would have had to find another thinker for its most profound development. But that would be unlikely, for the most profound and analytical observer as well as participant of that phenomenon known as the First Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards. Virtually all attempts to present a theology of revival and a critical recitation of its manifestation is a response to Edwards’s writing on this subject. His scientific observations of the conversions in Northampton in 1734-1736 led to his A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton. In section two, Edwards made some careful but biblically and experientially grounded adjustments to the prevailing preparationism of New England Puritanism. “The manner of conversion various, yet bearing a great analogy” pointed to the multiplicity of ways—doctrines, Scripture verses, fears, joys, awareness of love, awareness of wrath, awareness of sovereignty, melting views of the humiliation of Christ—that constituted the convictions of sin leading to conversion. Given this diversity, the end result showed a unity in ultimate experience and convictions. Edwards described “a new sense of things, new apprehensions and views of God” and “a new kind of inward labour and struggle of soul towards heaven and holiness.” In 1741, after a second wave of awakening swept through New England and the middle colonies, Edwards wrote the Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, a specific application of 1 John 4:1-11. He wanted again to affirm the reality of this great spiritual movement while helping its subjects develop discernment concerning the true from the false. He isolated five marks from the text. This work then was extended the next year in Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival (1742), giving warnings in both directions. Those who oppose should beware lest they sin against the Spirit; those who support should beware lest they approve what is false. Arising from these and the careful analytical method he developed concerning the discernment of spiritual experience in its relation to biblical truth, Edwards wrote A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746). Edwards began, “There is no question whatsoever, that is of greater importance to mankind, and that it more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this, what are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards?” He expanded the marks from five to twelve. Even if students and other Christians were told to lay aside Edwards and pay no more attention to him, the task of extricating his thought from the history and theory of revival would pose an impossibility, the attempt at which would provide one of the greatest comedy acts of the century.

Would we want to look at preaching in America without the sermons of Jonathan Edwards? Four outstanding characteristics irreplaceably endear his sermons to the homiletical history of America. One, there is no more elegant prose and striking images in the English language than those that saturate the published sermons of Edwards. Read The Excellency of Christ and consider if ever anything more beautiful in diction, simple in explanation, coherent in presentation, gripping in imagery, and important in subject matter has graced the English language. Read (perhaps again) Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and consider if analogy and image were ever more striking and indelibly and fittingly applied to vital truth than appears there. Two, for extended and pertinence of application arising from the demands of doctrine, what surpasses an Edwards sermon? His application is not trivial, nor governed by merely passing insecurities. His manner of re-enforcing the doctrine of the text awakens the soul to needs it might never have perceived apart from the profundity of Edwards’s Informing and probing the conscience with truth. Three, in what corpus of sermons would you find more scintillating, confessionally grounded, exegetically supported, and canonically integrated doctrine. Sermons entitled “Justification by Faith,” “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption,” “The Wicked Useful in Their Destruction Only,” and “Unbelievers Condemn the Glory and Excellency of Christ” provide a course of study combining systematic and experimental theology seamlessly. Four, the evangelistic intensity of his sermons arising from an overwhelming display of truth serves as a model of the necessity of evangelistic appeal and how to tie it to the sermonic doctrine. I close with a portion of the evangelistic appeal from Edwards’s “the Unreasonableness of Indetermination in Religion.”

Examine yourselves therefore by this: Are not your hearts chiefly set upon the world and the things of it? Is it not more your concern, care, and endeavor to further your outward interest, than to secure an interest in heaven? And is not this the very reason that you have never seen the reality of eternal things? . . . If you refuse to come to a determination whether to be Christian or not, how just will it be, if God shall give you no further opportunity? If you refuse to make any choice at all—after all that hath been done to bring you to it, is setting life and death so often before you, in calling and warning you, how just will it be, if God shall wait no longer upon you; but shall, by his unalterable sentence, determine the case himself, and fix your state with the unbelievers, and teach you the truth and eligibleness of religion, by sad and fatal experience, when it will be too late for you to choose your portion.

Given the hypothetical option to bid farewell to Edwards, what could be done? First, it would be impossible. Second, we should not want to. I know that I do not want to.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts

Get a Free Book!

Get a FREE COPY of Luke Griffo’s The Beauty of the Binary when you support Founders by becoming a Founders Alliance Member during the month of June!