Christian History Home > Issue 8 > Jonathan Edwards Speaks to Our Technological Age
Jonathan Edwards Speaks to Our Technological Age
How is Jonathan Edwards relevant today? Is he a distant hero, an evangelist, theologian, saint whom we can admire only from afar? Has the passing of time and changes in religious style put insurmountable barriers between us and him? Do we no longer have access to his keen insights except as impressive historical curiosities?
To the contrary, Edwards has a great deal to say to the contemporary world. Not only does he present powerfully the historic doctrines of the Christian faith; but he presents them with insights that specifically address some major tendencies of modern times.
Edwards lived near the beginning of our modern era. He faced the emergence of two of the major trends that have shaped the style of both our Christianity and our culture. These trends were revivalism and the scientific revolution. Because these trends were new in Edwards’ day, he could see more clearly than we do how they were changing people’s conceptions of the world and especially changing their perceptions of God’s relationship to themselves and to the world.
True Christian Experience in the Age of Revivals
We can look first at Edwards’ insight into the character of true Christian experience. The revival to which Edwards himself contributed in New England was part of a wider pietist revival. Pietism emerged in Germany in the later 1600s, spread to other countries through missionary efforts of groups such as the Moravians, and merged with renewal impulses throughout the Protestant world. In Edwards’ day, these forces converged to produce a great revival in the English-speaking world, manifested in the Great Awakening in America, John Wesley’s Methodism in England, and George Whitefield’s work connecting the English and American awakenings. The thrust of Pietism was to re-emphasize the importance of personal religious experience and active commitment evidenced in the Christian life and works. Such emphases, as expressed by various evangelists, could take many forms. The question for Edwards and other New England Calvinists was whether the revival emphases were faithful to the essentials of Reformation theology.
Having been blessed by “surprising conversions” in his own parish, Edwards was a defender of the revival and certainly of personal religious commitment. These he correctly saw as essential to New England’s own Puritan tradition. Nonetheless, he was sensitive to the critics of the Awakening who claimed that the revivalists were irresponsibly manipulating people’s emotions and thus producing counterfeit or superficial religious experiences. This accusation became all the more plausible when, after Whitefield’s famous tour of America in 1739–40, he was followed by imitators who used crowd-rousing techniques that really did seem to produce more emotional heat than spiritual light. Edwards, a defender of revivalism, was thus confronted with one of the major questions that has faced modern evangelicalism ever since. What is the proper place of emotion in Christian commitment?
Edwards answered by pointing out that central to our genuine religious experiences are our affections. By affections he meant our dispositions or loves that incline or disincline toward things. “The holy Scriptures,” Edwards observed, “do everywhere place religion very much in the affections; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal.” Edwards thus defended religion of the heart as opposed to those critics of the revivals who condemned emotionalism to the point of leaving themselves with only a religion of the head, a Christianity that amounted only to believing right doctrines and maintaining proper morals.
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