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Jonathan Edwards: Christian History Timeline - Passing the Torch
The claimers and reclaimers of Jonathan Edwards
While Jonathan Edwards's intellectual agenda dominated America's formal religious thought until the mid-nineteenth century, his renovation of Calvinism and his writings on revival have continued to be read, debated, contested, and admired. He remains one of the few American theologians who has always been read intensely in the U.K. and other far-flung parts of the Christian world.
"New Divinity" was originally a term of reproof denoting the supposedly unwarranted innovations of Edwards's students and closest professional friends. Chief among these first-generation Edwards interpreters were Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins. Bellamy's True Religion Delineated (1750) and Hopkins's System of Doctrine (1793) extended Edwards's teachings on, respectively, the nature of genuine godliness and the interaction of divine and human motives in redemption. But they modified Edwards. Bellamy made God's character as lawgiver central. Hopkins refocused Edwards's main ethical principle ("love to Being in General") from God to earthly usefulness. Hopkins's phrase was "disinterested benevolence"; it meant selfless, universal charity. For Hopkins sinfulness should not be viewed as residing in human character, but rather in sinful actions.
The next generation of students made more adjustments. Jonathan Edwards, Jr., who studied with Bellamy and Hopkins, defended a "governmental" view of the atonement, in which the work of Christ restored balance in God's justice rather than placating the divine wrath. Nathanael Emmons was known as an "exercise" theologian, because, although he exalted God as the absolute determiner of all events (as had Edwards), he reduced human morality to what humans did. By contrast, Asa Burton argued that actions did proceed from an underlying "nature" or "heart" ("taste") oriented for or against God.
Overlapping this generation were some leading theological educators. Founders of Andover Seminary (1808) like Jedidiah Morse wanted to revive Edwards's orthodox Calvinism. Later professors at Andover, especially Edwards Amasa Park, were eager to track and defend what they considered the proper interpretation of Edwards. By contrast, the founders of Connecticut's East Windsor Seminary, Asahel Nettleton and Bennet Tyler, were more concerned with evangelism.
The most accomplished nineteenth-century theologians who viewed themselves as followers of Edwards were a president of Yale College, Timothy Dwight, and his two most famous students, Nathaniel William Taylor, a strong proponent of revival and the first theological professor at the Yale Divinity School, and Lyman Beecher, an energetic revivalist and social reformer. Taylor in particular combined, as Edwards had, an ability to reason metaphysically about human nature in subtle philosophical terms and a deep commitment to evangelism and church renewal. They modified Edwards considerably, especially by defending a modern concept of freedom (the power to choose among potential actions) as opposed to the view that Edwards upheld (the power to do what you have chosen to do—but only in consistency with your character).
Second Great Awakening
Edwards's greatest impact on the public came as leader and chronicler of the American colonies' first great revivals. Eager to preach for conversion, willing to try new methods for revival, and clearly dependent upon the power of God to change lives, Edwards remained a steady inspiration to the leaders of "the Second Great Awakening" of the early nineteenth century. Congregationalists like pastor Benjamin Trumbull and historian Joseph Tracy, no less than Presbyterian theologian of revival William Sprague, found inspiration in Edwards. The most important nineteenth-century revivalist, Charles G. Finney, made no secret of both how little he regarded Edwards's formal theology and how much he admired Edwards's evangelistic work.
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