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.

As Edwards defended the religion of the heart, however, he warned against two major errors that have plagued the pietist-evangelical-revivalist tradition even more in our day than in his. First, Edwards cautioned against sheer emotionalism. He recognized that revivalists might simply excite the emotions and thus counterfeit genuine conversions. High emotions were neither clear evidence of genuine religion nor of the lack of it. Rather, in his great treatise on Religious Affections Edwards carefully mapped out biblical tests for genuine religious experience. These tests included a focus on God’s gracious work, doctrines consistent with biblical revelations, and a life marked by the fruits of the Spirit.

In the course of delineating the biblical standards for genuine Christian experience, Edwards emphasized another lesson much needed in our day. He pointed out the mistake, so common today, of making human nature and human psychology the primary focus of theological analysis, or even sometimes the object of worship. This trend had already begun in Edwards’ day, shifting theological analysis from looking at God to looking at human responses to God. Today this tendency has many manifestations in evangelicalism, both in theologies that celebrate the self and self-fulfillment, and in testimony meetings where the emphasis may subtly shift from God’s grace to congratulating oneself on one’s own remarkable experiences.

Edwards’ theology would allow none of that. He always made crystal clear that God is the central focus in human religious experience. Edwards’ stress on God’s sovereignty was far from a static doctrine. Edwards’ conception of God centered around God’s love. God’s very purpose in creating the universe was to express his love, to communicate himself to his creatures, to display to them his glory and his beauty. Thus the essence of true religious experience is to be overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God, to be drawn to the glory of his perfections, to sense his irresistible love. This experience of being spiritually ravished by God’s beauty, glory and love is something like being overwhelmed by the beauty of a great work of art or music. We can be so enthralled by such beauty that we lose consciousness of our self and self-interests and become absorbed in the magnificent object. So also we might be drawn out of ourselves by the power of the beauty of a truly loveable person. God’s sovereign grace works this way. Our hearts are changed by his irresistible power; but this power is not exercised as an alien mechanical force over our wills. Rather, when our eyes are opened so that we are literally captivated by the beauty, glory, and love of God, when we see this love, manifested most powerfully in the beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love for the undeserving, we are gladly forced to abandon love of self as the central principle in our lives and to turn to the love of God.

Edwards describes our side of this regenerating experience as like being given a sixth sense—a sense of the beauty, glory, and love of God. The Bible, he points out, often speaks in a similar way. “Hence the work of the Spirit of God in regeneration is often in Scripture compared to the giving of a new sense, giving eyes to see, and ears to hear, unstopping the ears of the deaf, and opening the eyes of them that were born blind, and turning from darkness unto light.” So the knowledge of God in true Christian experience will be sensible knowledge. It will differ from mere speculative knowledge in the same way that the taste of honey differs from the mere understanding that honey is sweet. True Christian experience then, is built not just on knowing and affirming true Christian doctrines, as important as those doctrines may be. It is affective knowledge, or a sense of the truths the doctrines describe. The Christian, says Edwards in a characteristic statement, “does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.”

Christian Experience in the Scientific Technological Age

Edwards’ analysis of truly God-centered Christian experience in our age of recurrent revivals has its counterpart in his response to another great force shaping our world today—the scientific revolution. Broadly considered, the scientific-technological revolution has changed the way that most modern people think about things, even in much of their everyday experience. The scientific method, highly appropriate to the laboratory, has become the model for the conduct of most of our business and even leisure activities. This model involves, most basically, the attempt to objectify reality. We attempt to eliminate extraneous and distracting subjective and emotional considerations from our important activities. In business and technology our civilization is largely shaped by the irrepressible quest to find the most rational and efficient way to get things done. Rationality and efficiency are typically enhanced if we objectify things rather than personify them. So businesses and governments deal with people most efficiently as abstract numbers.

We modern people easily slip into thinking of our fellow humans as objects, consumers, contributors, numbers to add to our rolls, and so forth. Similarly, we are used to objectifying nature, looking on it as merely something to be used for our technological purposes. The ecology crisis of recent years witnesses to the results of this objectified view of nature as just an extension of our technological systems.

Few of the specific implications of these trends were apparent in Edwards’ day. But the first principles out of which the modern world grew were already present. Eighteenth-century philosophers were clearing the way for the objectification of reality by moving their conceptions of God further away from his creation. God might have been, as the Deists of the day said, a sort of great watchmaker in the sky, long ago building the machinery of the universe that today runs by itself according to natural laws discoverable by science. Such eighteenth-century thinkers had, in effect, retired the creator, rather than denying him. The God of the modern age would not interfere with the really important analyses of reality.

Edwards saw clearly the implications of this revolutionary view of things and insisted in response that God must be on center stage in our entire view of reality, our world view. God’s essence is love, which for Edwards (as we have seen) meant that God is constantly communicating his character, beauty, love, and glory to his creatures. God then is not simply the creator, long ago and far away, but is every moment intimately involved in sustaining the creation and speaking through it. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth forth his handiwork,” (Psalm 19:1). God thus has a relationship to his creation something like our relationship to our words. God is quite distinct from the creation, yet the creation has a definite personal quality. It is part of God’s own language through which he expresses his goodness and glory to his creatures. Through this divine “light,” as Scripture often refers to God’s glory, all nature is filled with life, beauty, and joy. Regenerate persons are given eyes to see this light of God’s glory and goodness.

Having such a sense of the closeness of God to his creation would not mean that modern Christians would have to abandon scientific-technological pursuits or scientific techniques in the conduct of their businesses and lives. But it would sensitize them to seeing that these objectified ways of dealing with reality, although extremely useful for limited purposes, are artificial and misleading. They are limited methodologies; not at all descriptions of the way reality actually is. With such sensitivities Christians would be constantly reminding themselves, and indeed sensing, that none of our activities can be separated from their spiritual dimensions. We would see that nature is not just an object for our technological exploitation. Rather, even as we use and manage it, we would constantly sense that it is an expression of God’s love and beauty to be valued because of that relationship. We would also look at our fellow humans, not as objects to be manipulated by our marketing or propaganda techniques, but creations of God. Though the cosmos is fallen, and humanity is corrupt and blind, still the light of God’s glory shines through all his creation, if only we have the eyes to see it.

Moreover, if our hearts are changed by God’s love, so must our actions be changed. If we are transformed by seeing the beauty of the love of God, then we shall especially love every act of virtue that reflects God’s loving character. If we are overwhelmed by sensing the light of the glory of God, then we shall see that glory reflected in all of his creation and hence love that which he has created. Although we are far from perfectly transformed in this life, it is only by such a radical expansion of our affections, from our inborn self love, to love of all being because it reflects God’s glory, that we can attain true selfless virtue.

Christ’s own gracious love to us epitomizes such love for all creation, even love for rebellious humanity. If we are spiritually enthralled by such grace, then we can resist the otherwise irresistible power of our self-love. Then our changed hearts will love especially to do the selfless love that reflects God’s love. Our own lives can thus reflect that glorious loving light of the world that can illumine and transform even the drab landscapes and worldviews of our scientific-technological civilization.

Edwards’ message is more than relevant today. It is essential.

George M. Marsden is professor of history at Calvin College. He is the author of Fundamentalism and American Culture, 1875–1925 and an editor of Eerdmans' Handbook to Christianity in America