Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758:

An Appraisal on the Tercentenary of His Birth

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Last winter, I was asked to compose an article in honor of the tercentenary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards, October 5, 1703. That essay will appear in The Outlook ('unofficial' house organ of the United Reformed Church) for October 2003. It contains a biographical overview of the life of President Edwards interlaced with excerpts from his writings. The present comments are an attempt to reflect on the assessment of Edwards by scholars since his death. In the nature of the case, the survey is cursory, but I trust, not myopic. I have attempted to consider most of the points of view from which Edwards has fascinated his advocates as well as his detractors. This remarkable Calvinist is both bane and blessing, depending on your perspective. Presuppositions do indeed play a part in the evaluation of the non-presuppositional genius of Northampton—one either loves him or hates him. Would that all would actually read the primary documents (ad fontes), at least at first glance, without bias, prejudice, or presupposition. In other words, would that Edwards would be permitted to speak for himself—for that would be the most equitable, the most just, the most charitable, the most objective approach to a man whose intellect, not to mention whose heart, continues to be light years ahead of most of his 'students'.

The works of Jonathan Edwards "in another generation will pass into as transient notice perhaps scarce above oblivion and when posterity occasionally comes across them in the rubbish of libraries, the rare characters who may read and be pleased with them will be looked upon as singular and whimsical"—Ezra Stiles, President of Yale College in a comment dated 1789.

Edwards's legacy has by no means been uncontroverted. If Charles Chauncy (1705-1787) was unhappy with Edwards's brand of Calvinism in the 18th century, we should not be surprised at Allen Guelzo's critique in our own century. The reaction to Edwards is a love-hate paradigm. He is regarded as the superlative Calvinist (a la John H. Gerstner [1914-1996]); or he is denigrated as the father of Charles Finney's (1792-1875) Pelagianism (a la Allen Guelzo). Is it the brilliance of the seer of Northampton? Are his detractors in fact jealous of his soaring intellect, hence reduced to hurling slanders like spitballs at the colossus who refuses to crumble? Are these Reformed critics of Edwards so unlearned themselves that they cannot penetrate the Calvinism of Edwards on account of their own defective view of 17th century Reformed scholasticism and Edwards's profound development thereof?

Whatever the reason, whether his God-given intellect (so far beyond what frequently passes for Reformed theology in our day), his precision (which remains a dirty word in contemporary Reformed circles—remember! We live in an era of cultural accommodation in Reformed churches), his sweet blend of mind and heart—a rational mind informing a reasonable heart ('rational'—another dirty word in some contemporary Reformed circles)—Edwards towers over Calvinists past and present while striking sparks of agreement and violent disagreement.

I would like to survey the interpretation of Edwards from the 18th century to the present so as to acquaint the reader with some of the issues and players in the discussion. What follows is a genetic history of Edwardseanism; or a brief historiography of the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

We begin with his students. Joseph Bellamy (1719-1790) arrived at the Edwards home in 1738; Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803) followed in 1741-42. When Edwards died in 1758, Bellamy and Hopkins began to promote their version of Edwardseanism. Calling themselves 'Consistent Calvinists', they claimed the mantle of this American Elijah (as Gilbert Tennent eulogized Edwards). Their advances upon Edwards's system are variously described. I have chosen the analysis of B. B. Warfield who notes these three points: the governmental view of the atonement of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) is advanced over the penal-satisfaction view; mediate over against immediate imputation of original sin which then leads to sin being considered as a voluntary and personal act unrelated to Adam's original act; application of Edwards's distinction between natural and moral ability to the unregenerate—that is, natural ability defines the capacity of the unregenerate to perform the requirements of the divine will. Edwards himself would have recognized these as deviations from his own pristine orthodoxy. Edwards defended the satisfaction view of the atonement (see especially his sermon on Luke 22:44, "Christ's Agony in Gethsemane"—Works [1854 reprint of the Worcester edition] 2:866-77). Edwards defended immediate imputation of original sin though his language sounds immediate (cf. John Murray's discussion in The Imputation of Adam's Sin and Clyde Holbrook, "Preface," to the Yale edition of Edwards's Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin). Edwards's distinction between natural and moral ability will become clear as one reads his greatest work, The Freedom of the Will; in no sense can his definition of these terms be diverted to Pelagian 'ability'.

The critics of Bellamy and Hopkins's 'Consistent Calvinism' labeled their system the 'New Divinity'. By the end of the 18th century, the battle was on to determine who wore the genuine Edwardsean mantle—Edwards himself or his students.

In 1850, Edwards Amasa Park (1808-1900), Professor of Christian Theology (and later President) of Andover Theological Seminary, Andover, Massachusetts, delivered an address entitled "The Theology of the Intellect and that of the Feelings."1 Park lamented the bitter dogmatism of conservative evangelicals and suggested that godly feelings were more important to Protestant unity than dogma. How much of his esteemed mentor's (Yale's Nathaniel William Taylor) liberalism was behind this is debatable, but Park advanced a second thesis in a 50-page paper which clearly showed his colors. In his essay "New England Theology," Park claimed that Bellamy and Hopkins and others of the New Divinity men were the true Edwardseans. Park did not hesitate to claim that even Calvin and Augustine would have defended the post-Edwardseans.2 Without doubt, Park wanted the mantle of Edwards for the New Divinity men and for Andover.

All this was too much for Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Hodge rushed to the defense of President Edwards whose grave lay but a few blocks from Hodge's home in Princeton, New Jersey. A theology of feelings for Hodge was too too reminiscent of what he had heard from the mouth of Friedrich Schleiermacher while he studied in Berlin and other parts of Germany from 1826 to 1828. Hodge argued that Edwards was an historic Calvinist unaffected by the modifications of his students, let alone post-Enlightenment reductions to the moral sense. For Hodge, the mantle of Jonathan Edwards hung in the hallowed halls of Old Princeton and her numerous sons and disciples. Laying down the gauntlet to Park, Hodge wrote that the insuperable obstacle to the theories of the Andover professor were "Edwards on the Will, Edwards on the Affections and Edwards on Original Sin" (Charles Hodge, Essays and Reviews, 1st Series, [New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857] 624).3 In other words, Hodge appealed to the testimony of primary sources. In short, according to Hodge, the claimants of the New Divinity to carry on the banner of President Edwards ran afoul of Edwards himself ad fontes. Hodge and Old Princeton defended the determinate nature of the will, the love of Christ as the central religious affection, the reckoning of Adamic transgression to all his posterity. There was nothing new, modified or innovative about these doctrines. They were simply the doctrines of historic Augustinianism-Calvinism—and they were found in the doctrine of Jonathan Edwards. As recently as 2001, the noted student of colonial American culture, Bruce Kuklick of the University of Pennsylvania, has written, "I feel that Edwards is a figure closer to Charles Hodge than I had previously thought" (Religion & American Culture 11/1 [Winter 2001]: 116).

George Park Fisher (1827-1909) of Yale and Lyman Hotchkiss Atwater (1813-1883) of Princeton College reprised the argument between New England and Old Princeton over Edwards in 1868 ("The Princeton Review on the Theology of Dr. N. W. Taylor." The New Englander [April 1868]). The date is auspicious; it is the year before the reunion of the Old School and the New School of the northern Presbyterian Church, USA. 1869 was a year of compromise for Charles Hodge who opposed that merger with pen and vote. In fact, he was never reconciled to the healing of the split of 1837 and maintained to his death in 1878 that classic Presbyterian orthodoxy was diluted by the merger with the New School party. The effects of the Old School-New School reunion are still debated (George Marsden, Mark Noll, Lefferts Loetscher, among others have sallied into print on the topic), but this is clear: in 1869, Old School and New School majorities both claimed the mantle of Jonathan Edwards.

George Park Fisher argued (as had Edwards Amasa Park) that the current New England theology, including that of Nathaniel William Taylor (1786-1858), was consistent with the Edwardsean system in the main. Lyman Atwater would have none of this and pointed out that Park's distinction between intellect and feeling was the tip of liberalism, while Nathaniel Taylor was an outright Pelagian ("Professor Fisher on the Princeton Review" Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 40 (1868): 368-98). George P. Fisher was defending his teachers (as students are wont to do—sometimes uncritically) for Park and Taylor had been his mentors prior to assuming the chair of Church History at Yale Divinity School in 1854. While Fisher was progressive and 'liberal' in his Calvinism, he should be remembered positively as an inveterate apologist for supernatural Christianity. Against the downgrade of German rationalism and idealism, Fisher defended historic orthodoxy with respect to miracles and the canon. Fisher admitted that 19th century New England theology was altered from some of Edwards's formulations. But, he maintained, the spirit of the Edwardsean system lived on in his successors. That spirit was, in essence, the spirit of free and open inquiry into the truths of the Bible and Calvinism. Atwater quickly pounced upon this admission—if the spirit of Edwards is free and open inquiry into the truths of Scripture and Calvinism, it will not lead one to embrace the theology of Park or Taylor or even Fisher. Atwater demonstrated conclusively that the line from Edwards ran to Princeton, not Andover, Harvard or Yale.

The next phase of Edwardsean scholarship occurred at the turn of the 20th century. George N. Boardman (1825-1915) of Chicago Theological Seminary published his History of New England Theology in 1899; and Frank Hugh Foster (1851-1935) of Pacific Theological Seminary, Berkeley followed with his important Genetic History of the New England Theology in 1907. Boardman and Foster argued that post-Taylor New England theology was a reversal of Edwards's system. The significance of these two books lies in the fact that they are essentially vindicating the 19th century assessment of the New England theology advanced by Old Princeton. That is to say, Boardman and Foster are both acknowledging that the New England divinity was a departure from Jonathan Edwards's Calvinism. Thus, when B. B. Warfield wrote his famous essay "Edwards and the New England Theology" for Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1912—v. 5:221-27), he could point to even liberal scholarship in defense of Old Princeton's defense of President Edwards.

Warfield's defense of Edwards's Calvinism was irrelevant to the likes of Vernon Parrington (1871-1929)4 and Herbert W. Schneider (1892-1984).5 Edwards and Edwardseanism was hopelessly anachronistic—a retrograde perversion of a pathetic religious system. Early 20th century civilization was glad to have exorcised the demons of Calvinism—Edwardsean and post-Edwardsean. God was a democrat and a scientist—so argued Parrington and Schneider. The only justification for studying Edwards was to thank the fates or 'whate'er gods that be' that modern man had been led out of this provincial desert.

Yet in spite of the efforts of these cognoscenti, the ghost of Jonathan Edwards would not disappear from historical or theological discussions of Colonial America. Like a recurring bad dream, Edwards haunted the academy and the cloister. And Joseph Haroutunian (1904-1968) of the University of Chicago Divinity School and Perry Miller (1905-1963) of Harvard University were captivated by him. Haroutunian published his Piety and Moralism: The Passing of the New England Theology in 1932. With Charles Hodge, Lyman Atwater and B. B. Warfield, he detailed the departure from Edwards's Calvinism in his successors. Notice his title: Piety versus Moralism. Edwards's high-water Calvinism exhibited piety in its best sense; but the New England theology of Taylor, Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) and others was a liberal or progressive reduction of Christianity to moralism—to ethics—to democracy and civility. Haroutunian was a neo-orthodox church historian and because of this he detected classic moralistic liberalism in virtually all of New England theology from the 19th century on. Legalism, moralism, humanism evacuated the atonement of any significant theological content. Rather in 19th century New England, the cross of Christ was a symbol of God's moral government of the universe. The step from the cross as a symbol to Christ as symbol was not difficult for 19th and 20th century New England progressives. And if Jesus as symbol, why not Buddha or Mohammed or Janis Joplin? Haroutunian concluded that "the history of the New England theology is the history of a degradation" of Jonathan Edwards.

Perry Miller, Professor of American Literature at Harvard, more than any other 20th century figure was responsible for the avalanche of contemporary interest in Edwards. Before Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards was a curiosity to an elite band of scholars; after Perry Miller, there was literally a rebirth of interest in the sage of Northampton. From his book The New England Mind (1939) to his biography of Edwards (Jonathan Edwards, 1949) to Errand into the Wilderness (1956), Miller influenced a generation of scholars and graduate students with his own fascination with Jonathan Edwards. I say fascination because Perry Miller was an atheist whose interest in Edwards was historical and cultural. Perhaps Miller's greatest legacy is the Yale edition of Edwards's Works (now reaching to 19 volumes of a projected 27 volume edition)—an edition which is slated to publish all of Edwards's works in hardcopy or CD-ROM, unpublished manuscript material as well as previously published items. Perhaps the most blatant blunder of Miller in his interpretation of Edwards was his suggestion that Jonathan Edwards was an "incipient Arminian". How could Miller make such a ludicrous charge? Because he found Edwards urging men to repent and believe the gospel. For Perry Miller, Calvinists did not urge men and women and children to repent of their sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Such appeals betrayed an activism characteristic of Arminian theology. Ergo, Jonathan Edwards was not a Calvinist in his evangelistic methods—he was an incipient Arminian. Miller demonstrates his ignorance of classic Calvinism on two points in this debate: (1) he does not understand that Calvinistic preaching from Calvin himself on has urged men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel (sounds virtually apostolic, in fact!); (2) he turns a deaf ear to Edwards's own profession of Calvinism. In other words, the greatest native-born American genius (Miller's own estimate of Edwards), self-consciously calls himself a Calvinist (by Miller's own admission), but does not mean what he says, genius though he may be (because Perry Miller equates evangelistic activism with Arminianism). The problem here is not with Jonathan Edwards's Calvinism; the problem here is with Perry Miller's abysmal ignorance of historic Calvinism.

Edmund S. Morgan (1916- ) of Yale and Sidney E. Ahlstrom (1919-1984) also of Yale continued to support the thesis that Edwards was betrayed by his successors. Morgan's reputation lies in several Puritan studies: Visible Saints (1963) and the Puritan Family (1966). Ahlstrom is best known for his Religious History of the American People (1972), in some ways still the standard work on American church history.

Beginning in 1965, a revisionist approach to Edwards began to appear. Rejecting the downgrade interpretation of Edwards and his New Divinity heirs, these scholars began to view Edwards himself as the source of the degenerate Calvinism of the late 18th and 19th century. These new approaches are combining the so-called 'new cultural history' of social and anthropological movements, then re-evaluating all personalities and eras against this revised barometer. The leaders in this new, revisionist study of Edwards and New England theology are: Joseph Conforti, Director of American and New England Studies at the University of Southern Maine; Bruce Kuklick, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania; and Allen Guelzo, Professor of American History at Eastern University. Guelzo is the most important for our discussion.

Guelzo's essay in Pressing Toward the Mark6—as well as his full-length volume Edwards on the Will (1989)—advances the following thesis: that Charles Finney is the logical outcome of Jonathan Edwards. This astounding proposition that Pelagian Finney is a direct theological descendant of Calvinist Edwards is shocking to Edwardseans, particularly Jonathan Edwards himself. It is the Perry Miller syndrome repeated—I know, Jonathan, that you regard yourself as an authentic Calvinist, but let me inform you that I know better—I am the guru and you are the pawn in my academic reputation game. So just remain dead while I rake in my royalties, thank you very much!

Expanding upon this absurdity, Guelzo contends that Edwards subverted covenant theology by abandoning the doctrine of Adamic imputation of original sin,7 that Edwards favored the governmental view of the atonement (though Guelzo cites no primary sources for this allegation), and that because Edwards wrote the "Preface" to Joseph Bellamy's True Religion Delineated (1750) that he therefore endorsed the heterodoxy of Bellamy. Every one of these contentions is based on fantasy, not primary document reality. Edwards's doctrine of original sin was unique, but it was not because his view was non-Augustinian or non-Calvinistic (imputation is part of, i.e., included in, identification or covenantal union with the first Adam for Edwards). Edwards's doctrine of the atonement was the classic satisfaction view or "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was written by someone else. Until Guelzo produces one quotation from Edwards's writings in which Edwards unambiguously affirms the governmental view of the atonement, this charge amounts to slander. Finally, whether Joseph Bellamy is the advocate of heterodoxy is a matter to be decided on the basis of the sources. Edwards's "Preface" is not therefore necessarily an endorsement of all the content of Bellamy's work. No editor (or prefacer) necessarily agrees with everything he publishes (or prefaces). Guelzo has created straw men in order to slam Edwards's system. This is dirty pool and smacks more of scholarly agenda than scholarship!

Social historians will continue to apply their contextual methods to Edwards, Northampton, Stockbridge, even Princeton. But they will not succeed in altering what Edwards preached and wrote. (That last sentence is definitely NOT a post-modernist statement.) In my opinion, what Jonathan Edwards preached and wrote was pristine Calvinism—in some cases, some of the finest exposition of doctrinal Calvinism ever penned. The mind of a genius?—you better believe it!! And those who crab at him, suggest he was a closet Arminian, contend that he is responsible for the ills and ails in later Calvinism are peewits! They couldn't hold Jonathan Edwards's pen, let alone stand in his shoes. This man is a giant—not infallible—but a Reformed giant (as genuine Old Princeton recognized). Read his texts, listen to his words, understand his heart—all of which will drive you to Christ—to the sweet Jesus Christ of Edwardsean Calvinism.

It would be criminal of me to leave this survey without noting the single most appreciative assessment of the theology of Edwards penned in the last one hundred years. My great teacher, John H. Gerstner, spent much of his life studying the works and manuscripts of Jonathan Edwards. From the time his own beloved teacher, Professor John Orr, at Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, stated in class in the hearing of the young Arminian Gerstner "regeneration precedes faith", and Gerstner's hand went up like a shot—"Professor Orr, would you please repeat what you just said?"—to the directive in return from Orr for "Mr. Gerstner" to hunt up the Works of Jonathan Edwards—a directive which turned the young Arminian into a full orbed Calvinist—to the publication of the third and final volume of Gerstner's magnum opus, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (1993; v. 1—1991; v. 2—1992)—no one has devoted more discerning and sympathetic treatment to the life and theology of Jonathan Edwards than John Gerstner. That 3-volume set is rooted in primary sources—is literally a systematic theology by Jonathan Edwards via lengthy extracts from his books and sermons (many available in manuscript form only). No Reformed admirer of Jonathan Edwards can neglect John Gerstner. If you are interested in the unrevised Jonathan Edwards, in Jonathan Edwards as he is himself, then read Gerstner, digest Gerstner, admire Gerstner, appreciate Gerstner who appreciated Jonathan Edwards.


Jonathan Edwards was destined to break beyond the maudlin, the ordinary—Jonathan Edwards was an extraordinary man. Intellectually penetrating, spiritually fervent—even mystical (in the best sense of that word)—personally a servant, a humble servant. A modern Reformed theology captive to the practical, in bondage to the immediately applicable, the topical, the pietistical—such a theology cannot comprehend Jonathan Edwards. For captivity to the practical is ultimately and finally, however unwittingly, so earthly minded it is no heavenly good. Edwards was possessed—possessed as a man possesses his wife and a wife is possessed by her husband—Edwards was ravished with the adoration of God's majesty—an essentially eschatological concept. In his own words, that majesty was "ravishingly lovely". Very few Reformed pastors and theologians talk like that today. Very few are possessed with Edwards's sweet Christ. Tragically, they are possessed with other agendas—allegedly more practical, more applicable, more relevant—more man-centered and earth-bound.

But Edwards is more than a heavenly or eschatologically minded genius. His sense of the lovely majesty of God undergirds his sense of the rational harmony of the cosmos. Revelation for Jonathan Edwards is verified by rational processes because Edwards is a classic or traditional mind—a mind in which faith is reasonable. God reveals himself satisfactory to an apprehending mind—a mind subsequently apprehended by the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit. Herein Edwards stands in a noble Christian and Reformed tradition.

What is it then that bewitches modern Reformed pedants—erstwhile little Edwardseans? Is it the orthodoxy of Edwards? That orthodoxy is anathema in certain circles—Edwards is labeled the height of arrogant autonomy. Is it the penetrating, searching intellect—the mind possessed and held captive to pouring over the Word of God thirteen hours per day? Well, if so, why don't they practice what Edwards preached? They are men of very little imagination, bare, rudimentary learning, unsearching and uninspiring piety—indeed, they demonstrate at times an uncharacteristic totalitarian temperament whereby they impinge the liberty of the Christian man and woman. Why do they not see the open heaven which Edwards saw?

Perhaps what bewitches modern Reformed fans of Edwards is the revivalist success. Large crowds coming to hear him and his allies in the Awakening. Do these moderns see Edwards involved in what they lust after—mighty movements of the Spirit—even while they realize their own preaching is dull, morose, sophomoric, uninformed—insulting to those who seek the ethereal regions of the glorified Lord Jesus?

The enigma of Jonathan Edwards is that he must be owned by both modern intellectuals and modern evangelicals. But while they may lionize his intellect or his orthodoxy, they do not comprehend the man. No, not his brain, not his "right doctrine", not his revivalist successes—but the Christ of Edwards and the Edwards possessed by Christ. For sinners in the hands of a just God, no other than Christ can turn away the eschatological wrath to come. Edwards will have nothing but Christ, no half-way measures of halting between truth and error—Calvinism and Arminianism. He believes the righteousness of Christ is the sole ground of justification and preaches that to his congregation though they throw him out. And the experiences of grace, the sense of grace does not turn a man or a woman or a child into a tyrant—it melts them into a servant—a vessel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a taste of the sweetness of Christ's love that alters and transforms them. The Father's love is the fuel of a passion for the Mediator of the covenant of grace.

No—Jonathan Edwards cannot be used—used by those who have not been ravished with the love of Christ as he was. Nor can he be used by those who want to clobber their congregations with guilt and shame and a sense of failure. Nor can Jonathan Edwards be the inspiration for a church growth model which so denatures the gospel that there is nothing but a sugar daddy left. Jonathan Edwards cannot be used by any of the forces of modernity which see in him a kindred spirit for their own agendas. Jonathan Edwards's agenda is Christ—and modernity does not comprehend him—the Lord of Glory!

Northwest Theological Seminary

Lynnwood, Washington


1 The full title is The Theology of the Intellect and that of the Feelings. A Discourse before the Convention of the Congregational Ministers of New England, in Brattle-street Meeting House, Boston, May 30th, 1850.

2 Edwards A. Park, "New England Theology; With Comments on a Third Article in the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, Relating to a Convention Sermon." Bibliotheca Sacra 9 (1852): 170-220.

3 Hodge's three-fold critique is reprinted here as a series of essays entitled "The Theology of the Intellect and that of the Feelings" (Oct. 1850, April 1851 and Oct. 1851 numbers of the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review).

4 Main Currents in American Thought (1927).

5 The Puritan Mind (1930).

6 "Jonathan Edwards and the New Divinity, 1758-1858," in Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, ed. by Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986) 147-67.

7 See Carl W. Bogue, Jonathan Edwards and the Covenant of Grace [1975] for an implicit response to this nonsense.