Jonathan Edwards on the Beauty and Wrath of God: A Brief Overview (Update)
J. I. Packer refers to Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) as “colonial America’s greatest theologian and philosopher;” one might argue that Edwards was the greatest theologian whoever graced the many pages of American religious history. Packer further notes that “as a bible-lover, a Calvinist, a teacher of heart-religion, a gospel preacher of unction and power, and above all, a man who loved Christ, hated sin, and feared God, Edwards was a pure Puritan; indeed, one of the greatest and purest of all the Puritans.” Packer rightly notes that this Puritan was “born out of due time.” As with Lincoln, so with Edwards: in Lincoln’s case, in revitalizing the democratic legacy of 1776, in Edwards’ case, in reawakening the Puritan religious vision for a new generation that came to a crescendo in the breakout of the First Great Awakening, which continued to characterize his ministry and writings until his death in the late 1850s.
The Puritan impulse emerged as a reform initiative within the Church of England. It transmuted into an independent religious movement in the embrace of the fundamentals of the Protestant Reformation: the sovereignty of God, justification of faith, and the centrality of the personal interpretation of the Bible through the power and light of the Holy Spirit. Puritans also believed “that man existed for the glory of God, that their first concern in life was to do God's will and so to receive future happiness. They believed that Jesus Christ was the center of public and personal affairs, and was to be exalted above all other names” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puritans. Edwards stressed all of these themes.
The English Puritan movement of the late 16th and early 17th centuries brought great vitality to the Christian faith through the writings of Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, John Owen and other luminaries; writers whose work on faith, theology, and the power of the written and spoken biblical word deserve close study among contemporary evangelicals. The Puritan movement was brought to New England in the early 17th century with Boston serving as the epicenter—“the city on a hill”—with high hopes that through its “errand into the wilderness,” New England would become transformed into the New Israel where the Protestant Reformation would reach its pristine goal that would ultimately lead world conversion. This vision of ultimate global conversion was central in Edwards’ world view.
New England Puritanism reached its high water mark in the first two generations, particularly the first, say by 1660, but gradually declined through the first decades of the 18th century in a transition that one historian captured in his book titled From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765. It is in this milieu that Jonathan Edwards burst on the scene in North Hampton, MA, as the key theologian of the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, a conversion-based revitalization movement that brought radical faith once again to the center of cultural and religious focus throughout New England and the northern colonies. It is in this setting that Edwards preached his classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where he stressed the fear of God in the classic sense. In this sermon he offered the following dire warning to those who have backslid or never accepted the faith once for all delivered to the saints:
It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite. Oh, who can express what the state of a soul in such circumstances is! All that we can possibly say about it, gives but a very feeble, faint representation of it; it is inexpressible and inconceivable: For “who knows the power of God's anger?”
As important as is this sermon in the Edwards canon, it captures only one essential aspect of his religious vision, the righteousness of God expressed through his heightened wrath and the need strive toward a life of radical holiness, without which one is in the most acute danger of being utterly lost in terms of enjoying a right relationship to the living God.
There is also an aesthetic sense underlying Edward’s religious vision in its focus on God’s beauty that is captured in another of his sermons, “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Parted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.” As Edwards presents the vision:
There is a divine and superlative glory in these things [the revelation of the living presence of God to the individual conscience]; an excellency that is of a vastly higher kind, and more sublime nature than in other things; a glory greatly distinguishing them from all that is earthly and temporal. He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing, but there is a sense of the loveliness of God's holiness. There is not only a speculatively judging that God is gracious, but a sense how amiable God is upon that account, or a sense of the beauty of this divine attribute.
There is a great deal packed in here which goes to the essence of Edwards’ religious vision, in which his love, exhibiting itself as true beauty, infuses the world at its most fundamental essence, a beauty that is marred, even disfigured, but not destroyed by sin, in which it is not possible for “those whose minds are full of spiritual pollution, and under the power of filthy lusts [to] have any relish or sense of divine beauty or excellency; or that their minds should be susceptive of that light that is in its own nature so pure and heavenly.”
It is the tension between these dynamics (the unsurpassable beauty of God and the gross destruction of sin) that underlies all of his major texts, notably Treatise on Religious Affections, Freedom and the Will, The Great Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, The End for Which God Created the World, and The Nature of True Virtue.
Packer’s summary statement is worth noting: “Edwards has been described as God-, God- , God , and God- , and so indeed he was. There is no overstatement here. Every day, from morning till night, he sought to live in conscious communion with God, whether walking, riding, studying on his own, or relaxing in the bosom of his large and, it seems, happy and often extended family. He was not a mystic in the sense of seeking Goddrenched states of soul that leave rationality behind; on the contrary, it was precisely through deep and clear thoughts that God warmed and thrilled his heart.”
For Edwards, the beauty and awesome fear of God were mutually entwined in a way that lent an intensity of passion to the revelation of God in Christ in the very midst of reconciling the world. When taken as a whole, his theological reflections and devotional commitments were grounded in his aspirational vision to realize the kingdom of God in this life as an ever present and most fundamental reality, notwithstanding the ever present gap between the reach and the attainment in this life.