Sunday, December 7, 2014

Jonathan Edwards: Excellence in Proclamation

by Michael R. Burgos Jr.

M. A. Noll has described him as “America’s greatest evangelical theologian, and perhaps the greatest of any variety.”[1] Stephen Lawson has called Edwards, “A towering figure of enduring importance…[he] remains a trusted voice that speaks to the present day church with authority and gravity.”[2] Even some 256 years after his death, his works remain widely studied both academically and devotionally.

Edwards was educated at the newly established Yale College, and he began his call at the Congregational Church at Northampton, Massachusetts. The academic rigor he exhibited under formal study paled in comparison to that which he accomplished while serving in the pastorate. Edwards is said to have “commonly spent thirteen hours, every day, in his study.”[3] There he consumed the Scriptures with an unbridled thirst. “Edwards maintained daily set times for prayer, when it was probably his custom to speak aloud.”[4] He viewed the study of Scripture and prayer as a divinely appointed means of survival. In what is nothing less than a classic example of his preaching he stated, 
“The neglect of the duty of prayer seems to be inconsistent with supreme love to God also upon another account, and that is, that it is against the will of God so plainly revealed.—True love to God seeks to please him in everything, and universally to conform to his will.”[5]
For Edwards, there was not a separation between that which he studied and that which he lived. He was a Calvinist, and as such he viewed the pulpit as the place in which he was charged to extol the excellences of Christ that he fed upon in his personal study. Murray has noted,
“His view of his public work as a calling to speak to men in the name of God was inseparable from his conviction that the first demand in such a calling was that his own knowledge of God should be personal and first-hand. He knew that the command of Christ that men should be evangelized could not be fulfilled without obedience to another command, ‘When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door to pray unto thy Father which is in secret.’”[6]
Hence, for Edwards the proclamation of the Word of God was both duty and devotion; a divinely given charge and a delight-some endeavor to drink deeply of the joy found in Christ. 

To understand what marks Edwards as communicator par excellence, one must begin at the depth to which he pursued joy in Christ. His Religious Affections is an even handed biblical exposition joined with a relentlessly logical appeal to the praxis of the contents therein. In this volume he explicates his motivations:
“God is the highest good of the reasonable creature; and the enjoyment of him is the onlyhappiness with which our souls can be satisfied.—To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean.—Therefore it becomes us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven, as it becomes us to make the seeking of our highest end and proper good, the whole work of our lives; to which we should subordinate all other concerns of life. Why should we labour for, or set our hearts on, anything else, but that which is our proper end, and true happiness?”[7]
Truly, for Edwards, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”[8]
It is in this light that the rhetoric of Edwards can be mediated. In speaking of his preaching one could say without appeal to cliché, “He preached his heart out,” because the content of his preaching was heartfelt. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”[9] His religion was a potent combination of high theology and the experiential faith that places men under the Lordship of Christ- and it was this religion of which he spoke and wrote. 

It was during the ministry of Edwards in which what has come to be known as “The Great Awakening,” took place. This revival was said to have begun in 1734 at the heels of two sermons Edward’s delivered on the topic of justification. This movement was marked by the reformation and conversion of many. In conjunction with the work of Edwards, George Whitfield was stateside furthering the movement by his own remarkable preaching. The Awakening has been aptly attributed to both of these men whose preaching styles, although different, were qualitatively the same. Murray has remarked regarding the revival that Edwards “put a match to the fuse, and Whitfield blew it into flame.”[10]

Some have argued that Edward’s preaching style was unremarkable. His sermons were written in a small and nearly illegible script which required him to often lift his manuscript close to his eyes.[11] However, there are numerous reasons to reject the above as normative. First, Edward’s had sat under the tutelage of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard was an excellent preacher in his own right, and “had spoken forcefully in print against ‘reading’ preachers.”[12] Second, Edwards view preaching as proclamation, and thus he observed the necessity of the human instrument in the delivery of the message.[13] Third, Edwards did not always preach from a written manuscript, especially in his later years.

Rather than a wrote affair, Edward’s preaching was a sober endeavor. It did not afford the charismatic body language of the enthusiast, nor the angry exaggerated behavior supposed by some. In reality, Edwards was a careful speaker whose lack of expression communicated the seriousness intrinsic to the office of pastor.[14] Murray has noted that Edwards, “aimed to avoid a ‘sad tone’ and the ‘very ridiculous whining tone’ which he heard from some men. He made little motion with his head or hands.”[15]

The power of Edward’s rhetoric was in its content. “He handled concepts as scrupulously and precisely as a banker handles currency.”[16] He relied upon a steady stream of word pictures and vivid imagery that he mined from the text of Scripture. Surely “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” is the seminal example of the kind of imagery Edwards employed. This sermon, based upon Deuteronomy 32:35, which states, “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.’ Of this text Edward preached an unflinching account of the reality of the rebellious. For example:
“Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they won’t bear their weight, and these places are not seen. The arrows of death fly unseen at noonday; the sharpest sight can’t discern them.”[17] 
“Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock.”[18]
The rhetoric of Edwards was forceful and not flamboyant. It was articulate and not hyperbolic. It was a kind of speech which drove men to repentant faith- his preaching was apostolic. Edwards viewed God as the all sufficient communicator, and as such he employed the imagery and analogies present in the Word of God. Therefore, it is little wonder that the brilliance of his verbal mastery is found in his reliance upon that which is theopneustos. 


[1] Elwell, 366. 

[2] Lawson, Jonathan Edwards: Prince of the Puritans

[3] Murray, 137.

[4] Ibid, 143.

[5] Edwards, 206. 

[6] Murray, 142.

[7] Edwards, 691.

[8] English Standard Version, Philippians 1:21.

[9] Ibid, Matthew 12:34. 

[10] Murray, 158. 

[11] Ibid, 188.

[12] Ibid. 

[13] For further argumentation regarding whether Edward’s preaching was merely a wrote exercise or the proclamation his theology demanded see Murray, 188-191. 

[14] See Ibid, 188.

[15] Ibid, 191. 

[16] Ibid.

[17] Edwards, 29. 

[18] Ibid, 32.


Edwards, Jonathan, and John Edwin Smith. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 2. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

English Standard Version, Ed. Lane T. Dennis. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001. Print. 

Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic ;, 2001. Print.

Lawson, Stephen. "Jonathan Edwards: Prince of the Puritans." One Passion. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <>.

Murray, Iain Hamish. Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987. Print.