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]