Who Was Jonathan Edwards? What Did He Teach?

Where Did This Sincere Man Possibly Fall into Error?

Nobody doubts the sincerity of Jonathan Edwards, but today one might question whether his perspective fully reflected biblical teaching.

J onathan Edwards (1703–1758) was a very prominent Calvinist theologian and Puritan minister who lived in Enfield, Connecticut, in the 1740s. His uncompromising work has been described as "the first and most enduring expression of the uncompromising Calvinist theology of the Great Awakening." Probably his most famous work is, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which is one of the most notorious of all fire and brimstone sermons. It combines vivid imagery of the Christian concept of Hell with observations from the 'fallen' world, being replete with citations from Scripture. It remains Edwards' most famous written work, and is widely studied both among Christians and historians, due to the glimpse it provides into the theology of the Great Awakening of 1730–1755.

Whilst Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is only one of several things which we have from the pen of Edwards, it's overall message is pretty much typical of Edwards' general theological approach. The sermon may be summarised as "There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." Much of his approach seemed calculated to scare the wits out of people about the coming horrors of Hell in order to get a positive response for Christ right here and now. Edwards was fully accepting of 'race against the clock evangelism' (the belief that everybody in the world over the age of accountability will pretty much automatically go to Hell at some point after death where Christ has never been confessed and appropriated - therefore it is encumbent upon all Christian believers to get as many human souls as possible to accept Christ before death). Today, while rightly continuing to hold Edwards in some honour, we may look carefully at the New Testament evangelistic texts and note that 'race against the clockism' was never really a biblical perspective at all. For sure, it came from enthusiastic and very well-meaning and, one might say, God-fearing men and women but it went too far. It erred in a legalistic 'either black or white' colouration where Scripture presents a broader spectrum of hues with regard to human salvation. The criticism has also been levelled that Edwards' success was dependent upon having an audience of poorly educated people. Certainly we are biblically admonished to preach the Gospel 'to every creature' (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15) and to take the message to every land, moreover, we are taught that people's response to that divine message would reveal whether the Lord would save them or whether they were 'perishing,' yet there has never truly been any race underway. God knows His own and is capable of reaching His own in more ways than one. (Matthew 28:18; John 6:44,65; John 15:16; Romans 8:30; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; Ephesians 1:3-6; Ephesians 2:8-10). As Caller, God is not finally reliant upon the endeavours of missionaries. Ultimately, this is about the work of the Holy Spirit - not about the acumen, endeavours - or failings! - of Christian mission. We might just be reminded, for example, that after China expelled Christian missionaries the Gospel spread like wildfire - despite their absence.

Carefully mark this: If the Gospel had been unannounced, it would have made no difference to it's reality. A few appear to see the efficacy of the Gospel as being dependent upon Christian mission. That goes beyond the Scripture.

I covered this somewhat tricky topic in some depth in my 2002 article, To Evangelize the Lost: WHY We Should Do It! (link at article ending). In short, it was the authority granted to Jesus of Nazareth back in the first century which opened the door for the gospel to go around the world. This had been predicted in Daniel. We need to turn to Daniel 7:

'"In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed"' (Daniel 7:13-14).

We can corroborate that this refers to the setting up of Christ's kingdom and the power of the gospel by looking at other Scriptures:

'All things have been committed to me by my Father....' (Luke 10:22a).

'The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him' (John 3:35-36).

Satan is bound by the cross of Christ. There the serpent's head was crushed and the forces of evil routed. So certain was Christ of victory as He went to His cross that He could say emphatically,

'Now is the judgement of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out' (John 12: 31).

So the coming of Christ and the limitation thereafter imposed on the demonic realm (carefully note Luke 9:1-2 and Luke 10:17-20, for instance), indicate that the age of Christ and His gospel had arrived as foretold by all the prophets of the Old Testament! The age of the New Covenant was about to be ushered in and the Old Covenant would soon be 'nailed to the cross of Calvary'! Here at last - in the authority granted to Jesus Christ - the Church Age was about to begin; nothing odd, nothing unusual in this, all the prophets had looked forward to this time. This certainly was not just some temporal thing because the Jews had rejected Jesus and surprised God! (as J.N. Darby, the 'father of dispensationalism' has so erroneously taught).

Thus it might truly be said that the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the very fulcrum on which all of this world's civilisations hang. When 'the Christ event' occurred within human history it opened a door to repair the damage which Satan had caused in the Garden of Eden. Nothing - absolutely nothing - in the entire history of this world is of such inestimable importance. God wanted this announced in a mission which would spread to all nations, hence the work of the Apostles and the Church. But carefully mark this: If it had been unannounced, it would have made no difference to it's reality. A few appear to see the efficacy of the Gospel as being dependent upon Christian mission. That goes beyond the Scripture. Sometimes preachers will say things like, "If we don't preach the Gospel, people can't be saved." Actually, that is totally incorrect. That is to make an Almighty, Omnipotent God dependent upon us which, obviously, He can never be. God wanted the news of the salvation in Christ announced to all nations as a witness (Matthew 24:14), something which is now more or less fully accomplished. Christ warned that people can enter life or death by their response to that message but Scripture does not go beyond that. Certainly, the convicting Holy Spirit is in no sense controlled by Christian mission. If we think otherwise, we are being foolish. God could raise up stones to preach His Word should it be His will, but the 'Christ event' occurred whether people would recognise it or not. Of course, today many modern liberals would sneer at all of this. For them, this is all just mumbo-jumbo and religious superstition, but their opinion makes no difference. In fact, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the true and ultimate realites of human history.In contrast, it is modern liberals who live in a falsely manufactured world and society. Their inconsequential lives, their whims, their political and social schemas will all amount to nothing of any worth or lasting merit. Let them continue to 'kid' themselves in their arrogance a while longer, for very soon, they and their silly God-rejecting ideas will be eradicated for eternity - that is, unless they are prepared to humbly bow their knees to Christ, for we serve a merciful God.

Where Jonathan Edwards Erred

Jonathan Edwards was not entirely wrong about warning of Hell; the New Testament certainly does so (although, frankly, it does so very little in comparison to Edwards). He was certainly right to wish to get as many as possible to appropriate Christ. But God will not lose any of His own (John 6:37, 47; John 10:27-29; Ephesians 1:13-14; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 and 2 Corinthians 5:5), and any absence of missionaries cannot hinder His divine scheme. Moreover, even since the time of Edwards, many have continued to live and die without even hearing the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Despite what some will assert, nothing in Holy Scripture suggests that these people are eternally lost simply because they were never in the right place at the right time. Without question, those who do hear and comprehend the message of the Gospel will be judged by how they handle such priceless knowledge. Of that, the New Testament is very clear (Mark 16:16, for example). Yet those who never hear the message are not necessarily in any worse a situation than those believers of the Old Testament who accepted the truth of an omnipotent God whom they served to the best of their ability yet whilst having no specific knowledge of the Jesus Christ of Nazareth Who was yet to come. Hebrews 11 is clear that such people are saved, included within the scope of the salvation of Christ. His One Supreme Sacrifice is efficaceous in both directions, going back to the beginnings of human history and extending in potency to it's very ending.

Where Jonathan Edwards ultimately erred - like many who would follow him - was in failing to recognise the biblical supremacy of the mercy of God. Many theologians have carefully worked out their 'systematic theologies' covering such subjects as calling, election, the omnipotence of God, the sovereignty of God, the work of Christ in His passion, and so on, yet have totally neglected to give any thought or space to the most vital biblical teaching of the mercy of God. So we finish up with very well-meaning but ultimately flawed theologies. The fact that God's mercy is omitted means that many such theologies 'major' very heavily on judgment and condemnation. In this area, five point Calvinists are the worst - but by no means the only - offenders. Now, most such theologians would agree that God may show mercy where He wills and that He could set His hand to save possibly many who appeared to be heading for sure destruction, yet the fact that mercy is discounted by them as an important teaching or doctrine means that many such theologies are immediately distorted!

In 2004 I wrote The Utter Folly of Arguing Over Hell, in which I pointed out how a biblical teaching can become distorted if our perspective on that teaching differs from the Bible's perspective. Here are a few of the points which I made:

Since many have the picture that the Bible continually screams out warnings about Hell, one might expect to find the word 'Hell' occurring a few hundred times in such a huge book, one might also expect that Hell would occur more than the word 'Heaven' (since many of those who are most vocal on this subject believe that a huge majority of the human race are headed there unless they repent), well here is a shock (perhaps 'hellfire' enthusiasts should make sure they are sitting down before reading the following!!):

The word 'hell' never occurs in the Old Testament, where the Old Testament is correctly translated. Even Calvinist Presbyterian scholar Loraine Boettner is quite clear about this,

"The word Hell never occurs in the Old Testament original manuscripts. There are, however, 31 instances in which the King James Version so translates the word Sheol, but in each instance it is a mistranslation." (Loraine Boettner, Immortality, page 100, Pickering and Inglis, 1958).

The word 'heaven' occurs in the KJV 568 times (I have not even included or counted the words 'heavens' or 'heavenly'), but the word 'Hell' only occurs in the KJV.......just 54 times!
However, it has for a very long time been recognised that many of those KJV uses of 'Hell' are really mistranslations!! (Not good news for those who believe that the KJV is the only divinely inspired English version!). For instance the Hebrew word 'sheol' means, 'grave' or 'pit'. This accounts for 30 of the 54 uses of 'Hell' in the KJV Bible! The Greek word 'gehenna' (the most fearsome form) originally referred to the valley of Hinnom where refuse was burned (hence the association with fire), but came to be seen as the place of 'everlasting punishment', it only occurs ....(prepare yourselves for a shock)....11 TIMES in the Bible!
The KJV also translates the Greek word 'hades' into 'hell' but hades (like the Hebrew 'sheol') simply refers to the 'grave' or 'pit', it occurs ten times in the New Testament (admittedly, 'hades' does on a few occasions refer to the place of the commencement of the punishment of the unrighteous, in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, for instance, but nobody remains in hades, all going forward from there to the Final Judgment).
That just leaves the Greek word 'tartaroo'- it occurs just once (in 2 Peter 2:4), it refers to something like 'the lowest part of the abyss' and it does carry something of the sense of eternal torment, but it refers to the place of imprisonment for the angels who rebelled against God.

Newer Bible versions have recognised that the KJV certainly erred in its use of the word 'Hell'. But the NKJV decided to only go part of the way in correcting the use of the word Hell; It reduced the use of 'Hell' from the KJV's 54 times to 32 times, but seemed to lack the necessary boldness to really take on the translational problem. But other Bible versions have been bolder: the NIV has reduced the use of 'Hell' to only 14 times (all in the New Testament) and this appears to be about right. The ASV and NASB have both reduced 'Hell' to 13 uses, and the RSV and NRSV reduced it to 12. John Wesley did not use it at all in his New Testament translation, neither did the prodigious scholar Young in Young's Literal Translation (1891). Indeed, there are now about 40 Bible versions which don't use the word 'Hell' at all! (I am, in this brief analysis, partly indebted to the extensive Bible translation research of Gary Amirault).

Of course, I cannot personally vouch for all of these translations, but this does show that it has been widely recognised that the KJV was often in error in its use of this word, and that the NKJV did not entirely correct the problems of it's predecessor. Of course, many in the 'KJV only' lobby have screamed about the diminishment of the word 'Hell' without getting all the facts first: the plain fact is that many of the KJV uses of 'Hell' are examples of imperfect translation! G.A. Riplinger of the 'KJV only' movement is typical of the flawed approach of this sort, unfortunately her level of knowledge is occasionally highly suspect, for instance, she claims that the Epistle of Barnabas says that "Satan is Lord." It most certainly does not! (for any wanting more in-depth information on the errors of the 'KJV Onlyists' I would recommend 'Will the Real Bible Please Stand Up?).

Other word comparisons are certainly intriguing and do not lead to the results which certain hellfire enthusiasts might expect: For instance, the wonderful word 'salvation' occurs 163 times, but 'damnation' only occurs 10 times and 'damned' occurs three times! Calvinism also came to love that word, 'reprobates' - the "reprobated ones" were those doomed to be forever outside of the grace of God. Reprobate means, 'morally abandoned,' or, 'a reject.' "Reprobation" was the theological term which came to be used for the doctrine concerning those supposedly pre-ordained for hell (even as an admirer of Calvin I must say that this teaching was never biblical. Go Here for a fuller explanation). Yes, 'reprobate' is indeed a KJV word. From the emphasis this word came to enjoy, especially in hyper-Calvinism, one might expect that this KJV word occurs, perhaps, a hundred times in the Scriptures? No. Not a hundred? Well surely it occurs 50, 60 or 70 times? Right? No. Okay, so the word is not that common in the KJV after all - are we looking at just 15 or 20 instances on the word? Nope! In fact, both words 'reprobate' and 'reprobates' occur a grand total of 7 times! The word, 'reprobation' never occurs in Scripture. By the way, if anybody is doubting this information simply use Strong's Concordance to check it all out!

But to return to 'heaven and hell,' since we have seen that 'heaven' is mentioned several hundred times and 'gehenna' only occurs just 11 times, where does this leave the position of those who infer that 'heaven and hell' are biblically presented in roughly equal tension? (You can read this article in it's entirety here.)

Of course, I willingly concede that 'Heaven' is not necessarily always being used in contrast to 'Hell' in all such texts but it remains interesting that Heaven is far more of a Bible focus (and the Bible - after all - is obviously only being addressed to men and women), than 'Hell' and 'damnation.'

However, a word which I never considered in that article, and which is very important for this particular article is 'mercy.' We now know that words such as 'damnation' and 'Hell' are exceeding rare in Scripture, perhaps Jonathan Edwards genuinely did not know this, but we can be sure of this, but what about 'mercy'?

The Hebrew and Greek words which are translated as 'mercy,' merciful' and 'mercies' (KJV) occur something like 280 times in Scripture. The amazing thing is how often this word is simply describing one of the major attributes of God. For sure, there are a few occasions where the word occurs because the text is saying something like 'God will not show mercy...' but not too often. The usual use of the word (over 90%) is positive - describing God's bounteous mercy. This already shows us that any preacher who spends rather a lot of time talking about Hell and Damnation needs to also be saying rather a lot about the great mercy of God, if he is going to reflect a true biblical perspective on these teachings. Frankly, many have not done so. One of the chief culprits has been the extra-biblical assumption that those who never hear the Gospel message (make no mistake: that is the majority of Mankind) are equally condemned to Hell with the incorrigibly evil and with those who hear the Gospel but - in a roughly full understanding of it's import - reject it as being irrelevant to their lives. This approach has been a central tenet of five point Calvinism. Yet nothing in the Bible allows us to make such an assumption and to make such an assumption is to fully reject the biblical teaching of divine mercy, or to imply that God is somehow not able to discern between sins of ignorance and willful sins commited in a full knowledge of the completed work of Christ.

Jonathan Edwards was a very wise man who knew how to get 'decisions for Christ' in an age before the woeful abuses of 'decision theology' became more manifest. His perspective on the evangelistic texts, however, can be seriously questioned at times yet none of us need doubt his sincerity.

For our part, while being fervent in faithfully representing the message of the gospel - as ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20) - let us be much more determined to fully reflect the entire biblical perspective, never neglecting the vital teaching on the mercy of God! Never forget how many have rejected Christianity once they learned of the teaching of an angry and vengeful God who "dooms" millions to Hell, no matter what choices they may make in life. Of course, such horrendous and obscene hyper-Calvinism never was a biblical teaching at all. Yet we must concede that, at times, Jonathan Edwards was perilously close to such serious fatalistic errors.
Robin A. Brace. June 12th, 2010.

To Evangelize the Lost; WHY We Should Do It