Friday, July 22, 2011

Jonathan Edwards: A Theologian of the Heart


Everyone thinks of Jonathan Edwards as the guy who only penned and preached the infamous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He did more than this piece, but is remembered mostly for preaching this descriptive message about hell and sinners. They lampoon, decry, revere, and evoke every emotion in the human psyche when it comes to their feelings about this message and the man. More often than not, it is looked upon as the worst example of Puritanical religiosity ever foisted upon the American psyche. Sadly, many cannot see beyond their politically correct view of how church and messages should be done. They judge without prayer; they criticize without understanding.

Little do people know that Edwards read this sermon in a monotone voice to his Northhampton congregation. There was nothing special about the delivery. There was nothing special about the church. God just showed up and wrapped himself around the message, then all hell, or should I say, all heaven broke loose. People cried out in fear and fainted. Some fell into comatose states. Many turned to the loving arms of God with a healthy fear, something sorely missing in today's conversion experiences.

God's Spirit then moved throughout this tiny hamlet and set aflame all of the colonies. Another spiritual luminary that rode the rapids of this spiritual renewal was George Whitefield. He was good friends with Edwards. They said he commanded audiences of ten to twenty thousand without a modern PA system; he only had a strong voice to exhort and the Holy Spirit to convict. Many turned to God before the Revolutionary War. The First Great Awakening began in earnest. Thousands turned to Jesus.

People think of Theologians as 'cold hearted brainiacs'. I don't blame them because many fit this bill. Edwards did not. Many scholars crown him as the greatest thinker America ever produced. I think they were right, but he was also a lover of God. You could categorize him as a protestant mystic, caught up in the beauty of God's creation, praying for hours under the flaming red leaves of a New England fall, crying out with joy over the goodness of God.

He states, "Once as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as mediator between man and God, and His wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet, appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception – which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears and weeping aloud." (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography pg. 100). As one can see, these were not the words of a spiritually disconnected individual; on the contrary, these were the words of a burning heart, hungry for more of God.

As I listened to Ray Hughes  talk about Edwards and others, my heart started to burn. There is something about the power of story, especially the story of fearless men and women who proclaimed the Gospel, that stirs the heart, sparks the mind, fills the soul. I got impatient again. I wanted to launch out. Many may have felt the same way. Revival fires, even in the afterglow, flowing from the mouth of a fiery home spun preacher (especially this type of preacher), can have this strange effect on hearts and minds.

When I got home, I dusted off my biography of Edwards, which I read about eighteen years ago, and started to read over all the highlighted areas again. I was astounded with how God formed a teacher who carried the power of the mind and the Holy Spirit with such effectiveness and balance. He truly was a theologian of the heart, a warrior poet who contributed immensely to our understanding of revival  and intimacy with God.

I recommend Jonathan Edwards A New Biography as a good introduction to this great revivalist, teacher/theologian. He preached for many years in his Northhampton church and ended his days reaching out to the Indians in Stockbridge. During this self imposed exile to the Western most part of Massachusetts, he wrote and compiled his writings into two huge volumes of deep theological thought. This work went on to impact countless lives and transformed the theological landscape of our country. It still reverberates into modern day thought, even into the foundations of our constitution and country. Good work never loses its power, especially the type anointed by God.

He died of smallpox on March 22, 1758 just before taking on the presidency of Princeton University. He said these last words on his death bed, "Now where is Jesus of Nazareth, my true and never-failing friend. Trust in God, and you need not fear."  Good words to live by.

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