Jonathan Edwards on Revival

Jonathan Edwards on Revival December 31, 2008

McDermott.JPGThe most famous sermon in American history is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

The most famous theologian in American history is Jonathan Edwards, the theologian who preached that most famous sermon.

My friend and a Jonathan Edwards scholar, Gerald McDermott, has recently edited a book on Edwards called Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America’s Theologian. Just in case you don’t know much about Edwards, this book is for you — though written by experts the book succeeds in avoiding the jargon. And Edwards needs such a treatment because most only know this sermon and only know it as a caricature.

The second theme of this book is on revival. Since the book presents a study of Edwards and then has a response, there are two discussions of Edwards’ understanding of revival. There are two treats here: first, we get a study by Harry Stout, the Jonathan Edwards professor at Yale; second, we get an international respondent: Willem van Vlastuin from Amsterdam.

I learned a bundle from Stout’s piece and van Vlastuin puts Stout’s understanding in context.  Three points:

First, Edwards became convinced that theology could only find its ultimate context when it was part of God’s history of redemption. So, Edwards’ big vision was to seek for what God was doing in the world and to develop a mind that fastened upon spiritual history.

Second, Edwards saw the drama of God’s history of redemption as the interaction of heaven (where God’s will is done), hell (where God’s will is opposed) and earth (where there is a contest of the two). His revival preaching emerged from these two points with radical clarity.

Third, when Edwards became even more convinced of the need to see history from God’s angle, and when he encountered the potent preaching of George Whitefield, Edwards made a shift in his preaching from more focus on heaven to more focus on hell … and in 1740-1741 he began to develop the perfect awakening sermon, and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” his second attempt at such a sermon, was given birth.

To put this in context, Edwards became convinced that the most effective form of preaching to awaken sinners from their sin was to describe hell in concrete images and to impress upon his listeners that such a fate was theirs if they did not find their way to God’s grace.

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  • Rick

    Looks interesting, especially the aspect on how Whitfield influenced him.
    Edwards is one of those figures that experienced and impacted so much that it almost seems impossible. From his academic career as a very young man (Yale, Princeton), to his famous sermon, his well-known church, heritage, family life, relationships with the likes of Whitfield and Wesley, his David Brainard work, The Great Awakening, etc…. Wow!
    However one feels about his theology, one can not help but be amazed by his life.

  • T

    I like these first and second themes of Edwards thinking very much (and I’m not dismissive of the third). It’s really beneficial to look at the big picture of God’s work and words in the scriptures and ask “What does he hope to accomplish through all of this work?” That question, I think, as much or more than any other, has helped me begin again to structure my life in a better way.

  • EricW

    How congruent with Eastern Orthodox doctrines of God and Hell and Salvation and Punishment is Edwards’s “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God”? I.e., would his preaching/teaching in this sermon be considered orthodox, acceptable, a novelty, or heretical? What do the hierarchs at St. Seraphim say about it?

  • EricW

    Ignore my comment re: Edwards and Eastern Orthodoxy. I mistakenly thought I was responding to Rod Dreher’s column on Beliefnet!!

  • Edwards became convinced that the most effective form of preaching to awaken sinners from their sin was to describe hell in concrete images and to impress upon his listeners that such a fate was theirs if they did not find their way to God’s grace.
    I find that, in some ways, this concept is one of the great dividing lines between liberals and conservatives (I use those labels rather broadly, and perhaps as caricatures themselves. My apologies). On one hand, there are those who not only believe that Hell is a reality, but that we must save people from being condemned to it by any means necessary. On the other, there are those who are so focused on the means that they may not end up opposing Hell (in the eschatological sense) at all if to do so entails means that are considered exclusive.
    But, as I’ve already indicated, I’m aware that those categories are pretty broad, and do not reflect the nuance of actual positions. Liberals often, in point of fact, are perfectly willing to use very strident means to oppose injustice (Hell on earth, perhaps?). And there are studies that indicate that many conservatives do not become anything like as involved in evangelism as one might expect.
    Clearly, this deserves deeper discussion.

  • Your Name

    Looking at Jonathan Edwards’ sermon ” Sinners in the hands of an angry God” one cannot help notice the creative, thought provoking word pictures that Edwards uses to depict God’s wrath and justice. He does a fantastic job of helping one understand these certain attributes of God. But my problem with this is that God is not just wrath, justice, and judgment. The God of the Bible is wholly love, and wholly jealous; He is wholly merciful and wholly just.
    the fire and brimstone message of Jonathan Edwards sparked the Great Awakening but it slowly evolved in to a dividing line which is causing a schism in today’s church between the “liberal” Christian and the “Conservative” Christian. What is God? is the constant question that runs through my mind and I feel that both sides of the schism are answering this question incorrectly. The “Conservative” seems to answer this question with the same principles that Jonathan Edwards taught on, which is that of justice and wrath. Then the “Liberal” in opposition says that God is only love and mercy. A Christian must understand that God is all those attributes. When one preaches about the God of the bible he or she must bring all these traits into play. Speak of God’s justice but also tell of his love.
    I would love to talk more about this because I feel that this is a very weak point in Christianity.

  • Your Name

    hmmm…I think the most famous sermon in American History is, “I have a dream.”

  • Josh W

    I’d love to have heard what he preached about before he tried to be impressive. What really inspired him about God before he started packaging it.