A Life and Heaven of Holiness

Jonathan Edwards was a Puritan pastor, a theologian — he was a human being enthralled with God and whose deepest yearning was for the beauty of holiness.

I am reading Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott’s The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford, 2011), and want to offer a few observations of their chps that sketch the major elements of that life — including the shape of his intellectual life, his intellectual context, and his spirituality. [I like this book; right pace and crystal clear prose.]

The only son, 10 sisters (all of whom were over 6 feet tall), with a father who was a rigorous pastor (Timothy Edwards) and a grandfather who was more open (Solomon Stoddard), precocious, intelligent, and heir to a spiritual tradition in Connecticutt and then pastor in Northamption Mass. He preached twice every Sunday (Sabbath) and gave a lecture of sorts on Wednesday; he studied constantly (12-14 hrs per day) and meticulously took notes and wrote miscellanies and books. He was an introvert, austere and disciplined. He was absorbed with union with God — the beauty of the Lord and holiness, the utter goodness of God, and absolute harmony of all things under (a sovereign) God. His theology was shaped by debates of his day, most notably with “Arminians” (a term with a wide and wider meaning).

Is Edwards’ spirituality sufficiently shaped by Jesus? Why do the authors have nothing about Edwards’ theology of love (God, others) in this sketch of spirituality? Is it encased in their emphasis on “enjoyment”? Did Edwards overdo holiness at the expense of love?

Puritanism is about an inner cultivation of a God-pleasing spiritual life and a subjection of all things, church and society, to Scripture. Puritanism went through quakes of demand and laxity, and among his predecessors — Stoddard and Timothy — there was a major debate about the half-way covenant. Baptism as a child (they were Calvinists) but the need of a relation for full membership; what of those who had children who had no “relation” or witness to a special experience of grace? Some said their children could be baptized; others said no. His father said No; his grandfather not only said Yes but also permitted open communion (it was a converting grace). Jonathan apparently tightened up from Stoddard’s view toward Timothy’s view – to no small consternation in his church.

Jonathan Edwards was a man in pursuit of God and holiness and longed for a heaven of holiness.

As such, he was a man of deep affections (deeper than emotions, combining volition) and profound mystical experiences with God — he was a man of intense spiritual experience — and 100% committed to practice as the sign of genuine grace.

The authors see three major themes in Edwards’ spirituality: discipline, enjoyment and consummation.

Here is their sketch of his discipline: “… his concern for his own and others’ awakening from spiritual slumber, the need for mortification of sinful desires, the call to rigor, self-examination, and practice, the need for a continual seeking after greater grace, and a Platonic and otherworldly aspect, expressed in solitude with God and detachment from mundane concerns” (62).  He clearly had some early life over-doing of it, and he admits to being too little dependent upon God, and he moved away from some of his early over-rigor but remained a man of holy rigor.

Do you think Jesus or Paul and John or James or anyone in the Bible framed the Christian life of discipline like this? Do you think there’s anything wrong with this?

When it comes to enjoyment, he believed knowing God was delightful and beautiful and enrapturing — and he knew this in his affections. True religion is entirely satisfying. True enjoyment led to a desire for more.

The theme of consummation for Edwards is about heaven and about union with God and with others. It is otherworldly, if not Platonic. His heaven is progression into deeper penetrating of God’s glory and holiness and joy.


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  • Paul W

    I definitely do not see a king Jesus gospel when I read the Puritans or hear modern revivalistic versions of Christianity. It is a near impossibility for me to correlate those ecclesial(?) traditions to what I read in the early NT experience of the church. Jonathan Edwards, for me, is no exception.

    Having grown up in a family of faith I can identify with the Psalmist who from birth had experienced a dependence upon God as “my God” (Psalm 22:9-10; 71:5-6). I simply have no existential connection with having a “conversion experience” or with what Edwards would recognize as an “awakening.”

    I also just don’t get the type of religion that, I think, stems from that trajectory. I’m think of the type of religion which is geared toward generating “decisions for Christ” or prizing the act of having people close their eyes and raise their hands or walk an aisle etc. if you know what I mean. I’m not a critic of it per se (I find it all an interesting curiosity) but it is ultimately foreign to my understanding of religion and my religious experience.

  • Thanks for the alert on this book. This comment struck me:

    “most notably with “Arminians” (a term with a wide and wider meaning).”

    Kind of like “evangelicals”? . . .

    Nice to see that they had to deal with the problem of “clay words” back then too.

  • Susan N.

    The extent of my reading on Jonathan Edwards is his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Whatever his virtues, that sermon was a deal-breaker for me!

    But, the question is an intriguing one:

    “Do you think Jesus or Paul and John or James or anyone in the Bible framed the Christian life of discipline like this? Do you think there’s anything wrong with this?”

    In my very elementary understanding of the four biblical “characters” cited, this is my answer:

    Jesus was the inspiration for Edwards’ concern for “awakening” from spiritual slumber;

    Paul inspired his obsession with mortification from sinful desires;

    James was the main go-to guy for Edwards’ call to rigor, self-examination, and practice;

    and, John the “otherworldly, Platonic” aspect of seeking a transcendent spiritual state of being.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong, per se, in any personal expression of faith, as long as love and compassion are the predominant “virtues” being communicated and practiced. The older I get and the more I walk along in this faith journey, it all boils down to those two: Love and compassion. If that is absent, where is Jesus?

  • TSG

    “100% committed to practice as a sign of genuine grace”

    An exclusivist soteriology like Edwards is by definition bounded. This creates a need for a trend or an opponent upon whom they can be adverserial(and question committment, practice,or grace as genuine). It certainly makes God mad.

  • Have to be honest with you, Puritanism almost killed me spiritually 15 years ago as well as some of my other Bible College friends I gobbled up everything I could read especially Edwards and Elliot. I so desperately wanted to be holy, pleasing and close to the Almighty. So I punished myself over every sinful thought, woke earlier and earlier to pray and I pushed myself hard to care only for God’s glory.

    Well, thank God a mentor came along and nurtured me back to life. I first started to noticed that the New Testament hardly talked about knowing God in individual terms. I started to understand the Spirit-filled life was more a communal pursuit than a personal pursuit. I began to understand that true Holiness was a greater, higher, more involved love for others. I began to root my picture of God in the revealed God in Jesus.

    Sorry but I’m not a fan of Puritanism and the emotional-narcissistic-insanity it sometimes leads to.

  • Jayflm

    While there is a part of me that has been drawn to this sort of thinking/preaching through the years, I find myself asking over and over how it fits with Jesus’ call to “Come to me, all you weak and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Puritanism, the deeper-life movement and all such emphases seem to demand much more struggle than the Judaism of the first century ever did, if one wants to attain the blessings they promise.

  • Monicalyn

    Thanks for the mini-review. Any student of American history in any context (theological, literary, etc) can benefit from learning more about Edwards (and reading his work, all of which is free online from Yale). His prolific and creative theological work still impacts our country’s collective consciousness. If we understand the dangerous, tenuous day-to-day existence of America’s earliest generations of immigrants, we see that the “exclusivist soteriology” (mentioned by TSG above)of the Puritans was likely necessary for survival.

  • Luke Allison

    I have benefited greatly from reading Edwards. I hope that those who disparage him would at least move beyond caricatures and get into the meat of what he was talking about. This is a great mind (up there with Jefferson and Newton but less recognized) attempting to work out how a sovereign God interacts with EVERY aspect of existence. Was every word he spoke perfectly adaptable or acceptable to a 21st century progressive understanding of theology and practice? No. But it’s moderately discriminatory and certainly snobbish to right his theology off in retrospect. We have the benefit of hindsight, and many of us have toxic religious upbringings that give us allergies to his way of talking and thinking.
    But would we be Christians in America without him?

    Honestly, why does seeing a “God-entranced vision” of life offend some of us so? Does one person’s pursuit of individual holiness make us that uncomfortable just because we’ve failed at similar pursuits? Does that mean we never will succeed?
    Does his morality offend us? Every person who reads Scripture has a list of things they think other people shouldn’t be doing, and things they think “those who call themselves Christians” ought to be doing.

    The irony of throwing a person’s entire (massive) catalog of thought completely away because some of their theology offends us with its “exclusivity” is not lost on me.

    “This is a place of tolerance and acceptance, so you can get the hell out!” – Michael Scott

  • Justin

    TEDS is hosting a debate with Thabiti Anyabwile – the Topic is: “Jonathan Edwards and American Racism: Can the Theology of a Slave Owner Be Trusted by Descendants of Slaves?”

    I think this may offer fascinating insight to the questions posed here.

  • DRT

    Luke Allison#8, while I have no intention of writing him off (if I could figure out how to actually digest what he did), what did he change?

    I mean, certainly there is a place for those who meticulously catalog all the stars in the sky or insects on the ground, and, based on what you said, “work out how a sovereign God interacts with EVERY aspect of existence”, but how does that play out in the macro sense? Beyond getting his view on the micro about every aspect, does he actually contribute anything substantive to the macro?

    Based on Scot’s review I cannot see anything. And if I don’t agree with his macro theology, it is hard for me to want to read thousands of pages to get at the nuggets of micro I can deal with.

    Can you, or someone else comment? (I hope this is not shallow..)

  • Luke Allison


    I’ve found him beneficial for two reasons:
    1. The 1740s were a formative year for America, much like the 1640s in England. Edwards was at the heart of many key debates during this time period, and had a hand in shaping the predominant theological understandings in American culture. Whether or not this is a good thing, it is an important thing. There is a “time capsule” quality to Edwards’ work which helps us to see how we got to where we are today (ecclesialogically, theologically) . Marsden’s biography hits on his historical contributions quite a bit. Particularly, he zeroes in on how Edwards critiqued the formative values of American society: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
    Edwards’ “The Nature of True Virtue” was a prophetic denunciation of America’s social and political values, particularly the British moralists and their attempts to establish modern and polished moral philosophy on the same level as the natural sciences.
    Edwards’ primary foundational idea for his prophetic call was this: “God is love and the source of all love; true human love resonates with God’s love; to be united in love with the Godhead means to love what God loves, all beings (being in general).”

    Many have argued after the fact that “The Nature of True Virtue” could serve as a beautiful critique of current American values as well, particularly our tendency to try and force our morality and precious ideas onto other, older, cultures.

    2. His writing on the Trinity, particularly “Discourse on the Trinity” is stimulating and mind-expanding. The idea central to his Trinitarian thought is that “The Son is God’s perfect idea of Himself, the Holy Spirit is the mutual love or delight of the Father and the Son, and the Father is the deity existing in the prime, unoriginated, and absolute manner.”

    Key to understanding Edwards is his theology of pleasure: far from the caricatures present in Miller’s Crucible or Hawthorne’s the Scarlet Letter, Puritans weren’t only one thing any more than any of us are “only one thing”. Edwards was a very complex, deep human being, just as any of us would love to be remembered as. Edwards saw all of life as an opportunity to experience the joy, love, and fellowship of the new Heavens and the New Earth right here in the present, as he rode horses, ate chocolate, looked at stars, etc…yes, he wrote “Sinners…” but he also wrote “Heaven is a world of Love”. It may not pass the NT Wright test, but how many of us were completely right on board with Wright before we read his stuff?

    I enjoy Edwards for his rapturous descriptions of the heavenly life, and his attempts to describe the indescribable. He is often dry and overwrought. He is also life-affirming and joyous. Read about his last few weeks sometimes and try to come away unmoved.

    This barely scratches the surface, but there is much to gain from reading Edwards, even if you find yourself gritting your teeth and wondering what world he lived in. The answer would be: the same one we do, which is why life is interesting…we all see the same world in vastly different ways.

  • DRT

    Luke Allison, much appreciated.

  • Rob Dunbar

    Sounds like Jonathan Edwards would fit in with the Desert Fathers. I acknowledge that self-examination can become a too-critical introspection hindering the life of the Spirit (C.S. Lewis brings this up in “The Screwtape Letters”), and I see a New Testament emphasis on growing in grace through faith rather than “a continual seeking after grace.” But who really has a problem with the idea that practice is a sign of genuine grace? And, frankly, I don’t see anything in the NT that discourages the idea of a “conversion experience.” It’s simply another name for repentance, being born from above, call it what you will. A true “conversion experience” is not mere “decisionism” (see the life of Paul as a reference).