The Spiritual Disciplines of Jonathan Edwards

There are some cranks today whose eye sockets bulge whenever someone brings up the “spiritual disciplines,” worrying such disciplines and deeds might lead to works righteousness or to undoing the Reformation, so it is good when someone like Jonathan Edwards’ own spiritual disciplines are brought into the discussion. Kyle Strobel, in Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from [read this] the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards.

I have said a bundle of times that the spiritual disciplines are designed by God to increase our love of God and love of others, which is what Jesus taught in the Jesus Creed, and if they don’t lead there, they are wasted efforts. So the whole point is to become loving people. Edwards, as I mentioned in a previous post, is clearly a theologian of love (called charity in his day) but who often speaks about beauty and glory, which I think are more abstract and less direct … but only because he is a theologian of love. The glory and beauty of God is the all-encompassing charity of God and our calling is to produce the fruit of God’s charity.

How then did Edwards understand disciplines? Strobel lists these, in addition to meditation and contemplation, which were deep practices of the Puritan soul and especially Edwards. These are acts of dwelling in the presence of God, reflecting on Scripture, speaking with God and listening to God as one communed with God.  It is to dwell on the glory and beauty of God.

1. Sabbath. A commandment of God, and of course it perhaps needs to be said Edwards was a Puritan. Self-examination, meditation, putting aside daily activities, focus on spiritual things, and redemption is the focus of all — that is, focus on Christ.

2. Fasting. Mostly a community practice and only secondarily a private act. A means to prepare the heart. Some of you will know that I have a book called Fasting in which I contest this (and the popular) notion of “instrumental” fasting and urge instead what I call “responsive” fasting. I like his emphasis on the corporate; that’s quite consistent with the Bible’s emphasis.

3. Conferencing. Like accountability, spiritual direction, and small groups.It is about sharing your journey with a companion on the journey. Edwards conferenced with fellow pastors and in letters and with his family and with fellow congregants. Not a time for theological debates.

4. Soliloquy: this combines prayer and self-examination. We learn who we are by learning who God is. It is hold our thoughts before the penetrating glare of God and to talk to ourselves in light of who God is.

5. Silence and Solitude. He often walked alone to contemplate and prayer and commune with God. He had solitary places to which he retired.

6. Prayer. In some ways the big category for all the disciplines: to commune with and communicate with God. He had set prayers — at specific times. (This is more set times than set prayers, since the latter tends to be used for recited prayers.) And he also believed in momentary, ejaculatory prayers — talking with God in the moment.

OK, most seem to forget this one: Bible reading, which was the focus of Edwards’ day.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • AnnVoskamp_HolyExperience

    Thank you, Scot.

  • Jeff Weddle

    could you elaborate on how Bible reading was the focus of his day? What did that look like?


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