By Rhys Bezzant (Ridley College)
I heard a leading American evangelist preach a sermon recently in which Jonathan Edwards was never named but his signature theology was everywhere. Edwards’s views on creation as an overflow of the life of God, and his understanding of the Christian life involving the gift of a new sense of God’s beauty are now commonplace in evangelical circles. Unfortunately, his influence has not yet washed through to the way we describe and practise mentoring. I often hear the basic argument, which doesn’t engage great theological themes, that just as Paul mentored Timothy and Titus, so should we find younger believers to invest in. Edwards has so much to teach beyond this.
For example, we can’t really explain what the goal of mentoring is, until we understand what the church is for. Edwards hoped that new practices generated by the revivals could exist side by side with traditional structures in the life of the church, and this was reflected too in his practice of mentoring: he gave permission to his mentees to grow into new roles responsive to new situations and saw the value of developing new strategies for faith transmission, while still holding on to the central Protestant conviction that the church is focused on a ministry of Word and sacraments. (Read my book “Jonathan Edwards and the Church” for more detail!) If the church is a tree, contextually shaped yet theologically rooted, mentoring within the church should work with new insights in pedagogy, pastoral theology and human culture, while at the same time helping others to grasp the authority which God gives to those set over us in the Lord. Submission is part of godliness, after all. Authority is from the top down, but takes into account the agency of those below. Mentoring can be a strategy for adaptive leadership development.
Edwards also adopts new ways of communicating with his mentees. He writes informal letters to them, addressing issues of relationships, finances, scheduling, and theology. Before his time, letter-writing was the preserve of the wealthy or powerful, for example generals, diplomats, kings or businessmen, who exercised their authority through their correspondence, but Edwards wants to empower as much as bark orders. His educational assumptions similarly gave room to learning through Socratic dialogue and mutual affection, with age-specific developmental expectations. Even the Indian children in his care in Stockbridge were not expected to learn their lessons by rote but through conversation or music. In one extraordinary miscellany, written around 1757 just before he died, Edwards argues that the exchange of two minds through conversation is a means for God to exercise his moral government of the world (Misc. 1338). Union with God and with each other is at the heart of Edwards’s vision for the world and ultimately the church, so what better way of encouraging that kind of unity than by friendship expressed in conversation: “And the wellbeing and happiness of society is friendship … but friendship, above all other things that belong to society, requires conversation.” Mentoring in Edwards’s estimation can play its part in God’s directing the world to its proper end.
And perhaps surprisingly for a man of Reformed convictions, Edwards frequently highlights the importance of the visual in his understanding of discipleship. The job of the preacher is to impress on listeners an experience of seeing the Lord, or to “placard Christ” as Paul says. No wonder then that Edwards believes in the power of example to help us along the path to glory. He edits the journal of David Brainerd, and provides a preface and an appendix, in order to make Brainerd’s life one worthy of imitation. He writes: “There are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world, which God hath made use of: the one is by doctrine and precept; the other is by instance and example: Both are abundantly used in the holy Scriptures.” If we shall be like the Lord when we see him at the end of our days, then perhaps we can be like the Lord when we see him in others during our lifetime. Providing a model to emulate appeals to the inductive approach of many evangelicals based on their own individual experience of regeneration. Mentoring involves multiple senses, and gives us a sense of personal integration in a world where our self-understanding is fragmented or broken.
We need to do better to cultivate the art of mentoring in our churches, and Edwards points us to profound resources for the task. We know that his theology highlights the first things and the last things, but what we don’t often realise is that these form the framework for us to celebrate and ponder the next things as well, namely our closest relationships in our daily lives.
Rhys Bezzant teaches at Ridley College, Melbourne, which is hosting the next Edwards Congress in August 2015 (www.ridley.edu.au/JECongress)