A Jonathan Edwards Warning Label

The Life of John Newton Many of our readers may know that some in the new Calvinist movement are huge fans of Jonathan Edwards.  For example, John Piper constantly refers to Edwards and was very much influenced by his writings.  However brilliant and helpful Edwards is, there are some troublesome spots in his theology and philosophy.  We can benefit from Edwards’ writings, but we also need to remember that Edwards had his flaws and is not the best example of solid, Reformed confessional theology.  On this topic, here’s a blog post I wrote back in 2012:

Near the end of Josiah Bull’s biography of John Newton, there’s a quote by Newton that is somewhat critical of the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards. Here it is: “Mr. Edwards was an excellent man, but some of his writings are too metaphysical, and particularly that book [The Freedom of the Will].  If I understand it, I think it rather establishes fatalism and necessity than Calvinism in the sober sense.  I could object likewise to his book on Original Sin, though there are many excellent things in it” (p. 328).  These statements really made me want to hear more from Newton on Edwards, since I too am somewhat critical of Edwards’ theology.

Reading through Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., I did find more.  In a letter Newton wrote to Ryland in 1778, he criticized New England theology.  Though Newton wasn’t writing of Edwards specifically, he was writing generally of the American divines in the late 1700s.  I realize this post is a bit longer than normal, but I didn’t want to leave any part of this quote out.  Here it is.

“Most of the New England divines I have met with have in my judgment one common fault: they abound with distinctions and refinements in experimental matters, which are suited to cast down those whom the Lord would have comforted. And in their long account of what they call a preparatory work, they include and thereby depreciate some real and abiding effects of true grace. They require such an absolute submission to the righteousness and sovereignty of God, before they will allow a person to be a believer, as I apprehend is seldom the attainment of a babe in Christ.  I think if Mr. Stoddard had been at Philippi, and the jailer had sprung trembling in to him (instead of Paul and Silas) with the same question he would have afforded him but cold comfort, and would have made him wait a few weeks or months to see how the preparatory work went on before he would have encouraged him to believe in Jesus.

“Some of the good advice he gives to those under temptation, leads me to think, he had not sailed much in those deep waters himself.  In short, it [Stoddard’s The Way to Know Sincerity] is a book which, notwithstanding the many important things it contains, I should not put into the hands of some of my poor people.”

“We say such a building is a house, not only when it is tiled, painted and furnished, but while the walls are yet unfinished, while it is encumbered with rubbish and surrounded with scaffolds, which though not a part of the edifice (but are designed in time to be removed) are helpful for carrying it on.  We speak of a field of wheat not only in harvest but in spring, and say ‘It is day,’ when the light is gradually increasing, though the sun be not risen.  I doubt much if those desires and workings in an awakened mind which are mixed with great legality and mistakes are the real effects of the Holy Spirit no less than the fruits of joy and peace in believing which he produces in due time, and therefore ought not hastily to be cast away in the lump, as mere strivings of corrupt nature.  It is true there are unsound convictions, and impressions which are not abiding, but the Lord’s labourers should weed with a gentle and cautious hand, lest in their attempts to pull up the tares, they should pluck up the wheat also.”

“It would be well if both preachers and people would keep more closely to what the Scripture teaches of the nature, marks and growth of a work of grace instead of following each other in a track (like sheep) confining the Holy Spirit to a system; imposing at first the experience and sentiments of others as a rule to themselves, and afterward dogmatically laying down the path in which they themselves have been led, as absolutely necessary to be trodden by others.

There is a vast variety of the methods by which the Lord brings home souls to himself, in which he considers (though system-preachers do not) the different circumstances, situations, temperament, etc. of different persons. To lay down rules precisely to which all must conform, and to treat all enquiring souls in the same way, is as wrong as it would be in a physician to attempt to cure all his patients who may have the same general disorder (a fever for instance) with one and the same prescription. A skillful man would probably find so many differences in their cases, that he would not treat any two of them exactly alike.

“I hope the Lord has made me willing to learn (if I can) from all, but Nullis in verba jurare [take no one’s word as final] is my motto.  If you read the Scripture and your own heart attentively, you will have greatly the advantage of those who puzzle themselves by too closely copying the rules they find in other books.”

I wholeheartedly agree – and I appreciate Newton’s pastoral tone (go back and notice his illustrations about the house/building, sheep, wheat/tares, and physician).  I’ve tried to read Edwards’ Religious Affections but could not bear it because it didn’t lead me to assurance at the foot of the cross.  Rather, it led me to question the work of grace God has begun in me.  For this and other reasons, and for the reasons Newton well noted above, the writings of Edwards are not typically on my short list of recommended reading.  And by the way, this discussion also has to do with the judgment of charity (or charitable judgment).  But more on that topic later.

shane lems

14 Replies to “A Jonathan Edwards Warning Label”

  1. Thanks you for this, Shane. There was an article in the WTJ years ago by George Hunsinger which described Edwards’ “dispositional soteriology” and his weakness when it came to sola fide. I can see echoes of this in Piper as well.


  2. Where are the Jonathan Edwards fans? From the tone of Edwards’ sermons, it is impossible that he would have supported current “Reformed” interpretations of John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, etc., right out of the semi-Pelagian playbook. Yet today’s Reformed luminaries flatly preach and teach that God loves everybody and desires to save everybody, in spite of his eternal decree of predestination! You CAN’T have your cake and eat it, too.


    1. Vic: Thanks for the comments. I’ve been in confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches for quite a few years, and I’ve not heard teachers/pastors in these denominations preach what you suggest. Are you maybe talking about popular preachers who are quasi- or somewhat Reformed?



  3. I have found the notions Newton addresses quite pervasive in contemporary reformed theology. So much so that I have left it for confessional Lutehranism. It points me outward, to the cross, rather than inward. To me the reformed formula has seemed something like this: How am I saved? By faith. How do I know my faith is real (I am elect, Christ died for me, etc.) ? Look to my fruit. Nothing but despair there.


    1. Kyle: I have the exact opposite experience as I grew in Reformed theology and practice. I can remember Reformed preachers telling me that the first place we go to for assurance is not within, but without, to the word, the cross, and the empty tomb. I say the same things when talking about assurance.

      In fact, the Canons of Dort (A Reformed Confession) says assurance doesn’t come from a peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God, but comes from faith in God’s promises, which he has most abundantly revealed in his Word for our comfort, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit… and lastly from a serious and holy desire to perform good works.

      So yes, we can tell if we have true faith by our fruits – that is biblical, after all. But that’s not the only part of assurance. The first part is outside of us – in the Word, which points to Christ’s finished work. That never changes even though our feelings and faith and emotions do!

      Were you in a confessional Reformed church? Or was it more generally Calvinistic and not confessionally Reformed? There is a difference…



      1. I was in an OPC congregation that was very confessionally and I believe consistently reformed. I do think it comes down to the theology. You say look to the cross, the empty tomb. My question was always how do I know the cross and empty tomb are for me when I know they’re not for everyone. It’s at that point that i was typically pointed inwards. Or at least felt I was. I now go to church and hear that Christ died for me and my sins are forgiven. Priceless. I do think that many reformed folks are better than this, as Newton shows. Fact is that while I think Newton is right, I think Edwards was a more consistent Calvinist.


        1. Thanks for the comments, Kyle. I guess we need to be balanced here, as in most areas of the faith: we need to look to Christ alone, and trust in his finished work. But we also at some point(s) need to examine ourselves, since that too is a biblical teaching (1 Cor. 11:28, 2 Cor. 13:5, etch).



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