Some (Early) Thoughts on Jonathan Edwards’s Favorite Book: Theoretical Practical Theology by Peter Van Mastricht

I have not yet finished reading the first volume of the newly translated masterpiece of Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, translated by Todd M. Rester, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018) but I have read deeply enough into this volume to know that it is very good.

Indeed excellent.

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In the age of the internet where seeming everything is apparently a click away, (especially with data mine treasures like the Edwards website from Yale), we sort of expect to have access to every academic source we could ever need. It would seem justifiable to believe that someone, somewhere out there on the interwebs had already done the work of translating this excellent work of classical Reformed theology into modern English. But sadly, except for a few items such as Mastricht on regeneration, and a short essay on preaching, this was not the case.

Until now.

Believe it or not, but this seminal work on Reformed theology from one of the esteemed Dutch masters is just this year finally accessibly for reading by many in the English-speaking world for the first time in history.

This volume is going to be followed by as many as six more volumes which will fill out the whole complete set. I have reason to believe that this series will shortly take its place in seminaries and pastoral libraries alongside such excellent Reformed multi-volume sets as Turretin and Bavinck; both of which also required previous massive labors of translation to bring to many of us on this side of the Atlantic.

This volume on “prologomena” (or foundational assumptions and beginning points) is prefaced with several contemporary statements of the work’s historical importance. Editor Joel Beeke and translator Todd Rester both make meaningful comments about the impact they hope the work will have. I am especially thankful for Todd Rester, whose skill is clearly evidenced in the smooth reading of this English edition. The layout, design, and even the typeface make this work wonderful to read. But it is Rester’s skill in bringing the original Latin (and Dutch editions) into modern English that makes this work so delightful to both the eye and mind.

Also, the volume comes with an introduction to Peter Van Mastricht’s life by Adriaan Neele, as well as a somewhat detailed funeral oration given by Henricus Pontanus at the author’s own time of death. Together, these essays help the uninitiated reader to gain a handhold on the biographical life of the esteemed writer who was doubtlessly better known on the continent than across the Atlantic.

Even though this first volume barely gets into Peter Van Mastricht’s actual theological system–we don’t get much further than defining theology and introducing Holy Scripture in this first volume–we can see the method and style of this historic Dutch theologian beginning to unfold. We can also clearly see his heart. As I read the first parts, what became plain to me was that Van Mastricht did not see theology as merely an academic or intellectual enterprise. No, theology plainly and profoundly affects mind, heart, and life. Over and over, PVM insists that theology, when done well, produces a mature believer who “lives to God through Christ.” Much of his work is biblical, almost in the same way that William Ames filled his Marrow of Theology with citation after citation of Scripture. It is fuller though and less punctiliar, as the author easily and naturally toggles back and forth between his own assertions and Scriptural citations. Nary a page will proceed without plenteous Biblical citations and proof texts.

In every section, we can expect to see four things from PVM: (1) an exegetical exposition of a Biblical passage, (2) a doctrinal definition given in somewhat classical form, (3) an elenctic question and answer conversation or debate, and (4) a practical application for the heart and life of the believer.

The exegetical sections tie each main theme directly to Scripture. Clearly, PVM wants to be biblical (even bleeding bibline, as Spurgeon once said!). After that, he attempts to both define the doctrine that he is working through and show its place and relevance among the other Christian doctrines. Or to say it another way, he attempts the process of systematizing the categories of theology within their proper relation and function. Next, he attempts to answer questions that his students, or even opponents, would ask. Here, he often challenges himself deeply to work through the opposing arguments of pagans, heretics, Arminians, Lutherans, Socinians, and atheists. Finally, and this is where his heart for the Lord really shines through, PVM makes special attempts to apply the doctrine at hand to the heart and life of his readers; often speaking to students and ministers, but never straying too far from the lives of common, everyday Christian believers. Each of these is necessary to doing Christian theology, and as I read, I often thought about how this fourfold method would preach and teach well in the church chancel or seminary classroom. It seems like such a wise way to articulate doctrine in this method, and I can imagine myself preaching sermons or teaching lessons with this fourfold method in the future.

As I said above, I have not yet finished the work–and will have several more volumes to go to do so–but it is already endearing itself to me as an especially heart-felt, Biblical, and practical work of Reformed theology. Jonathan Edwards certainly liked it. We know this was Edwards’s favorite book because he wrote in a letter to Joseph Bellamy, dated January 15, 1747, the following words:

As to the books you speak of: Mastricht is sometimes in one volume, a very thick, large quarto; sometimes in two quarto volumes. I believe it could not be had new under eight or ten pounds. Turretin is in three volumes in quarto, and would probably be about the same price.1 They are both excellent. Turretin is on polemical divinity; on the Five Points, and all other controversial points; and is much larger in these than Mastricht; and is better for one that desires only to be thoroughly versed in controversies. But take Mastricht for divinity in general, doctrine, practice, and controversy; or as an universal system of divinity and it is much better than Turretin or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion. (WJEO 16:217).

 

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Jonathan Edwards’s Note-Taking System and How You Can Replicate It at Home

One of the great legacies that Jonathan Edwards left to us is his personal thought project called the Miscellanies. In these personal notebooks, Edwards muses on over 1,500 different theological and Biblical topics. Everything from Aaron to Zion is covered in this handwritten project which encompassed several decades of his thinking with pen and ink in hand. Reading the Miscellanies is somewhat like having a bus ticket deep into the interior regions of Edwards’s mind. Many sections of the Miscellanies were, of course, reproduced in his public writings, but we must acknowledge that the thought process was first born in his personal set of notebooks.

Of course, these Miscellanies now come to us as prepared and printed volumes of the Edwards Yale definitive collection and interested readers can own them in their own library. But this is also intriguing to me — can his general system of note-taking be borrowed and utilized today? I think it can.

Recently, I have thought about how a modern pastor, writer, or theologian can replicate this system, and the below video demonstrates a simple way that we can all begin our own system of Miscellanies.

Review of “A Theology of Joy”

Sweeney’s Booknotes: A Theology of Joy

Original source: http://jecteds.org/blog/2018/06/22/2606/

Matthew V. Everhard, A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity (n.p.: JESociety Press, 2018).

everhard_theology_of_joyThis new release from Dr. Robert Boss’s JESociety (http://www.jesociety.org/) is a revised version of Everhard’s Doctor of Ministry project at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.

The Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida, the author is no stranger to the study of Jonathan Edwards. Less than two years ago, he and Boss produced a volume of helpful essays on Edwards with the JESociety Press. Everhard also shepherds edwardsstudies.com. He likes to emphasize the usefulness of Edwards to Christians.

The current volume tells the story of its author’s quest for joy in everyday life and pastoral ministry, which was completed with a little bit of help from John Piper and the writings of Edwards and others (especially Augustine and Calvin). It also sets forth an Edwardsean theology of joy. In Everhard’s words, “this book does not attempt to mine new territory or to discover new theological motifs that have never been discussed more competently in other places. As limited as the topic of joy is, this short book does not attempt to be theologically novel or particularly original. On the contrary, this book will merely attempt to summarize a few of the major themes related to joy that can be found in the writings of the Puritan, Jonathan Edwards” (p. 9).

A Theology of Joy includes ten main chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. After doing some of his own Edwards-style exegesis, the author gathers fruit from some of Edwards’ best-known writings, most importantly—though certainly only—Religious Affectionsand his series on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (based on Matthew 25), published as True and False Christians by Ken Minkema, Adriaan Neele, and Bryan McCarthy in a series of Edwards’ sermons on the Matthean parables. Then Everhard applies Edwards on joy to pastoral ministry.

“Perhaps the most important things that Edwards has taught me in my research on his theology of joy,” Rev. Everhard concludes, “can be reduced to two simple truths. First, I must guard jealously the joy that I have as a pastor and as a redeemed sinner in the Lord Jesus Christ. Although there are many threats and counterfeits, there truly is no joy that can replace that which I have in God’s Trinitarian work of redemption. Secondly, as a pastor, I must prepare my people for death by relentlessly showing them the temporality of this world (as beautiful as it is) and causing them to set their gaze forward, on the eternal joys that are to come in eternity in the ‘joy of thy lord’ (Matthew 25:21)” (p. 203).

More power to Boss, Everhard and several other pastors reviewed here in the past few years making Edwards more accessible and useful in the churches.

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Original source: http://jecteds.org/blog/2018/06/22/2606/

The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards (Part 3/3)

(Publishing Note: This article by Matthew Everhard appears in full in Westminster Society Journal, volume 2, “Means of Grace.” Westminster Society Press, 2018).

 

Preaching “Affectively” (Like Edwards)

The first thing that we might say about Edwards is that his preaching was designed to be affective (not to be confused with effective). That is, his sermons were aimed like an arrow resting on a taut bow string at the very heart of the man. In his great work, The Religious Affections, Edwards describes the affections as, “No other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”[1] The word “inclination” is probably key here, as affections are different from mere emotions. Neither are they passions.[2]  Early on in the treatise, Edwards names off and briefly comments upon ten examples of the sorts of religious affections he is talking about: fear, hope, love, joy, hatred, desire, sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal.[3] We might observe in his preaching patterns that every sermon was designed to stir, perturb, or provoke one or more of these affections.

In his powerful and provocative work entitled The Supremacy of God in Preaching, John Piper mentions ten ways in which Jonathan Edwards preached the gospel with both power and authority: 1) By stirring up the holy affections of his hearers, 2) by enlightening the mind through logical consistency, 3) by saturating his messages with Scripture, 4) by employing analogies and images that captured the imagination, 5) by using threats and warnings consistent with Scripture’s balance of Law and gospel, 6) by pleading for a response from his hearers, 7) by probing the inner workings of the heart, 8) by yielding to the Holy Spirit in prayer, 9) by being broken and tenderhearted as a minister and, 10) with an intensity commensurate to the message of the gospel itself.[4]

In one richly compelling chapter, Piper discusses the way that “gladness” should infiltrate the very act of preaching itself. He says, “A pastor who is not manifestly glad in God does not glorify God. He cannot make God look glorious if knowing and serving this God gives no gladness to the soul.”[5] Here, Piper intimates that even the act of preaching should be joyful. He draws a very strong distinction between joy and flippancy, but nevertheless he argues persuasively that delivery of joyful news should be done joyfully. If a runner brought news of a victory in battle, would not his face, body, and general comportment reflect the tenor of the news that he brought? What other way can good news be communicated but by an advocate that is himself set free by the joy of the freedom he proclaims? Piper sums this truth up rightly when he says that, “One reason an essential element of love is the enjoyment of our work is that you can’t consistently give what you don’t have. If you don’t give gladness, you don’t give the gospel, you give legalism.”[6]

Piper is wise to remind us that even when we are called to preach the difficult and hard truths of the Christian faith, we should do so with joy on our faces. There is no reason why sermons on holiness, obedience, suffering, and even the wrath to come must be delivered with deep frowns and sorrowful eyes. As a matter of fact, even Edwards’s most notoriously dark sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” concludes with a joyful invitation to repentance and new life. Though many know of Edwards’s frightening imagery of backsliding and hellfire, not many are as aware of his concluding imagery at the end of the sermon. This great image is one of Christ opening a window or door and beckoning as many as are called to enter into this way of salvation. We note again the language of happiness and joy in the conclusion as Edwards pleads with sinners to repent:

Many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God.[7]

 

I think Edwards realized this same truth that Piper expounds in The Supremacy of God, when the Northampton pastor once preached, “And how joyful will it be to [pastors] to consider that they have been the instruments of so advancing the kingdom and glory of their Lord in the world and bringing home those to Him that He has purchased with His blood.”[8] Again he asks, “Is not that honorable to such little, inferior creatures as we to be employed to do that which, when done, rejoices the heart of the Son of God?”[9] If we are to do Edwardsean preaching, not only should we preach joy, but we should preach joy, joyfully. We should preach dread, dreadfully. We should preach love, lovingly.

Preaching Doctrine (Like Edwards)

Revisit, if you will, that image of a pastor today trying to imitate Edwards with his wig and 90 minute sermon, thick with doctrine. Probably the reason that such theologically rich preaching would be ill-received today is that pastors have unwittingly trained our people not to expect it. In this way, a vicious cycle ensues. Pastors give their congregations less and less doctrinal substance, virtually “un-training” their people to receive it. This thereby lowers their expectations and demands for the same. One wonders what would happen if pastors were more intentional about re-asserting doctrine into our sermons the way that Edwards did.

Including a doctrinal section in one’s sermon is not unique to Edwards. (Almost all Puritans commonly did the same). But it is consistent with nearly every single one of Edwards’s extant sermons. In almost every manuscript sermon of the Northampton divine,[10] Edwards gave a very succinct definition of a Christian doctrine drawn from the scriptural text about which he spoke. Edwards, like all of the Puritans of his age, was constant in his use of doctrinal content in his sermons and writings.[11] As was consistent with the Puritan model of “text, doctrine, application,”[12] his sermons stated up-front, and in his own words what doctrine he was preaching on, making his theological goals overt and clear to his audience. In this way, Edwards safe-guarded what is true, pure, lovely, and commendable (Philippians 4:8). Moreover, his congregation learned to discern the true from the false.

Remember, in the Puritan age fathers regularly catechized their family and children by reviewing the sermon on the Lord’s Day afternoon, expecting even young ones to learn the doctrinal context that was given by the minister.[13] This is most easily done, of course, if the doctrinal statement of the sermon is given explicitly rather than being given implicitly or merely assumed throughout the course of the weekly sermon. Edwards’s doctrinal statements were always well-crafted, and were meant to be memorized and absorbed by the minds of both the educated and the neophytes in his congregation.

Looking at a couple of his doctrinal assertions, we realize just how much care and shaping he put into his formative, propositional truths. For instance, in Charity and Its Fruits, his doctrine for the occasion was gloriously simple: “Heaven is a world of love.”[14] On an earlier occasion, his doctrinal statement in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:3 must have struck many hearers like a dagger to the heart “That all that man can do, and all that they can suffer, can never make up for the want of sincere Christian love in the heart.”[15] I can only imagine fathers noting these poignant words in their notebooks and returning to the Sabbath day meal table to discuss this rich axiom with their families over dinner.

Sometimes Edwards’s doctrinal statements were much more complicated. In his series True and False Christians from Matthew 25:1–12, he gave this more extended, two-part doctrine for the church to learn: “I. That the visible church of Christ is made up of true and false Christians. II. Those two sorts of Christians do in many things agree, and yet in many other things do greatly differ.”[16] While far wordier than the two examples mentioned above, this statement too is rich with insight, waiting to be explicated in discussion by families in the home. This two-part statement begs to be dissected: What do we mean by the “visible church?” In what ways are true and false Christians alike? In what ways are they different? Thus, by crafting very well intentioned and carefully honed doctrinal statements, Edwards both encouraged and enabled his people to think carefully on the doctrinal content of the weekly sermon.

If we are to help our people discover real and lasting joys in Christ, we will have to help them to discover the joy of Christian doctrine. Far from being perceived as “unnecessary” or “a divider” between Christian denominations, the Bible itself views doctrine as something intricately valuable to faith and growth in sanctification. In the seven uses of the word “doctrine” in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus in the ESV, the Apostle used the term in an unequivocally positive light. Paul bids his young co-laborers for the gospel to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), “adorn the doctrine of God our savior” (Titus 2:10), and to hold firm to sound doctrine to enable the church to discern truth from error (1 Timothy 1:10, 1 Timothy 6:3). Doctrine is rarely if ever seen in the Bible as being unnecessarily divisive, but rather as a faithful, God-honoring summation of the faith “once for all given to the saints” (Jude 3).

Inspired by the clarity of Edwards and his peers in the doctrinal portions of Puritan sermons, I have recently been motivated to try something similar. After an opening illustration aimed at introducing the passage at hand, and giving the congregation some background information on the text which we are studying (the first part of the tripartite Puritan formulation), I have attempted stating a doctrinal assertion as Edwards does. I began articulating a particular truth in one or two lines, and informed the congregation that this is the immediate subject matter of the sermon. Intentionally, I place the doctrinal proposition on the Power Point in the view of all as I preach, and encourage the congregation to write it down and discuss it later as a family.

For instance, in a sermon on Luke 12:22–34, I recently defined the doctrine of worry as follows: “Worry is a creaturely lapse of trust in either God’s sovereignty over creation, or His benevolence towards those He loves.” In this way, worry is defined as a problem as it relates to God as our divine protector and Father, rather than merely a troubling feeling or emotion that we all experience. On a sermon on Luke 15:1–15, I defined irresistible grace as “Christ’s persistent pursuit of rogue sinners, resulting in their gracious capture and joyful return home.” In an Edwardsean way, I made a special effort to show how this doctrine is joyful, rather than merely engaging in an intellectual wrestling match about the divine decrees. In a sermon on Luke 4:16–30, I defined preaching as “a Spirit-empowered means of grace, in which promises and warnings of God are declared, resulting in either transformed lives or hardened hearts.” This doctrinal definition also helped me to form the three parts of my sermon more clearly: first, a discussion on the “means of grace,” second an explanation of the promises and warnings of God, and third an application that reminds hearers that preaching either transforms our lives or hardens our hearts. In this case, the doctrinal assertion also served as the outline for the sermon, even ending with what Edwards might have called the “use of examination,” to determine whether or not the preaching of the Word was hardening or softening the hearts of the hearers.

Concluding this section, I should say that I have observed anecdotally that giving a well-reasoned doctrinal statement at the beginning of the sermon helps in several significant ways. First, it helps the preacher to better articulate his outline and formulate his own trajectory for the sermon. As I noted above, a well-formed doctrinal statement may actually become the very outline of the message. Second, a succinct, well-crafted doctrine allows the congregation to learn or review a doctrinal formulation in the fresh words of the preacher. Once or twice, I have also placed my own doctrine next to a more standard formulation from the Westminster Confession or Heidelberg Catechism. In this way, the congregation gets two perspectives by which to approach the same concept. Finally, by introducing a doctrinal proposition at the beginning of the sermon (even if it is not stated as such) the preacher is better able to ensure that his overall preaching ministry is informed by the great truths of the Christian faith, rather than steered and directed by the perceived needs of a very impatient and self-centered culture. I believe this also allows us as Christians to experience our joy in Christ and the gospel, as over against other more humanistic loci.

We Will Never Be (Exactly) Like Jonathan Edwards

The bottom-line is that we will never be quite like Jonathan Edwards. He was a unique genius in his own age and time that we are unlikely to be able to replicate. Most of us were not given his intellectual abilities, nor were any of us perched on the unique stage of redemption history at the cusp of the Great Awakening as he was. Probably we should never wear a wig into the pulpit or preach a 90-minute sermon. (Unless styles and conventions suddenly change dramatically in our times!). However we can be like him in a great many other ways. We can live as preachers who faithfully feed our congregations with Bible-saturated messages and sermons week in and week out. We can serve the local church with the ordinary means of grace as he did, offering our people a rich diet of Word and Sacrament. We can make our doctrinal statements in our sermons clear and helpful for our people to apprehend and apply. More than that, we can preach the very same good news of the Gospel with all the affective power of voice, body, and intellect that God has given each of us. This, even if we do not have Edwards’s intellectual prowess or Whitefield’s command of voice and pulpit presence. Indeed, we can preach affective sermons that are aimed at the hearts of our people; that the Gospel may pierce deeply and profoundly, trusting that He will pour out His blessings upon our generation, even as He did among the Colonies so gloriously in times past.

[1] WJE 2:96.

[2] “In eighteenth century parlance, passions were irrational and out-of-control emotions that were to be avoided at all costs; and affections were not irrational, but rational, deeper springs of action.” Sean Michael Lucas, God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 92.

[3] WJE 2:102.

[4] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 81–106.

[5] Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 53.

[6] Ibid., 53.

[7] Nichols, A Guided Tour, 201.

[8] Edwards, The Salvation of Souls, 81.

[9] Ibid., 86.

[10] There are some occasions in his longer series such as Charity and True and False Christians in which he does not give a doctrine because he is following up on a previous sermon and instead giving extended application or “improvement” of a doctrine given previously, possibly earlier in the same day.

[11] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 277–290.

[12] Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 99–101.

[13] Ibid., 104.

[14] WJE 8:368.

[15] WJE 8:176.

[16] Edwards, True and False Christians, 64.

The Preaching Ministry of Jonathan Edwards (Part 2/3)

(Publishing Note: This article by Matthew Everhard appears in full in the Westminster Society Journal, volume 2, Means of Grace. Westminster Society Press, Summer 2018).

Preaching a “Big God” Theology

Edwards’s goal was to declare the sovereignty of God in all things. He preached what today might be called a “Big God” theology. Edwards’s Trinitarian theology permeates all of his preaching. Every sermon was carefully crafted to let his people feel the power of God’s judgment, dread the holiness of his righteous standard, weep for the guilt of their own sin, and cling to the cross of Jesus Christ as their own hope. The God of the Bible wasn’t merely tangential or peripheral to his preaching; it was central. By beginning and ending with God rather than the needs and feelings of man, Edwards kept his sermons focused on the pure fountain and source of all joy and dread, God. Themes of salvation, atonement, revival, and repentance in his preaching all pointed to the greatness of God’s dominion.  Edwards knew that if his people were to experience true joy in this mortal life, it would come through real encounters with the Resurrected Christ, not by the oratory of the Enlightenment preachers, who extolled man’s virtue, intelligence, and volitional freedom. In a way, the form of the sermons themselves were merely circumstantial to the encounter that God would have with his people in the very event of the preaching act.  Even when George Whitefield came through town, Edwards reminded his people that the truest and purest joys and fears were to be found in what Whitefield spoke and preached, not in the manner that he taught it or the richness of his voice.[1] Edwards wanted his people to discover and encounter God Himself in a saving way that would last eternally, not merely through motivational speeches or “pick-me-ups” which would fade away in a matter of weeks or even years.

Thus, Edwards held a high view of preaching, possibly even an exalted one. Wilson H. Kimnach, writing the introduction to the Matthean Parables series, says in his brief essay “Edwards the Preacher” that “the preacher is, then, a ‘chosen one’ with a distinct charisma as a result of his call to serve Christ.”[2] Edwards believed that it was the pastor-preacher who is designated with the divine role of declaring God’s greatness to His people.  He then becomes a chief ambassador of joy for the King. Gary Crampton, in his interesting book, A Conversation with Jonathan Edwards quotes the Puritan as saying, “Ministers are God’s messengers, sent forth by Him; and in their office and administration among their people, represent His person, stand in His stead, as those that are sent to declare His mind, to do His works, and to speak in His name.”[3] Speaking on another occasion in the context of a discussion of the minister’s divine commission to represent the authority of Jesus Christ through the written Word preached, the Northampton Divine said:

But if it was plain to them [his congregation] that I was under the infallible guidance of Christ, then I should have more power. And if it was plain to all the world of Christians that I was under the infallible guidance of Christ, and that I was sent forth to teach the world the will of Christ, then I should have power in all the world.[4]

Clearly then, when Edwards thought of himself and other ministers of the gospel, he saw himself as a divine commissioner with representative and delegated authority, to declare both the Law and the gospel of God. When he spoke the deep truths of Scripture, he recognized that he was tasked with giving a human voice to the divine Word. He knew that these truths set people free from the law of sin and death, and therefore he savored his role in their ransom. For this reason, Edwards practically expected the dynamic power of God to be at work in and among his people as the Word went out, even though the power to call the fire from heaven did not reside in him, but in the Spirit. Perhaps this is why Edwards was used of God in two significant revivals and wrote some of the most important works on revivalism. He spoke a message of God, fully expecting to be used as God’s very mouthpiece, yielding the results of the harvest that the Lord ordained.

In probably one of his most illustrious quotes on the nature of gospel preaching, Edwards says in his sermon “Christ the Example of Ministers”:

Ministers [should] travail for the conversion and salvation of their hearers. They should imitate the faithfulness of Christ in his ministry, in speaking whatsoever God had commanded him, and declaring the whole counsel of God. They should imitate him with the manner of his preaching; who taught not as the scribes, but with authority, boldly, zealously, and fervently; insisting chiefly on the most important things in religion.[5]

In brief, Edwards preached so that his people would be forced to encounter God. Yet these divine meetings occurred through what are called today “the ordinary means of grace”; Bible reading, preaching, prayer, and the right administration of the sacraments. Personally, I sense that there are some who would still find Edwards’s “Big God” theology compelling even today. Perhaps you are among them. Edwards would be delighted that many still share his conviction that the pulpit of the local church is still the divinely ordained means of communicating God’s truths to the world.

Preaching Today

But if we are honest, doing what Edwards did verbatim would not “work” today. Suppose your pastor entered the pulpit with a white powdered wig, a black Geneva gown, and read a 60 to 90 minute sermon from handwritten notes. I get uncomfortable even imagining what would begin to happen in the pews if I tried that in my congregation.  I would guess that our Wi-Fi network would max out as people deftly checked their phones. I can imagine peoples of all ages making multiple restroom breaks just to help the time pass. I can imagine the nursery team being overwhelmed due to the length of the service, and sending up signal flares to call for backup! What I cannot imagine is visitors returning to the church the following week. No, we would be foolish to try to emulate Edwards’s methods, even if we fully imbibe his theology. We don’t live in Edwards’s day and shouldn’t pretend we do.

That being said, thinking about most American Evangelical preaching today is alarming. I doubt Edwards would have even recognized it as “preaching.” There are many storytellers, but few expositors. Many “big personalities,” but not much “Big God” theology. I fear greatly that we live in an age that is in danger of being swept up in the teachings of men who have the winsome power of a George Whitefield, but without his hearty and faithful doctrine. The Church of Jesus Christ today has a plethora of men who are able to gather large crowds to hear them preach (read: give motivational talks), who purchase their DVD’s, and who tune in to their podcasts. And yet their doctrine is as thin and dry as a wafer. I have previously written on this topic in my article “The Cool Pastor,” in which I express serious concern about the way that cultural Christianity has created a seemingly unlimited number of celebrity pastors for itself, only to find their teaching void of rich, biblical content.[6] Much of the preaching given by leaders in the evangelical church today has so far departed from the Puritan style of preaching doctrinal content as to have become unrecognizable in homiletical style and form. Not only are specific doctrinal assertions absent from most sermons, but many pastors view doctrine in general as unhelpful, confusing, and irrelevant. Many have forsaken expository preaching or verse-by-verse preaching en toto as a means of communication. Andy Stanley, for instance, writes:

Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible—that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There’s not one example of that. All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. My challenge is to read culture and to read an audience and ask: What is the felt need? Or perhaps what is more important, what is an unfelt need they need to feel that I can address? Because if they don’t feel it, then they won’t address it.[7]

Whether or not Stanley’s remarks about verse-by-verse preaching as “cheating” can be considered tongue-in-cheek, his view sadly reflects a perspective on preaching held by very many people today: surely there must be something more helpful and important (read: entertaining) than merely preaching the Bible a line at a time, right? My concern is that this point of view which Stanley has articulated is far too common.

At the same time, there is a ray of hope. Many of us are going ad fontes, back to the original sources. Ministers and lay people alike are being transformed by going back to more ancient sources of inspiration. Edwards studies, for instance, are burgeoning in many academic spheres. Reprints of his written works are selling well too, and some publishers, like Crossway for instance, are bringing more Edwards-related materials to the fore every year. Twenty-six volumes of his works have already been published by Yale University, and the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University Online is continually adding newly transcribed sermons and other writings to their digital database, bringing Edwards’s thoughts on the centrality of God into the homes of billions around the world. There are even podcasts devoted to discussing and promoting his teaching and discussing his sermons point by point.[8] Let’s spend the rest of this article looking at two specific ways that we can learn from Edwards as preachers and parishioners (even if we never don a wig or black gown).

 

[1] Jonathan Edwards, Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables: Divine Husbandman (On the Parable of the Sower and Seed), vol. 2, eds. Kenneth P. Minkema, Adriaan C. Neele, and Bryan K. Kimnach (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 25–30.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables: True and False Christians. vol 1. On the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Edited by Kenneth P. Minkema, Adriaan C. Neele, and Bryan K. Kimnach. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 2.

[3] Gary Crampton, A Conversation with Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 48–49.

[4] Edwards, True and False Christians, 2.

[5] Edwards, Sermons, 455.

[6] Matthew Everhard, “The Cool Pastor: Oxymoron or Just a Regular Moron.” The Aquila Report. November 24, 2013. Accessed August 16, 2017. http://theaquilareport.com/the-cool-pastor-an-oxymoron-or-just-a-regular-moron/.

[7] Andy Stanley, “Andy Stanley on Communication. Part Two.” The Exchange: A Blog by Ed Stetzer. March 5, 2009. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2009/march/andy-stanley-on-communication-part-2.html

[8] For instance, the Reformed Forum has a podcast show entitled “East of Eden” in which the works and theology of Jonathan Edwards are discussed exclusively.