I’ll be the first to admit that the 17-18th century Puritans were not the most cross-centered bunch. They most certainly understood the gospel, preached on the gospel, and called sinners to embrace the gospel. But too frequently the gospel was pushed out to a remote and peripheral place in the Christian life. For example, one can read many pages from Richard Baxter’s gigantic Christian Directory on virtually all areas of the Christian life, and not see any connection made between the daily pursuit of holiness and the cross.
So I think a fair and healthy question to ask is this: How cross-centered was American Puritan Jonathan Edwards?
In 1756 Samuel Hopkins published The Life and character of the Late Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards, and as part of the biography Hopkins included a reprinting of a “Letter to the Trustees of the College of New Jersey, Oct. 19, 1757.” The letter was Edwards’s response to the trustee request to consider becoming the new college president (of what we now know as Princeton). In the response to the opportunity, Edwards pens several objections to the appointment trying to convince the trustees that they could find a better suited, more broadly educated, and a healthier presidential appointee.
As part of his argument against his own appointment Edwards wrote in this letter that he hoped to write several books and a move to lead the college would—by Edwards’s estimation—limit his freedom to write theology. In the letter Edwards reveals one particular project he hoped to write.
“… a Body of Divinity in an entire new method, being thrown in the form of a history, considering the affair of Christian theology, as the whole of it, in each part, stands in reference to the great work of redemption by Jesus Christ; which I suppose is to be the grand design, of all God’s designs, and the summum and ultimum of all the divine operations and degrees; particularly considering all parts of the grand scheme in their historical order.”
Five months after writing these words to the trustees at Princeton, Edwards would be dead from a smallpox inoculation gone bad. And in a field to the north of Princeton, the hope of Edwards’s book on the centrality of the gospel was buried, too. Had he lived, Edwards would have embraced the full demands of leading the college. Whether in life or death the book was unlikely.
The short excerpt from this letter gives us a glimpse into Edwards’s priorities in theology and reveals to us a man who understood the centrality of the cross in the full scope of God’s plans and purposes.