Was Jonathan Edwards Cross-Centered?

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.

8 thoughts on “Was Jonathan Edwards Cross-Centered?

  1. Tony,

    Long time no see…seems like you are having a good summer and enjoying the east coast countryside.

    Thanks for both this quote and your article. I enjoyed it.


  2. Thank you for the sweet lines by Edwards Tony. Grace to you.

    “It is God in Christ that a holy worshipper thirsteth after and seeketh for in every part of worship…The ordinances of God’s worship are like the tree in which Zaccheus climbed up to have a sight of Christ…Hither we come for that holy light, which may show us our sin, and show us the grace which we have received, and show us the unspeakable love of God, till we are humbled for sin, and lifted up by faith in Christ, and can with Thomas, as it were, put our fingers into his wounds, and say in assurance, ‘My Lord and my God.”…See then that you come to the worship of God with these intentions and expectations.”

    Richard Baxter, *A Christian Directory* Part III, Chapter I, p. 550-551.

  3. Erik! Great to hear from you. I’ve been tracking information online about the new church plant. Pray all is well with the church. When you get a chance send along an email update on how things are going. Blessings, my friend!

    Tom, you are welcomed. Thanks for the Baxter quote. We know how long it took you to find it–some 500+ pages. ;-) Blessings! Tony

  4. I take your point about the Puritan’s devotional guides. But after doing a PhD on John Owen, I’m not sure I’d agree the 17th century puritans weren’t cross-centred. His book “Of Communion with God” is a case in point – from memory, the majority of it is devoted to Christ and the cross! And the Puritans were deeply in love with their Saviour, and obsessed with the wonder of the cross of Christ.

  5. Thanks for the comment Jean! There is a difference between writing specific works on the cross and writing everything under the shadow of the cross. The Puritans did write on the cross but too frequently wrote on a spectrum of topics with an obvious neglect of the cross (i.e. note the Puritan cross silence too frequent in discussions of assurance.) Did the Puritan’s understand the cross? Certainly. Were they always aware of the cross in relation to the present topic at hand? Sadly no. I’m a great fan of the Puritans (obviously) but this was their tragic oversight, one we can learn from.

    May we view everything else in light of the cross.


  6. Baxter in Christian Directory uses the phrase “cross of Christ” 120 times. He uses the word “sin” nearly 8,000 times. That’s the disparity I’m concerned with. … But the same time I do want to celebrate the cross-centered statements these Puritans did make. Thanks Tom for Baxter “”s in CD. Here are some others …

    “See by faith the blood of Christ as the purchasing cause of all you have; and then sure you will bear more reverence to his blood, than to cast the fruit of it into the sink of sensuality, and to do worse than throw it upon the dunghill.” (317)

    “We must repent of sin; but it must be a thankful repenting, as becometh those that have a free pardon of all their sins procured by the blood of Christ, and offered them in the gospel: leave out this gratitude, and it is no evangelical repentance. And what is our saving faith in Christ, but the assent to the truth of the gospel, with a thankful acceptance of the good which it offereth us, even Christ as our Saviour, with the benefits of his redemption. The love to God that is there required, is the thankful love of his redeemed ones : and the love to our very enemies, and the forgiving of wrongs, and all the love to one another, and all the works of charity there required, are the exercises of gratitude, and are all to be done, on this account, because Christ hath loved us, and forgiven us, and that we may show our thankful love to him. Preaching, and praying, and sacraments, and public praises, and communion of saints, and obedience, are all to be animated with gratitude; and they are no further evangelically performed, than thankfulness is the very life and complexion of them all. The dark and defective opening of this by preachers, gave occasion to the antinomians to run into the contrary extreme, and to derogate too much from God’s law and our obedience; but if we obscure the doctrine of evangelical gratitude, we do as bad or worse than they.” (143)

  7. Tony,

    Richard Baxter was an exception to the rule among Puritans I believe because he was an Amyraldian. In rejecting Christ the “L” as being the center of the doctrine of grace, it removes Christ from the equation so it seems natural that he would do so elsewhere. But all spiritual blessings, including effectual grace have their root in the cross. Every aspect of our redemption is Christ centered. So called 4-point Calvinists liek Baxter by default do not believe that is the case.

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