How Jonathan Edwards Processed Theology

The new theology of Jonathan Edwards by Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott is a magnificent achievement in bringing theological synthesis to the copious works of America’s most noteworthy theologian. Now that the works of Edwards are online and more accessible than ever, I’m sure other volumes of similar magnitude will follow in the future, but to date there’s nothing that compares to this new volume in scale and breadth. McClymond and McDermott’s work is to the theology of Edwards what Marsden’s work is to the life of Edwards, and unless the second half is a major disappointment it will be my book of the year in 2011. (Since it’s technically copyright 2012, it may be my selection next year, too!)

In one of the earliest sections of the book the authors explain the different ways Edwards processed different theological ideas (pages 10–12). Since my friend Andy recently dissected the theological brain of the greatest Canadian theologian, I thought I would write a summary of how the theological brain of America’s greatest theologian worked, a very brief one.

According to McClymond and McDermott, Edwards processed his theology on three fronts by juggling, connecting, and infusing ideas.

By juggling ideas, Edwards studied many different theological topics at the same time. His 1,400 recorded miscellanies testify to how well he captured and developed various ideas. It was to these notebooks that Edwards turned in developing books and sermons, a well to withdraw years of recorded and retrievable thoughts.

By connecting ideas, Edwards thoughts were not merely atomized, random miscellanies. The genius of Edwards is not only how deeply he thought with atomized topics recorded in his notebooks, but how he connected and cross-pollinated orthodox theological themes that led him to consider fairly novel conclusions. What he discovered was a nearly limitless interrelationship between the themes, tying strings to the various themes he had once juggled.

By infusing ideas, Edwards was able to take the major conclusions of his research and infuse those ideas into his larger theological picture. The topics he juggled in his mind, began to grow and connect, which he then worked into major themes – notably the brilliant idea that God’s passion for His own glory and man’s happiness are not at odds. In my mind infusing a key theme (or a few key themes) into the whole structure of one’s theological convictions is really the most difficult of the three, and something only a few exegetically-grounded, deep thinking theologians will achieve with much public success (think John Piper).

Yet for all his brilliance, Edwards leaves us a pattern that I find helpful. As those who research Scripture and theology we need (1) a place to record our developing thoughts, (2) time to see how themes of Scripture relate to one another, and (3) deeply-rooted convictions about major themes.

Print, trim, and paste this into your copy of Religious Affections

I named my blog and my firstborn after Jonathan Edwards, the brilliant theologian. Yet, I think it would be wise to print and paste the following quote on the inside cover of his classic book Religious Affections (if you own it—and you should!).

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (London, 1873), 3:107:

Many sincere believers are too introspective. They look too exclusively within, so that their hope is graduated by the degree of evidence of regeneration which they find in their own experience. This, except in rare cases, can never lead to the assurance of hope. We may examine our hearts with all the microscopic care prescribed by President Edwards in his work on The Religious Affections, and never be satisfied that we have eliminated every ground of misgiving and doubt. The grounds of assurance are not so much within, as without us.

The Beauty of God’s Holiness

What is beauty?

This is an important question and one that Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) addresses in his classic book Religious Affections. There in his third point on the nature of holy affections he argues that personal delight in God’s holiness is the evidence of God’s active grace. This point, and how it connects to beauty, is one that needs to be unpacked.

To set up this point Edwards contrasts God’s natural attributes and his moral attributes. God’s (so called) natural attributes are his grandeur, strength, and power. It is entirely possible, Edwards writes, to stand amazed by these natural attributes and yet remain unconverted. “’Tis possible that those who are wholly without grace, should have a clear sight, and a very great and affecting sense of God’s greatness, his mighty power, and awful majesty; for this is what the devils have … [yet] they are perfectly destitute of any sense of relish of that kind of [his] beauty.”

He continues.

A sight of the awful greatness of God, may overpower men’s strength, and be more than they can endure; but if the moral beauty of God be hid, the enmity of the heart will remain in its full strength, no love will be enkindled, all will not be effectual to gain the will … whereas the first glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of God shining into the heart, produces all these effects, as it were with omnipotent power, which nothing can withstand (2:264­–265).

For Edwards, genuine conversion is marked by something deeper than reverence for God’s natural attributes. A believer will actually find what no non-believer will find—delight in God’s moral attributes, namely his perfect holiness.

God’s holy beauty is where all genuine and saving Theology begins.

Edwards further develops his argument by revealing how holiness and beauty are inseparable. For example:

  • The Savior is altogether lovely because he is altogether holy (Rev. 3:7). “All the spiritual beauty of his human nature, consisting in his meekness, lowliness, patience, heavenliness, love to God, love to men, condescension to the mean and vile, and compassion to the miserable, etc. all is summed up in his holiness.”
  • Heaven is sweet because it is the holy Jerusalem where the holiness of Christ is celebrated (Isa. 63:15, Rev. 4:8, 21:2, 10–11).
  • God’s word is sweet because the doctrines are holy doctrines. This explains the Psalmist’s delight (Pss. 19:7-10; 119:140).
  • The gospel is a sweet because it is a holy gospel.

These themes merge even closer in three Old Testament passages that highlight the beauty, splendor, and attractiveness of God’s holiness (1 Chr. 16:29, Pss 29:2, 96:9):

Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness

These passages seem to rest at the core of Edwards’ argument. Divine holiness is the very definition of supreme beauty. And once the heart is given a sweet taste of God’s moral perfections, the redeemed heart cannot but be attracted to the beauty of God’s holiness.

As Gerald R. McDermott writes [Reformation and Revival, vol. 6:1, 109-10]:

This is what sets the saint apart from all others. Others may also see divine things, but they don’t see their beauty or glory. … The unregenerate may see or know divine things (some don’t ever see divine things at all) but they never see their beauty—which is the beauty of holiness. According to Edwards, this is the glory that the Bible says is the central thing that makes God and His ways attractive—that lures humans in love to Him. This is the light that makes the person of Jesus so ravishingly beautiful, that has drawn the hearts of millions to Himself for the last two millennia. This is the brightness that all saints see in comparison to which their own hearts appear filthy.

In our visually-driven world, where beauty is measured by a worldly fad or by some subjective visual response, these theological ideas carry enormous consequences.

For example, we learn that standards of aesthetic beauty in art and literature cannot ever be divorced from God’s moral holiness: holiness is beautiful. Sin cannot be anything other than ugliness. Or consider personal renewal. What we so often mistake as drudgery when we think about battling sin is actually our personal participation in God’s own striking holiness (1 Pet. 1:16). Which is why it’s not surprising that feminine beauty is shaped and defined by God’s holiness (1 Pet. 3:1–6). The implications to this beauty-holiness connection are nearly endless.

At its root, the point Jonathan Edwards makes in Religious Affections is an important one: the splendor of God’s holiness is the pinnacle of all beauty. And it is a beauty that should tug at the strings of our affections.

Family Trip: Jonathan Edwards 2010

This fall we are planning a return to homeschooling and along with it we are planning one course for the kids that focuses on colonial American history. My hope is that this learning will lead up nicely to a short road trip in October to track the footprints of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Great Awakening.

The trip goals are simple:

(1) visit key places in the life of Jonathan Edwards,

(2) learn about the Great Awakening,

(3) better appreciate domestic life and architecture in Colonial America,

(4) better understand the 18th century tension between colonists and native Americans,

(5) appreciate the marriage of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards,

(6) learn about the person and preaching of George Whitefield and his initial meeting with Edwards in Northampton,

(7) learn about David Brainerd and the frontier missions work with the indians that Edwards later participated, and

(8) appreciate nature’s beauty.

The route will largely unfold chronologically in an 874 mile long balloon-shaped loop (see map here). The planning is early and things will change but what follows are all the locations I’m planning to hit. Most of them I have found and marked with GPS coordinates (because I’m nerdy like that). I’ll fill in the locations as I find them.

Please tell me if you know of other landmarks of interest that I have not mentioned here. We cannot see everything (sadly New Haven, CT got an early x). Please tell me what I’ve missed.


East Windsor, CT: 1703-1716

Timothy Edwards’ church
Timothy was Edwards father and he was a pastor. This is the site of the East Windsor awakening of 1716. For background reading see Marsden, 33-34.
Location: 41.830287,-72.617598

Jonathan Edwards’ birthplace (Oct 5, 1703) and childhood
For background reading on Edwards’ childhood and his early memories of the natives see Marsden, 11-24.
Location: 41.844849,-72.611963 (birthplace marker)

Edwards Cemetery
Resting place for his parents (Timothy and Esther Edwards) and two daughters (Jerusha and Lucy).
Location: 41.848644,-72.609842

Hike: Windsor Meadows State Park
We plan to hike a bit along the way so I throw this in as one option.
Location: 41.813263,-72.647379


Enfield, CT: 1741

Sinners in the Hands” sermon location
On the July 8, 1741 sermon see Marsden, 219-226; Murray, 168-170. Listen to Mark Dever read/preach the message in 58-minutes (
Location: 41.971588,-72.592761 (stone marker)

Windsor Locks Canal State Park Trail
A beautiful <2 mile hike. Read Edwards appreciation for nature’s beauty in Miscellany #108 (Works, 13.278-280)
Location: 41.986587,-72.605060


Northampton, MA: 1726-1750

Read Marsden, 110-374

Historic Northampton Museum
Gateway to Jonathan Edwards walking tour. The website reads ( “The Museum and Gift Shop are open daily, Tuesday through Saturday from 10 AM until 5 PM and on Sunday from Noon until 5 PM. Historic Northampton is closed on Mondays & Holidays.”
Location: 46 Bridge St, Northampton, MA 01060

Edwards’ home
Read about their home (Marsden, 320-323) and the historic meeting there between Jonathan Edwards and Whitefield on Oct. 17, 1740 (see Dallimore, 1:537-540; Marsden, 206-213).
location: ?? Smith College ??

Jonathan Edwards’ church location
See the commemorative plaque for the 1737 church on the front steps and the JE plaque inside. For background read about the periods of awakenings in the church read Marsden, 150-169.
Location: 42.319062,-72.630887

Bridge Street Cemetery
Resting place of David Brainerd, Jerusha Edwards, and many of the Stoddards. Read about Brainerd and Jerusha in Marsden, 320-340.
Location: 42.327452,-72.629693


Stockbridge, CT: 1750-1758

Read Marsden, 375-428

Morning reading: Sermon, “Christ Is to the Heart Like a River to a Tree,” a brief sacramental message read and translated to the Mahican Indians in Stockbridge in August of 1751 (Works, 25:602-604).

Stockbridge Library Association
Jonathan Edwards artifacts on display.
Location: 46 Main St, Stockbridge, MA

Mission House
Read about the mission house in Marsden, 375-380, 390-391. The website reads ( “Open Memorial Day Weekend to Columbus Day [2nd Mon in Oct], Thursday through Monday, 11am–3pm.”
Location: 42.283161,-73.315984

Edwards’ home
Where Edwards wrote Freedom of the Will, The End for Which God Created the World, and Original Sin.
Location: perhaps 42.283143,-73.314487 (Directions “Go down street [W] a little ways from library, home site on right marked by small marble fountain.”)

UPDATED: Edwards’ church location
Location: perhaps in the area of 42.283788,-73.319806 [HT: Martyn]

UPDATED: Edwards’ monument
Location: 42.284223,-73.320254 [HT: Martyn]


Princeton, NJ: 1758

Princeton Cemetery
Resting place for Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Readings: Marriage summary (find a good one); passings and burials in Marsden, 490-498.
Location: 40.352509,-74.660135

Nassau Hall
Period building
Location: 40.348641,-74.659301

MacLean House
Period building (back side only)
Location: 40.349063,-74.660211


Philadelphia, PA

George Whitefield statue
On the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, which began in 1740 as a meeting place for the crowds who flooded to hear Whitefield preach. The statue was commissioned and purchased by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin said: “I knew him intimately upwards of thirty years. His integrity, disinterestedness and indefatigable zeal in prosecuting every good work I have never seen equaled and shall never see excelled.”
Location: 39.950452,-75.197347


Misc. places of interest we will not see

George Whitefield Rock
Whitefield preached from this boulder to a gathering of a few hundred people on Oct 16, 1740 on his way to Northampton.
Location: 42.231930,-72.126419

Faith and Assurance

I am an advocate of Jonathan Edwards and his works. I named this blog, and my firstborn son, in his honor. But Edwards had warts. And this includes his teaching on personal assurance of salvation that was based upon a “reflexive act of faith.” Edwards, it seems, encouraged people to believe in God irrespective of the personal benefits received from Him. In so doing this, Edwards effectively severs the link between initial saving faith and personal assurance. This separation has serious consequences for the Christian life.

In my humble opinion, I think Edwards confused the relationship between faith and assurance set forth by John Calvin and the Reformers. And my suspicion that something was different with Edwards was confirmed while discussing the topic with my friend Nathan Sasser some time ago.SASSER--Reformation+Puritan.Faith

In his ‘free time’ Nathan has written a 40-page paper “The Reformation vs. the Puritans on Faith and Assurance” a brief survey of this topic in the teachings of Edwards, Calvin, John Owen, and the Marrow Brethren. His paper has helped me better appreciate the role of faith in assurance, and topics of faith, works, assurance, and struggles with uncertainty. His paper has deepened my respect for Calvin and has nourished my soul.

If you have not studied the relationship between faith and assurance, you need to, and Nathan’s historical survey is a great place to begin.

Why should you care (page 3):

…It makes a great difference for the Christian life whether we are pursuing sanctification in order to get and retain assurance, or because we have it already. It makes a great deal of difference whether assurance is based on Scripture promises alone, or ultimately on self-examination. It makes a great deal of difference for evangelism whether we offer damned sinners the assurance of eternal life, or the possibility of acquiring assurance of eternal life.

His purpose in writing (page 1):

The purpose of this essay is to show that there are profound differences between the doctrine of faith and assurance in the Reformation era and the doctrines of faith and assurance which held sway in later Puritan thinking. While I will make some reference to Luther, Lutheranism, and various Reformed confessions and catechisms, I mainly compare John Calvin, John Owen, the Marrow Brethren, and Jonathan Edwards. Calvin makes assurance of the essence of faith; the early Owen does also, but the later Owen argues against the early Reformed view; the Marrow Brethren recover and defend Calvin’s theology from the sorts of arguments that the later Owen brings against it; Edwards seems completely unaware of the early Reformed view. When Edwards discusses the view that assurance is of the essence of faith, he not only argues against it in similar fashion to the later Owen, but he also argues that it is the doctrine of hypocritical pretenders to Christian faith. I do not pretend to give a defense of which view is biblical and therefore correct; this essay will include no exegesis. However, I will argue that Owen’s arguments against the early Reformed doctrine fail. The counterarguments of the Marrow Brethren are successful. Furthermore, my section on Calvin is meant to show that his doctrine of assurance ramifies his entire view of the Christian life. To reject it, as the Puritans did, entails a rejection of vast swaths of Calvin’s work.

His bio:

Nathan Sasser holds an M.Div from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. He is married to the brilliant and beautiful Patricia Sasser; both are long-time members of churches in Sovereign Grace Ministries.

You can download and read the entire paper as a single PDF document.

Jonathan Edwards on God’s Grand Design


During one Sunday morning sermon in the winter of 1744, Jonathan Edwards articulated what he understood to be the culmination of all God’s works. Admittedly a lofty goal for a single sermon.

Edwards titled his message “Approaching the End of God’s Grand Design” and chose Revelation 21:6 as the text—“And he said unto me, It is done.” He believed this text revealed the τέλος, the end. Edwards argued that all of God’s activities will one day culminate and be fully achieved in a single goal. The divine work of creation, providence, and redemption all point to one grand design. It all points to a wedding.

Edwards’ sermon is worth quoting at length:


DOCTRINE. There is a time coming when God’s grand design in all his various works and dispensations from age to age will be completed and his end fully obtained… What is this one great design that God has in view in all his works and dispensations?

Ans. ‘Tis to present to his Son a spouse in perfect glory from amongst sinful, miserable mankind, blessing all that comply with his will in this matter and destroying all his enemies that oppose it, and so to communicate and glorify himself through Jesus Christ, God-man. This I take to be the great design of the work of creation [and the] work of providence…

…because it was a spouse to communicate his goodness to that he desired, therefore that she might be one fit not to give but receive good, one was pitched upon that was remarkably empty and poor in herself, not of the highest order of creatures, but mankind—and not man in his first and best estate, but in a fallen, miserable, helpless state: a state wherein his emptiness and need of goodness did more remarkably appear. And because it was his design to communicate his goodness, therefore that he might do it the more fully, those were chosen that were unworthy; because the more unworthy the more is free goodness exercised, and so Christ’s end the more answered in his seeking a spouse to communicate of his goodness to. Hence, not the angels but the miserable race, [the] ruined, sinful race of mankind, was pitched upon.

And because the design was that Christ should communicate goodness, therefore such an one was chosen that needed that Christ should suffer, and it was the will of Christ to suffer because suffering is the greatest expression of goodness and manifestation of kindness. The great design was that Christ in this way should procure or obtain this his spouse, bring her to come to him, present her to himself and make her perfectly beautiful, perfectly and unspeakably happy. Ephesians 5:25, “[Christ] loved the church and gave himself for it.” And this is the way that God the Father intended to glorify his Son: the world was created that from thence Christ might obtain this spouse. This was God’s portion and inheritance, [his] first fruits, his jewel, [his] darling. This was the great gift of God to the Son in the eternal work of redemption, the great promise of God to Christ, the joy set before him. These things seem very manifest by the holy Scripture, and God the Father in this way glorifies himself by thus glorifying his Son, Jesus Christ.

This spouse of Christ is that part of the creation which God has made for his glory in an eminent manner. Isaiah 43:7, “Everyone that is called by my name: for I have created [him] for my glory.” This is the way in which God presents elect men to him, viz. by presenting them to Christ. Being presented to Christ in perfect glory, Christ will present them to the Father. In subserviency to this design of thus presenting {the elect} are all things in heaven and earth managed, and that through all the varieties of God’s dispensations.

The great war that has been maintained between God [and] his enemies for the biggest part of six thousand years has been about that design. This is the design the elect angels were made to be subservient to, and this is the design about which is the continual opposition of the reprobate angels; and there is a very great probability that their first sin by which they fell was their opposing God in this affair. And ’tis probably also that special work to which the angels were appointed as the trial of their obedience. The eternal destruction of God’s enemies, both of devils and wicked men, is in subserviency to the design of his glorifying himself in his church in the manner that has been spoken of.

[He will] glorify his majesty, power [and] justice before his elect that they might behold the glory and so be happy in the sight of this glory of God, and that they might give God the glory due to him on this account, and that they might be the more sensible of the worth of {their} happiness and of the wonderfulness and sovereignty of God’s grace.

Thus the grand design of God in all his works and dispensations is to present to his Son a spouse in perfect purity, beauty and glory from amongst [mankind], blessing all [the elect] and destroying those [that oppose], and so to glorify himself through his Jesus Christ, God-man; or in one word, the work of redemption is the grand design of [history], this the chief work of God, [the] end of all other works, so that the design of God is one. Hence all the decrees of God are spoken of in Scripture as one purpose which God purposed in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:9–11). All decrees may one way or other be referred to the covenant of redemption: the grand subject of [the] revelations that God hath made, [the] subject of the words of God, [the] subject of prophecy, [the] great things insisted on in the contemplations and praises of saints and angels, and will be to all eternity.”

—Jonathan Edwards, sermon “Approaching The End Of God’s Grand Design,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Sermons and Discourses, 1743—1758 (Vol. 25), pages 111—126. Paragraph breaks were added for readability.

A sampling of biblical texts on this marriage for personal meditation include Isaiah 54:5, 61:10, 62:5, Hosea 2:19—20, Matthew 22:1—14, 25:1—14, John 3:25—30, Ephesians 5:22—33, Revelation 19:6—10, 21:1—9 (notice Edwards’ sermon text is sandwiched here between v. 2 and v. 9).


Photo © 2009, ronsho