History, Theology, and Edwards' Devotion to the Bible

Jonathan Edwards is well-known for his devotion to Scripture; not only for his commitment to biblical doctrine, but also for his deriving that doctrine from its original source: the Scriptures themselves. In Edwards’ two volume collected works, there is a massive 140 page section entitled ‘Notes on the Bible,’ which contains over 1500 numbered entries on particular texts of the Bible, written by Edwards over the course of his life. This section (written as personal notes, not intended for publication) reveals the diligence of a man who sought to know and understand the whole counsel of God first hand.

Sereno Dwight, an early biographer, said that Edwards came to his first pastorate not having learned theology (what Edwards called, “divinity”) primarily from systems or from commentaries, but from the Bible, and “in the character and mutual relations of God and his creatures from which all its principles are derived” (Works, I: xxvii). Edwards exhorted his people to be “assiduous in reading the Holy Scriptures,” because the Scriptures are the source from which “all divinity must be derived” (Works II: 162). We should heed his exhortation and learn from his example in this area.

Yet, taken too far, this devotion to Scripture can be perverted and pave the way to heresy. It is possible to encase ourselves in a vacuum, cultivate a disdain or distrust toward history and theology, and boast that we only want to know what the Bible says. We value the words of God not the words of men. We do not have time for theology or church history; we just want to “be biblical.” Certainly it is a worthy goal to be biblical. I have never met a sincere Christian who has flaunted their desire to be unbiblical. But we need to be careful.

What is interesting to note is Iain Murray’s observation of what he called, “Edwards enduring strength;” namely, the fact that Edwards was “not an originator” (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 468). Murry continues, “[Edwards] proposes no re-formulation of the doctrines and creeds of the Protestant Churches. Rather he was ready to work from the basis of existing foundations…His assessment of God’s providential purpose in history was that the eighteenth century was not intended to be an age for new confessions and catechisms. These were already richly provided” (468). Edwards sought to preserve and promote the great tradition handed down to him.

Thus Edwards’ devotion to Scripture was not guided by an isolationist approach to Biblical interpretation that gave no room to the teachers of the past; rather, his study of God’s Word was pursued within the framework of settled doctrines and nourished by a rich heritage of godly teachers. Edwards’ devotion to the study of Scripture never caused him to disregard the writings of other men, or the theological tradition of the church. Ironically, had he done this, he would have been unbiblical, since Scripture reminds us that we have been given teachers for the good of the church (Ephesians 4:12).

So, was Edwards’ commitment to study and know the Bible first hand in vain? Absolutely not. Although he did not ever intend to modify the long standing and well-grounded doctrines of the church, he did desire to see the basis of their truth in the Bible and form convictions that were his own. Herein lies wisdom. Although Edwards stood on the shoulders of great men, he wanted to see the view for himself, not just be told about it. May it be so with us.

One thought on “History, Theology, and Edwards' Devotion to the Bible”

  1. Derek,

    Concur with your assessment of Edwards’ balanced approach to Scripture in light of good theology. You may want to check out volumes 15 (the entire Notes on Scripture) and 26 (the “Blank Bible”) of the Yale Edition of the Works of JE as well. I tend to think that Edwards was a little more original that Murray’s comment might indicate (incidentally, even Murray thinks that Westminster grad’s George Marsden’s biography benefits from the 20 additional and important years of Edwards scholarship–take a look). The reason why even secular academics find JE fascinating is not because he was simply restating what he inherited. Rather, he thought that the work of the minister included advancing the state of doctrine through the work of polemic and apologetic theology, something he most certainly engaged in. He of course did not propose changing the Reformed faith in some new direction; he did however seek to elaborate upon what was skeletal and to improve what was impoverished. If I thought that JE was just a restatement of Calvin or Turretin, I would just read Calvin or Turretin. But I think most would agree that Edwards used his gifts and location in history to give the church something biblical and orthodox, yet new.
    Bill

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