October 5, 2009
Jonathan Edwards on the New Reformed Movement
A posthumous Out of Ur interview.
If he hadn’t died from a tainted smallpox vaccination in 1758, Jonathan Edwards would be celebrating his 306th birthday today--Monday, October 5. When Edwards died, at the relatively young age of 55, he was one of the best known pastor-theologians in the English speaking world. Interestingly enough, the Calvinist pastor is making quite a comeback. There’s been lots of talk on Out of Ur recently about the so-called New Reformed movement—folks that are proud to call Edwards “homeboy.”
But would Edwards be proud to claim the New Reformed movement? Well, I just couldn’t pass up the chance to ask him. Using skills learned on my many travels and my finely tuned interviewing skills, I sat down with Brother Edwards to ask him how well he thinks the new Calvinists are representing the old time religion.
Url: So, I’ve read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” You’re pretty intense.
Let me guess: high school English class.
Yep. Some of the New Reformed folks seem to like that hellfire and brimstone stuff. Did they learn that from you?
They might have. I preached my fair share of those sermons. But back then, you had to. Everybody was religious—it was against the law to skip church. So my greatest challenge as a pastor was combating spiritual apathy. I did everything I could to make sure people took their spiritual lives seriously, because it was really easy for them to take God for granted.
Do you think that sort of preaching is still effective today?
I suppose it can be, though I wouldn’t say it’s the only way to preach. Really, it depends on the audience. If you’re preaching to religious people, you have to rattle their cages. But near the end of my career, I ministered to Native Americans. I took a different approach when I preached to them, because they weren’t spiritually apathetic religious types.
The New Reformed folks talk an awful lot about doctrine. Do you think every church member ought to be a theologian?
Sure. Theology is fun. And the deeper you journey into the mysteries of God, the more rewarding the work becomes.
Plus, I think the more you reflect on God and Scripture, the more you understand your faith, the more likely you are to be transformed into the image of Christ. Dwelling on the things of God makes us aware of how beautiful and lovely and glorious God is. The more we recognize the beauty and glory of God, the more we can reflect that beauty and glory. Does that make sense?
Sure. You’re saying that preaching doctrine leads to spiritual growth.
Actually, I would say that preaching doctrine can lead to spiritual growth. But I think it’s a big mistake to assume that people will necessarily love and follow Jesus just because we preach sound doctrine. People’s hearts have to be touched. As I like to say, there’s a big difference between knowing that honey is sweet because you’ve read about honey in a book and experiencing the sweetness of honey by tasting it for yourself. The Devil has sound doctrine, and it hasn’t done him any good. We should help our congregations taste the sweetness of God. That’s when transformation happens.
The New Reformed folks seem awfully confident that they have their doctrine right. How do you feel about that sort of certainty?
Well I’m unapologetically a Calvinist. I spent my career defending the Calvinist understanding of Christian orthodoxy against the new challenges of Enlightenment rationalism, natural theology, and deism.
That being said, I was always quick to acknowledge that there is much about God, the Bible, and the Christian life that is mysterious. I affirm with the Westminster Confession that the Bible is clear about matters of salvation. The Scriptures tell us everything we need to know about being reconciled with God. But there are a lot of things that Scripture isn’t a hundred percent clear about.
One of those things, ironically, is Christ himself. I once wrote a sermon called “The Excellency of Christ," in which I looked at all the paradoxical ways the Bible talks about Jesus. He’s called the Lion of Judah, but also the Lamb of God. He was most exalted when he died in humiliation on the cross. Jesus holds together dozens of apparent contradictions—and that what makes him excellent.
So I think we can be confident in our theology and doctrine without minimizing the mysteries of God or minimizing the paradox of Jesus.
Any final thoughts?
One thing the New Reformed folks have right—well, some of them, at least—is that God created us to give him glory. He is never so pleased as when we glorify and enjoy him. It seems like some folks focus so much on glorifying God that they don’t enjoy him; other folks enjoy him so much that they don’t appropriately give him glory. I’d say that growing in faith means finding balance in those things.