Thursday, March 23, 2006

Edwards as Luther? The Great Awakening as a new Reformation?

In his published works Edwards gives us significant indicators of the sources of his theology - insights that we can now develop in the context of our knowledge of his private notebooks. Some of the most interesting indicators of this source material may be located in the Religious Affections where the footnotes themselves (and other pointers in the text) are evidently polemical and part of the argument of the book. Edwards cites from various luminaries in the Reformed tradition to further establish his own credibility as a faithful son of New England. And, perhaps even more significantly, to underline his own personal historical significance - and to mark out, for those with eyes to see, the world changing potential of New England's revival.

Consider, for example, this section in the Religious Affections:

"In such things consisted the pretended high experiences, and great spirituality of many sects of enthusiasts, that swarmed in the world after the Reformation; such as the Anabaptists, Antinomians, and Familists, the followers of N. Stork, Th. Muncer, Jo. Becold, Henry Pfeifer, David George, Casper Schwenckfeld, Henry Nicolas, Johannes Agricola Eislebius; and the many other wild enthusiasts that were in England in the days of Oliver Cromwell; and the followers of Mrs. Hutchinson, in New England; as appears by the particular and large accounts given of all these sects, by that eminently holy man, Mr. Samuel Rutherford in his Display of the Spiritual Antichrist." (Works, 2, 287 See also Sermon 24 in The History of the Work of Redemption Works, 9, 430-441)

It is fascinating that JE thought it necessary to engage in rhetorical acts such as this in the midst of the Fourth Positive Sign of True Affections - Spiritual Enlightenment. It indicates, I think, the strength of the enthusiasts amidst the religious awakening and the various arguments that JE thought necessary to combat the threat. It is an interesting tactic: I wonder how many people in New England had heard of Schwenckfeld and Pfeifer?

Why does JE openly concede his dependence on a book by Rutherford if not to establish his orthodox credentials? Is there more to the citation?

Smith (Works, 2, 71-72) notes the significance of Rutherford and says:

"... Rutherford's A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist, first published in 1648, [is] a heavily weighted and compendious attack upon antinomianism, enthusiasm, and visionary religion. The quotation of this work by Edwards with approval gives further evidence that although he strongly defended the importance of affections and "heart religion," he did not countenance the enthusiasm and sectarianism frequently accompanying this type of piety.

The Survey contains large extracts from Luther's writings, and the passage used by Edwards is from a section called by Rutherford "Luther against the Antinomians." It consists of many passages from Luther's Latin writings, brought together to show that Luther was an opponent of antinomianism and not, as the Jesuits claimed, the chief source of its views."

It seems plausible then to read this section of Religious Affections (indeed the whole work?) as an attempt at personal vindication in the midst of accusations of departure from the true gospel. Edwards sees himself as Luther - defender of the pure evangel - vindicating himself against enthusiasts who manifest a false and destructive enlightenment. Does this also indicate that he hoped that events in New England marked the beginning of a new Reformation? Is Northampton the new Wittenberg/Geneva?


Blogger 180colony said...


i'll post the first comment on the blog. nice job, by the way.

i think that the revivals are central to JE's self-understanding as reformer, especially in relation to Luther. in fact, it may be that he sees new england as having the potential to be a new wittenberg or geneva (or even israel) insofar as JE is so concerned to insert solidly orthodox Reformed theology back into the midst of a historical narrative. the question to be explored is between the relationship of JE's theological thought with his self-understanding in history. he may indeed see himself as an exponent of a new orthodoxy (though he'd never put it that way) that situates the central tenets of Reformed theology and exegesis into the narrative of salvation history and, in the case of the revivals, salvation present.

Justification by faith is not a doctrine which Luther was especially concerned to export into any kind of interpretation of his historical moment. Rather, it seems that Luther was trying to bind himself and his followers more and more thoroughly to eternal realities, even eternal ideas which work themselves out most completely in the consciences, psyches, and immediate relationships of his peers.

Edwards is very concerned to continue in this Lutheran vein, but see it played out on the dramatic evolving stage of the New World, and more specifically New England's place within it.

A study of the use of Rev 21:5 and Isaiah 43:18-19 in JE's preaching and theology would be most useful on this point. In fact, it could be the interpretive crux of a serious study of JE in theological and ecclesial context.

6:39 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home