After a very lengthy break I am almost finished with George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards titled, wouldn’t you know it, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. On the advice of some friends Amy is currently reading 1776 by David McCullough and it’s interesting to see how the two books are almost paralleling each other as far as historical timelines and details. Strictly speaking, Jonathan Edwards takes place before 1776, since Edwards died in 1758, but it is proving helpful to see many of the events that led up to the American Revolution and how they affected Edwards and his life’s work.
Chapter 26 of Jonathan Edwards: A Life is titled “Against an ‘Almost Inconceivably Pernicious’ Doctrine,” and here is a link-up of three different paragraphs in that chapter…
By the 1750s what we call “the Enlightenment” and what Edwards called sardonically “this age of light and inquiry,” was waxing toward its meridian. Edwards was determined to demonstrate, as only a true philosopher of the age could, that what most of its proponents took to be the sun was only dimly reflected light.
More important than the labels was the overarching principle that guided the proponents of the advanced views [i.e. Arminianism, Socinianism, Deism, etc.]: that universal truths of reason and morality should be the standards by which to interpret Scripture. [Jonathan] Mayhew [a Boston pastor] himself made this point in a series of sermons published in 1749. Reason was a gift of God, and it would be wrong not to use it. The “doctrine of a total ignorance, and incapacity to judge of moral and religious truth, brought upon mankind by the apostacy [sic] of our first parents, is without foundation.” Human freedom to choose the good followed from the gift of reason. “Exercise your reason, and the liberty you enjoy, in learning the truth and your deity from it,” Mayhew proclaimed in another set of sermons. While still using much of the old language of grace in ambiguous ways, Mayhew and the many other New England Christian rationalists [is that two-word combination possible?] of the 1750s had set up a standard that, if allowed to stand, would surely undermine not only Calvinism but Nicene trinitarian orthodoxy.
Edwards had glimpsed something of the future of American religion as well. Self-controlled individuals, as he had observed in his parishes for the past fifteen years, would acknowledge guilt for particular sins, but not guilt for their fundamentally rebellious hearts. Guided by conscience, they saw particular sins as failures of will power, which might be overcome by exercising greater self-control. The liberal Christianity of the new republic would be built around such moral principles. Even the most popular evangelicalism of the next two centuries tended to emphasize guilt for and victory over known sins. Although the submission of one’s will to God and a subsequent infilling or baptism of the Holy Spirit typically would be urged as necessary to achieve moral purity, God’s power was most often seen as cooperating with or working through the native powers of the sovereign individual will. While American Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular came in too many varieties to allow easy generalization, we can at least say that Edwards was correct in identifying a trend toward what he called “Arminianism” in what would become the “land of the free.”
Wow. No wonder there is so much confusion about the new birth and how it happens (see Thoughts on the new birth…from a hotel lobby), as well as other basic, though significant, biblical doctrines.