Jonathan Edwards on Charity Towards the Poor

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), pastor, theologian, philosopher, and .... advocate for a biblical social justice??

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), pastor, theologian, philosopher, and …. advocate for a biblical social justice??

Most people know of Jonathan Edwards as the colonial American preacher of hell-fire and brimstone. I remember reading the mandatory “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in high school and thinking that this guy had an unhealthy, morbid fascination with damnation. This narrow view of Edwards I had for years is a real tragedy, as this unfairly diminishes the extraordinary intellectual and spiritual contribution of perhaps America’s greatest philosopher.

Perry Miller, an influential Harvard historian and prominent atheist of the mid-20th century, practically rescued Jonathan Edwards from the dustbin of American cultural history. In an age when colonial American Puritans like Edwards were treated with “fundamentalist” disdain, Miller saw in Edwards perhaps one of the most perceptive and wide ranging thinkers America has ever produced. What was it about the 18th century Edwards the Christian that fascinated Miller the atheist?

Perry Miller most probably saw in Edwards a man with extreme clarity of thought. Far from being a Bible-thumpin’, country-bumpkin preacher, Edwards was one of the most well-read and innovative intellectuals of his time, engaging topics ranging from the philosophy of John Locke to the science of spider behavior. Edwards may have been one of the “Last Puritans” but he was also one of the “First Modern Americans”, a man of faith and yet a man with a great interest in science who saw no conflict between the two. On his regular long and meditative walks through the beautifully wooded forests of Connecticut, Edwards would get so lost in deep thought that he would write ideas down on a scraps of paper and pin them on his clothing to make sure he did not forget something important. Just imagine what his family thought when he walked into the house covered with dozens of paper scraps pinned to his shirt and pants.  He died in 1758, at age 54, due to complications from testing one of the first smallpox vaccinations.

But Edwards was more than just a really smart guy. He had an incredible love for God and His Word. It really shows in the many sermons and essays that he wrote, many of which are being collected several places on the Internet, such as at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University.

One particular sermon comes to mind from the pen of Tim Keller, the author of Generous Justice. As our church has been studying Keller’s book this fall, the topic of the Christian’s duty to give to the poor takes center stage. Edwards wrote his classic sermon, THE DUTY OF CHARITY TO THE POOR, EXPLAINED AND ENFORCED, giving an extensive exhortation that the Christian should care for the poor because it is an obligation resulting from the presence of God’s grace in your life. Edwards then makes a list of the most common objections to caring for the poor and answering each objection in turn.   As Keller presents it from some  other Edwards writings, Edwards argues that “human beings will only be drawn out of themselves into unselfish acts of service to others when they see God as supremely beautiful.

What fascinates me most about Edwards is how he was able to reconcile a very stunning view of God’s absolute and unquestioned sovereignty with an extremely warm and heartfelt appreciation of the “sweetness” of God’s grace. It is no wonder that Edwards continues to inspire a newer breed of evangelical preachers today, like John Piper.

Reading Edwards does take some effort. Some of Edwards’ language of the colonial era can be a barrier to some readers, and his intense commitment to Reformed, Calvinistic theology may disparage others. But if you are willing to take the time and energy, the rewards for working through Edwards’ line of thought are exceedingly great.

Additional Resources:

During the month of October, 2013, ChristianAudio is offering a FREE audiobook download for George Marsden’s A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards. I read Marsden’s earlier full length biography of Edwards several years ago, so I highly recommend this…. and hey, for this limited time, it is FREE!

Facts & Faith

Facts & Faith Symposium

In addition to social concerns, Edwards wrote extensively about a number of  other topics,  including a number of meditations on God as Creator, a subject more contentious today than it was in colonial America when modern science was still in its infancy. Do you want to explore more about these issues in conversation with other people? If you live in the Williamsburg Virginia area, then please come to the Facts & Faith Symposium, to be held at the Williamsburg Community Chapel, on several Sundays in November, 2013 (the 10th, 17th and 24th) at 6:30pm.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

6 responses to “Jonathan Edwards on Charity Towards the Poor

  • dwwork

    Once again another great post.

  • Frances Flanagan

    I think J.E.’s theology is morally bankrupt and cancels out anything he said or did that was good. He is unworthy of any respect and should be consigned to the dustbin of history! His view on God is repugnant and such a God is unworthy of worship. Thank Goodness this is not the only
    version of Christianity or I would be a staunch atheist!

    • Clarke Morledge

      Frances, I am assuming it is Edward’s view of election and the difficulty it poses for the problem of evil that you find repugnant? I would agree that the most challenging part of his theology is in this area: it is a challenge to understand how his unwavering confidence in God’s supreme sovereignty does not also inevitably lead to the conclusion that God is the author of evil. He really did not believe the latter, otherwise how could he have looked upon the grace of God with such “sweetness?” Nevertheless, this was a difficulty he sought to resolve, perhaps not successfully.

      But to toss out the rest of his theology on that basis is tragic. His thought holds so many other treasures that it would be a shame to consign them “to the dustbin of history.” I would encourage you to read George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards. You still might not find his solution to the problem of evil convincing but you might gain an appreciation of how much he struggled with it himself, and an appreciation of other areas of thought that have been much neglected.

      Thanks for dropping by Veracity and giving us your thoughts!
      Clarke

  • Frances Flanagan

    Clarke, Thank you for your reply. The real tragedy is that anyone can believe this. As a Christian I must say that many Atheists have a much better sense of morality and decency than Calvinists do. Anyone with a conscience knows that Calvinist theology is immoral and selfish. John Calvin himself could not be one of the elect because he was a cruel man who had 58 people tortured just for having a difference of opinion. He was nicknamed the ‘Protestant Pope.’ If his teachings were correct why was he
    not righteous, just or charitable? John Calvin condemned himself by his own actions! This is historical fact! He was not a Godly man and Calvinists
    should know the history of this man. J.E.’s sermon ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ caused many of his listeners to commit suicide in despair.
    This is not the Good News of the Gospel. By the way, eternal torment is not moral and is of Pagan origin. It is not mentioned in the Old Testament!
    Go to ‘Tentmaker.org’ website and discover this for yourself.
    You must know that St. Paul wrote his letters for the community at the time, for their benefit. He was not thinking of future readers. I think he would turn in his grave if he knew what some people would make of his words in the future. Calvinist theology is sick and twisted and harmful,
    no doubt about it! If God is not truly good he is not fit for worship.

  • Clarke Morledge

    Frances, thank you for your feedback.

    You have raised a number of very important issues, but while your historical criticism does have a certain amount of merit, there is quite a bit of overstatement and oversimplification in your remarks. It would take a lengthy essay to address all of your points, both positive and negative, so I will try to keep it fairly brief.

    First, regarding the “suicide craze” in Jonathan Edwards Connecticut community, George Marsden shows in his authoritative _Jonathan Edwards: A Life_ (p.163-69) that we really only know of two people with any sort of certainty who committed suicide during the great revival period, and it was not particularly related to that one sermon that Edwards preached. So to insist that “many of his listeners” committed suicide is unwarranted speculation. But you do raise an important issue in that the “suicide craze” did effectively dampen the fires of revival during that period.

    The blog posting was not really about John Calvin, but unfortunately, some of your remarks are out of proportion here as well, and so something should be put right on this. Yes, Calvin was responsible for the execution of several known heretics at the time, most infamously Servetus. But in all fairness, with the exception of the Anabaptists and the Socinians, every known Catholic and Protestant leader of the time supported Calvin in his opposition to Servetus and other heretics. Nearly all Christian communities at the time were involved in violent opposition to heresy. To call it merely “difference of opinion” fails to take seriously the charges of heresy. If you are going to condemn Calvin for this, you might as well condemn the majority of Christians during that era. Church and state supported opposition to heresy as though it was treason was simply a part of the air they breathed during that time. It would be the worst sort of anachronism to condemn the whole bunch of medieval Christians simply because they did not embrace a modern concept of religious freedom.

    Nevertheless, you have raised a very good point, namely that when the church sponsors violence against others that it does compromise the integrity of the Gospel message. Hopefully, in our modern era we have learned from the mistakes that Calvin tragically made.

    As to your remark about “eternal torment,” that is a huge topic that I would rather postpone for discussion for now.

    Clearly, the discussion among believers regarding issues of “predestination vs. free will” or “Calvinism vs. Arminianism” are not going to go away anytime soon. I worship in a community of faith where we “agree to disagree” on a number of these contentious issues, and I find that incredibly valuable and indeed rare. To the concerns you have from your perspective, the problematic deficiencies of certain points of Calvinist doctrine still need to be engaged, but it would help to keep things in a more balanced perspective. In other words, you simply can not believe everything you read on the Internet.

    I am not sure if these brief comments help or not, but I do appreciate your discussion of these very important topics.

    Clarke

  • Frances Flanagan

    Dear Clarke,
    I am amazed that you call Servetus ‘infamous.’ The real infamous one is
    John Calvin! Servetus called John Calvin’s God a ‘Three headed monster’
    and I would entirely agree with him. The so called reformed theology is based on John Calvin’s teaching. I would call it deformed theology. Why would any sane person want to worship such a God as that is baffling. I had thought such thinking had died out until a few years ago, but to my dismay it is still out there. I have read on the internet that Calvinism is growing in America. One would have to be entirely heartless to want to believe in that. If a person is kinder than their doctrine then their doctrine is questionable. I know enough about J. Edwards and what I do know about him makes me shudder with repulsion what ever else he said, wrote
    or did. People suffer enough in this world. None of us asked to be born.
    Calvinists put God’s sovereignty above God’s goodness. If God is not better than human goodness He is no better than Satan. I would say Calvinists are Satan worshippers in all but name. They and their theology
    deserve no respect whatsoever! I do not care if I offend any of them. Their doctrines offend any right and decent thinking person’s sense of justice and compassion.
    I have noticed you have not mentioned Tentmaker.org or that I know for a fact that Hell as traditionally believed is Pagan in origin and not of divine origin. Read the O.T. and you will find that when people died, they just died. The Jews do not believe in endless punishment and neither should
    Christians.
    I am glad that in your church they are allowed to have a difference of opinion. I agree this is rare. I am a former Catholic and cannot abide being told what I have to believe. People believe what makes sense to them. Belief/faith cannot be forced.
    ‘Saint’ Augustine has a lot to answer for. J.Calvin was influenced by him
    and that other infamous ‘Saint’ T.Aquinas It was his teaching that plunged
    Europe in the dark ages. Cruelty and evil abounded in the church and this
    is what comes of believing in a cruel God. Before Augustine, from the first
    century onwards, Christians believed in Universalism. Please read ‘The History and Origin of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment.’ This was written in as far back as 1855 by Thomas B. Thayer. It is available on
    Amazon.

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