Jonathan Edwards

written by Dr. Bob Smart, adjunct faculty Urbana Theological Seminary

Christian history is replete with landmark theological debates: Valentinus and Irenaeus, Pelagius and Augustine, Erasmus and Luther. Dr. Kenneth Minkema, general editor of the Yale edition of Edwards’s Works, states that this book offers “the first sustained effort devoted to considering the points of debate between Chauncy and Edwards”–the well-known leaders of the “Old Light” and “New Light” parties (respectively) at the height of the Great Awakening–“and to understanding them contextually, hermeneutically, and constructively” (p. ix).

The sum and substance of this book is a treatment of the controversy that swirled around the question whetherNew England’s great revivals were a work of the Holy Spirit. As a work of reception history, I have given my best in scope and attention to detail. Employing tools from social science, social history, and theology, I explain the terms of the debate; show how Edwards and his critics disagreed with one another, and attempt to offer an even-handed assessment of the legacies of their conflict from the 1740s and 50s to the present.

This work would interest pastors and leaders in the history of revivals inAmerica—but especially to those with an interest in the pneumatological questions most important to Edwards himself, and to his heirs. By pneuma-tological questions, I mean the questions about a true work of the Holy Spirit.

In the 1740s Jonathan Edwards emerged as the New Light proponent of the claim that the Great Awakening was, in the main, a true work of the Spirit of God. Conversely, Charles Chauncy led the Old Lights in opposition by offering criticisms of the Awakening.

The central question asked by the contemporaries was: Is this an outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Four general answers were offered: it is all of the Spirit; it is mostly of the Spirit; it is little of the Spirit; and it is none of the Spirit. Edwards and the moderate proponents believed the Great Awakening was mostly of the Spirit, yet mixed with fanaticism. Chauncy and the “opposers” believed it was little of the Spirit, and a lot of “noise about religion.”

What made the central question so difficult to answer was the cultural context—a crisis of authority. Having researched that era and the colonial context, I mention six elements that complicated the answer to the central pneumatological question. These include the religiously motivated colonialism (40), the moderate British Enlightenment (42), the emergent economic trade market (43), the progressive sociological leveling (44), and the disintegration of the Puritan covenantal system (47).

Edwards had already emerged as the leading interpreter prior to the Great Awakening by publishing his popular work on a previous outpouring of the Spirit in Northamptoncalled, A Faithful Narrative. In chapter two, however, this study explains the various modern schools of interpretation that may hinder the reader’s ability to understand the contemporaries themselves. This chapter, therefore, explains four modern theological schools, four modern sociological schools, and the modern historiographers’ interpretations—one 1990s debate in particular.

After thorough attention to Edwards’s initial revival apologetic and defense, Chauncy attacked Edwards’s interpretation in his Seasonable Thoughts. Chauncy had emerged as the Old Light leader 1743, and he offered his “antidote.” His five parts paralleled Edwards’s five parts in Some Thoughts.

Edwards’s final response to Chauncy and the many who endorsed Chauncy’s book is examined in chapter five where his Treatise on Religious Affections is outlined and interpreted in light of the debate.

The legacies of each leader is the subject of the last chapter and conclusion to the book, which seeks to help the reader assess our times and the nature of the ongoing debates that swirl around the Great Awakening.