Vile in God’s sight: The use of fear in the rhetoric of Jonathan Edwards

September 4, 2005 at 11:14 pm Leave a comment

Ok, so I didn’t get around to posting about Jonathan Edwards on Wednesday. Seems I severely underestimated the amount of time it would take to do my map assignment for Medieval Europe. (I thought I could map 44 cities plus 43 other geographical features of Europe in a couple hours. Erm…wrong.)

Anyway…I finished George Marsden’s excellent biography of Jonathan Edwards a couple weeks ago. One thing that struck me repeatedly throughout the first half of the book was the prevalence of fear in 18th century New England culture. Fear, that is, about the state of one’s soul.

To begin with, Puritan society was a whole lot more concerned with the eternal than we are. Life expectancy, of course, was not as great, and calamities like disease and Indian attacks were constant threats. Consequently, death and preparation for the hereafter were always in the forefront of New Englander’s minds.

Plus, they didn’t have our modern preoccupation with multiculturalism, religious tolerance, and the separation of church and state. As a result, Christian doctrine played a more integral and overt role in their society than it does in ours.

One expression of this focus on religion is the clergy’s attempts to identify a methodology for determining who was saved and who was not. (One practical reason for focusing on this issue was the problem of how to decide who should be allowed membership in the church, and, more specifically, who should be allowed to take communion.)

The New England clergy outlined high standards that they felt should be met in order for a person to be considered elect. If a person did not exhibit these prescribed characteristics, they were assumed to be in an unsaved state.

In fact, Jonathan Edwards’s father, Timothy, developed a three-step formula that he thought accurately captured the process of conversion, which he assumed all people must go through if they were to experience true and saving conversion. Jonathan suffered a considerable amount of stress throughout his life because he worried that his conversion couldn’t actually be said to fit his father’s formula, leading him to doubt whether or not he had been truly converted. (This did not, however, stop Jonathan from expending a fair amount of his own energy trying to discover whether or not it was possible to develop a science of identifying the visible saints.)

Partly because the standards were so high, partly because the stakes were so great, and partly because genuine horror at one’s reprehensibleness as a sinner was one of the components presumed necessary for true conversion, the New England clergy were not above using terror to provoke repentance in their parishioners. Edwards considered it crucial for his people to understand just how vile they were in God’s sight, and just how desperate their condition was. Not only that, but he felt it of supreme importance that they have an acute understanding of just how horrible was the fate awaiting them if they continued to resist God’s grace.

Consequently, he saw no problem with railing perpetually on his parishioners—and even his own children—about their vile wickedness. The use of fear, in his mind, was a most appropriate way of awakening people to their senses and of helping them to see reality in its proper perspective.

For this reason, he did not hesitate in employing torturing and sustained images of the destruction which he assumed awaits the unrepentant. This passage from his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is one example:

The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.

Even when his parishioners were suffering acute distress under the weight of their own sins, and were longing to experience conversion, Edwards did not relent in his persecutions. Though the people might be desperate for relief and the assurance of salvation, Edwards would only turn up the heat. This was a strategy calculated to drive his frantic listeners to the utter ends of their ropes, by which he hoped to stimulate lasting repentance.

In light of all this stress and intensity surrounding the question of salvation, it is not surprising to me that Edwards experienced two serious breakdowns in the course of his life. I think, had it been me, I would have experienced more breakdowns than that, and would probably have suffered an early death.

I have mixed feelings about Edwards’s approach. One part of me recoils. I don’t think we were meant to have this much fear with regard to salvation.

For one thing, fear produces regret, and induces dramatic desperation, but I’m not sure it’s the best route to repentance.

For another, we are supposed to love the Lord with our hearts and minds and souls, and we know that perfect love casts out all fear. Thus, it seems contradictory that the gospel (good news) would be associated with terror. (And all this is aside from the fact that I adamantly disagree with Edwards from a theological perspective in his views on hell.)

For these reasons, I sympathize heavily with the Enlightenment/rationalist/Arminian backlash against the ideas Edwards held.

On the other hand, I fully believe in Edwards’s integrity. He was dealing with some genuinely difficult issues, and I recognize that his actions were driven by a consuming focus on spiritual things and a burning desire to see people saved. So I don’t have any doubt of his good intentions.

I also agree with him that a more acute consciousness of the eternal consequence of our choices in this life would be good. And I realize that this sort of consciousness necessarily involves a certain overwhelming sense of the awfulness of sin and its consequences.

So, while I disagree with Edwards on the nature of hell, and while I would cringe if he were to preach Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God today, I nevertheless found his perspective valuable.

What do you think? Is fear a reasonable means of inducing repentance? Is it appropriate to have such an all-consuming focus on conversion, as Edwards emphasized?


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

I know, I am hugely in need of a new post On judging Edwards–or misjudging him, as the case may be

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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