The Theological Greatness of Jonathan Edwards
I started reading Jonathan Edwards almost immediately after I was converted. I remember the first time I opened the massive two volume, small print Hickman edition of his works and began to scan the what seemed to be 2 pt. font to find out what was the big deal about this man who has been called “the greatest mind America ever produced.” As I read, I understood that there was a theological greatness here. It wasn’t in his unparalleled philosophical writings that I discovered this greatness; rather, it was as I scanned sections of his Notes on Scripture and his Miscellanies. Edwards’ exposition of Scripture–the theological depth and insight that animated his thinking–was what kindled in me a love for reading him.
The very first thing that captivated me was what he said about the prophecies of Christ at the beginning of the second section of his Facts and Evidences of Christianity. There I stumbled across the following observation:
1. As Christ wrought miracles in a very different manner from the prophets, acting therein in his own name, and as doing what he did of his own power and will ; so, also, he uttered prophecies in a way very diverse from that of the ancient prophets. The ancient prophets, when they uttered their predictions, were wont to introduce them after this manner, “Hear ye the word of the Lord;” or, “Thus saith the Lord;” showing, that they did not speak of their own knowledge, but by special revelation and direction from God. Christ foretold things to come in a remarkably different manner and style, introducing his predictions, not with a “Thus saith the Lord,” but, “Verily, verily, I say unto you;” as, Matt, 23:36. 24:34, 35. 26:13, and 21. Mark 14:30. Luke 21:31, 32.; John 13:38. 14:12, 16:20, 21,22. The following place is very remarkable, showing what great authority Christ attributed to his own word in his predictions, Matt. 24:34, 35. “Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” These words are annexed to the chief prophecies that Christ ever uttered, which are contained in the 24th chapter of Matthew. See the same, Luke 21:31, 32.
2. Christ foretold future events, and those to be accomplished after his death, not only as what he knew by his own knowledge, but what he himself would bring to pass; both future blessings to his church and people, and future calamity and destruction to those persons and people that were his enemies.—1
Though the comparison between the prophet’s “Thus says the Lord…” and Jesus’ “Truly, truly, I say to you…” was what first caught my attention in Edwards, it was his section on 2 Peter 1:16-18 that caused me to begin to see his theological greatness. In his exposition of these verses in Notes on the Bible, he wrote:
Verse 16. ” For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “We”, i. e. the apostles, “have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we taught you this present truth of the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” for he speaks of this as a doctrine that the apostles had taught them before, chap. 3:2. These apostates gave out that what Jesus had said about his second coming was only a fable cunningly devised by him; perhaps to maintain the credit of his former pretenses of being the Messiah prophesied of, that was to set up the kingdom of heaven, when otherwise he would have lost it all by his sufferings and disgrace that he met with while he lived, and to keep up the zeal of his followers, and so his name and honor after his death.
Verses 16, 17, 18. ” But were eye-witnesses of his majesty,” &c. They, the apostles, had not only heard him say, that he would come in his kingdom in power and great glory, but they were in a sort eye-witnesses of it, in that they were eye-witnesses of something in Christ that was a remarkable and wonderful earnest and prelibation of it, viz. the glory of his transfiguration. The glory of the transfiguration was manifested to Peter, that wrote this epistle, and two other disciples, to that very end, that it might be an earnest of what he had been telling them of his coming in his kingdom, and a specimen of the glory of his second coming. For in each of the three evangelists, the account of Christ’s transfiguration follows next after Christ’s foretelling them of his coming in his kingdom. What they saw of the glory of Christ’s transfiguration was an evidence of two things that were dependent one on another, both which these apostates denied.
First, It was an evidence that he was the Son of God, the same that was declared by the voice which said,” This is my beloved Son.” This these apostates denied, chap. 2. ver. 1. ” denying the Lord that bought them.” This was evident by that glory they saw: as,
1. The glory that Christ there appeared in was so divine and admirably excellent, and had such a bright and evident appearance of divinity, such an admirable and ineffable semblance of the infinitely glorious perfection of God, his awful majesty, his purity, and infinitely sweet grace and love, as evidently denoted him to be a divine person. The apostle says, “He received from the Father, honor and glory:” the term is doubled and varied thus to signify the exceeding excellency of the glory.
There was doubtless an inward sight, or lively sense of heart, of Christ’s spiritual glory that accompanied Peter’s sight of the visible glory of Christ. There was an ineffable beauty, majesty, and brightness in his countenance, that held forth and naturally represented the excellencies of his mind, his holiness, his heavenly meekness, and grace, and love, and that majesty that spake his union with the Deity, and by the influence of the Spirit of God accompanying, excited in Peter, and the other two that were with him, a great sense of those perfections, and their immense excellency, adorableness, and sweetness. And the Spirit of God doubtless accompanied the word of God, that Peter and the other then heard, so that that word was spiritually understood, and believed; so that Christ’s glory then was manifested to the disciples three ways: by the rays of light, it was exhibited to their eyes; by the voice, it was declared to their ears; and by the Spirit, to their souls. The last was the most convincing and certain evidence to them of Christ’s divinity.
This glory of Christ, that the apostles then saw, both the outward glory and the spiritual glory, that the outward glory had a semblance of, did most remarkably appear to be such as exceedingly became the only-begotten, dearly beloved, and infinitely lovely Son of God. Therefore, the apostle John, who was another eye-witness of it, speaking probably with special reference to this, John i. 14. says, “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” It exhibited not only the divine greatness in the majesty of which the apostle Peter in this place especially speaks, but the divine grace and love in the sweetness of it.
2. This glory that appeared in the person of Christ, did exactly resemble that excellent glory, that the apostle speaks of, out of which the voice came, ver. 17. For there was there in the mount an external glory, as a visible symbol of the presence of God the Father, and by which he was represented; as well as an external glory in God the Son, viz. that bright cloud that overshadowed them. There was a glory in that cloud that the apostle calls an excellent glory. When it is said in the evangelists that a bright cloud overshadowed them, it is not meant such a light or white cloud as shines by a cast of light upon it from some shining body, such as are some clouds by the bright reflection of the sun’s light; but a cloud bright by an internal light shining out of it, which light the apostle calls an excellent glory. It probably was an ineffably sweet, excellent sort of light, perfectly differing from and far exceeding the light of the sun. All light is sweet, but this seems to have been immensely more sweet than any other that ever they had; impressing some idea which we cannot conceive, having never seen it, as we can conceive of nothing of light more than we have seen ; we could have conceived of no such light as the light of the sun, had not we seen it, nor of any colour, blue, red, green, purple, nor any other. God doubtless can excite other ideas of light in our minds besides any of those that we have had, and far exceeding them; a light affording sweetness and pleasure to the sight, far exceeding all pleasure of the grosser and inferior senses. Therefore, Peter the apostle, that writes this epistle, was exceedingly delighted with it in the time of it, which made him say, “It is good for us to be here;” and made him talk of building tabernacles, and thinking of spending the rest of his days there; and he still (though now old and near his end, verses 13, 14.) retains a lively sense of the exquisite gloriousness and pleasantness of that light, when he expresses himself as he does here, calling it the excellent glory. And there probably was an exact resemblance between the glory that the disciples saw in Christ’s face, and that which they saw in this cloud, which declared him to be the Son of God; for they saw him to be his express image.
The apostle John, who saw this, probably afterwards in his visions, saw the very same sort of light and glory as an emanation of the glory of God, filling the new Jerusalem, which he now saw filling the mount of transfiguration, the type of that which he gives an account of in Rev. 21:11. “Having the glory of God; and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper-stone, clear as crystal.” The light he then saw seems to be perfectly differing in nature from any that is to be seen in this world, and immensely more sweet and excellent. He evidently wants words and similitudes to convey his own impression of it to our minds; he wants something excellent, and sweet, and precious enough to set it forth. He says, ” It was like a stone most precious;” he knew none precious, or bright, or excellent enough to the sight; but he says it was ” like a jasper-stone,” more resembling that than any other; but that is not sufficient, and therefore he adds, “clear as crystal;” and from the whole we may gather, it was something he could not express, and that there was nothing like it. (Vide Note on the verse.) So it was the same kind of light that this beloved disciple had the glory of God represented by, Rev iv. 3. ” He that sat on it was like a jasper and a sardine stone ;” a jasper and a sardine stone were of different colors, one green and the other red. How then could the light appear like both? By this it is plain, that indeed it was like neither, and that the apostle could find nothing to represent it by ; there was all that was excellent in both. This is something like his seeing that the street of the new Jerusalem was like pure gold, and yet like transparent glass. Rev. xxi. 18.
3. This glory that they saw in Christ, appeared to them as communicated from “that glory in the cloud, for the apostle says he received from the Father honor and glory. The light in Christ’s person appeared to them to be as it were lighted up, or begotten, as it were, by that in the cloud; or the glory in the cloud appeared shining on Christ, and so communicating the same excellent brightness. This again declared him to be the Son of God, for it showed him to be the express image of the Father, and to be from the Father, as begotten of him. Thus the glory of Christ’s transfiguration was an evidence that he was the Son of God.
Secondly. It was also a special and direct evidence that what he had said a little before of his second coming, was true. By it was given a specimen of that glory that he should then appear in, and showed that this was the person that the prophet Daniel foretold would come in so glorious a kingdom, that the Jews called it the kingdom of heaven, by the agreement there was between this glory they saw in Christ, and that which Daniel describes to be in that person that should set up that kingdom, whose garment is said to be white as snow. Dan. vii. 9. As Christ’s garments were said to be white as the light, and so as no fuller on earth can white them.
And neatly, besides the visible glory, the apostle mentions the voice that issued from the excellent glory in the cloud, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear him” (though the last clause, “Hear him,” is not here mentioned). It is observable that it is the very same, which the glory that was in the cloud declared to the eyes of the apostles, which the voice in the cloud declared to their ears. The visible communication from this glory to Christ, one glory as it were begetting another, and the exact resemblance of the glory begotten, declared him to be God’s Son ; and the sweet and exact agreement between one and the other, and the union that appeared by communication, denoted the love between the Father and Son, as that he was well pleased in him. And this glory, being given as a specimen of the glory of his second coming, declared the truth of what he had so lately told them of his second coming: the same that the voice implicitly declared, when it bid them hear him, or believe what he said, which the disciples that heard it, must especially apply to the things he had most lately told them, and instructed them in.2
If you have never come to realize the theological greatness of JE, I heartily recommend that you take time to read through his Notes on Scripture and the many volumes of his Miscellanies. You will never regret it; and, in fact, I will not at all be surprised to find out that his theological greatness has also impacted you.
1. Jonathan Edwards The Works of Jonathan Edwards (London: William Ball, 1839) vol. 2, pp. 468-469.
2. Ibid., pp. 812-813.
Thanks for the post. Just started working through the two volume collected works of JE. Already amazed at how much benefit I am receiving just reading through the biographical portion and especially his Resolutions. Looking forward to being fed many times over as I continue the read!