1. I think there is a sense in which the word “Reformed” has a wide and a narrow signification. As far as I can tell, to be Reformed, strictly speaking, commits one to holding to Reformed ecclesiology (presbyterian church government, infant baptism, and the continuation of charismatic gifts are specifics that come immediately to mind as matters that place people on the spectrum between a wide and a narrow undertanding of what it means to be “Reformed”) as well as, and in addition to, Reformed soteriology. I could suggest that Christians who embrace Calvin’s soteriology, but not his ecclesiology, could refer to themselves as Calvinists. But if you think about that, we still have the same conundrum that we have with the use of “Reformed.” Calvin held to a Presbyterian ecclesiology, so to not embrace his doctrine of the church while embracing his soteriology does seem to land us in the same wide and narrow distinction we see with the term “Reformed.” I am a confessional Reformed guy, so I would suggest that we allow the standard Reformed confessions to define what “Reformed” means. By “standard Reformed confessions,” I am, of course, referring to formulations such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, along with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms and the Three Forms of Unity (The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt). Other confessions within the Reformed ambit usually involve some significant change, in the direction of congregational church government or credo-baptism. So we come down to the recognition of something like a wide or broad and narrow use of the term “Reformed”. Calvinistically soteriological Congregationalists and Baptists could be understood as Reformed in the broad or wide sense, but not in the narrow sense. And, I would suggest, it is the narrow sense that defines the use of the word “Reformed”.
2. In the United States, there was a split within Congregational and Presbyterian circles brought on by the First Awakening. That split involved several concerns, but the one I want to focus on here is confessionalism versus experientialism. I see this as a false dilemma when we understand each concern rightly. I believe that the church, and individual Christians, need to confess and profess what they believe about the faith. I have never been sympathetic to those who think confessions are illegitimate. If someone asks you what your church believes about such and such, you will need to do more than quote Scripture. You should quote Scripture, but you will undoubtedly also need to explain it. Once you do that you are confessing your faith and formulating doctrine. Confessional churches are simply up front and out in the open about what we believe the Scriptures teach. But there is also the need for people to actually experience the gospel. That is, we need to be saved. Does that mean we need to be able to pinpoint the hour when we came to faith? No. Does that happen? Yes. But not all Christians need to have nor in fact have had Pauline Damascus Road experiences. Nor are we to confuse coming to faith with warm emotional experiences or with walking the aisle to the altar. If we fail to recognize the legitimacy of Christian experience, in some sense at least, we end up playing church without having the substance. However, I should say this. When push comes to shove, in a dispute like the one that divided the new lights/new side from the old lights/old side, I would have to side with the old lights/old side because doctrine would be preserved, whereas the potential with the new lights/new side was to devolve into mere emotionalism or experientialism, which I think is one of the main problems with contemporary evangelicalism. So I am confessional with a concern that the truths confessed be experienced as they ought to be.
3. So where does this bring us with regard to whether Jonathan Edwards was Reformed? Ecclesiastically he was Congregational. That means he differed from the standard Reformed ecclesiology of presbyterian church government. However, his Congregationalism may have been the result of his geographical location (and divine providence, of course!). Until his call to serve as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) he spent his whole life in New England (except for a brief stint as an interim pastor with a small Presbyterian group in New York City) which was a bastion of Congregationalism. After his deposition from the pulpit in Northampton, MA he was asked by a Scottish correspondant whether he would entertain a call to a church in Scotland. In answering that question, Edwards noted that he could affirm the substance of the Wesminster Standards and that he had come to think that presbyterian church government might just be better than the confused form of church government he was used to. Had I had this conversation with Edwards I would have asked him for futher information on his affirming the “substance” of the confession and I would want to see some recognition that presbyterianism was taught in Scripture and was not merely a prudential way to go.
It should be said that Edwards was a thoroughly covenantal theologian who upheld the covenant of works/covenant of grace distinction and taught that Christ’s active obedience was imputed to the believer in justification. I am also not convinced that Edwards rejected, in intent or in practice, the ordinary means of grace. But doesn’t his support of revivals do that? I am not convinced of that. His definition of revival was fairly broad. But did he not encourage itineracy? Well, he did fill other pulpits. But that was at the invitation of others. He certainly did not encourage lay preaching. You can read his correspondance with a former deacon in his church to see that. His direction to that man was cease and desist. A more convincing argument would have to be presented to me to see it otherwise. Edwards, of course, also introduced hymn singing into his congregation. That was a new practice. But since I do not think exclusive psalm singing is biblically mandated, that causes no problem for me as to Edwards’ Reformed standing.
This is not to say there are not problems with Edwards from my perspective. There are. Does his covenant theology mesh with his philosophical theocentric idealism? Was he as strong on confessionalism as he should have been? Why did he embrace the analogia entis (chain of being) and therefore apparently reject the standard Reformed archetype/ectype distinction? Why did he embrace occasionalism and continuous creationism? The list could go on. I happen to think that we could find problems with every theologian if we looked hard enough. Edwards is no exception.
In the end, I think Edwards falls somewhere on the spectrum between the narrow and broad definitions of “Reformed.” My own thinking is evolving with regard to Edwards and my comments here may reflect that. I can say that Edwards was his own man, but he did not mind being called a Calvinist, although he made it clear he held what he held because he believed his views were biblical, not because they were taught by John Calvin. Much hay has been made out of this comment, but in reality, any good Puritan would have said the same thing. Edwards and Calvin converged on certain issues and agreed because they read the same Bible. Also, for what it is worth, Calvin was a great Reformer, but he was not the only Reformer or theological influence on the development of Reformed theology. For my part, I believe the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity are an excellent display of the system of doctrine taught in Scripture and I do not hesitate bringing Edwards to the bar of Scripture and the Reformed confessions.