Was Jonathan Edwards Reformed?

I have been mulling over the question whether Jonathan Edwards was Reformed in any meaningful sense of the word “Reformed”. I am ambivalent on the issue, but here are some thoughts for consideration.

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.

16 Responses

  1. Timothy M


    Thanks for the link in the email to your insightful post. I wonder what Edwards thought of the Savoy Declaration which was more open to Congregationalism. Do you know if he had any thoughts concerning the matter?

  2. Jeffrey C. Waddington


    Congregationalism (General Association of Connecticut) required assent to the Savoy Declaration and at Yale, after the defection of the rector and other tutors to Anglicanism, subscription was required of all future rectors and tutors to both the Savoy Declaration and the Saybrook Platform (see The Works of Jonathan Edwards/vol. 13: The “Miscellanies” a-500. Edited by Thomas A. Schafer, p. 209-210). Edwards writes in “Misc.” 17 that confessions, which have been problematic for the unity of the church, are legitimate in order to ascertain what an ordinand or minister candidate believes. This is less than a ringing endorsement of confessions and comes woefully short of a proper view, from my perspective. He could have done better and should have.

  3. Timothy M

    Thanks Jeff, I did not realize the history of the declaration in relation to Edwards.

    Truly an unfortunate understanding of the confessions…

  4. Dustin

    Hi Jeff, Thanks for the thoughtful post. Edwards is always an interest figure to consider. I’m curious where you get your definition of Reformed, or what would cause you to define it this way? There were certainly men who were confessional (Savoy or London Baptist for example), covenantal (holding to cov. of grace/works and unity of the covenants), and Calvinistic (5 solas and 5 points)who would not have held to Presbyterian Ecclesiology, yet I would have a hard time not seeing them as Reformed (in a narrow or broad sense). If you would not define them as Reformed, what would you call them? Thanks again for the good post.

  5. Jeffrey C. Waddington


    I get my definition of Reformed from the standard Reformed confessions and the tradition as a whole. Notice that I did make a distinction between being Reformed in a narrow or more specific sense and being Reformed in a broader sense. I would suggest that the narrow sense sets the definition. Yes, the other confessions you mention are Reformed with some significant changes. I would suggest that infant baptism and covenant theology and Presbyterian church government are hallmarks of what it means to be thoroughly Reformed.

    Does that mean others are not broadly Reformed? Not at all. But to be Reformed in the historically and theologically fullest sense of the word, these specific characteristics must be present. Ultimately because I believe the Bible teaches them.

    I do not mean to offend. But if I do, I cannot see any way around it.

  6. Godith

    Professor William Young (emeritus of University of Rhode Island) and others would certainly dispute that “Edwards introduced hymnsinging into his congregation.”

    Please provide support for your contention. (I think I know where you’ll turn, but I also think it is not actual support for your claim.)

  7. annemie

    >I would suggest that infant baptism and covenant theology and Presbyterian church government are hallmarks of what it means to be thoroughly Reformed.

    Infant baptism is not a Reformed distinctive.

    Covenant Theology is not and has never been the servant of infant baptism.

    The history of church polity going back to Geneva is hardly concrete enough (in history, not to mention the Word of God) to make Presbyterianism a solid mark of being Reformed.

    When you took the reference to the Pope being the anti-Christ out of your truly Reformed Confession of Faith, not to mention other changes, you viciated the confessions as being a rock standard for defining what is Reformed.

  8. annemie

    With that kind of a lukewarm defense maybe you ought to apologize to Jonathan Edwards for lecturing to him on what it is to be Reformed.

    Then maybe you should have a dialogue with John Owen.

  9. Jeffrey C. Waddington


    I am not sure why you think my response is luke warm. I do not agree with you.

    Infant baptism as hold to it most definitely is a Reformed distinctive. And it is biblical.

    As for the relationship of covenant theology to infant baptism, you may want to go back to your history books and review them. While there are precursors to covenant theology in men like Augustine, the impetus to develop the doctrine (which I believe was there all along in the Bible) came from the Anabaptist rejection of what? Oh yes, infant baptism.

    As for Presbyterianism, it is based upon John Calvin’s reformation in Geneva, via John Knox’s reformation in Scotland.

    And I did not remove the reference to the pope as antichrist from the Westminster Confession of Faith. As far as whether the pope is the antichrist, I would agree that the papacy represents a form of the antichrist with a lower case “an” as John tells us there will be many of them. But calling the pope the antichrist is actually a sure sign of millenarianism, an eschatalogical view I do not share.

    Enough said.

  10. annemie

    >But calling the pope the antichrist is actually a sure sign of millenarianism, an eschatalogical view I do not share.

    But the Westminster divines did just this. Maybe you don't have the original WCF (I know most Reformed seminaries like Westminster California don't hold to the original WCF and seem to consider it to be for the unwashed, so to speak), but the Westminster divines were for the most part what we would term amillennial or post-millennial.

    So you change your rock standard for what defines Reformed at your will. Good standard.

    Church polity can be seen historically to correlate to political conditions 'on the ground', and the Bible is most definitely not clearly and dogmatically Calvinist Presbyterian (and hence intentionally not so). The Bible seems to teach church polity in the context of what is currently needed in the history of redemption. In any event, Reformed theologians as iconic as a John Owen will have to be called 'not Reformed' if you insist on using church polity as a distinctive of Reformed Theology. Once you do that you enter territory of not being serious.

    Reformed paedo-baptists have engaged in much self-justification for their beliefs, but the fact remains: classical covenant theology is not and has never been the servant of infant baptism. Regeneration by the Word and the Spirit is the entrance into the Covenant of Grace, not ritual. And Reformed paedo-baptists know that when they attempt to argue against this they get into areas of heterodox belief such as baptismal regeneration. Now, a person can want to baptize their infant child all they want, but they are most definitely not allowed to redefined Federal, Covenant Theology to justify it.

    As for infant baptism not being a Reformed distinctive, a paedo-baptist can back-engineer their desire to baptize infants in a way that separates it from the Roman Catholic practice, but the fact remains the first generation reformers (Zwingli included) kept the RC practice of infant baptism as a practical, tactical move in the war they were involved in with the Roman tyranny. Zwingli came to this position late and reluctantly, due to the satanic activities of the radicals to their left (which were not the ancestors of the Baptists who held to covenant theology).

    Reformed paedo-baptism did not result from considerations involved with Covenant Theology. I ask you: did Calvin hold to infant baptism because of his 'covenant theology'? Obviously the answer is no. Calvin held to it in the same manner he held to the perpetual virginity of Mary. Calvin did not have a worked out covenant theology. This is all backward engineering of modern paedo-baptists to justify their practice and attempt to separate it from Roman Catholic practice so as to be able to say it is a Reformed distinctive when it isn't.

  11. Nicholas T. Batzig

    OK,time for me to step in and set some ground rules. This is NOT a blog for people to argue over definitions. If someone has something important, historically or theologically to contribute, that is welcomed. But this discussion is not helpful. Unless someone has something constructive to say, in a loving tone, please do not leave comments. This goes for all parties involved. Thanks.

    Nicholas T. Batzig

  12. D. Randall

    I agree that this is not the place to argue over definitions. But in all fairness, by framing the discussion around what it means to be Reformed, and introducing a narrow definition of the term which all would not agree on, you invited that sort of argument. It would have been much better to question whether Edwards would have qualified for ordination as a Presbyterian, or to what extent he would have agreed with the Westminster Standards. Then there could be no disagreement over what we are comparing Edwards to.

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