Jonathan Edwards And “What Reason Teaches” -- By: Helen Petter Westra

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 34:4 (Dec 1991)
Article: Jonathan Edwards And “What Reason Teaches”
Author: Helen Petter Westra

Jonathan Edwards
And “What Reason Teaches”

Helen Petter Westra*

As scholarly work on the Jonathan Edwards manuscript collection has expanded in recent years, the complexity and range of the unpublished sermons have become increasingly apparent. Wilson Kimnach asserts that the astonishingly consistent “specificity, unity, and intensity”1 of the sermonic messages mark Edwards as a master writer and thinker for whom the sermon was “the pre-eminent genre and the primary vehicle for the articulation of his thought.”2 The sermons’ thousands of manuscript pages, the great majority unpublished, offer a largely untapped and lively source of light on the pastoral preoccupations and regular public declarations of one of America’s foremost eighteenth-century religious leaders.

Among the sermons Edwards delivered during his thirty-six years of preaching (1722–1758) are at least ten ordination and installation sermons celebrating the authority and eternal significance of the office of gospel minister.3 One of these unpublished manuscripts is an exhortation based on 1 Cor 2:11–13 and delivered on May 7, 1740, at the Congregational Church of Cold Spring (now Belchertown), Massachusetts, for the ordination of Edward Billing. Remarkable as a homily with polemical overtones much more akin to the philosophical treatises than to the celebrative and honorific preaching Edwards generally delivered for ordinations, this little-known sermon aims throughout to attack what Edwards considered the “unjust and fallacious practices…so much insisted upon by many of late viz. to determine by our own reason what is agreeable to the moral perfection of God and then interpret the scriptures by this.”4

*Helen Westra is professor of English at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.

Indeed, if Edwards’ manuscript sermons are, as some scholars claim, of all his many works “the most revealing of his innermost thought,”5 this ordination message composed in 1740 amply demonstrates that its author, at the outset of the Great Awakening, was using every available opportunity to restrain rationalist and Arminian views that he feared detrimental to the orthodox Protestant position that humans cannot attain salvation through their own capabilities. Edwards’ May 1740 sermon, hidden from the public eye and ear for two hundred and fifty years, remains a vigorous apologia o...

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