The Biblical-Experimental Foundations Of Jonathan Edwards’s Theology Of Religious Experience, 1720-1723 -- By: Karin Spiecker Stetina

Journal: Puritan Reformed Journal
Volume: PRJ 01:2 (Jul 2009)
Article: The Biblical-Experimental Foundations Of Jonathan Edwards’s Theology Of Religious Experience, 1720-1723
Author: Karin Spiecker Stetina


The Biblical-Experimental Foundations Of Jonathan Edwards’s Theology Of Religious Experience, 1720-1723

Karin Spiecker Stetina

What is the nature of true religion? Is it a matter of the mind “knowing the truth” (Bruce Milne), is it the experience of the heart being “strangely warmed” ( John Wesley), is it the “pursuit of holiness” (Jerry Bridges)? From the early church to today, Christians have struggled with discerning, describing, and authenticating true religious experience.1 As a graduate student at Wheaton College during the mid-1990s, I was directly confronted with these issues when revival broke out on campus. As most of the students became consumed with repentance, the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and holiness, the very questions that were once theoretical in nature became very real.2

This very question opened eighteenth-century Puritan Jonathan Edwards’s essay, Religious Affections, in 1746. Believing that an understanding of true religion is fundamental for abiding in the way of truth and seeking the advancement of faith, he devoted himself to this subject throughout his life.3 From his narratives of his own early religious experiences to his later theological accounts of the revivals, Edwards lays out a timeless, biblically grounded understanding

of the nature of true religion and guidance in how to express faith in contemporary terms. This article will point out the significance of Edwards’s theology through a three-part focus: (1) showing the biblical, experimental roots of it; (2) briefly pointing out how the later public expressions draw on the early biblical foundation; and (3) providing suggestions for the application of his ideas to our day.

Let us begin with a brief examination of the roots of Edwards’s theology of religious experience. Most Edwardsean scholarship has sought to ground Edwards’s epistemology in his theological or philosophical roots, stereotyping him as a Calvinist,4 empiricist,5 pragmatist,6 or an idealist.7 While Edwards clearly appreciates great minds like Calvin and Locke, as evident in his later descriptions of religious experience where he brilliantly combines Lockean language with Calvin’s biblical idea of the inner testimony of the Spirit, scholars in the past have overestimated their influence.

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