Jonathan Edwards’ Experimental Calvinism: Pastors Learning Revival Harmony of Theology and Experience from a Leader in the Great Awakening -- By: Robert D. Smart

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 12:3 (Summer 2003)
Article: Jonathan Edwards’ Experimental Calvinism: Pastors Learning Revival Harmony of Theology and Experience from a Leader in the Great Awakening
Author: Robert D. Smart


Jonathan Edwards’ Experimental Calvinism: Pastors Learning Revival Harmony of Theology and Experience from a Leader in the Great Awakening

Robert D. Smart

Jonathan Edwards, concerned over the degradation and polarization of a beautiful harmony between Calvinistic theology and revival experience—between reformation and revival—became a pastoral leader and mediator who sought to maintain the revival harmony of these two treasured ideals during the Great Awakening. Character defects and defective revival experiences in New England’s predominantly Calvinistic congregations increasingly reflected a disproportioned1 Calvinism. One defect involved having much discovery of God’s love and grace without a proportionate discovery of his awful majesty and holiness, which tends to lead to pride and presumption. The other was that having discovered God’s holy majesty, without a proportionate discovery of his love and grace, tends to unbelief and oppression.2 Edwards’ revival leadership, expressed in his published narratives and sermons on revival-experience, countered this polarization with an apologetic display of experimental delight in God’s Excellencies, “tempered together” and “duly proportioned one to another.” Herein, we may discover the Edwardsean genius of Experimental Calvinism offering today’s pastors and congregation wisdom and guidance. Imagine an army of Calvinistic pastors leading many into proportional discoveries of God’s Excellencies in an experimental manner!

What is Edwards’ Experimental Calvinism?

“The Right Path in the Middle”

Experimental Calvinism combines two beautiful Edwardsean emphases, which he held together in dialectic and existential tension. These two beautiful emphases are Reformation theology and revival experience, both of which magnify the symmetry between the Word and the Spirit—between knowing God and experiencing God. The spiritual battle for pastors is to consistently magnify both emphases in unity, to take what Edwards calls “the right path in the middle.” “Satan leads both far out of the right way,” wrote the revival leader with great concern, “driving each to great extremes, one on the right hand, and the other on the left, till the right path in the middle is almost wholly neglected.”3 By taking the middle path, Edwards was not advocating a compromise between two competing viewpoints. Rather, Edwards was convinced that these two emphases would only be rightly comprehended when held together in harmony. Therefore, the concept of “experimental Calvinism” can take the pas...

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