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Cosmic War: A Review of “The Wartime Sermons of Jonathan Edwards”

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Photo by Jeremy Thomas / Unsplash

Jonathan Edwards has been called “the American Augustine.” One of the greatest experiences of my life, while a student at Yale, was getting to see the surviving manuscript of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” My professor at the time, Kenneth Minkema, wanted to express that Edwards was also more than an American preacher and theologian—he was a man with international connections and concerned with international events. We often forget this when we only look at the “famous” writings of Edwards, but Edwards’s voluminous writings reveal his international scope and consideration.

A new collection of sermons edited by Christian Cuthbert, The Wartime Sermons of Jonathan Edwards, re-presents many of the writings that constitute the anthologized A History of the Work of Redemption. While we remember Edwards for “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards was a preacher living in a time of global conflict. The race for global empire between Protestant Britain and Catholic France, alongside Catholic Spain which remained a distant but still potent threat in the mid-1700s, was the environment in which Edwards lived and preached. From 1739 to his death in 1758, war between Britain and the American colonies and France and Spain dominated the second half of Edwards’s life.

Living through this cataclysmic, and sometimes despondent, time gave Edwards a panorama of events to draw upon in expositing his theological vision. “Provincial Northampton may have been on the outer orbit of the British Empire,” Cuthbert writes, “but Jonathan Edwards considered his pulpit near the center of God’s redemptive plan.” This was part of the Puritan inheritance and legacy, the belief that God’s work of redemption had a special providence for the Reformed Christian experiment in New England—the “shining city upon a hill.” Edwards’s “war sermons” served many purposes. The two most vivid being his need to console the grief and anxiety of his congregants who were directly affected by the war and Edwards’s cosmic theological vision of what the transpiring events—the many defeats and victories for Protestant Britain and her colonies—meant in the grand scheme of God’s redemptive plan for humanity.

These sermons, then, provide a great window into “the American Augustine.” Augustine is considered one of the preeminent theologians of Christianity not merely for his theological expositions to which many educated people still faintly know—The Confessions, The City of God, and letters and expositions against Pelagius and the semi-Pelagians—but for his probing of the human condition, the psychology of the soul, and what these writings reveal about Augustine’s own mind. The same is true for Jonathan Edwards, his Religious Affections is a testimony to the mighty introspective psycho-theological Augustinian tradition to which he also belonged. But so too are these sermons in which Edwards is trying to assuage the psychological and spiritual discontent and fear of his Northampton, then Stockbridge, congregants and converts, while simultaneously working out his own spiritual considerations upon hearing the news of victories and defeats which would have world changing ramifications. These sermons are a great purview into the psyche of Edwards who juggled pastoral duties, revivalist hopes, and missionary burdens all the while keeping up to date with the latest events in the cosmic battle between God and the Devil and their proxies on earth, “Edwards considered the contest with Catholicism in terms much broader than the safety of the Connecticut River Valley or New England, but a global contest—cosmic even.” In dealing with war, the struggle between good and evil, justice and hope, and our place—as individuals and as a society—in this contest, Edwards’s sermons deal with the eternal questions that have animated minds for millennia and will continue to animate minds going forward in this new century of war, good and evil, and the struggle for justice and hopeful perseverance in an often cruel and dark world which demands soulful interpretations of meaning.

Thus, the sermons that Edwards preached—sometimes repeated with slight twists given the turn of events from good to bad or bad to good—provide a wealth of material and insight into America’s most foremost preacher and theologian, a man who is also now the focus of study in England and the continental Reformed traditions. Edwards’s pastoral heart is visible for all to see when he attempts to comfort his congregants in the midst of war, giving them encouragement and exhortations to see hope and delight despite destruction and tragedy abounding around them. Comfort in the Lord is the ultimate refuge in trying times of crisis and it also reveals much about one’s faith too—a testing ground, for Edwards, for one’s faith in Christ.

Edwards’s political theology and ecclesiology is also refined through the war sermons. His famous sermon on Matthew 16:18, “The Church of Christ Built on a Rock,” is a brilliant exposition of Protestant ecclesiological hermeneutics (whether the reader finds it convincing is another matter), one that challenges the Catholic Church’s episcopal monopoly of the text and maintains that the rock is (faith in) Christ which extends to other prophets, apostles, and missionaries who preach the gospel and that the promise of the church’s perseverance extends to the collected body of believers in society and their filial descendants that constitute the faith of the church, past, present, and future: “The gates of hell never have prevailed, and never will prevail, against the church as a society or collective body, maintained through successive generations.” These sermons reveal the extensive typology and allegory also employed by Edwards.

Moreover, the collection also exposes what many modern American evangelicals and Protestants are now familiar with—the inter-biblical dialogue in the sermon with constant referencing of other biblical texts to accompany the main text of the sermon. This style of preaching is something that has its origins in the Puritan tradition and reaches a climactic maturation in Edwards who preaches from a lead text but continuously and consistently cross references to other Old and New Testament texts and verses to extrapolate his interpretation. In this way, his sermons also come across as very modern for those who have familiarity with this style of preaching.

Why own and read a collection of sermons? Not only for the theological and spiritual enrichment they provide and the window into the soul and mind of a great man like Edwards, but also for gaining the knowledge of the context in which the sermons were published. Cuthbert’s editorial oversight in ensuring that readers know the backstory to the sermons and the tremendous work of Kenneth Minkema at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale have done and are doing (several former classmates of mine were involved in the transcribing project that the center is still undertaking) adds to the richness of this collection. Rather than just having a collection of sermons stretching nearly 20 years, The Wartime Sermons of Jonathan Edwards also provides the readers with a chronological introduction to the events that these sermons address along with the historical context in which these sermons were written and how they have come to be preserved and accessible to a global, not just American, audience. In this way, the collection also honors the global and international reality of Edwards’s own life and will equally be a great resource for students and teachers worldwide.