, Research Paper
If one were to study the idea of Puritan thought through only the reading of these three works of Jonathan Edwards, one could probably gather a good idea of the inner workings of the Puritan mind. These three works do well to disclose to the reader the inner and outer workings of Jonathan Edwards. The Personal Narrative displays to the reader Jonathan Edwards’ view of himself as he progressed through life, and the ideals and the things that were most valuable to him, and the things that were a hindrance to himself. The sermon A Divine and Supernatural Light exhibits the nature of Jonathan Edwards’ intellectual mind, and the view of expository preaching that he and the Puritan mind may have held and endorsed. Finally, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God shows Jonathan Edwards’ passion for people to come to the same understanding of God as he (and most other Puritans) held. Through these three literary pieces we will see how the Puritan mind struggles with the goals of inner and outer piety, and how they concern themselves with the eternal position of their soul.
Jonathan Edwards, as a model of Puritan life, lived a life that concerned itself greatly with appearing and feeling godly. Most of the Personal Narrative shows Edwards in a struggle between delighting in God, and returning “like a dog to his vomit,” (176) and going the way of sin. It seems, though, as Edwards grew in his faith, his concern for piety grew even further. At several points in his life he decided to “part with all things in the world for an interest in Christ” (177). Edwards struggled to delight himself in the things of God and surround himself with those things, often shutting other things out in order that he may refine his search. He took great delight in nature and stilling his mind in order to think on the majesty of God. Edwards paints for us a lifestyle of constant inner-reflection and a deep sense of disciplining the mind to think on things of an eternal nature. This striving almost borders on self-torture, as Edwards, towards the end of the narrative, explains that he never loses the awareness of his sin, and that awareness causes him to almost doubt his salvation (see p.185-186) and the position of his soul in regards to eternity. You will find with Edwards that along with the intense introspection and focus on piety, there is very rarely a mention of the grace of God. His faults are not seen as covered through forgiveness, but through a sense of “trying to do better next time,” this is indicative of Edwards constantly comparing his spiritual state to that of a previous time in his life. Edwards’ constant teeter-tottering between a state of a sensitivity and a delight in “divine things” and a state of “wickedness” in which Edwards gaze was not fixed fast upon the holiness of God, illustrates to us the kind of conflict that would exist in the minds of Puritan thinkers of the day. They would be seen as striving always to do good, yet always wondering if their good was good enough, and living in condemnation every moment that their mind was not entertaining thoughts of eternal bliss and the holiness of God.
If Edwards were our only key to understanding the Puritan mind, we would see that Puritan work ethic was not a high priority (which is far from the truth), Edwards proves to be a bad example in the high priority that Puritans placed upon work. Within these three writings of Jonathan Edwards we see him engaging in relaxation, pondering over the significance of nature, and engaging in thought on various issues, which are areas in which the Puritans do not normally pride themselves (see Max Weber’s work on Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic).
Also, using Edwards as a base of understanding, one could see that Puritan thought is concerned more with the idea of doing than being. In the present era of Protestantism the church’s focus has been on what the believer’s position and rights are in Christ. We have been more concerned with what the benefits to a relationship with Christ are than what we can do to promote in ourselves a godly and holy lifestyle. Edwards’ focus on holiness is apparent in his Personal Narrative, where he identifies the holiness of God as being his favorite attribute of God (p.180, 183). This illustrates the contrast between today’s “wanting to know what God can do for us” against the Puritans’s “what can we do for God?”
Judging by Edwards’ work in A Divine and Supernatural Light, one would suppose that the Puritan mind is active in thought and very philosophical. This passage is very theological and analytical in its dealings with a scriptural passage. Also judging by this passage, Puritan life is also infiltrated with the supernatural and mystical. Edwards, in his defining of this light, tries to explain to the reader the means by which an understanding of God and His workings of salvation come about. This understanding comes only by way of an altered understanding and way of thinking which supercedes natural rational thought. This idea shows the student of Puritan thought that “Puritanism” is very spiritual, supernatural, and almost mystical in nature.
Finally, Puritanism and its Christianity is seen as exclusive. Liberal theologians have paved many roads to God and eternal life. Edwards, on the other hand, in his sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, shows that there is only one way to eternal life (and escape eternal damnation) and that is through a salvation experience through Jesus Christ. In this passage, God is painted as vengeful and angry, but yet full of grace and longing for the repentance of His creation in order that He may save them from the consequences of their sin. There is no other way to God than through salvation through Jesus Christ, Edwards is very clear about this (p.210 last paragraph onto 211). The onus is put upon humanity to embrace God through Jesus Christ or embrace judgment for their sin. Nor do we see, in Edwards work, everyone finding salvation as some liberal theologians would suggest to us.
In conclusion, Edwards paints a very unmistakable picture of how a Puritan mind works through these three essays/sermons in this book. Puritan thought is seen as very pious, reflective, spiritual, works-based, concerned about their salvation, and exclusive in nature. Edwards offers a three-dimensional view of how his mind works through the narrative of his personal life (Personal Narrative), the work of his intellectual mind (A Divine and Supernatural Light), and the passion of his soul (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God). Being a student of theology, I found it an interesting insight into how his mind worked, in seeing Edwards’ view of God. I am a firm believer in understanding people and their motivation by looking at their understanding of God. Edwards was an excellent example of the Puritan mind.