The Confusion of Jonathan Edwards: yes, he thought Russia was a great example of the coming of the kingdom

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is considered by numerous prominent religious historians to be the greatest theologian America has ever produced. To this day many of Edwards’s works remain in print and they have played a prominent role in the recent revival of Evangelical Calvinism associated with figures like John Piper.

I haven’t done a lot of Edwards reading, but this week I again read parts of his A History of the Work of Redemption. The book is fascinating not only because it gives expression to the optimistic (and political) postmillennialism that was so dominant in Edwards’s day, but it demonstrates just how confused very thoughtful Christians can become when they seek to interpret modern political and cultural events within a precise biblical prophetic framework.

Edwards viewed the time between Christ’s first and second comings as the time of the new heavens and the new earth, and he argued that during this time the kingdom of Christ would become increasingly manifest in four stages. Through all four stages, he wrote, “An end is now brought to the former carnal state of things, which by degrees vanishes, and a spiritual state begins to be established, and to be established more and more.” The first stage involved the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Jewish state, which Edwards conceived of as the church’s “worldly state, the state wherein it was subject to carnal ordinances, and the rudiments of the world.” The second stage involved the ascent of conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity, and the consequent replacement of “the old heathen empire” with Christendom. The third stage, which Edwards believed was nearing a climax in his own day, was “the finishing of Satan’s visible kingdom in the world, upon the fall of Antichrist [i.e., the Roman Catholic Church], and the calling of the Jews.” The last stage would come when Jesus actually returns in person, bringing about “the destruction of the outward frame of the world itself, at the conclusion of the day of judgment.” (2003 Banner of Truth edition, p. 259)

Edwards’s vision of the advance of the kingdom can hardly be conflated with the radical versions of the social gospel, liberation theology, and neo-Calvinism that conflate the consummation of the kingdom in the age to come with the progress of that kingdom in the current age. Edwards believed that when Christ returned “the very frame of this corruptible world shall come to an end, to make way for the church to dwell in another dwelling place, which shall last to eternity.” (260) But it is easy to see how his work promoted the tendency to identify the progress of the kingdom with particular political or even national agendas. Just as John Owen interpreted the conflict between the English Puritans and the Scottish Covenanters in eschatological terms, so Edwards believed the wars between the French and the English in 18th century North America were instances of the great conflict between Jesus and Satan. Repeatedly in his work he consigned virtually the entire world to paganism or to the kingdom of Antichrist (Catholicism), while suggesting that England remained the great bastion of the kingdom of God.

Edwards’s obsession with politics is particularly evident in his judgment of what took place at the conversion of Constantine and the Christianization of the Roman Empire. In this time, he argued, when the church was brought to “great peace and prosperity,” “heathen magistrates were put down, and only Christians were advanced to places of authority” the world was changed like at no other time. “This revolution was the greatest revolution and change in the face of things that ever came to pass in the world since the Flood. Satan, the prince of darkness, that king and god of the heathen world, was cast out.” (310)

Despite the glory of Constantine, Edwards believed that the rise of Roman Catholic superstition and idolatry in the medieval period represented the rise of Antichrist, and he saw the Reformation as the first blow against the kingdom of Antichrist. But his model of reformation continued to assume that the kingdom would be advanced by Christian nations, after the example of Constantine.

To be sure, Edwards believed things were very dark in his own day. Satan had conquered not only most of the nations of the world, but he had infiltrated even the Reformed nations with heresies like Arminianism, Anabaptism, and enthusiasm. “These sentiments and opinions our nation, which is the principal nation of the Reformation, is very much overrun with, and they prevail more and more.” (344) Edwards looked to the Reformation or to the late Roman Empire as the golden ages of Christianity, not to colonial America.

Yet it is fascinating to see what examples Edwards pointed to as examples of the advance of the kingdom in his own day. Not only did Edwards demonstrate himself to be somewhat of a victim of hagiography in his judgment of how good things were in the Reformation, but he evidenced himself to be a poor judge of the significance of events in his own day. He gave three examples of the success of the kingdom in his time. First, he argued that the reformation of doctrine brought about in Russia by Peter the Great made “the religion professed and practiced in Muscovy … much nearer to that of the Protestants than formerly it used to be… Muscovy has become a land of light, in comparison of what it was before.” (345) Second, he pointed to the propagation of the gospel among the heathen natives to America as a result of the establishment of the British colonies there. Third, he pointed to the Great Awakening in New England and the rise of pietism in Germany.

In hindsight, it is not difficult to see how misguided Edwards was in these assessments. Russia hardly became the bastion of light that Edwards thought it was becoming in his own time. Edwards himself admits that very few Indians even in his own day were embracing the teaching of the gospel, and we now know just how close to the advent of the kingdom was the native American experience of colonialism and westward expansion. Finally, historians agree that the long-term religious impact of the Great Awakening was negligible. The revivals of the 1740s did not significantly Christianize America, and in fact the latter half of the 18th Century was far darker for Christianity in America than anything Edwards experienced. What’s more, when America was Christianized in the Second Great Awakening the form of Christianity in the ascent was just the sort of enthusiasm, Arminianism, and even Anabaptism that Edwards viewed as the tools of Satan to destroy the church.

My point is not to be hard on Edwards. My point is that when we seek to determine how the kingdom is advancing or declining by analyzing political and cultural developments (or even religious developments) we are almost always wrong. We do not understand the ways of God, and we continually confuse our own national, political, cultural (and denominational) concerns with his kingdom. Virtually no one still interprets western history in the same eschatological way as did Edwards, in part because we have witnessed the decline of Christendom and in part because we have access to better history than he did (i.e., if we are paying attention we are less prone to view moments in the past as golden ages).  That does not mean we should make our own dogmatic assessments about what God is doing, particularly  when it comes to the passing affairs of this age. We would be far better off if we focused on doing what he commanded us to do in the Great Commission, taking up our cross, and following him.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 19, 2012, in Calvinism, Post-millennialism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Confusion of Jonathan Edwards: yes, he thought Russia was a great example of the coming of the kingdom.

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