In 1734, Jonathan Edwards, theologian and colonial pastor in Northampton Massachusetts, found his congregation in an â€˜unusual ruffle,â€™ over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Edwards is considered by many to be the greatest theologian in American history and has been described as the most brilliant thinker this continent has ever produced. He was born on October 5th, 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut, the only son of a prominent Puritan pastor. After tutoring at Yale and marrying Sarah Pierpont, (together they had 11 children) Edwards accepted the Massachusetts pastorate in 1727.
By the early 1730â€™s, many in his Northampton congregation were beginning to doubt the validity of the biblical assertion that one is justified before a holy God, not on the basis of good works, but by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Edwards responded by crafting two sermons carefully articulating the Reformation doctrine of sola-fide (faith alone).
In the published version of these discourses, Edwards remarks that his preaching was greatly used by the Lord and that â€˜Godâ€™s work wonderfully (broke) forth amongst us, and souls began to flock to Christ,â€™ as they saw Jesus as a â€˜Saviour in whose righteousness alone they hoped to be justified.â€™Â Edwards, in fact, stated that this sermon series was the spark to many â€˜surprising conversions,â€™ in 1734 and would lead to the Great Awakening of 1740.Â Sola-fide, â€˜was the doctrine on which this work, in its beginning, was founded,â€™ he wrote, and was a â€˜remarkable testimony of Godâ€™s approbation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.â€™
However, Edwards defense was not without opposition. On the very eve of the series, he was â€˜greatly reproached for defending this doctrine in the pulpit,â€™ and suffered very public and â€˜open abuse.â€™Â The main contention was that the â€˜old protestant doctrine of justification by faith’ was â€˜too much encumbered with speculative niceties, and subtle distinctionsâ€™ which served only to â€˜involve the subject in endless controversy and dispute.â€™
Edwards countered these claims, finding those who were â€˜prejudice against distinctionsâ€™ to be carrying their arguments â€˜to a great extreme.â€™Â There were many who were ready to discard anything that looked like a â€˜nice distinctionâ€™ and â€˜to condemn it for nonsense without examination.â€™Â â€˜Upon the same account,â€™ he notes, â€˜we might expect to have St. Paulâ€™s epistles, that are full of very nice distinctions, called nonsense and unintelligible jargon.â€™
Edwards went on to maintain the necessity for theological distinctions in presenting and defending Biblical truth. Although admitting that theologians can, at times, cloud understanding with pedantic explanations, promoting â€˜clear and rationalâ€™ distinctions can be pathways to better understanding the mysteries of the Christian faith and can help shed light on Godâ€™s revelation.
â€˜Our discovering the absurdity of .. abstruse distinctions of the school divines, may justly give us a distaste of such distinctions as have a show of learning in obscure words, but convey no light to the mind; but I can see no reason why we should also discard those that are clear and rational, and can be made out to have their foundation in truth, although they may be such as require some diligence and attention of mind clearly to apprehend them.â€™
â€˜It is so in most of the great doctrines of Christianity, that are looked upon as first principles of the Christian faith, that though they contain something that is easy, yet they also contain great mysteries; and there is room for progress in the knowledge of them, and doubtless will be to the end of the world. But it is unreasonable to expect that this progress should be made in the knowledge of things that are high and mysterious, without accurate distinction and close application of thought ..â€™
From Edwards perspective, the great doctrines of the Christian faith, though initially easily grasped, still have deeper meanings that are waiting to be mined, explored and articulated to new generations. Theological distinctions can assist the Christian in this process as they help bring clarity to subtle, yet profound features of Biblical truth. They often force us to think clearly and articulate carefully slight differences in meaning which can foster comprehension of difficult doctrines. And they can provide insights that push us further along the path toward spiritual maturity.
â€˜After all,â€™ Edwards asks, â€˜shall we expect that this way (salvation by faith alone), when found out and declared, shall contain nothing but what is obvious to the most cursory and superficial view, and may be fully and clearly comprehended without some diligence, accuracy and careful distinctions?â€™
In 1 Corinthians 14:20, the apostle Paul encourages us to, â€˜Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.â€
The journey toward Christian maturity requires rigorous thinking. Theological distinctions that have their â€˜foundation in truthâ€™ can help us grasp difficult aspects of Godâ€™s revelation, assist us in defending orthodox doctrine and move us to â€˜progressâ€™ in the faith, even though this may require an effort on the part of the Christian to think hard, to think biblically and to think carefully.
All quotes are from: Edwards, Jonathan, Introduction to Five Discourses on Important Subjects, nearly concerning the Great Affair of the Soulâ€™s Eternal Salvation, The Works of Jonathan Edwards Vol.1