Jonathan Edwards and Global Revival
I mentioned on the last edition of Footnotes that I would do a segment on how the Great Awakening was significant not only in transforming Northhampton, the town in Massachusetts in which Jonathan Edwards lived, but was also pivotal in the development of Edward’s own theological system. After the first move of God in 1734/35 and the subsequent, and much wider, awakening that followed in 1741–42, Edwards came to believe that the normative way that the gospel advanced through history was not simply through slow increments but rather through powerful outbreaks of revival. I should begin by saying that what follows concerns Edwards eschatology, and is therefore, inevitably controversial. But what he has to say is very important—and is not intended simply to generate some theological heat. Personally I don’t follow Edward’s eschatology, but one must respect Edwards, both his life and his learning, even if one comes away disagreeing with him. Most of this material is taken from George Marsden’s biography on the life of Edwards that I reviewed on the last edition of Footnotes. Marsden is professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and his book on Edwards is said to be among the best ever written. Some of the material is also taken from an interview that Ken Meyers did with Marsden last year shortly after the book was published. Before discussing Edward’s eschatology, it is important to set the man in context. He is still regarded by many as one of America’s greatest theologians (and also America’s greatest philosopher of the colonial period). Some of us do not like his high Calvinism but without doubt he was a monumental biblical scholar. In addition, along with George Whitfield, John and Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, and many others on both side of the Atlantic, he was not only an early leader of the Awakening but also became one of the founding fathers of the Evangelical movement. I mention this, as for those of us who are Evangelicals today, some of his conclusions will sound very un-Evangelical, but we must keep in mind that he does stand firmly within the boundaries of the Evangelical tradition. In fact, if Edwards is not an Evangelical, then none of us are. The most extraordinary discovery I made in studying Edwards is that despite believing in hell and preaching on it frequently (his most famous sermon, printed and distributed internationally, was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) he estimated that 98% of all those who had ever lived would be eventually be converted before the return of the Lord. And now you know why I said that some of his conclusions are, to the ears of 21st century Evangelicals, quite un-Evangelical. So how in the world did someone who was tenaciously faithful to biblical orthodoxy come up with such an optimistic estimate? I should add that such optimism was quite common among Evangelicals at the time. Many of his peers on both sides of the Atlantic had similar hopes for the triumph of the gospel and I will mention some of their names later.
Personally I don’t believe it is possible, or even helpful, to start estimating percentages, but what is important to understand is that these people lived through an awakening, which if measured in terms of social transformation, and the percentage of the general population converted, probably outranks anything we have seen since. And it was what they saw and experienced that expanded their expectations of how greatly the gospel could impact a society. And it was this that shaped their theology. So for us it important to at least understand how they arrived at their conclusions. Edwards, and those in his circle on both sides of the Atlantic, came to believe that the awakening that they had lived through was not an isolated event but that similar awakenings would take place with increasing frequency as the gospel was taken to the ends of the earth. At the same time the world population would increase dramatically, thus increasing the potential for a harvest of unprecedented proportions. By around the year 2000 (although later in his life Edwards drew back from putting an exact date on it) awakenings would be taking place around the world with increasing numbers being converted out of the large global population. Before going any further, it is interesting to note the foresight that Edwards and others like him had back in the 1750’s. As we know, not only has the population increased geometrically over the last years, but missiologists tell us that something like 168,000 people each day are now being converted—many of them in revival movements (and even if their estimates are inflated, a fraction of this number would still be unprecedented historically). In addition, we are told that soon there will be more people alive on planet earth at one time than the total of all those who have ever lived before us in human history. So while we might not embrace Edward’s conclusions, some of his foresight was indeed remarkable. The rough outline of his eschatology went something like this. They believed that a period of tribulation would shortly take place, probably in their lifetime, or that of their children, that would culminate with the fall of the Antichrist (which along with most of the Reformers they identified as the corrupt and oppressive Papacy) and then be followed by the global advance of the gospel and a degree of social transformation throughout all lands before the coming of the Lord. And this global revival before the return of the Lord is what that they identified as the Millennium. Most of them did not necessarily believe it would be exactly one thousand years long, as the number was often regarded as symbolic, but they did all believe it would be an extended period of time. However, many of them did not necessarily also discount the possibility of Satan being loosed at the end of the age, resulting in a period of turmoil and a percentage falling away immediately before the Lord’s return. The massive increase of population in this period, coupled with what they envisioned as a continuous global revival, would result in almost all those who lived and died in this period knowing the Lord. And the result would be that the overall percentage of human beings going to hell compared to those going to heaven would be relatively small. It should also be mentioned that it wasn’t only Edwards and his peers who believed that a majority, rather than a minority of humankind, would eventually be saved. Such a position was held by leading Evangelical scholars in the nineteenth century also (I should add that one could
go back to some of the church fathers for similar sentiments, but I am only looking at the early Evangelical movement). I’ll just mention two of the leading evangelical scholars in North America. Benjamin Warfield believed that “the number of those saved would vastly outnumber the lost”, and Charles Hodge said that, “the number of lost in comparison to those saved will be inconsiderable.” Many notables could be mentioned, but for me, W. G. T. Shedd strikes the balance nicely by concluding that “two errors need to be avoided; the first that is that all men are saved, and the second is that only a few men are saved”. I am well aware of the scriptures that come to mind that seem to contradict such an optimistic vision. However, because of their high view of scripture, Edwards and those like him did not seek to dodge any of these passages. In fact, to read their works is to find that they dealt with them in great detail. An instance would be Benjamin Warfield’s exposition of Mark 7:14 “narrow is the gate and hard is the way that leads to life and few there be that find it” (it should be remembered that Warfield was professor of theology at Princeton for fifty years when it was an evangelical institution). They worked hard to harmonize the passages that might seem to paint a darker picture of the end of the age and their work is easily accessible to those who are interested in pursuing it further. It is interesting to reflect on what would Edwards think if he were alive today. Personally I think he would be astonished. Northhampton, where the first awakening began in New England, was a town numbering only about 1,300 people. The global population was small, the modern missionary movement had not yet begun, and the majority of what we now call the Third World had not heard the gospel. In his sermons on “The History of the Work of Redemption in 1739”, Edwards said that in the millennial era, which he anticipated was “only a few hundred years hence”, there would be Black and American Indian theologians, and that Christian literature would be published in Africa, Ethiopia, and Turkey. (If he only knew what the W[i]cliffe Bible Translators had been up to in the last few years he would be astonished) It’s odd to think that you and I are those believers that he saw as living “only a few hundred years hence” and what is happening in our day far exceeds what Edwards expected by the year 2004. 250 years after the death of Edwards we now have a church in every nation on planet earth. There are still many people groups that have not yet heard the Gospel, but if the missiologists are correct in their estimates, something like 32,000 are coming to Christ per day in China, 20,000 per day in Africa, and 1,000 churches being planted in South America each week. And according to Campus Crusade, the Jesus Film has now been seen in 800 languages by 5.1 billion people (and although they acknowledge that this number includes people who have seen the film more than once, it is still a staggering statistic). Therefore in the light of what God is doing in our day, it would be a great shame if we did not share some of the optimism that Edwards and other early leaders of the Evangelical movement had on what could potentially take place globally in the coming years before the return of the Lord. This does not negate the more negative aspects of the end of the age , but simply means that more than one thing is true. When the darkness increases, our light will shine all more brightly.
Perhaps I should mention in closing that I don’t think it is necessary for any of us to change our Millennial positions to embrace a theology of global revival. As far as missiology and the global prayer movement are concerned there is a growing consensus that we will see an unprecedented expansion of the church and a measure of social transformation in many nations before the coming of the Lord. When we read the Prophets there are large number of passages that speak of nations, not just individuals, turning to the Lord (which is, of course, why our Lord spoke in Matthew 28 of making disciples of “all nations”, not just of simply making disciples of all individuals). Judgment is certainly present in the prophets, but there is an equally powerful stream of salvation and redemption. Sometimes this is described as the nations “flowing into Jerusalem” or “nations coming to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising” or again, “the mountain of the Lord”…being “established as chief among the mountains…and all nations [streaming] into it” There are dozens of such passages in the prophets, and I am sure you know them as well as I do. If one has a post millennial position, or an millennial position, then there is an expectation that such prophesies will be fulfilled in the age in which we live. However, if you are pre-millennial these promises are nice but somewhat abstract as most of them frequently have often not been applied to the age in which we live. They are pushed over the temporal horizon into the period after the Lord’s return leaving us with only “wars and rumors of wars” to look forward to before the Lord’s return. However, personally, as one holding a pre-millenial view, I can’t think of any compelling reason to have to consign all these promises exclusively to the one thousand-year period after the Lord returns. Tertullian, who lived around 200 AD, held the pre-millenialists view but he also expected a massive global turning to Christ before the return of the Lord. And many of our best pre-millenial Evangelical scholars now see many of the prophesies that were consigned to the Millennium by earlier Evangelical scholars as now being fulfilled in the church age. And if this can be done without forcing the text, for those of us who are die-hard pre- millennialists it will increase our faith and reinvigorate our commitment to prayer, evangelism, spiritual warfare, city transformation and global mission. I part company with Edward’s eschatology on many points, but I want some of his global vision and optimism, born out of what he experienced in the fire of revival to rub off on me, even if he has been dead for 250 years.