After the fall semester of the past school year I wrote about some of the key things I was learning in the classes I had recently completed. Here begins at least one post on what I think is an important lesson that I received this past spring semester:
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is commonly known as America’s greatest theologian. Some have gone so far as to label Edwards America’s greatest mind, period (Rick Warren makes this claim in this interview.). With that said, I tread lightly when it comes to criticizing him.
However, two reasons have forced my hand in attempting to critique Edwards. For one, it was an assignment in one of my classes this past spring. We had to read Edwards’ biography and write several pages on him including a section on how we avoid his example.
The second reason I feel free to criticize Edwards is because he is a man, and the best of men are only men at their very best. I know that is sort of a cliche line, but it is certainly true and means that Edwards can, however humbly, be critiqued.
Well, how did I find Edwards wanting? It has to do with how he engaged with and related to those whom he pastored.
Along with being known as America’s greatest theologian, it is also widely understood that Edwards was highly introverted personality wise and highly diligent as a student and writer. The legend is that he spent thirteen hours everyday in his study. Thirteen hours! Everyday! This statement definitely needs some qualifiers. For instance his study was in his home. He never went to a church office to prepare sermons, study, write, etc. So though he was in his study, he was also in his home near his wife and children. It should also be understood that while in his study he did not lock himself in and put up a “Stay away” door knob hanger. He made himself accessible to his family and invited all visitors even on a moment’s notice.
This routine continued through twenty-three years of Edwards’ pastorate in North Hampton, Connecticut. Over the last year or so a controversy broke out that ultimately ended with Edwards’ expulsion. It seems clear to me that though Edwards’ certainly cared deeply for his congregation there was a distance between pastor and people that strongly worked against him during the controversy. Those seeking to undermine Edwards were able to win the congregation against him, and my claim is that if Edwards had taken a different strategy with relating to his people he would not have been expelled.
So, why did Edwards choose the path he chose in relating to his people? Here is the answer of Edwards’ only contemporary biographer (i.e. the only biographer of Edwards’ who actually knew Edwards), Samuel Hopkins:
He did not neglect visiting people from house to house because he did not look upon it, in ordinary cases, to be one part of the work of the Gospel minister. But he supposed that ministers should, with respect to this, consult their own talents and circumstances, and visit more or less, according to the degree in which they could hope hereby to promote the great ends of the Gospel ministry. He observed that some ministers had a talent at entertaining and profiting occasional visits among their people. They have words at will, and a knack at introducing profitable, religious discourse in a free, natural, and, as it were undesigned way. He supposed such had a call to spend a great deal of their time in visiting their people. But he looked on his talents to be quite otherwise. He was not able to enter into a free conversation with every person he met with, and in an easy manner turn it to what topic he pleased, without the help of others…And as he was settled in a great town, it would take up a great part of his time to visit from house to house, which he thought he could spend in his study to much more valuable purposes…It appeared to him, that he could do the greatest good to souls, and most promote the interest of Christ by preaching and writing, and conversing with persons under religious impressions in his study, where he encouraged all such to repair. (Murray, 1987)
Hopkins makes it clear that Edwards’ strengths (studying, writing, and preaching) were the guiding factor in how he chose to approach pastoring his people. My contention is certainly not that Edwards’ did not need to flex his strengths, but I do think he needed to work on his weaknesses with more intentionality. I have no doubt that Edwards deeply loved his people. I have no doubt that he needed to spend ample time reading, studying, preparing, writing, and preaching. But I am not sure it was altogether wise to allow his strengths to dictate his entire strategy for shepherding his people. He needed to work on his weaknesses and throw himself in the middle of people more often.
This lesson impresses upon me the need for pastors to be well-rounded. Do we need to work on our weakness if we are deficient in our understanding in polar bears’ migration patterns of every third year on the fifth full moon? Of course not. But within the full framework of what pastors are called by God to do we need to be wholly capable. Not wholly excellent, but wholly capable. Engaging with people, relating with people, conversing with people, opening up with people is a part of caring for people. In this regard I think Edwards may have fallen short and feeling similar to him in regards to personality I feel duly warned.
Praise God for Jonathan Edwards’ ministry and his continued ministry as his writings still continue to impact lives today. And God help us all to know and work on our weaknesses that we might more and more be conformed to the image of God’s dear Son, the Lord Jesus.
Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (1987: The Banner of Truth Trust), p. 342-3.