Caleb Griffis

18th cent. J.E.

Prof. Westblade



A Hand-Raising Question

Jonathan Edwards and the Pentecostal/charismatic movement


The question of how Christians should reach the people around them has always been a large issue. Numerous ways have been attempted; many are effective and many fail to bring people to a realization of sin and repentance. Christians want to be correct about the way in which they do the Lord’s work so as to avoid leading others astray, which Jesus and Paul both warn against (Mk 9:42, 1Cor 8:13). Many splits in the church have led to the present-day case of several denominations with countless divisions within each denomination. Each denomination has its own views of how evangelism should be carried out in accordance with the examples given in the Bible. All denominations cause controversy by their methods of evangelism simply because each has slightly different beliefs on the issue. The newest ideas, of course, always create the most controversy since people are not used to them and they have not stood the test of time. Today the most current wave of Christianity has been the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. These movements emphasize the experience of the Holy Spirit’s leading. Some denominations have been/are fearful that this emphasis is unbiblical. As one of the most influential theologians of the eighteenth-century and a leader of a Spirit-filled revival within his own church, the view of how Jonathan Edwards thought evangelism ought to be done should be accepted as one of the most essential. Because of his emphasis on biblically sound doctrine and the response that resulted in his church, his opinion on the issue is important to consider.

            In order to show the importance of Edwards’ opinion on this issue it is necessary to first show that biblically sound doctrine is important. If doctrine can be solely based on criteria other than the Bible, then Edwards’ thoughts are irrelevant. Logically the Scriptures are the very best frame of reference for Christians to base their lives on since it has been passed down through the generations as the word of God. The authority of the bible does not come from man. If one were to base doctrine for others to live by according to their own experiences, and especially spiritual experiences, it would be foolish. The way in which God may move in one person could be for a specific time and situation since God knows that the specific person will react to the Spirit’s initiative in a way that glorifies Him. If a premonition that the Holy Spirit employs for a situation like this is put in place and is used a principle for all Christians to live by at all times the results could be disastrous. Also the Scriptures themselves tell us to base our lives on them. In Joshua 1:8-9 it commands “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” Ephesians 6:17 tells Christians to “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Since the sword of the Spirit is the word of God it has authority. As the main tool of the Holy Spirit, the word of God should be what the Pentecostal/charismatic groups emphasize in their practice. In dealing with the Holy Spirit, the word of God cannot be left out, or even quickly glanced over, but must be the filter which all assumptions or claims are run through.

            The response that Edwards had in his congregation can be seen as a success in the sense that the doctrine he taught from Scripture was met with a reaction that, from all appearances, was of a godly nature. George Marsden explains that:

“The young people now seemed so compliant to Edwards’ leadership and so eagerly seeking spiritual joys that he easily convinced them to begin meetings on Thursday evenings after lectures (previously a favorite time for frolicking) for ‘social religion’ in smaller groups...Soon the adults adopted a similar plan.”[1]


On a spiritual level no one can claim to have any knowledge of the state of the peoples’ souls since “God, who knows the heart”[2] is the only being with the ability or authority to judge in this manner. However, as humans, Christians can see the evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit in people. From this type of evidence it is a just claim that Edwards had a successful response from his congregation, as far as it can be determined.

            From the decades prior to the twentieth-century many mainstream Christians were becoming frustrated with the apparent lack of spiritual activity and power in their lives. The religious world seemed too restrictive with none, or very little, of the excitement that they could read about in the book of Acts. Also, science gave many answers to the way things worked taking much of the mystery of life, which previously could have been simply explained as things controlled by God. Charles Hummel believes that the charismatic movement fills the gap created by, “Both the church’s concentration on the spirit and medicine’s preoccupation with the body”, which “have overlooked the whole-person model presented in the Bible.”[3] The Spirit and body were nearly never put in connection with each other, which created questions in Christian minds of why was there no manifestation of the Spirit in them? The work of the Holy Spirit appeared to be non-existent in their lives. Christians started moving towards a desire for a type of Christianity where God revealed his mighty power in the lives of his people. As Ronald Kydd claims, “Generally speaking...the Church prior to AD 200 was charismatic”[4] and Christians were eager to experience the Spirit in their lives. The strict lifestyles were not bad but also were not quickly bringing people to a belief in Christ or the greatness of God. Thus, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement had a reason to begin.

           Around 1906 William J. Seymour led a congregation with healing, speaking in tongues, and outspoken praise. The fellowship led by Seymour in Los Angeles has typically been seen as the beginning of the Pentecostal movement. Although an actual doctrine had already been put in place in 1901 by Charles Parham in Kansas, which claimed “’initial evidence’ – speaking in tongues as a confirmation of the spiritual event of baptism in the Spirit.”[5] The activity in California was more of an eye opener. As Hummel states, “This worldwide explosion of renewing grace was a complete surprise in significant respects. Led by a young black pastor without theological credentials”.[6] This was certainly a deviation from the normal way of worship and church conduct.

            The first wrench that can be thrown into the plans of someone attempting to claim that Edwards would support any type of Pentecostal/charismatic movement is also the largest wrench. Edwards believed very strongly in the need for the Spirit’s work in people to lead them to salvation or to a greater appreciation for God (and less for themselves). Revivals were impossible without the Spirit working in hearts to lead them to “the power to appreciate the spiritual light that radiates from God, the power to hear the communication of God’s love that pervades the universe”[7], attainable only after salvation. Charismatic practices would not be a problem for Edwards because of a difficulty for him to accept the impressive works of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that Edwards:

“knew more about experimental religion than most men; and he placed great emphasis upon the heart...what strikes one about Edwards as one looks at the man as a whole is the completeness, the balance. He was a mighty theologian and a great evangelist at the same time.”[8]


Edwards was very excited to see the revival that was taking place in Northampton as the Spirit was working to convict people of their wretchedness. Edwards supported the preaching of George Whitefield, which caused some people to experience shaking spells and have other strange experiences. However, a problem still remains. Edwards did not think that the Holy Spirit was still giving the extraordinary gifts to the saints. “He is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, theologians to argue for limiting the ‘extraordinary’ gifts of the Spirit to the apostolic era on the basis of I Corinthians 13.”[9] Edwards explains in his Charity and Its Fruits that after AD 200 the church had attained an “established written revelation of the mind and will of God wherein God had fully recorded a standing and all-sufficient rule for his church in all ages.”[10] Edwards concludes from this, “the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were no longer needed.”[11] Primarily, this attacks the root of any charismatic attempt to claim Edwards as an ally, but also gives insight to the cause of his fanatical importance of the written Word.

            With the emphasis on the working of the Holy Spirit the Pentecostals were moving away from what John Wimber called “traditional ‘programmatic evangelism’...usually message-centered with rational arguments – one-way communication through a prepared message.”[12] The word ‘programmatic’ here is clearly used as a derogatory term. It is used to show the lack of the Spirit’s presence in the preaching of the word where the congregation of a church does not physically interact with the message being preached. Wimber’s statement that the nature of a traditional message from the pulpit to be ‘one-way communication’ it is a harsh statement because there is not even a concession that there is, or could be, communication happening between the persons receiving the message and the Holy Spirit. Wimber would have done well to call it problematic evangelism.

            It is easy to say that Jonathan Edwards would be intensely bothered by this claim. The pulpit was of great importance in his mind. He had grown up, as a third generation pastor and the preaching would have been a very important part of life when growing up. Sermons must have consumed a great deal of his father’s time. Michael Haykin and Gary McHale claim, “it would probably be true to say that Edwards regarded preaching as the preeminent aspect of public worship.”[13] As Edwards saw it, the Holy Spirit worked through the preaching of a pastor first and foremost. All of the revivals that he had witnessed were a result of people in the congregation responding to the minister’s preaching. The loss of concern for the preached word of God would have been unthinkable for Edwards. He “would find it very difficult to comprehend, to say the least, that God’s Spirit could be so powerfully present and there not be ‘anointed ‘ preaching. For him...the Spirit-empowered preaching of the Word was the lifeblood of the church’s life in this world.”[14] Although Edwards held a very high view of preaching the word he was not so arrogant as to claim that it was the only way that God worked. Edwards realized that it was God working through him. Another sobering thought was that “He who was bold enough to lay hold on Christ himself, and carry him hither and thither, into the wilderness, into a high mountain, and to a pinnacle of the temple, is not afraid to touch the Scripture, and abuse that for his own purposes.”[15] Edwards was always well aware of his own failings and was many times in a melancholy state. He did not think of the preaching of the gospel as something important because of his presence in the pulpit but because of the Word being preached.

            The beliefs and practices held by Pentecostals and charismatics are not easy to nail down as far as largely accepted doctrine. The way in which the Pentecostal/charismatic movement came about was not centralized or very controlled by any small group of people regulating what was being done. The very nature of the movement being led by the Spirit did not allow for many doctrinal clear-cut guidelines. Thus, the differences of beliefs among the groups within the charismatic movement are many. “The reason for this diversity is the fact that the movement is not defined by the teachings of one leader such as Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, or John Wesley.” [16] As stated earlier, the Protestant movement was started doctrinally in Kansas but really caught momentum in California. The common thread was that they were breaking from the accepted picture of how the church was to flex its spiritual power. Understanding this, however, does not create a convenient scapegoat for the Pentecostal/charismatic movement to do anything and not answer for their beliefs and actions.

            One of the most basic beliefs of the Pentecostal movement has been that a manifestation of the Spirit on a person physically could be proof of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Hummel states the assumption “Pentecostalism, which views that gift [speaking in tongues] as the initial outward evidence of baptism in the Spirit.”[17] Most Pentecostals claim that a person has not been baptized with the Spirit until they have spoken in their unknown tongue.

In Edwards’ treatise On Religious Affections he gives 12 reasons that signs are not sure evidences of the Spirit indwelling the person affected. Edwards disagrees with the Pentecostal view by claiming that:

“There are many persons who have been exceedingly raised with religious affections, and think they have been converted, but they do not seem any more convinced of the truth of the gospel, than they used to be; or at least, there is no remarkable alteration.”[18]


With the people here described there is no fruit of the Spirit. The gospel seems to have had no effect on these persons; they simply had a spiritual or emotional experience. Edwards insists that the power of Christ through the gospel is so strong that it s impossible to be under its influence and not show the effects.

            A current day example of a congregation that may tend too much towards the affections and leave biblical reasoning out of the way are those of the Toronto Blessing. James Beverly claims that in his many visits to the Airport Vineyard he has heard that they wish for the outward manifestations to not be primary but that they fail at doing so.[19] Beverly gives them no sympathy as he says; “The signs and wonders have served from the start as justification for belief in the manifest presence of God.”[20] Although they attempt to preach good theology it appears that they do not practice it even in public services. Judging from the way that Edwards scourged through the scriptures it would be foolish to assume that he would not be frustrated with the way that theology has been neglected by the Pentecostals/charismatics. As Dr. Lloyd-Jones exclaims Edwards “is one of the most honest expositors I have ever read. He never evades a problem; he faces them all. He does not skirt around a difficulty; he had a curious interest in truth in all aspects”[21] With this in mind one can conclude that Edwards would be disappointed in the lack of self-examination on the part of the charismatics who fail to honestly question whether or not they are acting out what they are proclaiming.

            Although this paper fails to cover the minute details of the theology of the charismatics and Edwards by showing a few of the major beliefs of each it is clear that the two could not be considered on the same side of the issue. The most poignant example that Edwards is not doctrinally in line with the Pentecostal/charismatic movements on the issue of the gifts of the Spirit. Because of his belief that the apostolic age was the end of the extraordinary gifts it is strange that charismatics like Guy Chevreau, in his book Catch the Fire, have claimed that Edwards agrees with them simply because he oversaw Spirit-filled revivals. A person like Chevreau forgets that Edwards “was preeminently the theologian of Revival, the theologian of experience, or as some have put it ‘the theologian of the heart’.”(Emphasis added)[22] Edwards believed very strongly in the presence and necessity of the Spirit in believers but was meticulously careful to run his conclusions through the filter of theology.

[1] Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards. (London: Yale University Press, 2003), 155.

[2] Acts 15:8

[3] Hummel, Charles E. Fire in the Fireplace. (Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 1993.), 130.

[4] Kydd, Ronald A. N. Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1984.), 87.

[5] Hummel, Charles E. Fire in the Fireplace, 24.

[6] Ibid., 25-26.

[7] Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards, 157.

[8] Lloyd-Jones, Martyn. Jonathan Edwards and the Crucial Importance of Revival. (Cited on 11/24/2003)

[9] Eds. Haykin, Michael AG and McHale, Gary W. Would Jonathan Edwards Support The Toronto Blessing?, 8. (Cited on 11/24/03)

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Ibid., 8.

[12] Ibid., 203.

[13] Eds. Haykin, Michael AG and McHale, Gary W. Would Jonathan Edwards Support The Toronto Blessing?, 6. (Cited on 11/24/03)

[14] Ibid., 5.

[15] The Works of Jonathan Edwards, I:249.

[16] Hummel, Charles E. Fire in the Fireplace, 22.

[17] Hummel. Fire in the Fireplace, 25.

[18] The Works of Jonathan Edwards, I:289

[19] Eds. Haykin, Michael AG and McHale, Gary W. Would Jonathan Edwards Support The Toronto Blessing?, 8

[20] Ibid., 8, James A. Beverly, in an irenic critique of the “Toronto Blessing”

[21] Lloyd-Jones. Jonathan Edwards and the Crucial Importance of Revival, 14.

[22] Ibid., 14.