Jonathan Edwards’ Sacramental Contradictions:
Tensions in the Sacramental Thought in Jonathan Edwards’ Writing and Ministry
REL 319: 18th Century Theology
Dr. Donald J. Westblade
The New England churches of America had several reasons to thank Jonathan Edwards. His writings on Heaven, Hell, and the harmony of God are considered by many to be some of the greatest writings on their respective topics because of their depth and perspective. Some of the things that Edwards wrote about the least however were the sacraments. During his time as a pastor, he would need to confront the modern understanding of the sacraments, making distinctions between “converting” and “sanctifying” events. Despite his eventual closing of the Lord’s Supper to only the affirmed converted, he would never go on to write a long treatise on the matter that would firmly establish his thoughts on the relationship between the sacraments and the believer. While the Puritan congregations of New England as a whole grappled with the consequences of their ideas on the sacraments, Jonathan Edwards’ struggle was a bit separate from the whole. His own writings indicate that his thoughts are different that those of his contemporaries. If he had gone on to scrupulously study the doctrine of the sacraments, he likely would have been able to give his answer to some of the inconsistencies which the New England congregations struggled with; whether the nature of baptism is converting, or should be, as well as whether all members should be able to receive the Lord’s Supper and how those two sacraments impacted the Puritan system of the Means of Grace.
Before a thorough explanation can be given of the tension in Edwards’ system of the sacraments, there are some things that must be addressed. When the phrase “means of grace” is used, it is often in reference to the means spoken of in Edwards’ Sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both Scriptural and Rational Doctrine”. The grace that is bestowed by God “positively helps reason” to distinguish the “excellency of divine objects”, does not come from the objects or elements themselves. It is simply that the “outward means” are used to provide a visual aid.
Another idea that should be addressed is church membership. During this period, Puritan churches often had multiple types of members. While there are a variety of factors that lead to this development in the Puritan church, the biggest issue was how to treat those infants and children who joined the church by baptism without giving a profession of faith. Puritans first felt that because of the way that the Old Testament had entire families baptized that New Testaments families should be baptized as well. The Puritans believed that the covenant with Jesus through faith was also structured in a similar format to the covenant with God in the Old Testament. The Puritans argued that the faith of the parents would suffice in adding children to the covenant, as there were promises in the Old Testament that were attributed to children who were not yet born. However, they would have to join the covenant again in order to confirm their status once they were considered old enough to possess the cognitive abilities to be able to make their faith in the covenant their own. This was done through a profession of faith that was considered true and genuine. Until they could profess their faith, they were not allowed to the Lord’s Supper in Jonathan Edwards’ church. This caused debate as to whether these children were truly a part of the covenant and church, and whether the church should wait until their adulthood to baptize them.
Edwards addressed this several times, both in the miscellanies and in his previously mentioned sermon, that the grace that is immediately given during the “outward means” being present (the sacraments and word of God) is meant to help in guiding the reason towards the divine things and communicate his essence. If this is to be taken as true, then it will follow that infants could be given to seeing the divine things if the Lord so desires it. However, this is noted by Edwards as not being representative of how most children behave and grow up as. He laments that there are plenty of children who grow into non-believers. If most children do not grow up to be believers or faithful, then what does take place during the baptism of infants? Is there supposed to be something taking place during the baptism of infants?
Edwards’ definitions of the means of grace communicates that the means of grace are not merely actions, but ways in which God acts upon us. Considering this, the means of grace should be met with respect as ways in which God acts. Even if they have no power in themselves. It could be that there is no light being communicated because there is not a reason present to guide in children. Edwards argued in his 538th contribution in the Miscellanies, that Grace typically does three things; supply the mind with notions, supply the mind with reason, and convict the heart. The issue is that infants do not have the reason to be able to be guided in the way that the light does, nor can they be convicted in the heart. That is one of the roles of the means of grace though, as is indicated by his Miscellanies. What about a communication of himself? Well, seeing as baptism is sometimes connected with salvation, it would make sense that his essence is being communicated. He gave man these means just as he gave man the law to better know him and dwell with him. If God can use baptism to communicate different forms of his grace to infants, should baptisms be given to all infants? How can you tell if an infant is supposed to be baptized? Edwards seems to say that baptizing anyone is acceptable, though it is important that infants have parents of faith.
Edwards defends his position with scripture in his miscellanies by extrapolating upon the book of Acts when he mentions that “Phillip baptized Simon Magus” and uses this as an argument for how baptism is not connected with regeneration. His argument rests upon the fact that there were other “only visibly Christian” people who were baptized by the disciples. While Simon Magus may not have had the gift of the Holy Spirit, that did not negate the idea that he did not believe in the word of the Lord. It was not as if he was baptized without believing or without wanting to receive the spirit. The issue was that he did not understand what the baptism was and what the faith was. The writer of the book of Acts clearly states that “Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.”
Simon was not traveling with Philip without having first been baptized, but more importantly he believed the word of God before he was baptized. Edwards focuses on the end of the story during verses twenty-two through twenty-four when the apostle Peter tells Simon to “Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” After Peter said this, Simon asks Peter to pray for him, that what Peter had said to him would not be the case. This is a case that a man with reason and belief in Jesus was not given rejuvenation. Remember that it is not baptism in itself that will lead to the blessings of grace, but God who blesses others with grace. It is not that anyone can be baptized, but that God will choose out of those who are baptized which ones he will bless and when. Simon was baptized, but God simply chose to withhold the gifts of grace. It was not that Simon doubted, as the scriptures expressly say that he believed, but he lacked understanding. He was not given the gifts of the baptism due to his misunderstanding of the message. In the same way, it would stand to reason that infants would not receive the blessings of baptism without understanding the faith, and that while God would have the power and authority to bestow natural ability
The Bible also provides further evidence for this point, in Acts Chapter two verse thirty-eight Peter says, “Repent and be Baptized”. Chapter two verse forty-one says that “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”. Notice the way in which the Bible does not say, “there were three thousand people in the physical church”, or the way in which the Bible does not say, “There were three thousand believers and another five hundred menial members”. The Bible speaks of souls joining the church after their repentance and following baptism, not menial members of the church body who do not have saved souls. The purpose of baptism is not just as a mark of the covenant, but a way for members to be considered a part of the Church of the saved and those who have received God’s grace. To do that, the potential member must be capable of repentance, capable of understanding of the word (an understanding of general words at the very least), and capable of thereby being able to distinguish the body and blood.
Another aspect of this topic that must be addressed is the role that the parent’s faith plays in Edwards’ view of the baptism. Edwards, in his 595th contribution to the miscellanies writes about the role of the parents’ faith during a child’s baptism when he says that
“But saving grace seems to me by the promises of God's Word to be thus far connected with baptism in infants: if the parents do sincerely, believingly and entirely, with a thorough disposition, will and desire, dedicate their child to God that they bring to baptism…if that child dies in infancy, the parents have good grounds to hope for its salvation, and have12 also good grounds to hope that…it13 may be brought to salvation.”
A parent’s faith can replace the faith of an infant in Edwards’s mind, if the parent has the full faith and intent to raise their child in faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ then the child’s salvation should, in most cases, be virtually guaranteed. By this logic however, then infants should be allowed to take the Lord’s supper, as they have entered the covenant and are assured of their salvation. Edwards even says that the promises of God’s word are connected. Shortly before this statement, Edwards also mentions that “the parent acts for him” in the case of infants. Assuming that the heart of the infant is circumcised, should the infant be banned from the communion rail?
The argument against Edwards’ defense of Infant Baptism applies here as well. It is through belief, understanding, and repentance that a baptism is held valid in the eyes of God, and that these are found lacking in an infant despite the faith of the parents. The defense for this claim comes from Romans chapter two. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, does in fact make a parallel between one’s baptism and their circumcision. Romans 2:25-29 says that
“if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical…and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”
Paul emphasizes here that it is the circumcision of a man’s heart that will bring them into the covenant and not necessarily the physical circumcision. Even if you are physically circumcised but live in a wicked way you will not be considered a part of the covenant. If the most important part of keeping the covenant is the circumcision of the heart is the most important part, then the children should be having their hearts circumcised as well as their being baptism. Here it is appropriate to point to Edwards’ own testimony concerning the idea that many children grow into unregenerate people, whose hearts are not circumcised. If a vast majority of the children that are being baptized are not repentant, then it would seem as though they are like Simon; they are not understanding and thus not receiving the gifts of baptism. If this is the case, then the idea that a parent’s faith can lead to an entry into the covenant of Christ must simply not be true. Edwards was a firm believer that sound reasoning and biblical teaching supported one another, and yet the reality that these children have yet to circumcise their hearts and join the covenant is evident.
If these baptisms are not considered to be done under the correct circumstances, should they be done at all, and should a second baptism occur if the first is not done during the appropriate faze of the infant’s life? Edwards viewed the sacraments as unnecessary for salvation, and as such, it is not very likely that he would have required a second baptism of those who were baptized as infants. As long as the faith of an individual was true faith given by God, they need not be baptized a second time.
Now that an argument against the baptism of children has been established, the separation of the Lord’s Supper and baptism must be addressed, as it will point out a large inconsistency within the sacramental issue of Edwards’. The Bible makes it quite clear that non-believers should not be allowed to the communion rail. Communion has several aspects, but one of them is that it is a recognition that we are a part of the body of Christ and in union with one another. If you are not a part of the union and if you do not recognize the body of Christ and the church, you would be destroying yourself. Paul cites this as the reason why many of the Corinthians are sick; they are not recognizing the body. This being kept in mind; the idea of menial membership must be brought into the fore front again in relation to the Lord’s supper.
For the sake of the argument, Edwards’ ideas of infant baptism will be considered as true. Can someone be made to be regenerate as an infant, be graced salvation through faith, and yet not be allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper? If salvation is had through faith, and faith is built upon hearing and believing, and is a gift from God, then it should stand to reason that the person would be able to distinguish the body, as they would have been given understanding of divine objects. If they can operate under the understanding of their parents’ faith, then there is no reason to say that the understanding of their parents cannot be used to distinguish the body of Christ in the bread and wine. If the children do not have the natural ability to distinguish the body, and are operating under the faith of their parents, then they should not be held accountable to distinguishing of the body and should be able to partake of the Lord’s Supper as children. If we are assuming that the responsibility to distinguish the body is still with the child, that would mean that they have the natural ability then to distinguish it. If they have that natural ability to distinguish the body, then they should also be able to be baptized upon the hearing of the word of God. If these two things are true, then the children should have moral responsibility to lead lives of repentance, as God has gifted these infants with the natural ability to distinguish divine objects. Edwards’ baptism of children is assuming one of two things, that it is not the child’s responsibility to distinguish divine objects in baptism or in the Lord’s Supper, or that the children are given reasoning and the natural ability to distinguish divine objects by the grace of God. Ultimately, neither is being reflected in the way in which Edwards’ dispenses with the means of grace, as his practice is inconsistent with both assumptions. He views infants as having no responsibility or ability in their faith during and after their baptism, but also thinks that infants do have responsibility in the Lord’s Supper.
Jonathan Edwards was confronted with a difficult decision when forced to deal with the sacramental practices of his grandfather. While he made a consistent decision concerning his distribution of the Lord’s Supper, his distribution of baptisms was not congruent with the same assumptions and practices that underlined the former. In trying to avoid the Roman practices of the sacraments, Edwards was willing to cut theological corners and live with inconsistency. All that being said, one must ask what could have been had he lived a full life, and his writings are still considered to be among the best explanations for some of the longest theological debates in history.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Miscellanies.” Miscellanies Pages 537-688. Yale University. Undated. Book 1, entries 537-688 - Yale University Library
Edwards, Jonathan. “The Freedom of the Will.” New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966.
Jonathan Edwards. “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.” Sermon preached at a Sunday Service in Northampton, MA, 1734. A Divine and Supernatural Light... (ccel.org).
Holifield, E. Brooks. “The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old And New England, 1570-1720.” New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974.
Pope, Robert G. “The Half-Way Covenant: Church Membership In Puritan New England.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.
 Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.” (sermon, Northampton, MA, 1734). A Divine and Supernatural Light... (ccel.org).
 Edwards, A Divine and… pg. 6.
E. Brooks Holifield, “The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old And New England, 1570-1720.” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974), 105
Robert G. Pope, “The Half-Way Covenant: Church Membership In Puritan New England.” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 60.
 Edwards, Miscellanies, 577.
 Miscellanies, 577.
 Acts 7:9-13.
 Acts 7:24.
 Acts 2:38.
 Acts 2:41.
 Edwards, Miscellanies, 577.
 Rom. 2:25-29.
 1 Cor. 11:27-29.
 1 Cor 11:30-32.
 Jonathan Edwards, “The Freedom of the Will.” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966). The idea of ability and responsibility being correlated comes from Edwards’ writings on the freedom of man.