Calvin and Edwards: Compare and Contrast

Discussion in 'Church History' started by James Swan, Mar 12, 2012.

Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.
  1. James Swan

    James Swan Puritan Board Freshman

    Can anyone recommend any good studies comparing and contrasting Edwards and Calvin, particularly on the law? For instance, would Calvin ever preach or approve of something like, Sinners in the Hands of Angry God?

  2. James Swan

    James Swan Puritan Board Freshman

    Since posing this question, I've thought about it a little more. Perhaps some of you more read on Edwards and Calvin can tell me if I'm on the right track.

    While Edwards is most certainly Reformed, he, in my opinion, reads much differently than John Calvin. Yes, I know- two different centuries, two different countries, so of course they read differently. When I read Calvin though, I'm often comforted. When I've read Edwards, I'm often disheartened and feel burdened by my own shortcomings and failures. I've often wondered why this is. I'm not the sort of person who enjoys reinventing the wheel. I'm sure there are studies of this sort of thing out there somewhere, I just haven't looked hard enough. Perhaps the information I'm looking for is actually in a book in my own library and I don't even realize it. What follows is my own opinion as to what the difference smells like to me.

    It appears to me that for Calvin assurance is of the essence of faith. On the contrary, for Edwards, it wasn't. Calvin viewed faith as knowledge, trust, and assurance. The the last of these three, assurance, is that which I think provokes the feelings I have towards Calvin and Edwards. For Calvin, assurance was an encouragement for a Christian in the midst of difficulty and doubt. God had made promises to His people and these must be clung on to in times of discouragement. Despite how I feel about the burden of my sin, God promises salvation through Christ. Calvin states things like,

    Now I don't have any particular primary texts from the pen of Edwards to contrast this to. I'm not that well-read in Edwards. One particular book that really helped me understand Edwards was, John H. Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards, Evangelist (PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995, reprint). I highly recommend this readable overview of the basic soteriology of Edwards. From looking back over my Gerstner text, the notion of assurance in the theology of Edwards seems to be a different sort of cat than what Calvin was writing about. According to Gerstner, for Edwards there needed to be signs or "distinguishing marks" of regeneration in order to have assurance (p. 166). Gerstner quotes Edwards saying, "Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination as by action" (p. 167). Edwards, held very few people would actually be saved (p. 161). He was concerned that those who claimed to be Christians gave actual proof of their regeneration by good works. Gerstner states, "The difficulty is in detecting such signs [of spiritual conversion]. Edwards, having taught its possibility, urged the saints to get assurance. However, he raised so many problems that it became a byword that very few of his closest followers, if any, ever got it it."

    I'm sure Edwards and Calvin overlap in regard to this subject. Maybe I'm nitpicking, or simply don't understand the issues and the writers involved. Obviously, Calvin was concerned with good works flowing out of a regenerate heart (as was Luther). But if I'm going to look at my life to gain assurance of true faith, I'm one of those types of people that sees the perfect glorious righteousness of Christ, and then I compare that to my feeble steps of righteousness. R.C. Sproul has stated something like, "We're closer to Hitler in our sanctification than we are to Christ." This statement isn't meant to devalue the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives- it's to point out just how incredible and holy the righteousness of Christ actually is. Sproul is right. I'm closer to Hitler. If I'm going to follow the paradigm of Edwards as honestly as possible, I'll never arrive at assurance, ever.

    The Reformed tradition I belong to uses the Heidelberg Catechism. Note it's description of faith, and then compare it to the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question #81

    I think these two catechism statements may show the difference between John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. John Calvin's influence is certainly behind the Heidelberg Catechism. While Edwards was ecclesiastically Congregational, I've read he was content with the content of the Westminster standards, and, of course, the Puritans were behind the Westminster formulation.

    Right track... or no?
  3. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    James, I'm no expert, but I have a similar experience of finding greater profit in Calvin than in Edwards. But I don't believe the difference lies quite where your Catechism quotations would seem to locate it. You might find Joel Beeke's The Quest for Full Assurance to be useful in illuminating what differences there are with regard to assurance.

    But, speaking not so much for Edwards as for the Puritan tradition that undergirds the WLC, I think a lot of it is a matter of audience. William Sclater, for instance, held that there were relatively few in his own times who trembled at the word of God, and therefore it was more necessary to have searching and disquieting preaching than comforting - though he recognized, of course, that there were some of tender conscience who would need to be reassured and consoled. In our own society it's rather difficult to imagine someone reading Christian books who doesn't have a strong interest, but that situation did not obtain in earlier centuries. At least according to the pastoral analysis of those who were on the spot, complacent cultural Christianity was the prevalent trend, and it was quite difficult to awaken the complacent to take their profession seriously. It's not like conditions are wholly different now - but the proportions are likely to be reversed among those reading Puritan and quasi-Puritan literature.
  4. rbcbob

    rbcbob Puritan Board Graduate

    Gerstner also wrote "The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards" and thus might not be quite the impartial presenter of JE to the reader. Gerstner, even more than Edwards, overemphasized the rational, intellectual aspects of Christian experience to the detriment of the emotional and volitional. Gerstner's perspective also may be seen in his contribution to the book "Classical Apologetics" which he co-authored with Sproul and Lindsley. This was a call to return to the apologetics of the pre-reformation (i.e. Catholic) days.
  5. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior

    Picking up where Ruben left off, Jim...

    There are certainly differences in expression with respect to assurance between Calvin and the WCF (and Joel Beeke's book is quite helpful here). Back to Calvin: classically, he defined faith as knowledge, assent, and trust, along with all the Reformed. It is the case, however, that assurance was very closely tied in with faith and sometimes spoken of as belonging to its essence. This is because of Rome's teaching that assurance, apart from a special revelation (even something like receiving the stigmata), was not available to ordinary Christians. Calvin wanted to make it clear that ordinary Christians could and should and did enjoy assurance and that it was not presumption to claim such.

    Westminster comes a century later, after many true believers have struggled with assurance, having remaining sin and being overwhelmed often in the great battle against the devil, the flesh, and the world. I believe that Westminster's focus is different, not denying that we can, or even should, have assurance but dealing with the psychological reality of lacking it. A lack in assurance does not mean that there is no true saving faith. It's getting at a different point than Calvin's over against Rome.

    Now to Edwards. I have written a bit on Edwards (several articles, one lengthy) and reviewed a number of books on him. Edwards saw himself as working in a culturally Christian setting that often lacked vital faith. Even then, I don't think that the late Dr. Gerstner got him right at places. I think that he tended to read Edwards more through the lens of his own theology and philosophy rather than letting Edwards speak for himself. Nonetheless, Jim, I think that you are picking up something in Edwards worth critiquing. If you e-mail me, I can point you to some stuff that might help with Edwards.

    Having said that, I find certain things in Edwards as refreshing and soul-satisfying as anything that I've read in Christian literature. I know what you mean by the discouragement. I started reading him seriously in the summer of 1981. Perhaps I've developed a filter over time that allows me to read him in the most encouraging of ways. But this is a huge subject. You are quite right that the two have different tones, and I have come to appreciate Edwards though by no means uncritically.

  6. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior


    I was interrupted for a while in writing no. 5 (above) so did not see that you had posted #4, already commenting on Br. Gerstner. I agree entirely with you.

    Back in the mid-80's, Gerstner did a taped course on Jonathan Edwards for the Institute of Theological Studies. Sam Logan was asked to prepare the Syllabus (primary and secondary readings, questions, assignments, etc.) and he hired me to do this work for him. I had to listen carefully to each lecture, work through the study guide and then come up with additional questions based on readings that I assigned for the lecture as well as Dr. Gerstner's lectures themselves. I had been a student of Edwards for about 5 years at that point and had been privileged on a fellowship to work in his papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Yale University), to publish a couple of things on him, etc. So I was rather familiar with Edwards.

    I learned a lot from Gerstner, but at some key points, particularly his epistemological/apologetical take on Edwards, I differed. He seemed to me hyper-Calvinistic at points that Edwards didn't. At any rate, I appreciate Br. Gerstner but would encourage anyone reading the secondary literature to be cautious with respect to him.

  7. James Swan

    James Swan Puritan Board Freshman


    Thank you all so much for your replies.

    I do appreciate the further information on Dr. Gerstner’s work on Edwards. Ironically, some years back I actually went through the course referred to by Rev. Strange (and therefore the questions prepared by Rev. Strange). I don’t mean to imply any sort of disrespect to Edwards. I recall at the time determining I did not appreciate reading Edwards. This was due largely to my ignorance in not being able to understand and digest some of what he had written. Isn’t it typically the case we enjoy what we understand?

    I appreciate the comments above that considered the particular time period and motivation prompting the particular emphasis in either Calvin or Edwards. I suspected that played a keen role in determining the emphasis of each writer. In regard to Calvin formulating assurance in light of Roman Catholicism, I can certainly see how that would be a crucial factor. I do wonder though, given the amount of personal hardship endured by Calvin- as well as his concern for the persecution of his friends, students, French refuges, etc., if this likewise played a crucial role. Reading through Book III, the scope in regard to the topic of faith appears to be wider than polemic against Romanism, and given the intent of the Institutes, I wonder if perhaps the emphasis on faith including assurance was deliberate as an intended comfort for hardship and persecution.

    I probably won’t have the time to do any further studies on this topic till at least mid-May. I’m very appreciative of the book recommendations as well as personal articles.
  8. Wayne

    Wayne Tempus faciendi, Domine.

    One of the neat features of the academic version of WorldCat is their dissertation search :

    Barrett, Matthew, Reclaiming Monergism: The Case for Sovereign Grace in Effectual Calling and Regeneration. Louisville, KY: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; thesis.
    See Reclaiming Monergism: The Case for Sovereign Grace in Effectual Calling and Regeneration

    Evans, William Borden, Imputation and impartation : the problem of union with Christ in nineteenth-century American reformed theology. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, 1996; Ph.D. dissertation.

    Fisk, Philip J., The integral relation of impeccability and freedom to the projects of Cyril of Alexandria, John Calvin, Petrus van Mastricht, and Jonathan Edwards. Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 2008; Th.M. thesis. [See also Theological Research Exchange Network or Theological Research Exchange Network : e-docs]

    Kiboi, John Michael, The assurance of salvation in the theology of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley : toward a cumulative case argument. Toronto, Canada: University of St. Michael's College, 2005; M.A. thesis.

    Mathews, Matthew Todd, Toward a holistic theological anthropology: Jonathan Edwards and Friedrich Schleiermacher on religious affection.
    Atlanta, GA: Emory University, 2000; Ph.D. dissertation.

    Meeks, Fair Caldwell, A Look at John Calvin : the man and his ideas ; Notes on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's drama "Egmont" ; On Jonathan Edwards: puritan genius.
    Moorhead State College, 1967; M.S. thesis.

    Niebuhr, Richard Reinhold, The sovereignty of God : a comparison of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards with respect to their doctrines of the sovereignty of God and man's knowledge thereof. . . New York: Union Theological Seminary, 1950; B.D. thesis.

    Skidmore, John Edward, An evaluation of David Bebbington's thesis that evangelicalism's doctrines of faith and assurance are marked by discontinuity with Puritanism. Grand Rapids: Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, 2010; Th.M. thesis.

    Weeks, John Stafford, A comparison of Calvin and Edwards on the doctrine of election.
    Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1962; Ph.D. dissertation.
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2012
  9. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior


    Much of the hardship, especially the persecution, in its context had to do with the battle with the RCC. It was a time in which the whole enterprise was far more precarious in Geneva than in Northampton and the Reformed Church was not established in the same way in Calvin's time as in Edwards's. I'm not seeking to resolve everything in the RCC direction, however. Calvin, as Warfield said, was the Theologian of the Holy Spirit. Before Calvin the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, particularly the work of the Holy Spirit in applying to us the redemption accomplished by Christ, was underdeveloped. You will not find anything like Book III of the Institutes before it was written. One of the most wonderful fruits of the work of the Spirit is assurance (though none of this can be divorced from RCC concerns). So Calvin has an emphasis on this for many reasons and I am being merely suggestive not exhaustive by any means.

  10. James Swan

    James Swan Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks again Rev. Strange. I wish I had more time at the moment to do further studies on this topic. There's enough there with your comments to take a closer look over the summer months. I'm curious to track down any studies on Calvin in regard to Edwards.

    I went back and located my notes for the Gerstner / Edwards class, particularly the questions you compiled. Here's one of the questions you asked:

    What does Edwards, in his second letter to Gillespie, mean by "believing that I am in a good estate, is no part of ingredient in the essence of saving faith"?

    The text I excerpted in answering reads as follows:


    Would these quotes be a fair example of Edwards view that assurance is an effect of faith? I read through a larger context for these quotes in my notes, and I was reminded how difficult reading Edwards was for me. I can’t say I understood all of what he was saying in the broader context. These quotes though, appear to be saying what I think they do.
  11. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior

    Yes, Jim, I think that it is fair to say that Edwards sees assurance as an effect of faith. And surely there is something right about that. Without the exercise of faith, we have no assurance. And we do not get assurance without being in the exercise of faith. It's more what he does with this all that is problematic in some respects. That I think this part problematic did not appear in the course that you took and I've become more critical of Edwards over the years on this point particularly.

    Jim, do you have the full set of our Journals? Talk to me about this if you don't. You can look online, particularly in 02 and 03, the latter being a larger article on Edwards and "visible sainthood," which deals with this question. That may help. Much of what you are struggling with I have written on. We can dialog more when you have opportunity.

    All that being said, I still find enormous refreshment in Edwards.

  12. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    Dr. Strange, what of Edwards would you recommend for someone wishing to see him at his best? I have read Religious Affections, consulted his notes on Scripture on many occasions, and read a smattering of sermons ("Ruth's Resolution", "Justification by Faith Alone", "Divine and Supernatural Light", "Christian Knowledge", etc.)
  13. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior


    I find his works on the Awakening fascinating, including some sections of Religious Affections, Part III. This is perhaps not the best for devotional reading. Neither is The Freedom of the Will or Orginal Sin, both of which I find insightful, even where I may demur. I also very much like The Nature of True Virtue and End for Which God Created the World and his History of Redemption, that latter especially and wish that he had had more time with it. So many sermons (you named some good ones); I do like Charity and its Fruits: challenging and encouraging. This would probably be a good place to dip back in or the Wilson Kimnach sermon volume or the Edwards's Reader.

    For biographies, the Murray is good and the Marsden is outstanding: appropriately critical and properly appreciative.

  14. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    Thanks, Dr. Strange! I've read the biographies you mention and enjoyed them both, especially the Marsden. I read the excerpt Heaven a World of Love from Charity and Its Fruits and remember enjoying that, so that's probably where I'll return for some additional reading with renewed interest.
Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.

Share This Page