Edwardsian Anxieties: Pride and Arrogance

edwards cutExcellence and arrogance walk a fine line together. It is not a sin to excel at certain things, nor even to know that you excel at them. Arrogance is, however, often lurking close. Arrogance is an attitude of the heart about our excellence and it is a sin. The Scriptures teach that God hates pride and arrogance (Prov. 6:17; 8:13; Ps. 31:23). But pride is a subtle monster and it is easier for others to see than for us to see ourselves. This seems to have been evidently true in Jonathan Edwards’ life. Edwards was a sinfully arrogant pastor.

It is well-known that Edwards was an extraordinary scholar. But while he possessed a keen intellect, he was greatly lacking in social ability. Edwards was intense. So historian George Marsden writes of his personality:

He was intensely pious and disciplined, admirably but dauntingly so for those of more ordinary religious faith. His unrelenting intensity led him to follow the logic of his faith to its conclusions. His accompanying seriousness made him not an easy person to spend time with as a casual acquaintance, although he would have been fascinating to talk to about matters that concerned him. His prowess as a logician made him exceedingly sure of his opinions, sometimes given to pride, overconfidence, tactlessness, and an inability to credit opposing views…His opponents found him aloof, opinionated, and intolerant. For a time he won the hearts of almost everyone in his Northampton parish; then lost them again in a bitter dispute, a quarrel of former lovers. (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 5-6)

He was not always this way. The pastor was dearly loved by many and his personality is far more complex than just this one aspect. Yet it is a common feature of his personality discussed, for it ended up causing great trouble for the man throughout his life.

As a young lad he was often found to be judgmental and condescending towards his classmates. Relationships with his fellow students in college were poor. He had a falling out with his cousin Elisha Mix, of which Jonathan took time to write to address in a letter to his uncle. He regularly reproached students for their poor behavior and for the lack of intense seriousness in study. Marsden adds that “he was a boy who had much to learn about himself and about human relationships, not all of which he ever quite learned” (39). This becomes more evident as we look at his interactions within the church he pastored.

Edwards was a devout theologian and a concerned pastor. He wanted very much to see his congregation conformed to the example of Christ. His own commitment to serious and consistent piety often led him to expect a level of perfection from others that he himself was seeking. And because of his confidence in his own logic, exegesis, and interpretation he was quick to move and act on things that he believed were clearly outlined in the Scriptures. His tendency to move quickly and his lack of sensitivity, however, caused him great trouble in Northampton.

In the aftermath of the Great Awakenings, as his congregation increasingly became more lax, the preacher sought to stir them again with a bit of a heavy hand. Strachan and Sweeney write that Edwards saw their laxity as his responsibility. “He responded by ramping up the rhetoric of his sermons, chastising his congregation over and over for their spiritual laziness” (Lover of God, 104). In 1744, when he sought to enact church discipline against a few young men for lewd behavior he considered it a “watershed” moment. The behavior of the young men was sinful, but it seems that Edwards reacted so strongly and so rashly that the congregation rebelled. And to make matters worse, on the heels of this very tense moment the pastor decided to ask for a raise. The raise itself may have been warranted but the timing of the request and the manner in which it was approached only increased tensions between the pastor and his flock. Controversy only continued as Edwards made one brash move after another.

The biggest rift occurred when Edwards moved to change the congregation’s decades old practice on the Lord’s Supper. His grandfather, the “Pope of New England” as he was called, had established that the Lord’s Supper was a converting ordinance. Edwards was right in that the practice of the church on the Lord’s Supper was scripturally unsupported, but again, the manner in which he approached it veiled its correctness.

Edwards did not go public on his views until the last prominent Stoddard, Colonel John Stoddard, had died. Many began to accuse the minister of betraying his greatest supporter moments after his body went cold. They suggested that with Stoddard out of the way now Edwards could stage his coup of the sacraments and the membership of the church. The pastor insisted that such was not the case, and that he had long had disagreement with his grandfather’s position, but they could not be convinced. Not one to let matters of morality go, Edwards wrote non-stop in 1748 to produce An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God, Concerning Full communion in the visible Christian Church. Since he had been forbidden to preach on the subject, he had hoped this would convince the congregation. It did little more than add fuel to the fire.

The issue at hand here is not whether Edwards was right. From my own perspective his assessment was correct, and his response Biblically rational. The problem was Edwards heavy-handed response that evidenced no humility and no patience. His own reasonableness was evident to himself and, he assumed, ought to be evident to everyone else. But the congregation was not poised to see his response because it was clouded by his behavior. George Marsden explains:

Their outrage was fueled not only by their long-standing resentments and vehement disagreements with what Edwards was proposing, but also by their belief that he was being devious, even duplicitous. Why had he waited until he had attained a fixed salary to announce his views? Why had he not disclosed them while Colonel Stoddard was living? Was it that he knew that Solomon Stoddard’s son, who had so long protected him, would be the most formidable opponent of a repudiation of his father’s heritage? (347-8)

A patient, humble, and careful response could have more readily answered these questions. But once Edwards was convinced of his rightness there could be no delay and no compromise. He pushed forward with full steam and in the process ran over the people of his own congregation.

As we read and study Jonathan’s life we need to observe carefully these types of failures. Pride is a subtle sin that creeps upon the best of us. We need to be patient with one another, tender-hearted. We need to assume the best from our brothers and sisters. We need to follow the apostle’s counsel:

Bear with one another…(Col.3:13a)

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  (Eph. 4:1b-3)

Be patient with all men (1 Thess. 5:14b)

The call of the Scriptures that Jonathan Edwards believed reminds us to be humble and charitable towards all. This is clearly an area where Jonathan Edwards needed more growth; I suspect it’s an area where we do too.

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