Fire and Brimstone


In the comments section of this post the redoubtable Erik expresses some distaste for the work and thought of Jonathan Edwards. And while I agree that Calvinism can be enough to leave a very bad taste in your mouth, I disagree about Edwards, one of the great preachers of the Great Awakening.

Now, Edwards is not to everyone's taste. We do need to recall a number of things. At the time he was preaching, Sunday sermons were a form of "entertainment." That is, people didn't have television sets, movies, or even much in the way of plays or other distractions. When political season rolled around you might find a little oratory, but even that was limited. So your week's entertainment was rolled up with your worship.

The particular sermon objected to is the only one most Americans have any acquaintance with. It is the model for the sermon given by Karl Malden in Pollyanna when he is doing his fierce "sermonizing." Here is a sample and it is exemplary of what we tend to think of as a "fire and brimstone" sermon.

from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"
Jonathan Edwards

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

(For the entire sermon, very edifying reading, see here)

Properly intoned and delivered, this is a thrilling piece of rhetoric and oratory. It is not my particular image of God, but it is an image that can be substantiated through reference to a great many Old Testament texts. It is also an image that is suggested by certain of the themes of the Book of Revelation. Therefore it is an image of some reasonable pedigree even in the Catholic world. A similar sermon, focusing more on the dangers of Hell can be found in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

What most people miss, however, is this:

The Conclusion of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" Jonathan Edwards

And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! To see so many rejoicing and singing for joy of heart, while you have cause to mourn for sorrow of heart, and howl for vexation of spirit! How can you rest one moment in such a condition? Are not your souls as precious as the souls of the people at Suffield, where they are flocking from day to day to Christ?

Are there not many here who have lived long in the world, and are not to this day born again? and so are aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and have done nothing ever since they have lived, but treasure up wrath against the day of wrath? Oh, sirs, your case, in an especial manner, is extremely dangerous. Your guilt and hardness of heart is extremely great. Do you not see how generality persons of your years are passed over and left, in the present remarkable and wonderful dispensation of God's mercy? You had need to consider yourselves, and awake thoroughly out of sleep. You cannot bear the fierceness and wrath of the infinite God. -- And you, young men, and young women, will you neglect this precious season which you now enjoy, when so many others of your age are renouncing all youthful vanities, and flocking to Christ? You especially have now an extraordinary opportunity; but if you neglect it, it will soon be with you as with those persons who spent all the precious days of youth in sin, and are now come to such a dreadful pass in blindness and hardness. -- And you, children, who are unconverted, do not you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God, who is now angry with you every day and every night? Will you be content to be the children of the devil, when so many other children in the land are converted, and are become the holy and happy children of the King of kings?

And let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God's word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord, a day of such great favour to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others. Men's hearts harden, and their guilt increases apace at such a day as this, if they neglect their souls; and never was there so great danger of such persons being given up to hardness of heart and blindness of mind. God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and that it will be as it was on the great out-pouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles' days; the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded. If this should be the case with you, you will eternally curse this day, and will curse the day that ever you was born, to see such a season of the pouring out of God's Spirit, and will wish that you had died and gone to hell before you had seen it. Now undoubtedly it is, as it was in the days of John the Baptist, the axe is in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that every tree which brings not forth good fruit, may be hewn down and cast into the fire.

Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom: "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed."

Hardly the strict Calvinist line--a vague notion at best anyway. No intimation here that not all are called. No sign that only some will be saved. Yet we must acknowledge that that truth certainly can be supported from the words of Jesus. Here is a universal call to repentance in the fiery language of the time. And it is only a highlight in a long career of wonderful sermons.

Okay, so Edwards was a Calvinist. No, I don't agree with Calvinist doctrine as I understand it, but then I am hardly an expert in the matter and cannot pretend to really grasp what is meant by certain of their propositions. But I read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and I am thrilled, frightened, enlightened, and edified by the words of someone who struggled to express his true love for God. Some of the notions of Calvinism as I understand it are as repugnant to me as deconstructionism. But the same is true of certain portions of Catholic "doctrine," which is not doctrine at all but theological speculation of very saintly men and women.

I suppose I am going the long way about saying that the notions of Calvinism that are incorrect deserve to be systematically dismantled by careful inspection and explication. Those that are part of core Christianity will, naturally enough, stand. However, the individual Calvinist, as wrong-headed as he or she might be, must be examined not in one or two sermons or words, but in the fullness of the doctrine for the signs of the love of God. If one can consider the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, a man who oversaw the burning of hundreds, and perhaps as many as two-thousand Jews, a saintly man worthy of canonization, then I it seems others who may be wrongly oriented in principle should be given a fuller appreciation before consigning them to the flames of woe.

Jonathan Edwards may not have been correct, but I do believe that he loved and worshipped God and tried to lead others to do so as best he could at the time. That's all I'll say for the moment. I suppose it declares my position as being similar to that of Mr. Dhingra, who seems to seek always the commonality and the thread of the love of God that people of good will try to express--ecumenism without compromise of the great truth of the Holy Catholic Church. Hearing the good in Jonathan Edwards does no damage to the bulwark of Catholicism, nor will it ever damage us to hear what is good from others.

But as Erik points out, and rightly so, there must be the peacemakers and the valiant defenders. Those that extend the kiss of peace and those that rigorously challenge the errors of Protestantism. I have neither the will nor the intellect to do the latter (by which I mean the turn of mind, not the intelligence), and so I must do the former. And I delight in it, for there is much to be found even far from home that is worthy of our attention.

Bookmark and Share



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 18, 2003 7:59 AM.

For Your Edification and Delectation was the previous entry in this blog.

More On Fire and Brimstone is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll