What Would Jonathan Edwards Think About Modern Worship?

Zac HicksUncategorized3 Comments

I used to be “us vs. them” when it came to worship.  I used to associate myself with the the thoughtful folk who were quick and clear in pointing out all the theological and pragmatic deficiencies of contemporary and modern worship.  Their voice is still heard today.  They’re quick to sniff out charismania.  They’re quick to label with words like “hype,” “emotionalism,” and “manipulation.”

A big traditionalist criticism of modern worship is that it insists upon emotional euphoria in every service and every song.  This criticism is not without warrant.  It is simply fact that much of the character of modern evangelical worship is shaped by Azusa Street-style charismatic worship habits.  The modern charismatic renewal, beginning in the early 1900s, seemed to insist upon similar pinnacles of euphoria as litmus tests for the presence, power, and movement of the Holy Spirit.   Many, many people have exposed the shortcomings of such a criterion.  However, our quickness to criticize and disassociate ourselves may be a baby/bathwater moment, and I think Jonathan Edwards’ posture toward similar happenings in his own day is instructive here.

The more I read Edwards, and the more I read about him, the more I want to be like him—at once theologically tenacious but experientially generous.  Some consider Edwards America’s greatest philosopher.  Whether or not this is true, the fact that he is even considered in the rankings tells us that he had a superior intellect and that he wasn’t merely a biblical scholar or puritanical evangelical.  Edwards is an intellectual Renaissance man—a historian, a philosopher, a theologian, a psychologist. 

When the Great Awakening unraveled in the United States, people (as we always do) picked sides.  There were the sold out bandwagon-ites who believed that these emotionally driven revivals were pure, unadulterated God-work.  There were the hard-lined skeptics who were quick to explain away the work.  Then there were those like Edwards who stood somewhere in between.  Could it be that one of the most well-versed philosopher-theologians to ever exist had anything kind to say about the ecstatic charismania of his day?  Apparently so.  Religious Affections, alongside a few other works, was the published wrestling of Edwards on this topic.  Edwards was not interested in proving that the Great Awakening was true and legitimate; he was committed to discovering, both from exegeting culture and the Bible, just what was true and legitimate about America’s “new birth.”  Contra traditionalists, Edwards was not willing to label all the emotionalism as hype, because Edwards understood biblical anthropology—we are whole creatures.  Nor, therefore, was the stirring of emotion a necessary evil.

Can we even stop right there and learn a few things from one of the most learned Americans about our own analysis of modern worship’s emotionalism?  I’ll leave that question largely rhetorical while pointing out something about the traditionalist thought-pattern I encounter in my church (I am using “traditionalist” not necessarily in terms of worship style but worship approach…I know several people who are fine with contemporary worship who approach worship from a “traditionalist” view).  I observe them, sometimes, to be terribly conflicted people.  I observe that some tend to overly compartmentalize their lives.  It says something to me when, in another context, they are full of emotion and bodily energy (such as when they’re watching a football game), but when corporate worship rolls around, they’re Narnian statues.  It further says something to me when they develop theological constructs to defend their stone-iness: “I worship from my heart,” or “Outward expression does not befit the reverence God demands in worship.”

Edwards would remind us that not all emotionalism is bad and that emotions can be a sign of heart-affections spilling forth.  In short, I think Jonathan Edwards would approach processing modern worship similarly to how he handled the Great Awakening—with some sympathy and support and some careful theological analysis and clarification.  Can modern worship be overly ecstatic?  Yes.  Does emotional manipulation exist in modern worship contexts?  Sure.  Can these experiences lead people to develop an unhealthy appetite for emotional euphoria, leading them to crave the experience more than long for God?  Certainly.  But a reaction to bag it all would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

3 Comments on “What Would Jonathan Edwards Think About Modern Worship?”

  1. I didn't get all the way through it, but I found Jonathan Edwards: A Life by Marsden a helpful biography. I notice he has A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards now (2008), and that might be the ticket for a more terse overview.

  2. I have no comments on this particular article but just wanted to question the order of your emphases in worship. At the top of the web page you mention that you are seeking cultural relevance, biblical depth, historical engagement, & theological reflection in worship. Perhaps you are not ranking them in order but if I were you, I wouldn't put cultural relevance as the first thing I'm seeking in worship, especially since the culture changes so quickly and churches are never really relevant anyway. We always seem to be 5-10 years behind the latest fads.

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