Dissertation Notes: “Orderly but Not Ordinary: Jonathan Edwards’s Evangelical Ecclesiology”

Rhys Stewart Bezzant, “Orderly but Not Ordinary: Jonathan Edwards’s Evangelical Ecclesiology” (PhD diss., Australian College of Theology, 2010).

Did Jonathan Edwards care all that much about the church? Didn’t he undermine it by hammering for revival and emphasizing the conversion of the individual? And if he didn’t undermine it, were his efforts to restore a pure church model just a knee-jerk reaction against innovations by trying to return to the Eden of Puritan order?

These questions drive Rhys Stewart Bezzant’s learned dissertation on Edwards’ ecclesiology. Bezzant, the Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center Australia at Ridley Melbourne, contends that Edwards, in fact, wrote about the church at great length and that his ecclesiology forms a core element of his broader theology. He argues that while Edwards was indeed “not ordinary” in that he emphasized individual affections and immediate conversion, he was nonetheless “orderly” in his conception of the church as God’s ordained instrument for carrying the gospel to the world. Rather than return to an outdated old church model, Edwards brought the old and the new together into a new synthesis that addressed the concerns of his day.

Bezzant first grounds his discussion in the history of Reformation and Puritan ecclesiology. Several debates highlight the centrality of ecclesiology in Puritanism: the role of human preparation versus God’s providential rule, the means God uses to promote the gospel (e.g., the Halfway Covenant and the Antinomian controversy with Anne Hutchinson), and the church’s purpose as a stationary beacon or an out-moving mission. Bezzant thus establishes the continuity of interest in the nature and state of the church into the eighteenth century.

Bezzant orders the rest of his dissertation in three chronological phases of Edwards’ life, offering close readings of major texts with an eye toward ecclesiology. The first phase (1703–1734) examines Edwards’ early thoughts on ecclesiology, shaped by his father’s strict adherence to a three-step morphology of conversion and his grandfather’s unusual mixture of open communion and firm clerical authority. Edwards’ combating of “Arminian” philosophy in the Anglican church arose largely from his concern that its ecclesiastical polity threatened the local congregation’s authority. Ultimately, Edwards found the “grammar” for his ecclesiology in the work of the Trinity (59), and Bezzant argues that “his dynamic and ordered conception of Trinitarian relations has its echo in the dynamic yet ordered life of the church in the world” (65).

In the second phase of Edwards’ life, Bezzant explores the ecclesiological themes in Edwards’ writings during the waxing and waning of the revivals—including A Faithful Narrative, Charity and Its Fruits, A History of the Work of Redemption, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, and Religious Affections (1735–1746). On the one hand we clearly see the “not ordinary”—and potentially destabilizing—nature of Edwards’ ecclesiology in this era. Edwards distanced himself from preparationism, arguing that God can make a shorter work of conversion than prescribed in the morphology of conversion. On the other hand, Edwards upheld an orderly structure within which immediate conversion could take place. In Charity and Its Fruits, for example, Edwards preached that love, a distinctive quality of the church, produces order rather than chaos. God’s work of redemption also brought purpose to the church within God’s design, and Edwards’ emphasis on the objective signs of conversion further revealed his desire for order. Edwards’ mediating ecclesiological position was “to allow for the rise of new practices and conventions, without destroying the received order of the church” (123).

In the third phase Bezzant displays Edwards’ visions of the church and its purposeful ends by engaging An Humble Attempt, The Life of David Brainerd, An Humble Inquiry, A Farewell Sermon, and, briefly, Edwards’ Stockbridge treatises (1747–1758). Here Bezzant pulls back the curtain on Edwards’ grand vision of God’s purposes in human history, in which the church plays a pivotal role. His call to promote prayer grew out of his view that the universal church’s united action would hasten the millennium. Similar concerns underlay Edwards’ aims in upholding Brainerd as a model Christian who embodied a new ecclesiology—a break from the state-church conception of Christendom to a missional mode of spreading the gospel through a renewed church. Furthermore, Bezzant contends that the Communion controversy that largely contributed to Edwards’ dismissal from Northampton cannot be adequately explained by saying that he fearfully ran away from changing social norms to the safe contours of an old ecclesiology; instead, Edwards’ theological concern for the church’s visible union with Christ lay at the heart of his actions. His Farewell Sermon further highlights his “prophetic ecclesiology,” which destabilized the church in its laxity but upheld the visible reality of the church.

Ultimately, Bezzant shows that Edwards’ “ecclesiology was generated by superimposing revivalist conditions and social aspirations onto Reformed convictions (sometimes with the revivalist strand eclipsing his patrimony), making it innovatively evangelical rather than generically Protestant” (209). As Bezzant explains, “For Edwards, the order of the Word creates with the dynamism of the Spirit an elliptical account of the church’s life, which makes it both orderly but not ordinary.” (213)

One of the surprises with Bezzant’s dissertation is that it had not been previously written. He marshals evidence from such a wide array of Edwards’ major works to demonstrate decidedly that ecclesiology constituted a core component of Edwards’ theology and impacted his life in significant ways. How has this gone untreated at the monograph level for so long?

Only a couple things would have strengthened this already excellent work. First, it would have been helpful at the beginning of the dissertation to have some definition of Bezzant’s own category of “ecclesiology.” Bezzant robustly constructs Edwards’ category throughout his work, but at the outset it would have helped to understand the breadth of what Bezzant would consider in examining Edwards’ works. And second, on occasion Bezzant did not make plain the connection between his discussion of Edwards’ writings and Edwards’ ecclesiology. While Bezzant generally brought things together, it would have helped in a few places to make clearer links between his analysis of Edwards’ works and the doctrine of the church.

These quibbles aside, Bezzant’s work is a welcome contribution to Edwards studies, and it stands as a solid piece of scholarship that nuances our understanding of Edwards’ ecclesiology, an evangelical synthesis that both embraced innovation and grounded it in an ordered structure, all to further the gospel of Christ in this world.

— David Barshinger, Senior Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS