As pastors are increasingly called upon to address political issues, the question arises: how can they do so in a way that is biblically responsible? A recently published collection of the sermons of Jonathan Edwards demonstrates the prominent 18th-century theologian and congregationalist pastor’s skill at addressing the ethical dilemmas through his use of just war theory and offers contemporary readers a valuable example in how to address current conflicts.

This is perhaps surprising. Famous for having presided over the First Great Awakening, Edwards is best known for his revivalist sermons, including his famed “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” rather than his political insight. But thanks to the editorial work of the pastor, church historian, and theologian Christian Cuthbert, our knowledge of Edwards’ sermons now includes his wisdom in a period of widespread military conflict. The Wartime Sermons of Jonathan Edwards, Reverend Cuthbert tells us, is “the result of a desire to explore how Edwards applied his theological prowess to the anxieties and fears of his congregation in Northampton during times of war.” Spanning from 1741-1755, the collection includes three primary categories: “British Wars Abroad”, which addresses war centered on the European continent and the Caribbean; “War Comes to New England,” which presents Edwards’ sermons following Britain’s declaration of war against France in 1744, after which war metastasized across the Atlantic and drew in some of Edwards’ own Northampton congregation; and “War Spreads to the Colonies,” which covers the final period from 1754-55 when Edwards served a frontier mission caught in the middle of rekindling tensions between Britain and France. 

The commonality throughout these various martial periods, according to Cuthbert, is that Edwards “designed his sermons to provide an integrated framework through which his congregation understood military action, personal piety, corporate spirituality, and God’s ultimate purposes in the world.” Edwards’ sermon “The Duties of Christians in a Time of War” is a particularly fitting example. As Cuthbert says,”…unlike earlier revival sermons, Edwards did not use war simply as the background for this sermon but its subject providing a philosophical and Biblical foundation for warfare.” The sermon was based upon 1 Kings 8:44-45. In typical fashion, Edwards analyzed the text into its different parts arriving, ultimately, at a series of four propositions. Focusing on the first, Edwards observes, “A people of God may be called of God to go forth to war against their enemies.” The proposition is clearly a reference from the first conditional clause of the sermon text: “If thy people go out to battle against their enemy…”. Seeking to provide his congregation with a standard of conduct, Edwards then distinguishes within this proposition two constituent elements that mirror, without Edwards directly naming them, the traditional distinction within the Christian just war tradition between jus ad bellum (causes of just war) and jus in bello (proper conduct within war). 

Jus ad bellum: Edwards grounds the just recourse to war in both general and special revelation. First, in accordance with natural law, Edwards argues, “It is lawful and a duty in some cases for one nation to wage war with another… If it be lawful for a particular person, when assaulted, to stand in his own defense and to wound and kill another to preserve his own life, the very same principles that prove the lawfulness of one will [prove the other].” Then, referencing the moral law inscripturated, Edwards makes a series of moves. He:

  1. Appeals to the sixth commandment. 
  2. Alludes to various narratives which depict God, “…encouraging, commanding, [and] ordering the affairs of war, [and] rewarding [the defenders of the people].”
  3. Finally, he cites Romans 13:1-4, saying, “The New Testament approves of the civil magistracy, and of the magistrates’ using the sword to restrain open violence with force.”

Jus in Bello: Having established that there are lawful causes for war, Edwards proceeds to define the proper conduct once war is initiated. He writes, “If it be a duty for a people to wage war for the defense of the community, then it is their duty to prosecute [that war] in such a manner as tends most effectually to obtain this end, not barely to stand on their defense when their enemies actually assault them.” Edwards from the pulpit, therefore, proclaimed, “If it be a duty of [a people to] wage war, ’tis a duty to prosecute it with vigor.” Interestingly, Cuthbert points out that Edwards makes this last point drawing from the work of the seventeenth-century international jurist Hugo Grotius and his seminal work On the Rights of War and Peace.

Now, perhaps the reader has already begun to list ways in which Edwards provides valuable examples to pastors who are called upon to address political issues. As a presbyterian minister myself, I notice the following:

  1. As a pastor, Edwards served his congregation by drawing from the natural law tradition.
  2. As a pastor, Edwards did not use 1 Kings 8 to give his congregation a history lesson, but a moral lesson.
    • This may be surprising. Some pastors today seem to think that God communicates his will only through explicit laws such as the 10 Commandments, the New Testament summary of the 10 Commandments, or certain declarations made by Christ. Edwards surely acknowledged all those sources of the divine will. Yet, Edwards believed that God revealed his will through the sacred histories, also.  
    • Edwards, second, used the law embodied in stories as precedents or moral models in order to find the salient and binding features for contemporary moral cases, even the case of war.
    • Fascinatingly, Edwards, therefore, appears to have engaged in the long-standing tradition of reformed moral casuistry. The biblical histories provided precedent cases whereby Edwards would know the mind and heart of God for the church.
  3. As a pastor, Edwards brought the insights of the wider world into the work of the pulpit for the benefit of God’s people, as when he benefitted from the work of political theorists (Grotius). Many such non-ecclesiastical authorities, in turn, rooted their own work within theology, affirming the notion that theology, indeed, is queen of the sciences and God the source of all knowledge.
  4. In sum, as a pastor, Edwards, therefore, utilized multiple avenues to provide moral clarity and strength to his congregation.

Through this wonderfully edited volume, Christian Cuthbert has provided a service to contemporary Christians greater than he might realize. Christians, it seems clear, are aware of increasing tensions all around them; whether kindling at the doors of our churches, of our homes, of our national halls of power, between nations across the globe, within our cities and within the culture itself. Too many Christians are unsure where to find resources to help navigate these troubled times that are realistic, prudent and theologically faithful. They do know that they do not often find these resources in the places in which they worship. This is a crisis. The sheep are bleating, and too many shepherds have no idea how to feed them. Jonathan Edwards might be one critical resource for helping us learn to do so.