What did Jonathan Edwards think about religious liberty?

November 7, 2018

For those familiar with it today, the word “congregationalism” tends to evoke an American sense of personal liberty. Congregationalist churches, whether Baptist or otherwise, are typically understood to run on the wheels of democracy, investing ecclesial authority in the people rather than in the hands of the few. Thus, as the saying goes, congregationalism is as American as apple pie. However, while Jonathan Edwards was a Congregationalist pastor and has long been regarded as “America’s theologian,” this was by no means his brand of congregationalism.

Edwards’s doctrine of the church was conformed to the image of Puritanism more so than American politics. His vision of a biblical commonwealth, supported by his understanding of the local and national covenant, was grounded in a tacit church-state synthesis. In A History of the Work of Redemption, Edwards contended that the establishment of Christendom by Constantine was one of the four most significant events in church history. Therefore, his notion of religious liberty differed greatly from our modern Jeffersonian sensibilities. As Harry Stout explains, “In the Puritan state, religious freedom would be tolerated no further than the boundaries of ‘gospel order’ determined by the Congregational churches” (The New England Soul, 21).

Nevertheless, despite his belief in natural and social hierarchies, Jonathan Edwards was also a public defender of evangelical, revivalist Christianity. No 18th century figure, and perhaps no American ever, did more to vindicate lay religion as an authentic work of God than did Edwards. As a result, the man whom Isaac Backus affectionately referred to as “our Edwards” sowed many of the theological seeds which would inevitably grow into the religious liberty we enjoy and defend today.  

In 1636, a century before the Great Awakening, the man who coined the term “congregationalism,” John Cotton, discussed the proper form of government in America. “Democracy,” he reasoned, “I do not convey that ever God did ordain as a fit government either for church or commonwealth. If the people be governors, who shall be governed?” This is the patriarchal, theocratic ideal Edwards inherited from his Puritan forebears.

A man between two worlds

Though American by birth, Edwards viewed himself as a subject of the British crown in a trans-Atlantic kingdom of top-down authority. Though a Congregationalist, Edwards also supported the Saybrook Platform, a Presbyterian-like measure which allowed ministers from the Northampton Association to regulate the admittance of pastoral candidates in churches, eviscerating local church autonomy. Politically speaking, Edwards was a social conservative for his era. “Tis no part of public prudence,” Edwards insisted, “to be often changing the persons in whose hands is the administration of government” (WJE 17:354-55). In Edwards’s mind, the strength of government was found in its stability, not necessarily in its protection of civil rights.

Still, George Marsden is undoubtedly correct that Jonathan Edwards was both a medieval and a modern. He was, to borrow Marsden’s words, a “conservative revolutionary” (Jonathan Edwards, 213, 253). Despite his penchant for order and his concerns over the excesses of revivalism, Edwards identified himself as a “zealous friend” of the Great Awakening, an itinerant and often outdoor movement that wrested power from the state-sponsored churches. In works like The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God (1741) and Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival (1743), Edwards aligned himself with evangelical New Lights, even accusing those who would call into question the spiritual legitimacy of the revivals of “the unpardonable sin.” Decades before the political upheaval of the American Revolution that raised the “wall” between church and state, the social and ecclesial maelstrom of the Great Awakening began to tear at the fabric of the old-world establishment. And if George Whitefield was its public voice, Edwards was its apologist.

Rebirth of church-state relations

In a world of established religion, individual conversion was the single most socially leveling doctrine in the church, and from it Edwards developed a new ecclesiology that challenged centuries-old assumptions about church and state. Repudiating the policy of his predecessor and grandfather Solomon Stoddard, the “Pope” of the Connecticut River Valley, Edwards’s new requirement for admitting new members into the Northampton church included a credible profession of faith, the fruit of Edwards’s robust doctrine of rebirth. This Baptist-like idea of born-again believers being separate from the world was an indictment of the Halfway Covenant, a policy established in 1662 by Congregationalist churches wherein infant baptism was extended to the children of parents who were baptized but not professing.

In Edwards’s mind, the local covenant had slowly devolved into a kind of hereditary birthright. By insisting upon a credible profession of faith, and by challenging the traditionally rigid understanding of conversion morphology, Edwards was not only creating a space between church and state; he was identifying the Christian’s personal relationship with Christ—not their relationship to the local government—as the primary ground for church membership. This was nothing short of revolutionary in a society built upon the idea of interlocking church, local, and national covenants. So pivotal was this decision in the scope of American history that Edmund Morgan, in his biography of Baptist Roger Williams, looks forward to Edwards and states, “Like the followers of Jonathan Edwards a century and more later, Williams thought it compounded the wickedness of wicked men when they went through the motions of religion” (Roger Williams, 32). Armed with a theology of “religious affections,” Edwards sacrificed the presumptuous union of church and state (and ultimately his job) on the altar of born-again religion.  

In Edwards’s view, a strict separation of civil and religious interests was injurious to the community because religion is necessary for a moral citizenry and a healthy society. Therefore, Edwards the Puritan would certainly have objected to John Leland the Jeffersonian when the latter boasted that “religion is a matter between God and individuals.” While Edwards affirmed the priority of individual faith and even defended “the freedom of the will”; his doctrine of the church was inescapably more corporate and even more civil than our 21st-century American minds would allow.

Still, in many ways, the life and ministry of Jonathan Edwards is the story of American evangelicalism in miniature. Renovating traditional Reformed doctrines with modern concepts, Edwards was both a child of Puritanism and a product of the Enlightenment. He was, as Perry Miller has insightfully observed, “not only a child of America, but, as such, is one of its supreme critics” (Jonathan Edwards, 179). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Edwards’s notion of religious liberty was incredibly advanced for his time, yet still somewhat archaic for ours. Nevertheless, his insistence that our inner spiritual lives can be subjected to a public test, and that the church must remain distinct from the state in order to do so, has endured for centuries in America.

Obbie Todd

Obbie Tyler Todd is pastor of the Church at Haynes Creek in Oxford, Georgia, and a Ph.D. candidate at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also blogs regularly at www.themajestysmen.com/obbietodd on theology, history, and culture. Obbie and his wife, Kelly, have boy and girl twins.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24