John Edwards (1637-1716): It is vain and senseless to confine the doctrine of predestination to schools and universities

John_Edwards

 

In 1622, King James I issued instructions to the English clergy under the title Directions Concerning Preachers through Archbishop George Abbot, in order to restrict preaching on controversial issues. One of these directions reads as follows:

“That no preacher of what title soever under the degree of a bishop, or dean at the least, do from henceforth presume to preach in any popular auditory the deep points of predestination, election, reprobation or of the universality, efficacy, resistibility or irresistibility of God’s grace; but leave those themes to be handled by learned men, and that moderately and modestly by way of use and application, rather than by way of positive doctrine, as being fitter for the schools and universities, than for simple auditories.”

The Church of England divine John Edwards (1637-1716), whose works are crammed with a Reformed Orthodox understanding of predestination, criticized the king’s instruction in vol. 2 of his work titled The Preacher (p. 131-136, spelling modernized in places):

1. I do not see how it can be presumption to preach of these points [of doctrine] in the pulpit, seeing the Holy Scripture so often mentions them. Surely it can be no fault to deliver those doctrines, even in a popular auditory, when the Holy Bible, which is put into the hands of the people, delivers these sacred truths to us. May we not hear the same things from the preacher’s lips which we have from the mouths and pens of the inspired prophets and apostles? I believe I shall never be convinced that a minister of the Gospel, who is to take the matter [i.e. content] of his sermons from the Scriptures, is to be blamed for handling those very doctrines which he finds there; and especially seeing they are represented there as necessary to be believed, and of the foundation of the Christian religion.

2. It is observable that these doctrines of predestination, election, reprobation, etc., were held to be Orthodox in those times (viz. at the close of King James the First’s reign) by our Church [i.e. the Church of England]. For we see here that no fault is found in them, yea, it is supposed that the things themselves are true, and according to Scripture, otherwise no persons would be allow’d to preach and handle them: but some are here allow’d and authorized to do it. Now seeing they are own’d to be Orthodox, it is very strange and unaccountable that they may not be preached by all the ministers and dispensers of the Gospel. Have any men power to cull and pick out of the Bible such and such particular doctrines for the pastors of the Church to discourse of, and to order that others shall be debarred the pulpit? If any warrant can be shewed for this, I shall be silent, but till then I must profess myself bound to believe that the whole will of God, that is, all doctrines in the Scriptures relating to salvation, are to be preach’d to the people by the faithful ambassadors of Christ. In the Form of ordering Priests in our Church, we find that the Bishop delivers to every one of them the Bible, saying, Take thou authority to preach the Word of God, but he doth not confine them to certain texts, and certain doctrines, and give them authority to preach only on them. No: the Bible in general is their storehouse, and they may furnish themselves with all sorts of divine truths, and communicate them to their hearers.

3. How vain and senseless is that, that a popular auditory must hear nothing of these doctrines of predestination, etc., but the schools and universities may ring of them? As if there were nothing but matter of dispute and controversy in these evangelical matters. This is a great mistake, for there is solid, undoubted and incontestable truth in them, abstract from all debates and disputes. And the vulgar and illiterate are as capable of this as the most learned, and therefore they ought not to be excluded from hearing these doctrines, yea, they are hugely concerned in them, because by means of these they have an occasion of improving their spiritual knowledge, of strengthening their faith, of heightening their love and affection towards the Holy Jesus, of admiring the sovereignty, and extolling the peculiar grace and bounty of God. Is there any reason then to confine these doctrines to the schools and universities?

4. That is very silly and weak that none but a bishop or dean must preach of predestination and election, and the like doctrines, that none but cathedral men must venture upon these points: as if the Gospel, which delivers these doctrines, had commission’d those persons, and none else, to treat of them. This is a palpable imposing on the Christian world, this is a plain lessening and debasing the commission of Christ’s ambassadors, this is an unwarrantable confining the ministers of the Gospel, and the Gospel itself. Besides that it is a foolish intimation that a title or a dignity makes a man an able minister of Christ Jesus. But I think no more need to be said to expose this folly.

There are those that look upon these doctrines as wholly indifferent, and therefore advise that nothing should be said of them in the pulpit. But these men that talk thus, have either read the Scripture, or they have not: if they have, they can’t but see that these doctrines are not of an indifferent nature; if they have not, it is to be presumed that they have little regard to those sacred writings, and look upon them as indifferent, as well as these points: and perhaps they reckon all as such, and think one persuasion as true as another. This sceptical sort of gentlemen, I hope, our clergy will have nothing to do with, and consequently will not listen to what they say of the foresaid doctrines.

Some others would have us believe that the doctrine of the decrees, and of divine concourse, and of the power of grace, etc., are philosophical speculations, and therefore are not fit for the people. And sometimes they call them philosophical disputes and philosophical hypotheses. At other times they are said to be scholastical notions, and therefore are not to be regarded: as one among us lately was against the applying the epithet idolatrous to the Church of Rome, because it was (he said) a Scholastick term.

There are others of our order that refuse to discourse to the people on any of these points, because they carry some difficulty with them, and they pretend that they are loth to perplex their hearers’ minds. But this is a mere pretence, for on the same account some of the articles of our religion, which they themselves own necessary to be taught, are to be laid aside, as the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, etc. Therefore it is evident that the eternal decrees and the other truths so often mentioned ought to be preached, tho’ they be difficult. This must not deter us from delivering what is truth, and what is adjusted to the Word of God. And yet here this ought to be inserted, that about the way and manner of handling these points there is caution and prudence to be observed. The mere disputative part should not be undertaken ordinarily in our sermons. The abstruse speculations that may arise from these doctrines are not to be the subject of our discourses to the people: but the substantial part of them must be. For this being plainly and expressly contained in the Scriptures, we are obliged to discourse of it, as well as of other truths contained in that Holy Volume. And let me tell you, if this were commonly treated of, with judgment and care, and with shewing what are the useful inferences that naturally flow from it, it would be easily apprehended, and readily embraced, and our auditors would call for frequent instructions and applications relating to these divine subjects.

Well then, be persuaded of the necessity of acquainting your flock with these truths. We have Philistines that stop up these walls, but do you open them, and let your people have free admission to them. Nay, account it no other than sacrilege to rob the Church of these holy doctrines, which are her right and due. They being part of the Word of God (as I said before), take heed that as you do not add to it, so you do not diminish ought from it, Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18.

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