Turnball, in Jonathan Edwards the Preacher (Baker, 1958) begins his analysis of Edwards with the proposition that one cannot rightly understand Edwards’ theology without understanding certain elements of Edwards’ conversion.
He first notes that Edwards struggled with the question of God’s absolute sovereignty. Yet he resolved that trouble in favor of God on the basis of God’s glory. It was 1 Timothy 1:17, which cut the knot for Edwards,
The first that I remember that ever I found anything of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words of 1 Timothy 1:17, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (quoted in Turnball, 16).
Next Turnball notes the diligent inquiry which marks Edwards’ work
The stimulus to the people and preachers of New England, the awakening from sleep, and the effect upon the most acute minds of successive generations are evidence that an extraordinary mind had penetrated the dull world of conventional religion. Behind the stabbing preaching of Edward was the diligent student, the man who could not be inactive mentally from day to day and the mind which used a psychology of approach which disturbed and probed the conscience. Because Edwards had invested his time to profit, he was able in turn to be the instrument in God’s hands for the day of decision. The vice of sloth was not his (Turnball, 21).
Turnball then rehearses the main incidents of Edwards’ life (Mardsen’s recent biography of Edwards is worth every penny — read it). Turnball does make an observation which anyone in Christian ministry should know, “No man can maintain the strain of ministry unless he is constantly taking in reserves of spiritual sustenance for himself. This was demonstrated in Edwards’ life” (Turnball, 29).
Turnball recounts at some length Edwards’ library and reading. Again, Turnball notes the necessity of a pastor being literate. One must know the Scripture first and foremost, but in learning of how men think one gains perspective on the Scripture. This includes both Christian orthodox theology and the ideas of even those who contend with Christians.
When reviewing Edwards’ reading, Turnball writes, “The picture of the preacher reading the Bible and at the same time reading the Boston Gazette” (Turnball, 43).
One effect of Edwards’ deep reading was his care for the construction of the sermon. Dr. Jack Hughes once told me he was advised early in his ministry to regularly read secular fiction to teach him to preach by learning how the language works. The dull writing of many Christians and the ghastly preaching in many pulpits owes itself not merely to poor theology but also to no love of language. To make the gospel ugly is to defame Christ.
The ideal and tradition of sermon writing by the Puritans became the heritage of Edwards….A comparison of Edwards’ sermons with those of other Puritans confirms the view that he wrote them as a branch of literary effort. The spiritual aim was dominant, but he was not insensible to the influence of cultural demands. Edwards was an artist, a craftsman, who worked by recognized methods which were apparent to his auditors and reads. At that time the sermon was given high respect and honor, and it was natural that the preach should be a writer as well as a speaker. By Puritan standards Edwards’ sermon are works of art. His art of concealing art lay in the daily discipline of meditation and writing. His preaching was the product of literary activity (44-45).
In taking care for his sermons, Edwards was merely following in the Puritan model and concern, “Thus the Puritan ideal was phrased: enough rhetoric to pass through the fancy [imagination] to the heart, but never so much that the apprehension of the simple or the earnest should be dazzled” (Turnball, 52).
Turnball explains of Edwards, “His style was the expression of deep, pent-up emotion and though, which caught fire in the blaze of God’s love and man’s need of the redeeming message” (Turnball, 55-56). This reminds of Lloyd-Jones’ note in Preachers and Preaching [I don’t have the book handy, so no page cite], Preaching is theology on fire.
The purpose of the sermon was to make the hearers see and know the Christ who had so overwhelmed Edwards with beauty and majesty:
The preaching that day was objective and self-detached. Edwards pointed to Christ, and in this objectivity lay much of its power. To him Christ was real and unavoidable. He ministered to bring the people face to face with the Lord of Life. He stressed the glory of The Lord, warned about coming judgment, and pointed sinning souls to the Cross. But he never intruded himself in this or other discourses to lead his hearers away from the centrality of God and the soul. Everything in preaching was subordinated to the end of saving the individual who came within the sound of the gospel” (Turnball, 63).