Rhys Bezzant reports on the recent international congress on Jonathan Edwards at Ridley College, Melbourne.
In our quest for relevance, we easily neglect our roots, but it doesn’t take an arborist to tell us that neglect of roots jeopardises health and vitality, or that a tree without roots is dead. Evangelical Christians need to study history, and to understand our story, otherwise our fruit will wither on the vine. It is that important, though honoured chiefly in the breach. Not all evangelical colleges teach church history after first year, and few teach the history of modern evangelicalism at all.
Perhaps, in a small way, the Jonathan Edwards Congress, hosted recently at Ridley, can help to set an agenda.
There are about eight Jonathan Edwards Centers around the world, and Ridley is privileged to host one. These centres are satellites of the JEC at Yale University, which is charged with cultivating the study of the texts and teachings of Edwards. And every four years one of those centres convenes a conference. This year was our turn. After four years of planning, I was pleased to welcome to Melbourne delegates from every continent (except Antarctica!), and from every state in Australia. Eight of the world’s leading Edwards scholars presented keynote addresses, and pastors and academics led parallel sessions. I attend history conferences overseas, and few of them are overtly Christian, but at Ridley we began the day with the morning office, and affirmed the contribution of pastors and junior academics in the programme. There was a clear sense of the importance of fellowship amongst the participants – after all, we were talking about revivals, preaching, missions, doctrine and piety, so encouraging a Christian mood ought not to have been out of place. We ran an MA unit as part of the conference, in which seven pastors took part. This was a global conference.
And it is indeed quite extraordinary how scholarship on Edwards is booming in every corner of the globe. South Africans are looking for a way to be Reformed after the compromises of apartheid, Poles are investigating the way the revivalists used rhetoric to communicate their message, Brazilians want depth after the expansive but shallow growth of Pentecostalism in South America, and Australians are discovering how Reformed faith provides a sense of beauty and cohesion, which together provide deep satisfaction in a fragmented post-modern world. Of particular note amongst the keynotes was Stuart Piggin’s presentation of the role of Edwards in praying for Terra Australis long before it was settled by Europeans, and in motivating world missions through his writings, which encouraged and equipped our earliest chaplains and later pastors.
As part of my own long-term project in writing about the ministry of mentoring, I was able to present a paper on David Brainerd, the sometime mentee of Edwards, who ministered amongst the Indians on the frontier and provided a model for future cross-cultural workers. Though often heroically portrayed as an individual fighting the elements and facing the howling wilderness at great personal cost, demonstrated in his untimely death, it was time to argue instead for the importance of the church in his ministry, his reliance on the means of grace, and his desire to place the weakness of his ministry in the context of God’s eschatological power, which was making significant advances despite Brainerd’s sin and fragility. His own agency was a function of the church’s authority – a great reminder of the high place God has for the church in his own gospel purposes.
We need more reflection on the roots of our tradition, not less. We need to give more attention to the global dimensions of the evangelical movement, not less.
We need more appreciation of the church not merely as a means of outreach, but as an exalted and permanent gift of the Father to the Son. We are the bride of Christ. And how wonderful that Edwards can still serve as a midwife, delivering to us such wonderful riches.
Rhys Bezzant, Ridley, Vic.