[Next Friday, I'll be presenting this paper at the Jonathan Edwards study group during the Evangelical Theological Socieety meetings in San Diego. I thought it might be good to share it here first.]
“‘Tis the excellency of a minister of the gospel to be both a burning and a shining light” was the doctrinal statement of Jonathan Edwards’ second published ordination sermon. Preached in August 1744 for Robert Abercrombie at his ordination and installation as the minister of the congregational church in Pelham, Massachusetts, this sermon served as a rich and important resource for understanding how Edwards thought about the ministry of the Word and its relationship to spiritual formation. The first clue to the sermon’s importance was the theme of “excellency,” which had such an important place in Edwards’ thought. For Edwards, excellency suggested proportion, harmony, equality, consent of the parts to the whole. As philosopher Wallace Anderson noted, excellency served as both a moral and an aesthetic evaluation; and the great example of excellency, morally and aesthetically speaking, was Jesus Christ himself, who brought together seemingly opposite characteristics in perfect harmony and beauty. And so, for a minister to be both morally and aesthetically excellent, he must exemplify in perfect harmony both characteristics of light, both a burning and a shining light. Or as Edwards himself put it, “When light and heat are thus united in a minister of the gospel, it shows that each is genuine, and of a right kind, and that both are divine. Divine light is attended with heat; and so, on the other hand, a truly divine and holy heat and ardor is ever accompanied with light.” The task of ministry was to be both divine light and holy heat for the benefit of the souls of humankind.
Such reflection on the ministerial task was far from unusual for Edwards. Worked out most frequently in ordination sermons, which served as opportunities for public reflection on the ministerial task, he spent a great deal of time pondering his life’s work and especially how the ministry of the Word served “the precious and immortal souls of men committed to their care and trust by the Lord Jesus Christ.” As a preacher of God’s Word, it was not surprising that Edwards believed that the most important means that God has granted to ministers for caring for these souls was the preaching ministry of God’s Word.
However, Edwards thought deeply and repeatedly about how the preaching of God’s Word served to reflect the light of Christ into the very hearts of their parishioners: “ministers are set to be lights to the souls of men in this respect, as they are to be the means of imparting divine truth to them, and bringing into their view the most glorious and excellent objects, and of leading them to, and assisting them in the contemplation of those things that angels desire to look into.” In this way, God used the ministry of his Word to impart a divine and supernatural light to the human heart, moving their affections, transforming their actions, and shaping them to be more like Jesus. Simply put, spiritual formation—or for Edwards, the development of truly holy affections—could not occur without a theologically thoughtful, genuinely pious, and biblically-oriented ministry of the Word.
The Minister’s Calling
That Edwards had a high view of the minister’s calling and task is not surprising; it was an inheritance of colonial New England’s continued appreciation for pastoral ministry as a divine office and calling and not merely a profession. In addition, both his father and grandfather held extremely high views of ministerial calling and authority, regularly doing battle with their congregations in order to insist on ministerial prerogatives and order the weekly rhythms of community and congregational life. While these sources contributed to his understanding, Edwards’ conception of the ministry was also shaped by his own exploration of biblical-theological metaphors.
One powerful complex of images to describe ministerial calling were marital. In an ordination sermon delivered for Samuel Buell in 1746, Edwards teased out the imagery of Isaiah 62:4-5 to suggest that the relationship between the minister and his congregation was modeled upon the marriage union that Christ had with his church. When one was ordained to ministry, he was “espoused” to the church in general—he bore a concern for the church of Christ in general, its interests and welfare, more than he did as a private person. But the minister was espoused to a particular congregation, which Edwards likened to “a young man’s marrying a virgin.” In this union between minister and congregation, there was to be “mutual regard and affection”; both minister and congregation were to attribute the highest and purest motives to one another. Such a relationship should bring great joy, mutual sympathy and helpfulness to minister and people alike. As a husband cared for his wife, Edwards suggested, so a minister should care for his particular church.
In this marital imagery, ministers serve a second role—that of proxy in the marriage between Christ and his bride, the church. “Ministers espouse the church entirely as Christ’s ambassadors,” Edwards noted, “as representing him and standing in his stead, being sent forth by him to be married to her in his name, that by this means she may be married to him.” The union between minister and people “is but a shadow” pointing toward the union that the Christian individually and corporately had with Jesus Christ. And so, in caring for his people, the minister offered not his own care, but the care of Jesus: “All that tender care which a faithful minister takes of his people as a kind of spiritual husband, to provide for them, to lead and feed them, and comfort them, is not as looking upon them [as] his own bride, but his master’s.” Everything a minister did for his people was on Christ’s behalf, drew from Christ’s own love for his bride, and pointed people to Christ as their true husband and lover.
Another set of metaphors that Edwards used to unpack the nature of ministerial calling were among his favorite: light. Ministers are granted God’s Spirit in order to communicate “the golden oil or divine grace to God’s people.” This holy grace would enable God’s people to be lights to a generation that desperately needed to know the source of all good. In fact, ministers were both a “shining light” and a “burning light” for God’s people. In helping ministers picture this, Edwards compared them to stars, noting that “the ministers of Christ are as it were the stars that encompass this glorious fountain of light, to receive and reflect his beams, and give light to the souls of men.” He also used optics to picture the way ministers communicated the light of Christ. Ministers “are called burning and shining lights but they have neither light nor heat any further than as they derive it from the sun of righteousness and can communicate no light nor life nor fruitfulness to their hearers any further than they are made use of as glasses to convey and reflect the beams of the light of the world.”
As burning and shining lights, ministers shone in to “clear divine truths and to refute errors, and to reclaim and correct God’s people wherein in any respect they have been mistaken and have been going out of the way of duty.” And yet there was a continuing need to balance the burning and shining aspects of light—a minister that has light but no heat “entertains his auditory with learned discourses, without a savor of the power of godliness or any appearance of fervency of spirit and zeal for God and the good of souls”; as a result, he may “gratify itching ears and fill the heads of people with empty notions; but will not be very likely to reach their hearts, or save their souls.” On the other hand, a minister that has vehement, intemperate, and zealous heat “will be likely to kindle the like unhallowed flame in his people, and to fire their corrupt passions and affections; but will never make them better, nor lead them a step toward heaven.” If ministers would stir up holy affections in the hearts of their people, they must be shining and burning lights.
A third set of images that Edwards used to describe the ministry focused on ministers as “servants.” As Edwards put it in a sermon on John 13:15-16, “The work and business of ministers of the gospel is as it were that of servants, to wash and cleanse the souls of men.” This meant that ministers must be characterized by the “same spirit of humility and lowliness of heart…the same spirit of heavenly-mindedness and contempt of the glory, wealth and pleasures of this world…the same spirit of devotion and fervent love to God” that characterized Jesus himself. Edwards also compared ministers to farmers or “husbandmen,” pointing out that “ministers of the Gospel are the servants of the owner of the field that are sent forth to sow his seed.” To be a servant or a husbandman is strenuous work: “ministers are not called to be idle, but to labor…the business of a faithful minister tis a business of great and continual labor.”
Because the ministry required “hard labor,” “constant care, or continual oversight,” Edwards called for continued personal formation and spiritual discipline. He laid it down as a basic axiom that “the ministers of Christ ought to be eminently gracious and near to Christ.” This meant that ministers “should have their entire and continual dependence on Christ for all fitness for their work and assistance and success in it.” Abiding and resting in Christ by faith, clinging to his promises, studying his word, continuing in “secret converse with him,” depending on him to bear fruit—all were requirements for pastoral leaders because “they have no light of their own but all is derived from Christ, who is the light of the world, and they can be of no use to enlighten the souls of men unless held up by Christ.”
These disciplines were only possible because ministers experienced genuine grace from God in Christ by the Spirit. Faithful ministers had experienced true grace, which had “an exceeding energy in it. And the reason is, that God is in it; it is a divine principle, a participation of the divine nature, and a communication of divine life, of the life of a risen Savior, who exerts himself in the hearts of the saints.” This genuine grace produced genuine piety, which was “nothing remaining only in the head, or consisting in any speculative knowledge or opinions, or outward morality or forms of religion; it reaches the heart, is chiefly seated there, and burns there. There is a holy ardor in everything that belongs to true grace.” Having the Spirit of Christ indwelling, the minister’s heart “burns with love to Christ, and fervent desires of the advancement of his kingdom and glory; and also with ardent love to the souls of men, and desires for their salvation.”
As a faithful minister grasps the basic metaphors of his calling—affectionate husband, shining and burning light, hardworking servant—as well as the need for him to fan the flame of genuine piety through spiritual disciplines, he would understand that his task was to communicate his delight in and love for Christ to others. As Edwards put it, the minister “is a ‘burning light’; which implies that his spiritual heart and holy ardor is not for himself only, but is communicative and for the benefit of others.” As a public person set apart by Christ for a high and holy calling, the pastoral leader engaged in every duty of ministerial function with an eye toward stirring his people’s hearts toward a passionate love for God.