The Novel and Daring Approach of Jonathan Edwards’ Angelology vis-a-vis His Reformed Forebears

How does the angelology of Jonathan Edwards relate to his Reformed forebears? For many contemporary theologians and church historians, Edwards is an aberration from the Reformed tradition. Others counter that he was no aberration, but rather was simply trying to take what the Reformed were doing and articulate that vision in a new context. The problem, however, is that with respect to Edwards’ angelology, virtually no work has been done showing how it compares to the basic beliefs, suppositions and theological approaches concerning angels found among prominent theologians from the early Reformation period through the era of High Orthodoxy (early 18th century). For my purposes, I briefly compare the approaches on angelology of four Reformed predecessors to Edwards: John Calvin, Francis Turretin, Petrus van Mastricht, and Wilhelmus à Brakel.

As I will argue, Edwards’ angelology was as much a narrative project as it was a doctrinal one. His approach may be described as a construction of narrative and doctrine woven together by the cross-fertilization of belief and imagination. His theology on angels and demons is nowhere consolidated in any public exposition or treatise but is primarily conceptualized throughout dozens of entries in his Miscellanies and appears at various places in his sermons. Although Edwards evidently accepted the traditional orthodoxy regarding the metaphysical and personal properties of angels, he does not spend any effort reflecting on these matters. The origin story of the holy angels and the nature of the fall of Satan and the other apostate angels are particular aspects that Edwards does reflect on with much more daring and confidence than any of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformers. The history of heaven provides the theological framework integral to Edwards’ angelology, and it consists of three periods: first, from Creation to Christ’s Ascension; second, from Christ’s Ascension to the Second Advent of Christ; and third, following the Second Advent of Christ, the Consummation of all things.

Edwards’ angelology is distinguished additionally by other idiosyncratic, if more exotic, views, including: (a) a kind of reconciliation procured for the angels by Christ’s incarnation; (b) the enthronization of the resurrected Christ in which the unfallen angels received their confirmation of eternal life; and (c) the second ascension of Christ involving the mystical body of his whole church and all the holy angels, which occurs at the consummation of all things through the Son. All indications were that Edwards’ theories and ideas about angels regarding their temptation, fall, and confirmation would have been collectively synthesized in his intended magnum opus, A History of the Work of Redemption. From this perspective, I present strong evidence that the theological-narrative approach Edwards takes in regard to his angelology is distinct in form and material content from that of his Reformed predecessors, i.e., Calvin, Turretin, van Mastricht, and à Brakel.