Monday 5 June 2006

For the love of God (9): Why I love Jonathan Edwards

A guest-post by T. B. Vick

Jonathan Edwards has been called the greatest American thinker. Having read and re-read much of what Edwards has written, I would agree with this sentiment. In fact, Edwards was one of the first theologians I encountered in my own theological studies. After studying both theology and philosophy, I have often thought that the best theologians are those who have immersed themselves in philosophy. And Edwards was no exception.

Edwards had, I think, a nice balance between theology and philosophy, and he knew how they worked together. His work on human nature and human will (especially in The Freedom of the Will) still offers perhaps one of the best explanations ever produced on the fallen human condition. In addition to his theological work, Edwards was a Congregational pastor, and his sermons were published and are still being read today. Among these is, of course, the famous (but often misunderstood or misrepresented) sermon titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

But aside from all this, Edwards was also a poet, a musician, a lover of nature and the outdoors, the last of the great puritans, and a friend and counselor to many in his day, even when he himself was suffering from great bouts of depression. While I do not necessarily agree with everything Edwards wrote, I still think he is a force to be reckoned with. In my opinion he is one of the most underappreciated theologians in Christian history—but time will tell how much he really contributed to the theological landscape. Perhaps eventually we will catch up to the thinking of Jonathan Edwards.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, T. B., thank you.

I had already left the States before I became a Christian, and Edwards was (is) not even on the readar screen in Britain (and, I presume, the rest of Europe), so this pearl of great price was a late discovery for me. He is quite superb, isn't he? Human sin and "holy affections", God's radical grace and triune glory - he sussed it all out and wrote it up beautifully.
And what a complex character, diamond mind and feet of clay.
I'm sure you wouldn't mind me recommending George M. Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003) as an outstanding biographical tribute to "America's theologian" (Robert Jenson).

Anonymous said...

This is what Mark Noll says about Edwards and his influence on evangelicalism:

Since Edwards, American evangelicals have not thought about life from the ground up as Christians because their entire culture has ceased to do so. Edwards's piety continued on in the revivalist tradition, his theology continued on in academic Calvinism, but there were no successors to his God-entranced world-view or his profoundly theological philosophy. The disappearance of Edwards's perspective in American Christian history has been a tragedy. (Quoted in "Jonathan Edwards, Moral Philosophy, and the Secularization of American Christian Thought," Reformed Journal (February 1983):26.

Notice, "God-entranced worldview" is what describes Edwards.

Anonymous said...

This one is probably my favorite quote from Edwards, describing the ultimate aim for the creation of the universe (God's glory) and how God makes his glory go public:

So God glorifies Himself toward the creatures in two ways: 1. By appearing to . . . their understanding. 2. In communicating Himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying, the manifestations which He makes of Himself. . . . God is glorified not only by His glory's being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

It wasn't until my third year in seminary that I started reading Edwards in preparation for my thesis. My first reader (a.k.a. thesis adviser) had, along with some help from the academic dean, steered me away from Emil Brunner to Calvin and Edwards. I ended up reading all of Edwards major works and many minor ones as well. My favorite was A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. This was during the "high noon" of the charismatic movement and I was shocked to discover how contemporary and "relevant" Edwards treatise sounded at that time.

Edwards and Calvin gathered a lot of dust after my thesis was finished and much later in '92 I gave my all my Edwards and Calvin books to a certain Mark Driscoll who has subsequently made a name for himself locally as a mega church pastor in Ballard Washington. I don't have a clue if he has ever read Calvin or Edwards. Perhaps he has.

Guy Davies said...

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was deeply influenced by Edwards, said of him,

"I am tempted, perhaps foolishly, to compare the Puritans to the Alps, Luther and Calvin to the Himalayas and Jonathan Edwards to Mount Everest...There are so many approaches to this great summit; but not only so, the atmosphere is so spiritually rarified, and there is this blazing white holiness of the man himself, and his great emphasis upon the holiness and the glory of God..."

(The Puritans their Origins and Sucessors (BoTT) p. 355).

Lloyd-Jones said of the two volume set of Edwards' works,

"If I had the power I would make these two volumes compulsory reading for all ministers! Edwards semms to satisfy all round; he really was an amazing man."

In Edwards we find a corrective to the theological superficiality of contemprary evangelicalism. Also, his emphasis on experimental knowledge of God is a corrective to dead orthodoxy. With Edwards theology is all about an enraptured vision of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

One of Freedom said...

I will have to take a loook at Edwards. I have been jaded because Edwards was quoted in some of the revivalist movements I was part of in my early Christian walk. Much of that stuff has been jettisoned, but I do have a copy of Basic Writings on my bookshelf. All I really know is his infamous sermon "Sinners in the hands" and some of the folklore surrounding it.

Fred said...

I'm just starting with Jonathan Edwards, but I was impressed by what I read in Gura's biography (paperback at Walmart <$10), notably the following summary of a certain thought of Edwards: "because humans are bound in time, the day will never come when one can say that now he is with the eternal God. By insisting on the eternally progressive nature of the Christian life, Edwards gave people an existential thrust" (Gura 233). This notion apparently echoes the words of Gregory of Nyssa: “Those who run toward the Lord will never lack space [...] One who is climbing never stops, he moves from beginning to beginning, according to beginnings that never end.”

And here's a concise intro to Edwards from a Catholic periodical. It was this article that first led me to learn about Edwards.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Why did I stop reading Edwards and Calvin? These fine fellows lived in an era so fundamentally different from the "Post War" era that they seemed to be writing about life on a different planet.

The fundamental fact confronting the "Post War" generation was not the atrocities committed in Nazi death camps. The fundamental fact that dominated everything during the late 50s and early 60s was THE BOMB. You need to understand that the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was not just a bit of propaganda used to intimidate people. The Kennedy tapes include conversations between JFK and RFK which make it quite clear that they were "believers".

Picture yourself as a 12 year old in 1960 with a father working on nuclear weapons delivery systems (Minuteman) living in Seattle which was featured in the film "On The Beach" as a post WWIII dead city part of a dead continent in a dead northern hemisphere. Then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis ... followed by what is now referred to simply as "The 60s".

If there was going to be a viable theology for my generation it had to answer the questions raised by THE BOMB. In the popular culture Hal Lindsey spoke to this generation with a "theology" that made sense out of The BOMB and you just could not print enough copies to meet the demand. A less popular but more thoughtful author, Francis Schaeffer, spoke to this generation.

Jonathan Edwards lived in an era when plagues and "indians" could kill you but he didn't have to deal with THE BOMB.

Chris Tilling said...

Nice post, Todd. John Piper introduced me to Edwards, and I've particually enjoyed some of his unpublished work on the Trinity. However, it is the enjoyment of God, and the joy of God in the perfections of his Son that most grabed my heart, and sent it to worship.

Bill Williams said...

Last year, I attended an eye-opening presentation by one of J.E.'s direct decendents. He convincingly argued that we should remember him for something more than his "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God". Blessings to all, -bw

T.B. Vick said...

Hey everybody! Thanks for all the kind remarks.

Kim - I have actually read Marsden's biography, excellent work and great recommendation.

One of Freedom - you state, "I will have to take a look at Edwards. I have been jaded because Edwards was quoted in some of the revivalist movements I was part of in my early Christian walk. Much of that stuff has been jettisoned, but I do have a copy of Basic Writings on my bookshelf. All I really know is his infamous sermon "Sinners in the hands" and some of the folklore surrounding it."

I do recommend you read Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands . . ." a most excellent sermon on how we as sinners tend to respond to God in poor fashion, not considering how holy He truly is. Don't get caught up in the folklore of this sermon being a "hell, fire, and brimstone" sermon, it is actually more about the Holiness of God and how we, as sinners, take for granted (and abuse/trample) God. Which is contrary to what most people think about the sermon - that God is this mean ogre waiting to destroy or pounce on us as soon as we sin or make a mistake.

For the more philosophical side of Edwards (who was, BTW, influenced in the idealist thinking of Locke (Edwards had a love/hate relationship with Locke), Berkley, and Pearce), I would recommend the works:

The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards by Sang Hyun Lee

The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards by Stephen H. Daniel



Michael McClenahan said...

Interesting thread. You may be interested in our efforts at Yale to discover the historical Edwards!

Marsden's bio is a great place to start - and by JE himself - The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader eds Kimnach, Minkema & Sweeney offers a balanced selection from the surviving 1300 sermons.

Michael McClenahan
Jonathan Edwards Center
Yale University

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