October 5, 2003 marked the observance of the 300th birthday of writer, preacher, teacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).
In Washington, D.C., North American academics interested in Edwards were drawn to “A National Symposium” on the great man at the Library of Congress, sponsored by The Works of Jonathan Edwards of Yale University.
At this prestigious event, four persons with close Calvin College ties played key roles — George Marsden, Amy Plantinga Pauw, Harry “Skip” Stout and Ken Minkema — while just down the street, another alumnus, Jack Van Ens, was portraying Edwards at a historic downtown church.
Since Calvin enjoys such an “inside track” to scholarship on Jonathan Edwards, the Spark editors thought it appropriate to pose a few questions to our cadre of Edwards experts — so all Calvin alums could benefit some from their efforts.
Q. It is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards. Why is his life and work important?
George Marsden: Edwards was amazing. He was America’s greatest theologian, one of America’s best philosophers, a famous preacher, a leader in America’s early revivals, a missionary, the author of a famous mission biography (of David Brainerd), a virtuoso of spiritual experience, and (with more than a little help from his storied wife, Sarah) the father of 11 children. His most lasting importance is in his dynamic theology of God’s ever-present redemptive love and beauty, which can add an exhilarating vitality to the Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God.
Amy Plantinga Pauw: Jonathan Edwards continues to inform both what it means to be an American and what it means to be a Reformed Christian. He is one of those multi-faceted figures in the Christian tradition who repays reading over and over again. Edwards combined deep Christian piety with great theological imagination, and in that way is still a guide to how to write vibrant theology today.
Harry Stout: Edwards stands as the most significant figure in American religious and intellectual history. Historian Martin Marty once noted that in his speeches he used to ask people, “If you could put five religious figures on a religious Mount Rushmore, who would they be?” The only consistent and uniform name was Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was, to Enlightenment Christianity, what John Calvin was to Reformation Christianity: a genius who had the capacity to hold on to traditional truths but reconcile and restate them in the language of the learned world around him. Calvin understood classical rhetoric and the Renaissance. Edwards read Newton and Locke as a young man, far in advance of anyone else in the colonies, and adapted them to his traditional Calvinism. The result was a whole new look for old doctrines — a look that many of his contemporaries, and most certainly John Calvin, could not understand. Where most European intellectuals took Newtonian physics and Lockean epistemology to imply a deistic world, Edwards fashioned their world to a God who is so “here and now” that not only humanity, but the very atoms of the most distant galaxies depended on God’s ongoing “emanations” such that were he to sleep for even one second, the entire cosmos would collapse into disorder. This was “divine sovereignty” with a vengeance!
Ken Minkema: Edwards is called America’s Augustine, and for good reason. He was the most sophisticated American apologist for revivalism during the tumultuous Great Awakening. His intellectual achievements include inspiring a uniquely American theology — the New Divinity — and setting the parameters of philosophical debate in America for a century and more following his death. The originality, breadth and depth of his thought make him the most significant religious figure America has produced.
Jack Van Ens: Jonathan Edwards possessed an insatiable curiosity about life, not just religion. He wrote about spiders and his Savior, Jesus Christ, with wit and wisdom. He didn’t conveniently separate life into sacred and secular camps, with religion staying within us and politics staying outside our faith concerns. All of life was one piece given by a majestic God who brought Edwards to tears.
Q. Most people, if they know Edwards at all, think of him as the fiery preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Is that the picture you have of Edwards?
GM: Edwards should be remembered for his positive theology of God’s love and beauty, rather than for preaching this one sermon. He regularly preached the whole range of Reformed doctrine, of which the danger of eternal punishment was only one small part. He succeeded too well, however, in his vivid imagery on that subject, and so that is how, unfortunately, he is most often remembered.
AP: Thanks to a long tradition of American literature anthologies and American history surveys, this sermon is the only thing that many people have read of Edwards’ work. It does bring out well his rhetorical powers and certain aspects of his theology and preaching. But when I teach Edwards, I have my students contrast this sermon with another one of equal rhetorical and theological depth: “Heaven Is a World of Love.”
Edwards at his best was an ecstatic preacher who got
so caught up in the world of heaven that his mind positively beamed of
HS: It is a joke among Edwardsean scholars that the biggest mistake Edwards ever made was to preach that sermon. Because so many high school American literature texts reprint that sermon — and only that sermon — Edwards is reduced to a stereotypical “hell and brimstone” preacher who is so caught up in the darkened world of sin and hell that there is little room for joy or ecstasy. But Edwards at his best was an ecstatic preacher who got so caught up in the world of heaven that his mind positively beamed of divine inspiration. Sin is in Edwards, to be sure, but any reader, even the most rudimentary, should augment “Sinners” with sermons such as “A Divine and Supernatural Light” or “Heaven Is a World of Love.”
KM: In the Edwards Edition, we refer to “Sinners” as “that sermon.” We’ve done several anthologies, and in the planning stages we’ve wondered aloud if we should include “that sermon.” But, of course, we have to. He did preach on hell and its eternal sufferings, God’s wrath with sinners, and the justice of punishment. “Sinners,” however, represents only a small slice of his preaching. The larger part is taken up with a loving, redeeming God, a Christ who lived amongst us, and the grand sweep of sacred time that for Edwards was “the history of the work of redemption.” His grand, beatific vision, and the profound depths of his piety, compose the picture I have of Edwards.
JVE: Such a caricature of the real pulpiteer could not be further from the truth. He employed no cheap emotional tricks to affect his audience. He did not pull at hearts with histrionics geared to make the faithful lose their composure. Students are intrigued when they learn that Edwards seldom raised his voice when preaching. But God did use his gifts to ignite spiritual ardor. Some in the pew reacted in similar ways to how we as a nation responded to 9/11. Pictures of the Twin Towers falling into an abyss of nothingness enable students to respond that Edwards knew of 9/11 far before his time.
Q. Has the thinking about Edwards changed over the years? If so, how?
GM: In the mid-20th century there was a revival of interest in Edwards among scholars. That led to The Works of Jonathan Edwards project and to many studies of Edwards, including some fine ones by those who did not share Edwards’ theology. I am struck today by the strength of grassroots interest in Edwards among conservative churches of Calvinistic heritage. Some churches where Edwardsean theology is preached, such as John Piper’s in Minneapolis or Tim Keller’s in New York City, have flourished in remarkable ways. A fair number of people are finding in Edwards’ Reformed theology something more substantial than is found in most evangelical churches.
AP: Thanks largely to the efforts of The Works of Jonathan Edwards office at Yale, our knowledge of Edwards has expanded greatly over the last decades, drawing out new lines of inquiry and encouraging new scholars to bring their interests and perspectives to studying Edwards. We have a much better sense, for example, of Edwards’ international significance, of what colonial life was like for ordinary people in Edwards’ times and of his relationship to the Enlightenment.
HS: Over the past 20 years the largely inaccessible, unpublished Edwards has been steadily transcribed and published through the Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. These manuscript sermons and philosophical notebooks are revealing an Edwards very different from the pure philosopher presented a generation earlier. The first major book to emerge employing these sources is George Marsden’s magisterial biography of Edwards published this year.
KM: Thinking about Edwards is cyclical. In the early part of the 20th century, he was the whipping boy for those who wanted to criticize all things Puritan and repressive. I have a bumper sticker in my office that quotes H.L. Mencken: “Puritanism: The haunting suspicion that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” That’s the Jazz Age mentality. But then, in the wake of World War II, Edwards attracted the attention of great religious writers like H. Richard Niebuhr. Today, the “historical Edwards” is of great interest, as scholars attempt to place him in the 18th-century context as a provincial aristocrat (or the closest thing New England had to an aristocracy) or a slave owner, or look at his views on gender. As well, Edwards’ thought and theological vision are used as a corrective to the problems of post-Enlightenment Western society. There is also much work being done with his ethical thought: the recent issue of the Journal of Religious Ethics was devoted to Edwards. But there was a similar surge of interest in Edwards’ ethics in the decade before the Civil War. What goes around comes around.
JVE: In George Marsden’s excellent new work, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, the biographer shows how Edwards taught best in pictures. Marsden writes, “Language, as [Edwards] saw it, was not used just to create ideas of reality, as Locke might describe it, but preeminently to arouse affections that would excite vital knowledge among hearers.” Pictures, stories and dramas creep deep into the heart, where mere explanatory words cannot seep.
Q. Are there matters that Edwards wrote about that have direct application to Christians today?
GM: In addition to Edwards’ theological emphasis on God’s love and beauty, Edwards also provides astute analysis of true and false “religious affections.” A genuine response to God’s love must be a loving response: to love God and whatever God loves. It must be more than just assent to true doctrine. Often, evangelical religion today seems to be a celebration of self or of one’s own experience. Edwards provides guidelines for keeping the focus on God.
At his best, Edwards was both passionate about God’s
earthly work of redemption and honest about the flaws and failings of
AP: Edwards’ reflections on the beauty of God and on the joys and perplexities of the life of faith continue to inspire a wide spectrum of contemporary Christians. At his best, Edwards was both passionate about God’s earthly work of redemption and honest about the flaws and failings of real Christians. Christians get in trouble when they let either one of those slip.
HS: Sure, while Edwards’ words would have much to encourage evangelists like Billy Graham and theologians like H. Richard Niebuhr or John Piper, or philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, he would be very hard on those identifying an America-first “moral majority.” Edwards’ vision for the history of redemption and the end of the world was, with the exception of a few ecstatic months in the “Great Awakening” of 1740, never identified with America per se, but with Christians throughout the world, whose bond of faith with one another was more powerful than their bond of allegiance to any particular nation-state. This would not sit well with many evangelicals who insist on portraying America as a “Christian nation” with special claims on God’s grace (and special exemptions from the moral restraints of society that other nations are bound to obey). Such an “American civil religion” would have been, to Edwards’ lights, idolatry.
KM: I think there are any number of ways Edwards could be read profitably by Christians today, including his view of God as a being who wants (Edwards would almost say needs) to communicate divine love intimately to creation, or the reverence with which Edwards regards nature as a source of “divine things,” or his conception that spirit is true substance and that the universe is entirely dependent on God’s upholding power from moment to moment. Also, Edwards’ writings on revival and conversion psychology are used as handbooks today by a number of groups and individuals. There is a booming business in devotional literature featuring Edwards.
JVE: When Edwards accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1757, he shared with the trustees a major goal. He intended to write a “great work” called A History of the Work of Redemption. Edwards wanted to trace all history rising and flowing from a common source. The Living Water who gave history its course is Christ. Edwards sought to lead God’s people to a high mountain of insight, where they could see divine initiative shaping history. That’s instructive as we try to size up a maelstrom of secular events that seem so far from any of God’s workings.
George Marsden HON, who taught history at Calvin from 1965 to 1986, is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of numerous books, including the highly acclaimed 640-page volume Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003).
Amy Plantinga Pauw '81 is the Henry P. Mobley, Jr., Professor of Doctrinal Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. She serves on the editorial committee for The Works of Jonathan Edwards and edited The "Miscellanies," 833-1152 (Yale University Press, 2002), volume 20 in this series. She is also the author of "The Supreme Harmony of All": The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Eerdmans, 2002).
Harry "Skip" Stout '69 is the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale and the general editor of the Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. His team plans to complete a 27-volume press edition of Edwards's works during this tercentennial year. He also co-edited a Jonathan Edwards Reader and wrote the preface for volume 22 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards that encompasses Edwards's sermons during the Great Awakening. And yes, he does have a good deal to say about "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Ken Minkema '80 is the executive editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards and lecturer in American religious history at Yale University. He has edited The Works of Jonathan Edwards, volume 14, Sermons and Discourses: 1723-1729, co-edited A Jonathan Edwards Reader and The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, and published a number of articles on Edwards in professional journals. His most recent articles dealt with Edwards on old age, conversion, and his dismissal from Northampton; and his of slavery. Minkema and Stout are currently at work on an essay tracing anti-slavery thought and the Edwardsean tradition through the Civil War.
Jack Van Ens '69, a Presbyterian pastor, author and actor, is part of Majesty Ministries in Denver, Colo. Van Ens travels the country portraying two influential Americans — Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Edwards — and participates in Majesty's unique combination of words, music and pictures to express praise to God. Van Ens's book, How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes, was published in 2000. Since 1974, he has written "Inspiration," a weekly commentary for the secular press, which interprets what's happening in the world from a Judeo-Christian perspective.
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