Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
The tercentenary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards (1703) has occasioned a vigorous reconsideration of his place in modern Christian thought. It has become commonplace to begin reviews of recent work on Edwards by celebrating or bemoaning the rapid procession of recent publications on him. The Yale University Press version of The Works of Jonathan Edwards is nearing completion, with the final, twenty-seventh volume due out by the end of 2004. (Many of these volumes contain previously unpublished writingssermons and notebooksthat inform the studies under review here). Conferences on Edwards, with the obligatory anthology of essays in their aftermath, abound: from the last in a decade-long series of Yale-sponsored gatherings to special convocations sponsored by churches and seminaries. The works discussed below, then, represent only a small part of what can be characterized as a relentless profusion of Edwards studies.
Among many over-arching questions addressed in these books, two have attracted particularly innovative (and interrelated) interpretations. First, in what ways can we understand Edwards’s conversation with the rationalist and deist creators of the Enlightenment? Second, what can his writings contribute to current issues in constructive or systematic theology, particularly in the Reformed tradition? Much of the previous scholarship minimized these issues. Most of the literature on Edwards from the 1970s through the early 1990s focused on Edwards’s ethics or practical divinity, set in social context: revivalism and rhetorical strategies, provincial politics, the new commercial culture, or pastoral and domestic issues. Now we see a different set of issues emerging from the literature: epistemology and apologetics, Trinitarian theology, and eschatology.
The discursive interplay between Edwards and eighteenth-century philosophical and cultural trends (sometimes presented in general terms as “modernity”) runs throughout many of the books under review here. It certainly drives George Marsden’s massive new book (some six hundred pages). Jonathan Edwards: A Life will be the most authoritative biography of Edwards for many years to come. It has an exhaustive bibliography of the best and most recent works, including references to manuscript material, embedded in the notes. It provides thick detail of previously neglected periods in Edwards’s life: his early years under the shadow of his minister father, first pastorates in New York, fate during the French and Indian War, and mission to the Indians in Stockbridge. It returns frequently to Edwards’s personal affairs (here one suspects that Marsden has offered an Edwards whose psyche is bit too familiar and admirable to current sensibilities). Moreover, Marsden has written in accessible, graceful prose; the sections that deal with theological issues present lucid and non-technical summaries that capture essential themes.
Setting Edwards in the context of an eighteenth-century culture of hierarchy and deference, Marsden portrays Edwards as, above all else, a Reformed theologian who attempted to express Calvinist doctrine in contemporary idioms. From his conversion in the early 1720s through his death, Edwards was, by Marsden’s account, consistently “Reformed” and “Calvinist,” words used throughout the book (e.g. pp. 91, 112). If Edwards deployed the discourse of the Enlightenment, he did so only superficially. He read Enlightenment critics of Calvinism, such as the Scottish moralist Francis Hutcheson, chiefly to formulate arguments against them. Marsden’s reading of Edwards’s posthumously published treatises from late in life, his The End for Which God Created the World and The Nature of True Virtue, reiterates this claim. According to Marsden, Edwards proposed an intensely theocentric reading of creation and history that contradicted rationalist ethics and liberal sentiments: what Marsden calls “the project that dominated Western thought” through the twentieth century (p. 471). Marsden’s Edwards consistently rebuffed modernity with Calvinist doctrine.
Similar themes shape Avihu Zakai’s monograph [Jonathan Edwards's Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment]. Here too, from a sweeping, synthetic perspective, Edwards appears as a consistent critic of the leading edge of scientific, moral, and historical trends of his day. Yet Zakai, unlike Marsden, avoids the sometimes misleading and anachronistic terms “Reformed” and “Calvinist,” which deafen current readers to the peculiarly eighteenth-century inflection in Edwards’s voice. Calvinist he was, of a sort; but Edwards was not preoccupied with the transmission of Calvinist doctrine per se. Focused on Edwards’s History of the Work of Redemption, Zakai contends that Edwards, like Augustine and Eusebius (and not, we can infer, Calvin) shaped theology to a philosophy of history. Edwards took conversion to Christ as the controlling rubric for his theology. He used this motif to read nature (space) and time (history) in ways that confounded Newtonian physics, rationalist moral philosophy, and critical history.
Several recent studies might cause us to doubt Marsden’s and Zakai’s perspective on Edwards and the Enlightenment. Leon Chai’s incisive but sketchy study [Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy] of Edwards and three seminal thinkersLocke, Malebranche, and Leibnizprovides an alternative interpretation. (The term Enlightenment sometimes obscures as much as it identifies, and should be examined more carefully than do Chai or any of the authors discussed here). Chai’s reading of selective texts from Locke shows a deep fissure in empiricist notions of sensation and perception. Searching for sure knowledge based on sensory perception, Locke admitted that the status of ideas, derived from the mysteries of perception, eluded certain understanding. We know that ideas come from sensation, and that we think with ideas, but we ultimately do not know whether ideas objectively represent the world. In his Religious Affections, Edwards drew on this very dilemma to propose the legitimacy of ideas derived from divine revelation; they at least had the same epistemic status as other forms of knowledge. Edwards made the same sort of argument, Chai continues, in regard to the idealist Malebranche on the mind and to Leibniz on necessity and causation. Edwards admitted the purely functional role of causation as an idea. He thus worked within the limits of rationality as defined by the Enlightenment, rather than contested the whole program of the Enlightenment.
Michael McClymond’s Encounters with God fits well into Chai’s interpretation. This small book (only 112 pages of text) is problematic; it is devoid of reference to social context. Yet its central analytical point is suggestive. Like Chai, McClymond contends that Edwards linked an apology for Christian faith to Enlightenment categories of subjectivity. Edwards argued that our interior states give rise to claims that Christian doctrines are objectively true. Such was the status, after all, of every truth claim. A theocentric interpretation of history could be certified as true in such terms. This set Edwards apart from Reformed apologists who rather naively defended Christian propositions without accounting for the subjective nature of knowledge. It also distinguished Edwards from later apologists such as Schleiermacher, who unnecessarily jettisoned claims to the objective truthfulness of Christian doctrines.
This interpretation of Edwards, as a proponent of an epistemological self-critique that was essential to the Enlightenment, also informs Gerald R. McDermott’s Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods. Having scoured Edwards’s miscellaneous writings and sermons, especially from his late career, McDermott found a stunning amount of reflection on the question of non-Christian religions and deism. From their reading of natural religion, deists rejected many traditional Christian tenets (e.g. the deity of Jesus Christ, the Atonement, the impossibility of salvation outside of Christ). In response to deism, Edwards became intensely interested in the extent to which there was such a thing as natural religion. He began to read widely about and reflect on “religious others” (p. 7): Islam, Chinese religion, and Native American religion in particular. Surprisingly, Edwards admired Chinese religious teachings and the spiritual sensibilities of many Native Americans (he gave no compliments to Islam). He allowed that the elements of truth in these traditions evidenced some sort of universal divine revelation. Yet he concluded, unsurprisingly, that self-contradictions and superstitions within these traditions showed that natural revelation could never sustain anything approximating what deists deemed to be rational. Natural religion was irrational. Once again, we see here how Edwards used Enlightenment methodsa quite candid investigation of the natural worldto critique an overly ambitious trust in reason. Nature taught the need of revelation. McDermott concludes nonetheless that Edwards’s openness to consider the possibility of natural revelation, even the salvation of non-Christians, set him apart as an especially progressive and cosmopolitan evangelical-Calvinist.
That Edwards was implicated in eighteenth-century philosophical, scientific, and cultural innovations is beyond doubt. Robert Brown’s monograph [Jonathan Edwards and the Bible] on Edwards’s biblical interpretation reinforces claims for the influence of Enlightenment discourse on Edwards’s theology. Brown provides a careful study of Edwards’s previously unpublished notes (again, the Yale project has provided the evidence) on various topics relating to scripture: history, philology, natural science, epistemology, and deist critiques of the Bible. Brown’s well-documented thesis is that Edwards joined other moderns, such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Blaise Pascal, who maintained a rather conservative understanding of the Bible even while joining the ranks of progressive intellectuals: “though he did retain a high degree of confidence in the integrity of scriptural history, his approach was really a kind of hybrid traditionalism, one modified in significant ways by his accommodation to the new learning” (p. xvii). That is, Edwards was quite conversantthrough magazines, books, and newspaperswith early forms of higher criticism and natural-scientific works (e.g. Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth [1681-1689]) that cast doubt on the veracity of sacred history. He used their insights and yet provided a sophisticated exegetical argument for the historicity of the Bible. Brown concludes that Edwards’s philosophical apologetic (of the sort described by Chai and McClymond) provided him with the means to use the science of criticism without capitulation to pure criticism.
Given these rich studies of the relationship of Edwards to modernity, it is not surprising that his writings recently have been considered as a source for contemporary theological reflection. The two anthologies reviewed here contain several essays that address this issue quite explicitly. In the “Introduction” to The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel T. Logan alerts readers to the common theme of the papers (most of which originally were delivered at a 1991 conference sponsored by Westminster Theological Seminary): Edwards was a synthetic thinker who oriented his work around an apology for Christianity. All of these essays are competent and engaging, but many present a simplistic dichotomy between the propositions of Edwardsean Calvinism and secular or liberal theologies. Some contributions risk more creative interpretations. Harry S. Stout’s “Jonathan Edwards’s Tri-World” vision parallels Zakai’s argument. Stout argues that Edwards intended in The History of the Work of Redemption to eschew systematic theology in favor of a mythic or theological history. If so, then we might conclude that his theological program was short-lived at bestor, rather, that it disappeared until taken up in much modified form by the biblical theology movement or by Karl Barth during the mid-twentieth century. Beside Sean Lucas’s splendid bibliographical essay at the end of this volume, however, perhaps the most helpful of the papers is D. G. Hart’s thought-piece on Edwards as a Reformed theologian. Hart provides a suggestive typology of Reformed theology: the doctrinal theology regnant at Westminster Seminary, the cultural theology (i.e. Kuyperian) influential at Calvin Seminary, and the pietistic theology exemplified by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. This is a rather narrow delineation of the Reformed world; but Hart’s placement of Edwards in the last categoryexperimental, conversionist, pietistic Calvinismintegrates far more of Edwards’s work into a coherent whole than do the other paradigms. Charles Hambrick-Stowe’s elegant essay on Edwards’s spiritual autobiography confirms this conclusion.
For all of its attempts to posit a legacy, Hart’s and Lucas’s collection still leaves Edwards somewhat remote from contemporary theological issues. Not so with Sang Hyun Lee’s and Allen Guelzo’s edition of papers from a 1996 Yale-sponsored conference on Edwards in Our Time. The essays do not present a coherent picture. They nonetheless offer several points of contact between Edwards and contemporary theology. John E. Smith’s ruminations on “The Perennial Jonathan Edwards” set out a general thesis: with his refusal to divorce intellectual from moral knowledge, stress on social union, and understanding of history as a dynamic and unfolding process of creation and redemption, Edwards anticipated solutions to many dilemmas of modern religious thought. To be sure, several of the authors contend that Edwards’s theology did not accommodate modern religious sensibilities (Guelzo rues Edwards’s moral determinism and Walter V. L. Eversley laments his dismissal of sacramental religiosity). Yet Edwards’s thought strikes other contributors as potentially helpful. Sang suggests, not quite convincingly, that Edwards’s stress on a dispositional ontology (God is disposed to union with the world) might provide resources for an ecological theology. Robert Jensen describes Edwards as a Trinitarian theologian so focused on social harmony (between the members of the godhead and between God and the world) that he found musical harmony to be the best image for heaven. Providing a quite different interpretation, Stephen H. Daniel’s “Postmodern Concepts of God and Edwards’s Trinitarian Ontology” is the most stimulating of the essays in this anthology. Edwards, according to Daniel, held an Augustinian understanding of the Trinity. God’s being is a discursive or communicative space between beings. Daniel’s Edwards sounds quite a lot like Karl Barth, and even postmodern in his insistence “on the primacy of revelation as that in which the beginning was truly the Wordexpressive creativitynot some transcendental subject who uttered the Word” (p. 48).
Jensen’s version of Edwards, focused on the social or relational aspects of the Trinity, and Daniel’s, attentive to the discursive nature of divine being, alerts us to renewed interest in Trinitarian theology. Volume 21 in the Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith] presents Edward’s fullest text on the issue, his “Discourse on the Trinity” (written c. 1730, and previously published in 1903). Sang Hyun Lee’s introductory notes provide a large backdrop for reading Edwards: from the Cappadocian Fathers to eighteenth-century Arminians. Sang suggests that Edwards was relatively indifferent to classical distinctions between Trinitarian formulas (e.g. the immanent and economic Trinity). Edwards blended different formulations, linking them always to the practical experience of the Christian life. Trinitarian issues recur in the other treatises in this volume, some of the most technical and speculative of Edwards’s writings: the “Treatise on Grace” and “Efficacious Grace” (discussions of grace, the Holy Spirit, and human volition), selections from the “Controversies” notebook, and brief, previously unpublished essays on “Faith,” “Signs of Godliness,” “Christ’s Example,” and “Directions for Judging of Person’s Experiences.”
In God of Grace and God of Glory, Stephen Holmes pursues Trinitarian issues by focusing on Edwards’s understanding of God’s self-glorification. Holmes is uninterested in Lee’s or Daniel’s arguments that Edwards refused to assert a traditional ontology of God’s self as a fixed substance; Holmes is relentlessly theological in traditional categories. Edwards, maintains Holmes, believed that the key to all revelation was the very status of God as subject (creator and redeemer) and object (the one glorified in history). God’s self-glorification explains all divine interactions within the Trinity and with the world. This troubles Holmes at one point. It led Edwards to look for divine glory in eschatological judgment (i.e. Hell), to the neglect of a more humane (for Holmes, Barthian) conception of redemption.
Amy Plantiga Pauw puts Edwards to better use in her monograph [The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards]. Pauw canvasses Edwards’s miscellaneous theological speculations, “Discourse on the Trinity,” and other formal treatises to portray a full Reformed Trinitarianism. Edwards, she contends quite reasonably, “refused to choose between” a psychological (Augustinian) and social model of the Trinity, which “is an indication of his high tolerance for theological tension” (p. 11). Edwards’s “multi-lingual approach” (p. 190) models a method for contemporary theologians: balanced, eclectic, anything but doctrinaire. Pauw wishes to use Edwards, that is, to recommend a theological method that avoids typically liberal accommodations to social issues (the social Trinity model) and conservative (read Barthian) indifference to those issues in favor of dogmatic fidelity.
Pauw’s valiant attempt to make use of Edwards for contemporary theological purposesperhaps the best effort to datefalls short. The conclusion that Edwards’s multivalent writings lead to a balance between two major Trinitarian options can be seen as reasonable but also as unproductive in solving major dilemmas. Pauw recommends Edwards as balanced and eclectic; but one might also decide that the best such eclecticism can lead to is theological vagueness or indecision.
Perhaps Pauw, like Holmes and others, tries to make too much of Edwards as a theologian interested in a systematic presentation of Christian doctrines. Contemporary studies that attempt to find a central, or defining idea to Edwards’s religious writings and relate it to systematic issues (McClymond’s theocentric history, Holmes’s divine self-glorification, Pauw’s bivalent Trinitarianism) misconstrue the nature of Edwards’s thought. Undoubtedly this stems in part from the fact that Edwards avoided comprehensive reflection and wrote polemical works, short philosophical meditations, his rather unique History of Redemption, and thousands of sermons. The overall impression given by the publications reviewed here is that Edwards is best viewed as a philosophical or apologetic (one might even consider the possibility of something like a cultural) theologian.
To put this another way, Edwards’s works are most helpful in charting the relationship between Reformed theology and deep currents of thought in the modern west. This is to distinguish him, however, as all the more, not the less, meaningful for Christian theology today. The current cultural agenda raises questions about Christianity and non-Christian discourses, religious truth claims in a pluralist society, and the meaning of even the most basic Reformed beliefs. Edwards’s conversation with Enlightened interlocutors is strikingly contemporary in such terms.
The following books were reviewed:
Jonathan Edwards and the Bible. By Robert E. Brown. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002. 352 pp. ISBN 0253340934.
Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy. By Leon Chai. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 192 pp. ISBN 015120094.
Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith. By Jonathan Edwards, edited by Sang Hyun Lee. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 21. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. 592 pp. ISBN 0300095058.
Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: American Religion and the Evangelical Tradition. Edited by D. G. Hart, Sean Michael Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003. 256pp. ISBN 0801026229.
God of Grace and God of Glory: An Account of the Theology of Jonathan Edwards. By Stephen R. Holmes. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001. xiv + 289 pp. ISBN 0802839142.
Edwards in Our Time: Jonathan Edwards and the Shaping of American Religion. Edited by Sang Hyun Lee and Allen C. Guelzo. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999. 230pp. ISBN 0802846084.
Jonathan Edwards: A Life. By George M. Marsden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. 640 pp. ISBN 030009633.
Encounters with God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards. By Michael J. McClymond. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 208 pp. ISBN 0195118227.
Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths. By Gerald R. McDermott. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 264 pp. ISBN 0195132742.
The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards. By Amy Plantinga Pauw. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002. 200 pp. ISBN 0802849849.
Jonathan Edwards's Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment. By Avihu Zakai. Princeton, NJ: Princton University Press, 2003. 368 pp. ISBN 0691096436.
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING/SUMMER 2003, VOL. 3, #2
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