America’s Theologian

There really is only one person who can be called “America’s theologian,” Jonathan Edwards. The problems are many: his writings are incredibly dense, they are demanding intellectually, they are infused with a life of thinking so they are intense, and they are expensive to buy in the Yale edition. Hence, most of us buy older editions, in paperback, and enjoy him nonetheless.

And frankly many don’t have the time to read Edwards directly and so rely on others to tell them and form their ideas of Edwards and his theology. One can’t go wrong reading George Marsden’s magnificent biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, which I read almost a decade back. But where next?

Well, I’d like to suggest a place: with Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott’s monumental achievement, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford, 2011). Almost 800 pages, 45 chapters — that’s long but the prose is splendidly clear, their passions for Edwards are obvious, and they see Edwards from a life time of teaching and writing on Edwards. What we have here is Edwards for all of us by the best of us!

I can’t possible review the whole thing, nor would I be the person to do that since I’m not skilled in reading enough of Edwards firsthand. But a sketch of what McClymond and McDermott (gotta love those “Mc’s”) do for Edwards in their Introduction is an indicator of how they approach Edwards with a wide-angle lens that sees the whole. They see five major themes, like five sections of an orchestra (an analogy they use to good effect), that have separable sounds but which must be seen as harmonious in order to see the contribution each makes to the symphony who is Jonathan Edwards. Here are the five constituent elements of Edwards’ theology:

1. Trinitarian communication, as found especially in these works: Discourse on the Trinity and the End of Creation.
2. Creaturely participation: End of Creation, Treatise on Grace.
3. Necessitarian dispositionalism: Religious Affections, Freedom of the Will, and Original Sin.

4. Theocentric Voluntarism: Original Sin, Miscellanies
5. Harmonious Constitutionalism: Justification by Faith Alone, and the Miscellanies

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  • This looks magnificent. I’ve read a little of Edwards, and have always been impressed with both his intellect and his deep devotion, even if I don’t always share his perspective. I’ll definitely add this to my wish list.

  • Paul W

    I’ve just never been able to develop an appreciation for Edward’s writings. I’m sure there is genius in them and that he was brilliant man and all that but yet. . .

    Well, I guess it is the content of what they are calling “Necessitarian dispositionalism” which is what probably doesn’t sit with me so well. With all due respect to Edward fans I find his late puritanical introspection regarding the nature of religious affections, near obsession with concerns about self-deception, and the driven need to discern whether a particular conversion was ‘true’ to just make my skin squirm.

    Am I alone?

    Nonetheless, I have an interest in this work so thanks for the review, Scot.

  • And don’t forget his treatise on “Jumping Spiders”, still a definitive text on that subject. what a mind!

  • gerald mcdermott

    Paul W, your concerns are shared by many. But I would encourage you to read chapters 22 (Free will and original sin)and 20 (the affections and the human person), and see if you skin still squirms. You might then find that what seems so off-putting at a distance might be more reasoned and biblical than you had thought.
    Gerald McDermott

  • I completely agree with you Gerald about the Chapter on Free Will and Original Sin. It may be one of the most “liberating” works on the subject ever written.

  • David Wegener

    How can a completely sovereign and all-knowing God not make your skin squirm? Isn’t that (at least part of) the point?

  • Andrew T.

    You think Jonathan Edwards is dense, try reading Daniel Denison Whedon’s refutation of Jonathan Edwards.

    The title alone is verbose “The freedom of the will as a basis of human responsibility and a divine government”.

  • John C

    Gerald – what do you make of Richard Muller’s claim that Edwards’ necessitarianism is out of line with the mainstream Reformed tradition which (despite stereotypes to the contrary) had been keen to carve out a non-determinist account of free will?

  • The orchestra analogy that Gerry and I use–to which Scot refers–gives full weight to Edwards’s Calvinism and yet it sets this aspect of Edwards’s thought within the larger framework of the outflow-and-return motif of Trinitarian communication and creaturely participation.

    The participatory, ontological, and experiential aspects of Edward’s teaching have been well established over the last generation by Edwards specialists, and yet the prevailing image of Edwards (even among the theologically conversant) is still dominated by a rather small number of texts, including “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God” and “Freedom of the Will.”

    One needs to recall that Edwards left behind not one sermon manuscript but 1200 (!). What is more, the complete collection of the Yale online “Works” runs to 73 volumes. What Gerry and I are attempting to do in our book is to summarize, analyze, organize, and connect some of the major ideas from this vast corpus. I am sure that others will come along to expand, revise, and qualify our work. Yet those who have thus far responded negatively to Edwards might be reacting to just one small component of his theology and teaching.

    One of the surprising things about Edwards–still surprising to me after years of engagement with his writings–is the way that his theology transcends any facile attempt at labelling or pigeonholing. That is our point in the final portion (Chapter 45) of our book. Edwards’s thought bridges the theological concerns of the Christian East and West, Catholics and Protestants, liberals and conservatives, Charismatics and non-Charismatics. Those unconvinced should take a look at our book and see if we have made our case for this claim.

    Scot has emailed Gerry, suggesting that Edwards may not have taken seriously enough Jesus’ earthly life and his teachings as recorded in the gospels. That is a point well worth discussing, I believe.

    My general sense is that most Christian thinkers of Edwards’s era and previously–Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant–were much like Edwards in not incorporating gospel material in a thoroughgoing way in their theological reflection. My limited study of the history of Jesus research (see ch. 2 in my Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth; Eerdmans, 2004)indicates to me that the nineteenth century was a watershed. Prior to that point, few Christian thinkers made the specific features of Jesus’ life and teaching as recorded in the Gospels the basis for extended theological reflection.

    Arguably, it was not in the sphere of dogmatics, but rather in the field of spirituality that Jesus’ life and teaching–Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed,” if you will–made its major impact. This was true in the early monastic movement. St. Anthony entered the contemplative life in response to hearing the instruction from the Gospel fo Matthew to “sell all.” Not only in monasticism, but also in the rise of the great religious orders–Franscican, Dominican, Jesuit, etc.–the New Testament Gospels exerted a decisive influence. The Jesuit month-long “Spiritual Exercises” retreat is of course nothing other than an extended, imaginative reading of oneself into the text of the Gospels, an effort in standing alongside of Jesus and his first followers, a co-experiencing with them of the events of the gospels that seeks to inculcate holy affections and dispositions that dispose one to be a true Christ-follower.

    In reading the massive Edwards corpus, one has to look for the Gospel material in the right place. Edwards may not offer a late-nineteenth or twentieth-century-style theological reflection on Jesus’ life and teaching, and yet I believe one can find much in Edwards’s spritual writings and sermons that trace out the broad outlines of his “Jesus Creed.”

    Michael McClymond
    Saint Louis University

    PS–For those who would like to read a brief interview, in which Gerry and I discuss the origin of the Edwards book and some of its key claims, here is the link: