Edwards, Some Big Ideas

Edwards, Some Big Ideas February 6, 2012

At the heart of worship, at the heart of Christian living, at the heart of prayer, at the heart of church history — at the heart of all creation — is beauty, and that beauty emerges from a beautiful and glorious God. What we experience of beauty is because God is beauty. So, when McClymond and McDermott describe methods and strategies in the thought of America’s theologian, Jonathan Edwards, they have a brief sketch of what Edwards says about God’s beauty – and as I read this chp I kept saying it is easier to describe the beauty of God (as Edwards did) than to describe how Edwards described God’s beauty.

How much Edwards have you read? What have you read? Is your view of Edwards more or less limited to “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”? Why do you think Edwards is so little used in theological studies in colleges and seminaries?

Edwards had an aesthetic in his theology that shaped the whole. Edwards said beauty is the “divinity” of God (maybe the Godness of God). And infinite beauty is God’s love of himself … “God’s excellence consists in the love of himself” (96). Well, some people are really bugged by this, contending it is arrogance and hybris and the like

My own take on this is that it is not, and most definitely is not. If God is altogether glorious, if God is the root of all beauty, in fact beauty itself, if God is pure love and within the Trinity that love is coursing in unending joy and utter delight, then love of himself is not self-centered by the essence of God — and for God to take delight in God is for God to be what God is. God is altogether glorious and God knows it. 

There are two chps on Scripture: one on typology, and Edwards had a fertile Christ-centered and God-centered imagination, and one on revelation and tradition. Both themes show Edwards as a creative theologian.

Let’s begin with this: Edwards thought everything in nature reflected the glory of God. (He reminds me here at times of the Eastern theologians and, in particular, of Alexander Schmemann.). And all of history was the outworking of God’s plan and a manifestation of God’s glory. As I read Edwards here all of Scripture is alive with signification that can be plumbed by his overall hermeneutic, one that sees God at work in all of history (his history of redemption theme). He saw these types in nature too. So the world is alive with the presence of God. So he finds types in Scripture, history and nature.

Revelation for Edwards cannot be reduced to Scripture; nor is it reduced to cognitive knowledge. “It is participation in divine being itself” (130). God communicates because God desires “friendship” with his creatures. A critical feature for Edwards is that history is a revelation of God, the whole course of history and all events are revelatory. The subject is not just redemption but the “excellency [beauty] and sufficiency of Christ” (134).

Edwards believed in (regenerated) reason, but reason alone was a grace from God. Reason alone could arrive at some religious truths, but not saving truths. What about tradition? He’s committed to sola scriptura, but he was influenced by a number of theologians (and the authors don’t sketch the influences in this chp, or give names — Turretin? Owen? Calvin? Beza?). He believed if we had to have experts to read the Bible then the Bible would not be for all; he knew too many leaders were fallible and made too many mistakes; and if we trust them we wouldn’t trust the Bible. Hence, the Bible.

But what is clear is that Edwards may have gone back to the Bible but he read it through the lens (esp after 1739) of his “imaginative construal of the story inscribed there, which he called the ‘work of redemption'” (146).

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  • Nice to see you continue your efforts to educate fundamentalists.

    From my perspective that’s a task for Sisyphus.

    I left Christianity and especially American evangelicalism years ago after decades of commitment.

    I didn’t have the stomach for it anymore.

    Someone needed to take on the really important task of civilizing narrow minded religious bigots.

    Go for it.

    I can’t think of more important work kn our current US and world context.

    God bless you.

  • Russ

    Edwards considered Peter van Mastricht as his favorite theologian. I can see the similarity with Eastern Orthodoxy in all of nature reflecting the glory of God, but of course this is a central theme for Calvin.

  • Jim Byrne

    I touched on the Resolutions of Edwards (and Ben Franklin) in my preaching yesterday. Part of my M.Div. training in the early 80’s was to compare the first pretty good awakening of Edwards, Whitefield, etc. with subsequent revivalism and over the next 10 years, I read a good deal of Edwards’ theological thought on my own initiative. He became less interesting to me as I began to grasp how far he accommodated the emerging modernism of his time — the introduction of psychological determinism into Reformed theology was a novelty. The idealist philosophy underlying his thought never quite captured my interest. His ethical thought in True Virtue always seemed too ethereal and never quite touched ground to me. I appreciated more his insights in Religious Affections and his sermons on Charity and Its Fruits, and his reflections on prayer as it related to mission. I guess to summarize, I would say, that I devoured him voraciously for a number of years as THE great North American theologians, but have found far more interesting thinkers in the couple decades since that time.

  • Albion

    Jim: can u summarize psychological determinism? Never heard that term before. Thx.

  • Edwards is of interest to Calvinists who aren’t so comfortable with their confessionalism. His natural ability/moral inability construction, which made depravity less depraved in the minds of many Old Calvinists and less constitutive of man’s essential nature post-Fall, has not proven attractive to all Calvinists. Certainly the Princeton school was not enamored of it. Edwards was focused on the revival and extension of religion – good for him. But what he did in order to promote and support it seemed to some to undercut Calvinism. Calvinists bemoan the Second Great Awakening as a gigantic move from Calvinism. What is often missed is that those on the cutting edge of this awakening did see themselves as fully Edwardsean and his more optimistic anthropology. The leaders of the New Haven Theology certainly saw themselves as continuing in the tradition even with admitted slight change in semantics and a few twists in formulations that they saw as not contra-Edwards but improvements thereon. Douglas Sweeney’s book, “Nathaniel Taylor, the New Haven Theology and the Legacy of Jonathan Edwards” is a wonderful read on this episode. It was essentially an argument over anthropology as Sweeney sees it. The New Haven men wanted to give more weight to Edward’s “natural ability”, which seemed in to be in most Calvinistic circles almost a nothing, overshadowed as it was by “moral inability” which in the long run was the constitutive category and THE explanation for our continued depravity. Some Calvinists of today get the damage Edwards had done, dmage by their standards, and are calling the Reformed community back to a “natural inability” as well, reminding us that the older Reformed confessions would not have been comfortable with the Edwardsean formula. I am uncomfortable with Edwards’ formulation, not because he was too optimistic but because he saw people in the sphere of “natural ability” untouched, (my word, not his)by the Fall. In other words, he was optimistic for the wrong reasons. I think optimism is rooted in prevenient grace, not a part of us preserved in some sense unfallen. Passionate revivalists, like Piper, love Edwards. For them Edwards opens up the door theologically for massive injections of suasion and means to stir conversions. Perhaps the Old Calvinists were right as to where Edward’s formulations led – to a figure like Finney. Edwards insistence on means apart from the sacraments and normal means of grace and the doctrine of immediate repentance and full conversion (with hopes for a pure church) needed this new anthropology. I, for one, don’t think he pulled it off. I think a full blown view of prevenient grace gives us what Edwards wanted to give us but without the natural ability/moral inability formula.

  • John W Frye

    Seminaries for the most part do to Edwards what they do to the Bible—students are told what is in the Bible (with the slant of that particular seminary) and are told what Edwards taught. Students are not told to read the Bible and to read Edwards for themselves because like most lay folk, they might get it wrong.

  • Luke Allison

    “If God is altogether glorious, if God is the root of all beauty, in fact beauty itself, if God is pure love and within the Trinity that love is coursing in unending joy and utter delight, then love of himself is not self-centered by the essence of God — and for God to take delight in God is for God to be what God is. God is altogether glorious and God knows it.”

    This has been one of the most influential ideas in my theology, and has shaped my reading of Scripture significantly. You can even see this thread in the actions/ethos of Jesus. Much of the confusing nature of Jesus comes when we try to reconcile His humility with His obvious desire to be followed. If we put too much of a “21st century humanitarian” slant on Jesus, we miss the glory. If we put too much of an “Omnipotent Calvinist God” slant on Him (and I’ve heard Piper’s series on the Gospel According to John do just that) we miss the fact that He is FOR humanity.

    All this to say, I appreciate Edwards and have integrated him into my thinking.

  • Jim Byrne

    Albion #4: I’m referring to Edwards’ work on *Freedom of the Will* in which he argues from Lockean psychology that the will is only free to do what the mind and affections direct. He argues that this is the mechanism of God’s sovereign direction of human lives, hence he introduces determinism into the Augustinian-Reformed tradition. This is the view of human “freedom” called “compatibilism.” But it has a hard time explaining how evil entered the world in the first place, without making God the author of it. This move by Edwards was controversial in the reformed community of his own day. Some applauded it as a strong apologetic that spoke to the times, while others worried about it for undermining the traditional notion of libertarian free choice. According to Reformed historian Richard Muller, Reformed (and Lutheran) divines taught the spiritual bondage of the will without denying the notion of free choice. Edwards defended the spiritual bondage of the will by sacrificing free choice. Today, many seem to assume that Reformed theology entails compatibilism (psychological determinism), but contemporary Reformed philosophers like Al Plantinga argue from the more traditional libertarian doctrine. “Freedom of the Will” is a big, hard treatise,viewed by some as his philosophical masterpiece. I’m less enamored, but hope that helps.

  • Beakerj

    My experience of Edwards is limited to ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’. When I hear his name mentioned I want to hide under my bed & pretend I’ve never heard of him. This is only half a joke. I have no urge to read more, should I?

    But then I’m the woman who deliberately left Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology in the boot of a car I sent to be scrapped. Whoops!

  • PLTK

    Beakerj, Love the Grudem comment! We have that book on our shelf here as it was used in a basic Christian theology class offered at our church. Wow was that an eye-opener! I went out and bought a few more tomes to act as a counter-balance so that we could obtain a much more balanced view. (Actually this was a men’s only study, but my husband and talked and talked through everything each week. The Bible study leader was enthusiastic about getting my husband involved in leading a similar class until they hit the chapter on election–since then there has been no mention of any such involvement.)

    Been struggling with our current church ever since…. My husband says that we will always disagree with some theological stances at any church we might attend, but the Calvinist lean (doctrinally it is not Calvinist, but it was obvious to us once we opened our ears and listened that this is by far the dominant stance) and the lack of any women on the elder and deacon boards together have my heart wanting to go elsewhere.

  • JMB

    A vigorous discussion of the place of Edwards is taking place here: http://oldlife.org/2012/02/does-jonathan-edwards-need-paul-tripp/comment-page-1/#comment-44253