Jonathan Edwards and Life's Adverbial Questions
God himself is the "what." Edwards spent his life studying the "where," "when," "why," and "how."
I met Jonathan Edwards about thirty years ago. We were both teenagers at the time, although he was finished with his schooling and at the beginning of his career. My own future was much more uncertain.
Actually, I was in a hospital bed when a visitor gave me the seventy one-sentence resolutions which Edwards originally penned in 1722. My medical prognosis was such that I was thinking more about dying than living, and so, while I appreciated this well-intentioned gift from an elderly church member, it didn't really make much of an impression. After a quick look, I put it aside.
To read Jonathan Edwards unedited is still sometimes uncomfortable work. For many, his name conjures up images from his most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God. Vivid imagery of dangling above hell-fire by a spider's thread probably wasn't popular in Edwards's day either, but certainly isn't in ours. In fairness, the resolutions with which I was introduced to Edwards were of a very different genre than the famous fire and brimstone of the sermon. Still, his searching articulations of revival spirituality did not hit me where I was at.
A few years later—this time, while I was thinking more about my life and vocation—I picked up Edwards again. Before long, I came to appreciate him as one of my closest friends and mentors. He had a whole-hearted desire to live life to God's glory. His faith wasn't simply a set of propositions; it had a comprehensive scope, impacting how he thought about food, vocation, old age, and relationships. A few years later a university friend helped me to put a finger on it when he described Edwards as "making natural things spiritual and spiritual things natural."
The appeal was a welcome contrast to the spiritualizing with which I was familiar. I knew many people who would take an ordinary event of life and use it as a springboard to talk about spiritual things. They usually made points I knew to be true, but to my teenaged mind there was something about disembodied spiritual talk that seemed off-putting. I needed spiritual food that would engage—not escape—life, and I found it in Edwards.
Edwards helped change my spiritual questions. I knew I had to deal with the problem of my sin, and that being saved provided better after-death benefits than the alternative was pretty self-evident. But Edwards prompted me to realize that such a focus was too much about me. He introduced me to God as someone worth knowing and worshipping. In a sermon on I Corinthians 13:8-10 entitled Heaven, A World of Love, Edwards notes how the presence of God "fills heaven with love, as the sun, placed in the midst of the visible heavens on a clear day, fills the world with light." In the course of describing this world of love, Edwards notes that among the objects of love in heaven will be "all those objects that they have set their hearts upon, and which they have loved above all things while in this world . . . All the truly great and good, all the pure and holy and excellent from this world, and it may be from every part of the universe, are constantly tending toward heaven."
Edwards's prose is dense; his eighteenth-century context and language sometimes seems foreign; and the 73 volumes of his corpus make it always feel like you are just getting started. After thirty years of reading Edwards off and on, I scarcely feel like I've made a dent. I have given up on any ambition of trying to master or understand him fully.
But I still read him. He prompts reflections in me unlike those of any other author I've read. His descriptions of love and justice, butterflies and spiders, all within their own place in God's created order and providential care, are inspirational. Edwards kept journals in which he wrote extensively about a wide variety of topics, and reading these Miscellanies reminds me of reading Proverbs. Just read a paragraph and reflect; don't worry about getting through them. Notice how he connects the seeming disparate and sometimes contradictory parts of life into a coherent whole.
In their just-published Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2012), Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott suggest that "dialectical reasoning was Edwards' forte—the machete he used to cut through the jungle." McClymond and McDermott use the metaphor of a symphony played by a five-part orchestra to summarize Edwards. The five parts include Trinitarian communication (we cannot understand God's beauty without paying attention to His communication with Himself); creaturely participation (God's creatures participate joyfully in God's beauty); necessitarian dispositionalism (the habits of human beings are shaped by their passions); theocentric voluntarism (the divine priority of sovereignty applies to all of life including creation, providence, and redemption); and harmonious constitutionalism (all aspects of reality are interconnected and can only be understood in light of the divine plan and purpose). "To appreciate the music requires that one pay attention to all five constituents in the orchestra," they remind us.
It is only with the help of the raft of Edwards scholarship published during the past few decades that I recognize these distinctions. My appreciation for Edwards preceded the secondary literature or the wonderful biographies written by Ian Murray (Banner of Truth, 1987) and George Marsden (Yale University Press, 2003), which humanized Edwards for me. When I think about Edwards's legacy, I think of his History of the Work of Redemption (1739) and The End for Which God Created the World (posthumously published in 1765 and often referenced as End of Creation).
My dominant vocational question has involved wondering what it means to faithfully live out a public theology in North America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. I've read and been helped by lots of the worldview literature, which has helped me understand what the Bible has to say for life here on earth. But Edwards effectively turns direction of the question around. After reading Edwards, I started musing, "Where does what we are doing here today fit in the context of the Divine Plan?" It's not so much about where does God fit into my life, but rather, where do I fit in God's plan? The subject and the object get inverted.
All of this was uncomfortable and took a bit to sort through. My orthodox Calvinist setting emphasized the transcendence of God and distance between his thoughts and ours. Edwards's respectable credentials as an authority in my own church circles helped, but still it seemed that focusing on this question was an act of hubris. Calvin cautions in the Institutes (I. 14.4) not to speculate about obscure matters that are not clearly taught in the Scriptures. Was trying to answer this prying into the obscure? Was my preoccupation with this question nothing more than a pious version of the National Enquirer justification—it's all okay, because inquiring minds want to know?
In God's Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 2011), Sean Lucas summarizes Edwards's answer to the question about God's purposes well. "Although God was utterly satisfied within his own inner Trinitarian life, the wonder is that he decided to create the earth and populate it with human beings . . . God's purpose in creating was to communicate the fullness of Trinitarian delight outside himself." It is in this communication of God that His created find their ultimate purpose and fulfillment, and which brings the greatest possible happiness. In Miscellanies 570, Edwards writes "that those that the Father has given (Christ) should be brought into the household of God, that he and his Father and they should be as it were one society, one family; that his people should be in a sort admitted into that society of the three persons in the Godhead."
The link between God's sovereign purpose and His communion within Himself and with His people redefined what it means to "glorify God and enjoy Him forever." It also provided a sense of purpose for history and meaning for the stuff of everyday life. In Lucas's words, the most important thing is this:
Edwards' desire for believers to see that they live in the midst of the history of the work of redemption. Through our union with Christ, we are participating in the uniting of all things in Christ: we are reflecting the divine glory back to the fountain of all good; we are looking for the coming of Christ's kingdom in its full and final form and the drawing up of earth into heaven.
A Grade 8 composition lesson has stuck with me: "The difference between a gripping composition and a boring one is all about how the adverbs are used." Perhaps that explains why Edwards has continued to grip me. He has helped me understand the story—but more significantly, he has prompted me to reflect on the adverbial questions: What? Where? When? Why? How?
So if the essence of the plot is that God has created the world in order to communicate His own glory, then God himself is at the essence of the "what" question. John Piper describes Edwards as "God-besotted." The story is all about God. His pursuit of His own glory is at the centre of history. He provides excellence and worth to the world, and that which we experience every day is defined in the context of God. Because of who he is, God holds himself to the standards of excellence and, to borrow Edwards's wording, God's "moral rectitude consists in his having infinitely the highest regard to that which is in itself highest and best."
This isn't just stuff for philosophical musing. It provides the framework within which to understand ethics. Edwards's treatise on True Virtue was written as a companion volume and cross-references The End of Creation. God binds himself to give proportionate regard based on the worth or worthiness of all creatures. In McClymond's words, "Just as God in creating is bound to give highest regard to what is highest in 'worth' so it is with his creatures, who are morally bound to the principle of 'benevolence to Being in general.'"
Gerald McDermott titled his book on Jonathan Edwards's public theology One Holy and Happy Society, highlighting the connections Edwards saw between life as presently lived and the future glory that awaits God's people. While I do not subscribe to all of the details of Edwards's eschatology, his insights in the context of eighteenth-century enlightenment argumentation are helpful. In the context of American Puritan idealism, he was careful not to identify the covenant of God with any one nation. He pointed out how the blessings of God were given and taken from various nations throughout history, making that an argument for following God's laws.
In the wake of a church division in 1750, Edwards left his pastorate at Northampton and became a missionary to the aboriginals in Stockbridge. His passion for souls and for justice that transcended national or ethnic boundaries was evident. He railed against the Europeans who had failed in their dealings with natives: "The French, they pretend to teach the Indians religion, but they won't teach 'em to read . . . And many of the English and the Dutch are against your being instructed. They choose to keep you in the dark for the sake of making a gain of you."
If the "what" of the world's grand story was rooted in the person of God himself, and the "where" had global and grand historical rather than local themes, the answer to the "when" question follows logically. The significance of all of history is a part of the grand story. While Edwards spoke often of his eschatological hope (quite understandable in a context where life expectancies weren't what they are today), present life had a richness and purpose that focused him. Sometimes his interpretation of current events within the language of a grand spiritual war between God and Satan seem presumptuous and awkward in explaining the details of skirmishes between nations, but understood in light of the Deist tendencies of his era, this emphasis is understandable.
John Piper has popularized Jonathan Edwards for many in our own day, in part by focusing on the connection between God's happiness and human happiness. In Desiring God (Multnomah, 1996), Piper recounts how Edwards struggled with issues of the sovereignty of God and the problem of evil in the world. Without compromising God's perfect holiness or his judgement against sin, Edwards articulated a framework in which (to borrow Piper's words):
God sees the tragedy or the sin in relation to everything leading up to it and everything flowing out from it. He sees it in relation to all the connections and effects that form a patter or mosaic stretching into eternity. This mosaic in all its parts—good and bad—brings him delight.
Focusing on Edwards's legacy through this lens should not to detract from his other significant emphases. His significant role as a preacher in the Great Awakening; his dedication to family life and the clear intimate bond he had with his wife Sarah; his theological contributions, whether it regarded the application of covenant theology, who might partake of the sacraments, submission to church discipline, or the application of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers—these all merit further study and might be considered legacies in their own right.
For my own journey, however, Edwards has helped me answer the broader question of the purpose of life and what gives me a reason to get up each morning. In defence of this interpretation, I would note that Edwards himself, writing his letter of Presidential acceptance to the trustees at Princeton in 1758, noted how he looked forward to completing his "great masterwork" which was focused around this theme. Ultimately, however, dotting the i's and crossing the t's of theological and historical accuracy regarding Edwards's legacy is not my vocation. Others are doing a fine job at this with the benefits of making Edwards accessible in a renewed way. I am inspired by Edwards in a more personal way.
A few years back, I went for a walk at Princeton and came across Edwards's gravestone. As I saw his name alongside the other legacy names who have served in the Princeton Presidency, what came to mind was not the legacy of a voluminous writer from whom I had learned, accomplished pastor, missionary, and academic whose achievements I admired, nor even the husband, father, and leader I have tried to emulate. Instead, I thought of him as that provocative questioner who I really didn't fully understand but has been in the background of my life's journey these past thirty years.
Edwards died suddenly on March 22, 1758, at the age of 54, from a "routine" smallpox inoculation advised by his doctor. The God-centred theology with which he understood and lived life was his testimony at death: "Now where is Jesus of Nazareth, my true and never-failing friend? Trust in God and you need not fear." He was given grace both to live and die out of this truth. May his legacy inspire the same in us.Subscribe