Book Review: Jonathan Edwards, A Life

51QLzAKPcZL._AA160_Written by George Marsden, 2003, Yale.

Mammoth?  Maybe.  Magisterial?  Absolutely.  Marsden’s 505 pages plus notes on the life of Edwards is an absolute joy to read.  He neither falls into the culturally critical Edwards bashing of years gone by, nor into the presentations of Edwards as if he fit every theological mold of his tradition.  He certainly avoids the bizarre agenda of separating Edwards’ genius from his vibrant faith.

The Edwards offered in Marsden’s work is the Edwards of history, a man profoundly gripped by the glory of the triune love of God, a man who remained resolute in his disciplined life of study and ministry, yet who progressively grasped the captivating wonder of God’s gracious intratrinitarian love and grew beyond a self-determined resolution approach to spirituality.

I won’t give Edwards biography here.  However, for anyone who has only seen Edwards through the caricature of a single sermon title, Marsden is a must read.  Bridging the historical worlds of puritanism and enlightenment, Edwards is a massive figure in theological, philosophical and modern church history.  Marsden gets the Augustinian heritage of Edwards, shining light on the emphases sometimes perceived by some to be imbalanced, yet showing Edwards to be a brilliant mind coupled with, and guided by, a captured heart.

Since I suspect it is mostly preachers who visit this blog, let me suggest that we do well to spend time with the greats by means of good biography.  Marsden has also written A Short Life of Edwards, which is not an abridgement of this work, but another biography cast in an entirely new way, as it were.  I look forward to reading that now that my thoroughly marked up copy of A Life is no longer next to my reading chair.

Edwards is intriguing on many levels, and from many angles: Revival, Calvinism, Augustinian Trinitarianism, puritan theology, church polity, academic institutional history, philosophy, cross-cultural missions, religious affections, hermeneutics, and so on.  Take the time to get to know Edwards with this biography and you will find your own life and ministry stirred in many ways, all beneficial.

Not wanting to give away the ending, let me share the final paragraph anyway:

How can the creator of such an unimaginably vast universe be in intimate communication with creatures so infinitely inferior to himself? . . . Edwards’ solution–a post-Newtonian statement of classic Augustinian themes–can be breathtaking.  God’s trinitarian essence is love.  God’s purpose in creating a universe in which sin is permitted must be to communicate that love to creatures.  The highest or most beautiful love is sacrificial love for the undeserving. Those who are given eyes to see that ineffable beauty will be enthralled by it.  They will see the beauty of a universe in which unsentimental love triumphs over real evil.  They will not be able to view Christ’s love dispassionately but rather will respond to it with their deepest affections.  Truly seeing such good, they will have no choice but to love it.  Glimpsing such love, they will be drawn away from their preoccupations with the gratifications of their most immediate sensations.  They will be drawn from their self-centered universes.  Seeing the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ as the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he has created.

(To buy Marsden’s work in the UK, click here.)

Edwards on Evangelism

I very much enjoyed an article in the Anvil journal by Peter Sanlon.  Let me quote three paragraphs, where the middle one is a quote from Jonathan Edwards –

The primacy of the affections has implications for our ministries.  We should see that prayer, sacraments, singing and preaching are all given by God ‘to excite and express religious affections.’ Perhaps one of the areas of ministry where we understandably, but erroneously, fail to appreciate the primacy of the affections, is evangelism.  It makes sense intellectually that an unbeliever needs to understand that of which they were previously ignorant.  This is indeed necessary (Rom.10:14) but Edwards would affirm that the main point of spiritual work in conversion is in the affections.  To engage in mission which takes seriously the primacy of the affections would involve a radical overhaul of our present day reliance on programmes, courses and rational explanations:

There is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of that holiness and grace.  There is a difference between have a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.  A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes.

A compelling case could be made that much evangelical ministry today is geared at giving people an opinion and rational judgment about God which falls far short of the sense of sweetness Edwards encouraged people to taste.  In a time when people are starving for lack of the pleasure of tasting the sweetness of God, we should not denigrate emotions but rather seek to stir up any emotion which tends towards inculcating the emotional heart-felt plea, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’ (Luke 17:13). We must do this in evangelism, because, ‘the way to draw men and women into Christ’s kingdom, Edwards believed, was through his listeners’ affections.’

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From Peter Sanlon’s article, “Bringing Emotions to the Surface in Ministry,” in Anvil, vol.26, nos. 3&4, 2009, p238.