Jonathan Edwards: A New Book, a New Look

I’ve just begun reading the new book by friends Mike McClymond and Gerry McDermott on my favourite theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703-58). It’s a Great Big Book (almost 800 pages) on a Great Big Figure in American intellectual history–arguably, in fact, the greatest mind America ever produced. With the completion of the massive Yale edition of the works of Jonathan Edwards (1957-2008–yes, fifty years in the making), a book like this is now possible and I don’t want any more time to slip by before I mention it to you.

The book is Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012). The authors teach at St. Louis University and Roanoke College, respectively, and their being self-identified evangelical theologians teaching at, respectively, a Roman Catholic and a Lutheran school prompts them to appreciate Edwards as truly an evangelical Protestant thinker of startlingly broad theological sympathies. Indeed, McClymond and McDermott trace important themes in Edwards’s thought (such as his understanding of the sacraments and sanctification) that connect as readily with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions as with his native Calvinism. As such a thinker, I might observe, Edwards shares the broad-mindedness of John Wesley and certain other eighteenth-century evangelical leaders whose advocacy of spiritual and theological works across the Christian spectrum stands in admirable contrast to the narrowness of many of their modern devotees.

McClymond and McDermott are both plain-spoken men, trained in the plain-spoken discipline of American church history to which they each have made worthy scholarly contributions. They both, furthermore, have lively, well-informed, and creative theological minds–not common among historians–which give them special access to the mind of this deep and complex thinker. So far as I can see, they have no special agenda to advance, no scores to settle, not even tenure to earn, so I find them eminently reliable guides as both expert and enthusiastic without suspicious Tendenz.

Because I am not working currently in my teaching or my research on eighteenth-century American theology—although reading this book gives me a pang of fond memory for the days in which I was—I’ll be taking my time desultorily and delightedly making my way through this huge book. I may blog again on it; I probably will at least once more, at the end. But for now, having looked through it and read the introduction, as well as having read books by both Mike and Gerry previously with both profit and pleasure, I recommend it to you with confidence.

If you haven’t encountered Jonathan Edwards before, here is the new definitive guide to his thought, a worthy counterpart to George Marsden’s magisterial biography. If you have, then you’ll enjoy the book as an impressive map of the starfield of America’s most brilliant mind.

It might sound like I’ve just recommended the book to everybody, but I haven’t. If theology is not something you really like to read, this giant volume will be too much of a good thing. (Read my books instead: much easier, much shorter, and much more advantageous to my family.) But if theology is a love of yours, settle in for a good, long read.

6 Responses to “Jonathan Edwards: A New Book, a New Look”

  1. Erik Charter

    I’ve listened to George Marsden’s short Life of Edwards but have not read much of Edwards’ writing. In the conservative Reformed & Presbyterian circles I run around in people seem to be pretty down on him. I have the impression, for instance, that D.G. Hart is not a fan. I could ask these men what they don’t like about him, but in your experience what is it about him that these types of guys do not like?

  2. Michael McClymond

    Erik–

    To answer your question, I am inserting below a couple of paragraphs from th start of chapter 41 in our book. To get a fuller answer, you’ll have to see the whole chapter. The conclusion to the book also touches on the love-hate relationship that conservative Calvinists have had with Edwards….”Jonathan Edwards and the Reformed Tradition (ch. 41)”–
    Jonathan Edwards is one of the great Christian thinkers who defies precise categorization. His thinking is recognizably Reformed but with a difference. His first biographer and disciple said he “called no man father,” and observers from his time to ours have remarked on his theological independence. He was “irreverent” toward Calvin, expected to find new theological light as he went along, and more often than not enjoyed tinkering with if not transforming his received Puritan and Reformed traditions. At the same time, Edwards thought in Reformed categories and considered himself an apologist for the Reformed tradition (ch. 21). In his preface to Freedom of the Will, he wrote, “I should not take it all amiss, to be called a Calvinist, for distinction’s sake,” even though “the term ‘Calvinist’ is in these days, among most, a term of greater reproach than the term ‘Arminian.’” In 1750, he wrote to a friend that he would have “no difficulty…subscribing to the substance of the Westminster Confession.”
    How then are we to understand his willingness to be called a Calvinist when the term was unfashionable and his willingness to go beyond Calvin when need be? It might be useful to speak of “originalists,” “confessionalists,” and “developmentalists” within the Reformed tradition. An originalist is someone who says Calvinists should always go back to Calvin because “earlier is better” and the fountainhead is best of all. Confessionalists want to conform their theological work to the letter of the historic Reformed confessions. If the originalist seeks to return to the beginning, the confessionalist desires to abide by “what is written” in the confession. “Developmentalists,” in contrast, believe that every theological tradition unfolds over time so that later exponents of a tradition (e.g., Francis Turretin and Petrus van Mastricht) might be better guides than an earlier one. Edwards judged that Mastricht’s systematic theology was better than any other non-biblical book in the world, presumably even Calvin’s Institutes. Edwards’s own innovations showed him to be not an originalist or confessionalist but a developmentalist. Clearly he believed that the tradition could be improved—if not in its core principles, then in the ways these were expounded and defended. He also seemed to believe that he had been called by God to improve upon past expressions of the Calvinistic faith.
    In this chapter, we shall look first at Edwards’s agreement with Calvin and other Reformed thinkers, then examine where he diverged from earlier Reformed thinking, and finally compare him to two other Reformed theologians—Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher and Karl Barth.

  3. gerald mcdermott

    Let me add to what my co-author Michael McClymond wrote. One reason DG Hart does not like Edwards is that Edwards promoted revivals that emphasized decisions for Christ. Hart is concerned with an evangelicalism–partly derived from revivalism–that puts so much emphasis on decisions and accompanying emotional experiences that it neglects or denies the importance of gradual nurture in the faith through the church and its sacraments. Now I should hasten to add that Edwards’s notion of revival was quite different from Finney’s–the former said revival is a miracle and the latter said it was a science, and Edwards taught that regeneration is not the same thing as conversion with a decision. Regeneration in fact can take place long before conversion. So distinctions must be drawn when speaking of revivalism. But at the same time, while Edwards spoke of conversion as something that usually happens in a distinct point or period in time, Hart (and Charles Hodge) embraced the Heidelberg Catechism’s depiction of conversion as a gradual transformation occurring over the course of a lifetime. Hart refers to the Isaac model, in which the covenant child never knows anything other than that he or she is a child of God.

  4. gerald mcdermott

    I should add that Edwards would have accepted the Isaac model for some, while urging that many covenant children need the encouragement to recommit or even commit for the first time.

    • John

      Thanks, Gerry and Mike. I guessed that Daryl Hart–who has been in a bad mood since I met him in the late 1980s, although I quite like him!–was upset about JE’s deviations from Calvinistic orthodoxy as Daryl and his gang construe it. Indeed, many evangelicals today would, as I intimated in my original post, be appalled at the way both JE and John Wesley, among others, read, quoted, and advocated non-Reformed writers and ideas to their respective flocks. Charles Hodge prided himself on “no new ideas” being countenanced at Princeton Seminary while he was there, while JE and JW both countenanced new ideas all the time.

      I admire Hodge, but it’s JE’s photo on my office wall…

  5. Roger

    John

    Thanks for this. It is you at your best. I read the Marsden bio and can’t say I liked Edwards but got a glimpse of his impact. I will order the book tomorrow and look forward to deepening my understanding of his contribution.

×

Comments are closed.