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.