Jonathan Edwards: A Life

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Puritanboard Clerk
There is almost a glut of material on Jonathan Edwards. That can be both good and bad. It is good that men are wrestling with Edwards's life and thought. A study of Edwards can renew intellectual life within the church. Furthermore, Edwards is being fairly studied by scholars outside the conservative world. This, too, is good. But there is always the question when a new Edwards book comes out: is there anything left to say? George Marsden thinks so. And Marsden takes his point of departure from other Edwards scholars. For all of the work on Edwards, the standard biographies (Perry Miller and Iain Murray) leave holes in some places.
Thesis: Jonathan Edwards lived in the crossroads of intellectual and social history. He is a perfect representative of both streams of both European and American thought: he was a traditionalist who stood for authority, order, and stable values. Ironically, he also planted the seeds of the individualism that would later haunt evangelicalism. Even more paradoxically, the very cure (e.g., the Great Awakening) to the problem (e.g., spiritual decay and social stagnation) would later become another problem for religious America.

There are two illustrations of Marsden's thesis from Edwards' ministry: the Great Awakening and the communion controversy, the latter will be examined in light of his political views. In both cases we see Edwards the traditionalist clash with Edwards the innovator. Edwards' instrumental role in the Great Awakening conflicted with other pastors in the region. Unwillingly, or unwittingly, Edwards inspired other men to rise up and carry on the revival, a task that also meant criticizing the status quo ecclesiology. Another example is Edwards' view on church-state relations (160). Was Edwards going to be the traditional Constantinian Protestant and favor a state-protected church, or would he encourage his people to be a holy congregation, called-out and separated from the world? It appears he wanted both. On p. 196 Edwards advocates a strong Constantianism. This clashed with his view on presenting spiritual evidences to the Lord's Supper. It is obvious why.

Solomon Stoddard, Edwards' grandfather and the previous pastor, sought a mediating position with the Puritans demand for evidence of conversion alongside the painful fact that many people did not have that evidence. If they did not have that evidence, they weren't really in the covenant. So they posited a "half-way" covenant. There was still the nagging problem of evidence. Therefore, the parishioners would give evidence of moral sincerity whereas Edwards' demanded evidence of godly piety (368). It was Edwards' downfall (or heroic hour, depending on your point of view) to overturn this compromise.

This book faithfully carries on the Edwardsean tradition. It presents a pastor who sought Christ-exalting power in the pulpit. Yet it is one of the first sympathetic books on Edwards to illustrate tensions in his worldview--tensions the Evangelical world is feeling today. Does a longing for revival and fresh power from the Spirit undermine certain stati quo in Reformed orthodoxy? Marsden's thesis leaves the reader wrestling and thinking on this question. Another fine point is Marsden's emphasis on the healthy sexual morality and love found between Jonathan and Sarah, especially in light of current confusion on sexual mores. I heartily recommend this book.

P.S. One other thing. In light of discussions, especially concerning the movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, Edwards was far ahead of his time. Edwards has been labeled a Platonist. This is only partly true. Yes, he did use Platonic categories, but given his biblical worldview, he made philosophical moves that refused the Platonic description. Edwards valued the material. He valued creation. But more importantly, creation is only meaningful in terms of the soul's movement towards God. I personally can vouch at times, after having read Edwards, that I soar to new heights spiritually. But is this a downplay of the physical? Far from it. Indeed, at these times, like few others, when the soul is enegerized by love of God, the physical is given far greater meaning and value.
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