A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards

Article by   September 2005

The tercentenary celebration of the birth of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) was the occasion for a perfusion of literary endeavors, the most exciting being George Marsden's monumental biography; numerous articles; and a plethora of conferences. The fruit of one such gathering, held at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, is a collection of papers by a coterie of Edwards advocates under the above title.

The conference had a unifying theme rooted in Edwards' understanding of the centrality of God in all things, a theme John Piper develops in the initial chapter of the book. The structure of the publication is three-fold: first, three chapters explore facets of the life and legacy of the great British-American Puritan; second, four papers suggest lessons (positive and negative) that can be gleaned from his life and thought; and, third, three essays analyze his larger publications (The Great Doctrine of Original Sin, Freedom of the Will, and Religious Affections).

As a whole, the collection is well written and goes a long way in making Edwards accessible to a general readership. Helpful bibliography follows some of the essays though there is unevenness in scholarship overall (this is a common feature of multi-authored volumes).

In the initial essay, Piper sets the theme of the conference and the point of the celebration. Edwards captured a thought that modern evangelicalism has lost, at least for the most part; in the quest for cultural significance, it has fallen into cultural concession. Here the author states Edwards' argument in The End for Which God Created the World, a posthumous publication. The central, integrative motif of Edwards' thought was the overwhelming beauty of God and the consequently creaturely duty to adore, enjoy, and spontaneously declare it. Two sequential essays focus on the Edwards family. Stephen Nichols prepared a biographical summary of his life with an emphasis on his central integrative theological insight (at this point he agrees with John Piper's analysis). Noel Piper describes the marriage of Edwards emphasizing the life of Sarah. Though dependent on the older, sometimes hagiographical work of Elizabeth Dodds, it does incorporate some later research.

A particularly entertaining chapter begins the second section of the collection, an essay by J. I. Packer. Two foci occupy Packer that for Edwards was interconnected, the glory of God (themes in Piper and Nichol) and revivalism. Insightful is the author's comparison of Edwards and Wesley, the former he describes as an analyst and the latter an activist, one a Calvinist and the other a post-Calvinist. Edwards certainly had the greater mind and, interestingly enough (and what seems to be alien to most Calvinists in many minds), he wrote the book on encouraging evangelistic endeavor both regionally and internationally. Packer presents an excellent definition of the nature of true revivalism (In keeping with this theme, as well as glorifying God through contented, delight in God and willing enjoyment of Him, the volume is dedicated to Iain H. Murray who incarnates both themes). In the chapter, he endeavors to define the characteristics of a true divine visitation among God's people.

Donald Whitney, who has written extensively and practically on the spiritual disciplines, writes of Edwards in this regard. He shows how Edwards practiced the disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, etc throughout his life and ministry. It is a very helpful reminder that good habits are a product of cultivation, cultivation the result of desire, and desire a worth object.

Mark Dever's article is quite practical for today's pastors; it deals with Edwards' dismissal from his church after twenty years of successful work. It seems that Edwards was more appreciated by those from a distance than those in his parish. While Edwards' was socially distant and aristocratic in his view of pastoral authority, it was ultimately the peril of changing a theological view that doomed him. Is discipline outdated in our churches? Should unbelievers be received into membership? Did Edwards veer into a "reformed-baptist-presbygational" position on the nature of the visible church? There is a great abundance of lesson-insight here for the reading.

Sherard Burn's article on Edwards' view of slavery is worth the book, at least for those who have read Edwards for some time. The article situates Edwards as a man that, in spite of his utter brilliance, was an eighteenth-century man (Dever's article does the same thing with him relatives to his view of the authority of the pastoral office), a man who did not escape cultural values entirely. Edwards, like many in his day in New England, owned slaves (at least four). He defended slavery as an economic necessity though he denounced the slave trade. Unlike many on either side of the later civil conflict, he was not a racist; mankind, in his view, stands equal before God though not in equal station before men. Edwards believed that the ultimate outcome of slavery was a positive because it brought many into contact with the gospel (sort of a you-meant-it-for-evil-but-God-meant-it-for-good statement). To his credit, he admitted slaves into full membership in the church and treated them humanly.

If the initial section of the book deals with biographical matters, and the second with practical and ministerial themes, the third is scholarly. It is composed of the analysis of three of Edwards' larger works. The first by Paul Helm's deals with The Great Doctrine of Original Sin, a work like Free Will that deals with issues related to the religious Enlightenment. The author summarizes Edwards masterful argument based on experience and Scripture of the irreversible consequence of Adam's first sin. Helm's is insightful in describing Edwards as reformed in theology, but a reformulator of it; he was not willing to repeat old arguments in a new context (here is a valuable less for today). Though innovative in his approach to the Fall and the relationship of Adam's transgression to the race (as well as the nature of participation in it) Helms does not feel that Edwards, nor anyone else, has been successful in removing the mystery of it all.

Sam Storms synthesizes Edwards' argument in Freedom of the Will. Here, in my judgment, Edwards is at his best. The human will is not a creative mechanism; it is a selective mechanism. It chooses based on aversion or attraction that is rooted in the perception of the value of available options. The will always chooses contrary to God, unless God intervenes in grace, because it is attracted always to things opposed to the character of God. As Helm's points out in his article about Edwards' view of the Fall in relationship to the faculty of human reason, he does not indicate that the will, as a choice mechanism, was damage by the Fall, only in the realm of objects to chose. Edwards is at his best in demonstrating that praise and blame are not contrary to necessity, that necessity is not the same as coercion.

Mark Talbot's essay deals with Edwards' masterpiece on the nature of true religious conversion, Religious Affections (1746). Troubled by his own religious experience, being different than standard Puritan conversion morphology, as well as the decline of religious fervor in his parishioners oafter the revivals, Edwards asked the question, "What is the nature of true religion?" In essence, true religion is rooted in a gracious revelation of the transforming beauty of God in the human soul that necessarily results in an inward transformation of character and simultaneously in outward moral reform. It is founded upon God's revelation of Himself to the saint (the revelation of God's revelation, the Scriptures, to the soul) resulting in an affectionate embrace of God's beauty and the quest for lives in delightful conformity to it. Edwards' understanding of the nature of true conversion is a potent antidote for anyone diseased with the false notion that obedience is not inherent in the gospel!

The volume concludes with an "Edwardian sermon" ("A Divine and supernatural Light," 1734)" re-preached by John Piper at the conclusion of the conference. In essence, it is not only an example of how Edwards can be utilized in the twenty-first century church, but it takes up themes not the subject of his major treatises (e.g., justification, the ministry of the Holy Spirit). The volume concludes as it began with sections by Justin Taylor, an introductory preface that function to telecast the content and structure of the various chapters and here a second appendix dealing with resources for further reading in the Edwards corpus.

The editors are to be commended for assembling a wonderful array of scholars as well as the astute folks who contributed to the conference and to this volume. Christians of all walks in life will profit spiritually in capturing Edwards great preoccupation with the greatness and beauty of the one, who without depletion, spoke the heavens into being. I particularly enjoyed Packer's insight, so succinctly stated, that "Edwards has been described as God-centered, God-focused, God-intoxicated, and God-entranced, and so he was" (88).

In a world where most celebrated figures are anti-heroes, Edwards is truly remarkable. He was a man, as Dever and Burns demonstrate, that at times did not rise above the cultural presuppositions and blinders of his day (e.g., his aristocratic attitudes in a culture rejecting past conventions and his embrace of slavery). Though a genius by any cultural standards, his attempt to defend the Reformed faith with cleverly constructed and novel arguments at times seemed to take him to the edge of Orthodoxy though he was wise enough to know that some answers have not been revealed by the all-wise, incomprehensible God of the Holy Scriptures, as Helms and Storms ancillarily indicate. As the Piper's indicate, Packer and Whitney collaborate, Edwards' spirituality is truly exemplary, as is his conception of God; he managed to put life in sync with his lofty encounter with the one whose name is above every name. I can heartily commend this popularly styled volume.

John Piper and Justin Taylor, General Editors - Wheaton: Crossway, 2004
Review by John Hannah


 

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