Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edward's Vision of Living in Between
"You know, ol' Bob is so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good." Perhaps, you have heard someone, in an effort to sound practical, say something like this. I suppose it is possible to be so focused on the sweet-by-and-by, that a sort of sanctimonious escapism seeps into one's Christianity. However, this new book by Stephen J, Nichols, Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards' Vision of Living in Between, is a breezy, conversational read that calls us to far more than that. Nichols, following the lead of "America's Augustine," Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), gives us a little volume that suggests we could be a more earthly good, if we were a bit more properly mindful of heaven. How often do we think, I mean really think about heaven? How many expositional, doctrinally rich sermons do we hear on the subject of heaven? Nichols helps change that with Edwards' help. Dr. Nichols is a sure-footed guide into all things Edwards, having written of him in his helpful and popularly written "Guided Tour" series of books (Luther, Edwards, Machen, and Anne Bradstreet - the latter by Nichol's wife, Heidi). He has also given us a scholarly look at Edwards' apologetic in An Absolute Sort of Certainty, which I like to give away as gifts to Christians looking for something meaty to read.
Many of us probably had our first taste of Jonathan Edwards in, say, a ninth grade English Literature class, wherein we read from an English anthology some of the spicier parts of that famous July 8, 1741, Enfield CT sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. I distinctly remember how our teacher led us in a less than flattering analysis of what had to be a wild-eyed preacher who probably wasn't hugged enough as a child. So, it is not surprising that most do not realize that, while Edwards certainly faithfully warned of the terrors of hell, he also fully and creatively invited his hearers to the pleasures of heaven. And, while this little book is about heaven (it even includes an abridged text of an Edwards sermon, Heaven Is a World of Love, as an appendix), it is more a call to living, here... now... as if heaven is a real place - and it is!
I think the phrase that best sums up Nichols', and Edwards' intention is tucked away in the fourth chapter, "...a compelling case for us to live as full disciples." Form the outset, it is obvious the reader will be treated to a pastoral weaving of Scripture, Edwards, and other voices of giants upon whose shoulders we stand (Lewis, Boice, Bunyan, Bonhoeffer, Burroughs, etc.). Nichols asks us to long for heaven without thinking of other and ourselves as "mere souls," as though life on earth, in our physical bodies is not important or part of that which images God. The context of this admonition, unfortunately, is the picture Nichols paints of much of contemporary Christian subculture, "Others construct a modern monastery by adopting a 'fortress mentality.' They refuse to live in this world and instead construct an entirely Christian one, from which they rarely break out. They are consumed by Christian radio stations and Christian bookstores, and when they need their faucets fixed, they make sure that it's done by a Christian plumber. If they can't be in heaven, they'll simply construct one on earth" (18-19). Indeed, we create our holy huddles. Even we Calvinists tend to hole up on our Reformed reservations. This book is a gentle call to come out and spread the aroma of heaven all around.
At the same time, Nichols warns of being so distracted by the world, that it consumes us. The solution, he says, is not to attempt some awkward balance between the two, but to strike out on something else altogether; what he calls a "racially different perspective," namely "living in this world from the perspective of the next" (19-20). What I take from the book is that when we live with this bi-world perspective, we can see clearly to that life of full discipleship mentioned above. Following a brief sketch of Edwards' life, we are invited to begin learning how life in heaven (the "not-yet") should inform, transform, and continually reform life here (the "now").
In chapter two we find that Edwards conceived of heaven as a "world of love," precisely because the love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit flows forth and floods heaven. Yet, as Nichols observes, Edwards applies this truth, lest we merely fixate on the bliss of heaven. If heaven is a world of love, then the way there is paved by love. In other words, if we will live in love for all eternity, then we can begin now - by loving! Nichols observes the reality that the greatest of men are men at best, as the old adage goes, and Edwards was no exception. While he loved his flock, and labored faithfully for them in many ways, he did not seem as diligent in cultivating relationships with them as he could have been. On the other hand, that heavenly life he declared from his Northampton pulpit was consistently demonstrated at home among his tight-knit family.
While this is intended as a popular, pastoral read, I found myself wishing Nichols would have given a little ink to Edwards theological paradigm of "fitness," which touched everything, from epistemology, to soteriology, to homiletics for Edwards. In fairness, the book actually is all about the fitness that exists between living there and here, but Nichols, who has a knack for helping us understand the intricacies of Edwards' thought, would have been interesting here, I think.
Touching upon a theme dear to Edwards' heart, chapter three treats the reader to the unassailable apologetic of pleasure/beauty. The pleasure of heaven is not an entirely different thing from the pleasure and happiness of following Christ here and now. The unique vitality of this apologetic is that, not only does it appeal to the God-given longing in each us of, namely for pleasure and happiness, but it does more than defend the faith, it demonstrates it, as believers seek to spread the beauty and pleasure of heaven on earth, be it by planting sequoias for future beauty, or joining in with our African brothers and sisters, whose joyful singing causes unbelievers to want what they have. Could we, perhaps, add a verse to that old children's gospel song, They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love, so we would sing, "And they'll know we are Christians by our beauty and pleasure"?
In my favorite chapter (four), Nichols continues to show us that our ninth grade English Lit class did not do justice to Edwards. Having touched upon love, beauty, and pleasure, we now hear from Edwards that life in heaven calls us to live justly on earth. Is there a place wherein full discipleship more brightly shows itself? Could this be the most convicting chapter of the book? I think so. If we are to commend heaven, then let us not live in such a selfish and unjust way, as to cause others to recoil from the thought of spending an eternity there with us! Edwards, like C.S. Lewis after him, believed that there were "no ordinary people." Lewis urged we have "never talked to a mere mortal." Nichols poignantly writes of what our Reformed theology beckons us to believe and champion, "All human beings are eternal beings, made in the image of God. Class, race, status, or any other marker that we may set up for determining value and significance simply crumble when we grasp what it truly means to be human" (68). He goes on to show how Edwards lived this out in his Word and deed ministry to the Stockbridge Indians, putting his life and reputation on the line defending them against the injustices of English settlers (for more on Edwards among the Indians, see Nichols chapter, Last of the Mohican Missionaries, in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards by Baker Book House).
Most of us hate to wait. Admit it, you have run an "orange light" or two in your time... you know, when it is somewhere between yellow and just turning red. For those of us who are patience-challenged, chapter five points us to Edwards, who turns our attention to Job, whose patient trust in his living Redeemer brings comfort amidst the storms of life. Maybe, if you are a pastor, you should read this chapter first, as Nichols talks of Edwards' own troublesome times at Northampton. In it all, we hold on for heaven, knowing Christ is holding on to us. He is ours! We have him now! This pastoral chapter speaks to hurt in all of us.
Since we were made by God and for God, Edwards, in true Augustinian fashion, says we are to find our rest, purpose, and happiness in God. Doing this cannot be divorced from a life of service to God. Designed for his service, we will only be happy thus employed. So, chapter six calls us not only to gratitude for our redemption and love for God, but humility that manifests itself in service to God. Humility draws us together as the Church, and it tunes our hearts to sing and worship. This will be a chief employment in heaven, says Edwards, so let's get started now - even if we need to hire that vocal coach to help us sing better (just read the chapter).
The final chapter is worth the price of admission. For any who have lost a loved-one, or for pastors who shepherd the sheep on this side of the valley of the shadow of death, Nichols crafts a purposeful closing to his book. Be it Jonathan writing to his sick daughter, Esther, or Sara grieving Jonathan's death in 1758, Jesus raging at death before Lazarus' tomb, Luther weeping over his 'Little Lena," or you fill in the blank with your own story, the journey to heaven is met with sadness and heartache. In fact, as Nichols points out, John Bunyan's "pilgrim" was all about this travel and travail to the Celestial City. Nichols summarizes Edwards' thought on this subject via six "Traveling Tips." I'll list them, hopefully, to whet your appetite to read the book:
1) We should set our hearts on heaven.
2) We seek heaven by taking the proper route: holiness.
3) We must be ready for hard times.
4) We must stay at it.
5) We should be making continual progress.
6) We need to keep our goal in view.
As you go toward heaven, Nichols shows that Edwards makes a good traveling companion. This fine little book would be excellent for personal devotional reading, group study, Sunday School discussion, etc. I especially think it would be good for young people (youth, college age), as it would help center them in their sometimes-confusing stages of life. I am even assigning this book as a text in my course on the life and theology of Jonathan Edwards this January at RTS-Charlotte, as an example of how to pastorally apply Edwards' thought. It would be a great gift to give to someone, who wants to get started reading Edwards. It would be an ever better gift for the weary Christian pilgrim in your life. So, tolle lege! This book will make you long to read more of Edwards. More importantly, it will reawaken your longing for Christ and a desire to live like it is not so far away, after all.
Stephen Nichols / Illinois: Crossway, 2006
Review by David Filson, Pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN.