About twenty minutes ago I finished George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life. It was well worth the effort, though at times I wondered if I would ever make it through (I started it in early June, originally intending to finish it over the summer, and read continuously till today). I learned a ton from it, not only about Edwards, but also about the historical context in which he lived, early 18th century Connecticut River Valley Puritan New England. (Note to self: I need to read biographies more often – they are usually not as boring as you think, and you learn so much from them.)
Edwards truly was an extraordinary man. Here are some of the aspects of his life and thought that most stood out to me from Marsden’s portrait:
1) Edward’s view that ultimate reality is personal and loving, because God is ultimate reality and God is Triune. God’s highest purpose in creation was to communicate his holiness and love to his creatures. The universe and everything in it – trees, rocks, stars, animal, etc – is God’s language for communicating his glory. Everything is connected because everything is connected to God. This view of reality came through again and again in the book, and I agreed with Marsden that it is “breathtaking” (p. 505).
2) The vividness with which Edwards preached about hell, and more generally, his constant tendency to use the temporal to point to the eternal. This was deeply challenging and humbling. I had to scribble out a prayer of repentance on the empty pages at the back of the book after reading the story of the preaching of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Does anyone preach like this anymore?
“Stoddard [Edward's grandfather and predecessor as pastor at Northampton] and his peers saw preaching hellfire as a matter of compassion. Given the reality of hell, it would be inhumane not to alert people to the horrible danger they were in” (p. 120).
3) Edward’s personal intensity, determination, hard work, and highly disciplined spiritual life. No one can say the man was not authentic and pious. His personal resolutions, for example, were fascinating and challenging to read. “Though he lived in the world, he did so as an ascetic” (p. 51).
4) Marsden showed how important Edward’s eschatology was to his whole theological outlook. So much of what he did and wrote is only intelligible in the context of his optimistic millennial views. I didn’t know anything about this before reading the book.
5) The huge priority Edwards set on personal regeneration, especially the need for professing Christians to seek to test their own regeneration. I found particularly striking Edward’s words to his son, Jonathan, Jr., in a letter May 1755: “never give yourself any rest, unless you have good evidence that you are converted and become a new creature” (p. 412). This seems to me to be an emphasis we often neglect today.
6) How much of Edward’s literary output was in conscious engagement with the Enlightenment. Many of his major works were written to address the popular philosophical ideas of the day. I never knew this before reading this book, and it really helps in reading and understanding Edwards.
7) The way Marsden relentlessly tried to depict Edwards as a man of the 18th century – with all that that entails. For example, its much easier to understand his owning slaves if you consider the ways in which the conventional ideals and assumptions of his age were so radically different from our own. Edwards’ world was much more hierarchical than our own, ours more pluralistic and egalitarian than his. Though of course this does not justify his owning slaves, it should help us understand Edwards a little better, as a man of his times.
8) Edward’s unabashed enthusiasm for revival, and his accounts of the two revivals he experienced at Northampton. While reading about this, I wrote in the margin of my book: “fascinating! I did not know God did such things.” At the same time, he was very thoughtful and discerning about how to test genuine revival and avoid unedifying extremes, which was also helpful.
Edwards on the 1734-5 revival: “A great and earnest concern about the great things of religion and the eternal world became universal in all parts of the town, and among persons of all degrees and excellencies…. All other talk [but that] about spiritual and eternal things was seen thrown by; all the conversation in all companies and upon all occasions, was upon these things only, unless so much as was necessary for people, carrying on their ordinary secular business. Other discourse than of the things of religion would scarcely be tolerated in any company” (p. 159). Wow! I never want to be cynical about revival.
9) Edward’s sense of the beauty of divine things, and the way he would journal about them while walking or riding in nature.
“The appearance of everything was altered: there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, and trees; in the water, and all nature” (p. 44).
10) The fact that Edwards, after such a grueling and painful battle at Northampton, still worked so hard (and in so much danger) as a missionary to Indians in Stockbridge. The fact that he did not give up after Northampton amazes me. Especially because he endured so much further struggle (internally and externally) in Stockbridge. Where did he get the stamina?
To conclude: an great book about a fascinating man – but its nice to be finished!
On a related note, if you are interested in some good reading on Edwards, this is an awesome place to start.
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