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Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003)
In recent years a couple of marvelous biographies have forced major reconsiderations of their conservative subjects: Sam Tanenhaus's Whittaker Chambers and A. Scott Berg's Lindbergh. George M. Marsden's biography of Jonathan Edwards seems certain to bring about a similar rethinking of the far more significant theologian, who might rightly be called the most important philosopher America has ever produced. It is a wonderfully readable and fascinating book, which presents both Edwards' life and his thought, restoring the former to the context of the time, so that we understand him better, while explaining why the latter can truly be considered timeless and in large measure vindicating Edwards' thought in relation to the rationalist Enlightenment philosophy to which he had seemingly lost the argument for much of the 20th Century.
If the reputations of Chambers and Lindbergh needed some burnishing, the reputation of Jonathan Edwards very nearly defies reason. He comes down to us as almost a figure of Medievalism. The most that many of us know of him is his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which the intellectual and educational establishments tend to use as an indicator of the near psychosis of our Puritan forebears. Indeed, it seems doubtful that most get past that title, with its suggestion that all are sinners and that God is an angry god. Both are rather antithetical to the faith of the Age of Reason that Man is essentially good and that the powers of the human mind can shape the world around us like so much Play-doh. Given the thoroughness with which secular humanism has carried the day in the modern era, especially in the Academy, it's little wonder that Edwards has come to be seen as nothing more than an aberration. Indeed, Mark Twain referred to him as possessed of: "A resplendent intellect gone mad" and the literary critic Vernon L.Parrington's book Main Currents in American Thought, in a chapter that's even titled The Anachronism of Jonathan Edwards, offered this assesment of his place in the life of the American mind:
Cut off from fruitful intercourse with other thinkers, drawn away from the stimulating field of philosophy into the arid realm of theology, it was his fate to devote his noble gifts to the thankless task of reimprisoning the mind of New England within a system from which his nature and his powers summoned him to unshackle it. He was called to be a transcendental emancipator, but he remained a Calvinist.He is presented to us as a man seemingly out of time, not only ours but his own.
Readers will perhaps be familiar with the rough outlines of Edwards' career: his attendance at Yale (then the Collegiate School of Connecticut) at age 13; his ministry in Northampton, MA; his role in the Great Awakening; his eventual dismissal from his post and subsequent move to Stockbridge, MA, where he was involved in the evangelizing of the Indians; and his all too short term as president of Princeton. Mr. Marsden covers all of this in great, though never overwhelming, detail and presents a portrait of a surprisingly cosmopolitan man--involved with, and well read on, the intellectual currents of his day; conversant with and respected by his peers in Britain and particularly Scotland--and a really gentle and loving man--one half of a marriage that was a true partnership; father to a veritable brood of children, who he loved deeply and whose souls he fretted about; a devoted disciple and then an equally devoted mentor; worried about his flock, his community, his colony, his Indian neighbors, his country (still very much a British citizen), and his fellow Christians; almost mesmerized by the beauty of the natural world; fascinated by the scientific discoveries of the day; etc.; etc.; etc.. In these pages we find both a more human Edwards than the fire-breathing historical caricature and a more important, even internationally important, figure than the idea of "Edwards as theological throwback" school would have led us to expect.
What then was the madness to which he succumbed? Why was he an aberration? What is it about his thought that made even those historians who respected the quality of his mind believe that he had wasted his intellect on useless pursuits? As Mr. Marsden shows us, Jonathan Edwards whole life was a struggle to accept and then to explain the doctrines of Calvinism--that Man is inherently sinful and inexorably prone to sinfulness and that God is immeasurably powerful, with the result that nothing men can do can ever change their nature nor obligate God. Moreover, God stands beyond the capacity of reason to explain--we can only know God as He reveals Himself to us in Scripture. And yet, God loves us, as He demonstrated most awesomely through the life and crucifixion of His Son. As Mr. Marsden puts it:
The central principle in Edwards' thought, true to his Calvinistic heritage, was the sovereignty of God. The triune eternally loving God, as revealed in Scripture, created and ruled everything in the universe. Most simply put, the sovereignty of God meant that if there were a question as to whether God or humans should be given credit for anything good, particularly in matters of salvation, the benefit of the doubt should always go to God. Edwards avoided allowing God's rule to be thought of as a distant abstraction, as it could become. Rather, he emphasized that God's very purpose in creation was the great work of redemption in Christ. Everything in the universe pointed ultimately to the loving character of the triune God.Keep this in mind as we read Sinners and, even if no less terrifying, it at least makes sense:
Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider's web would have to stop a falling rock. Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it; the creation groans with you; the creature is made subject to the bondage of your corruption, not willingly; the sun does not willingly shine upon you to give you light to serve sin and Satan; the earth does not willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lusts; nor is it willingly a stage for your wickedness to be acted upon; the air does not willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals, while you spend your life in the service of God's enemies. God's creatures are good, and were made for men to serve God with, and do not willingly subserve to any other purpose, and groan when they are abused to purposes so directly contrary to their nature and end. And the world would spew you out, were it not for the sovereign hand of him who hath subjected it in hope. There are black clouds of God's wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God, it would immediately burst forth upon you. The sovereign pleasure of God, for the present, stays his rough wind; otherwise it would come with fury, and your destruction would come like a whirlwind, and you would be like the chaff of the summer threshing floor.Even if we have trouble sharing Edwards' belief, we can share in the mysterious power his vision exerts: Men deserve Hell, but God holds them out of the fire and a God who so loves us we can not help but love in return.
Little wonder that a man who preached and devoutly believed in such an unsparing theology should have had a run-in with his parishioners, and Mr. Marsden does an especially nice job of walking us through the controversy that led to Edwards' fall. He was dismissed by his Northampton congregation in 1750 over a dispute about whether one could be born into the church or whether something more was required:
Edwards was impaled on the horns of a dilemma inherited from his tradition. Puritanism and is Reformed-pietist successors constantly vacillated between whether they were rebuilding Christendom by making towns and eventually nations into virtually Christian societies, or whether they were advocating a pure, called-out church. Edwards had a strong commitment to both ideals. Heir to the Puritan establishment and part of a powerful ruling clan, he was jealous of the privileges of ministerial prestige in town and province. He looked forward to a worldwide Reformed Christendom as the millennium approached.Toward this latter end, Edwards--after the death of his grandfather Solomon Stoddard who had a different view--determined to insist that new members of his church make a personal profession of faith. This predictably precipitated the crisis.
So far, so good. In all of this, Mr. Marsden has let us see the context of the times in which Edwards lived. This is a worthy accomplishment in itself. But what elevates the book to the status of a must-read is that Mr. Marsden--especially in the closing chapters; when he considers Edwards' theological writings in their totality--makes us realize that Edwards' thought remain pertinent in our own times, even that he has largely won his argument with mere rationalism. I haven't the temerity to try and summarize Mr. Marsden's excellent assessments of Edwards' various later writings--particularly Freedom of the Will; The End for Which God Created Created the World; Nature of True Virtue; and Original Sin--you really need to read the chapters yourself. Rather, let us consider just the general way in which the rather pessimistic Calvinism that Edwards was defending has fared against the more optimistic view of Man enunciated by the Enlightenment. Even more importantly, let us consider whose view was really embraced in the American Founding. The critics of Edwards, cited in our opening, try to write him out of history, but G. K. Chesterton warned us that we must not allow prevailing opinion to silence our forefathers:
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.If we fail to reckon with Jonathan Edwards we deny a voice to one side of that democracy, a voice that we may even find was on the winning side of history.
Here we go a bit beyond the scope of the book, but what follows seems implicit. Let us aver that three of the pivotal insights of Edwards' Calvinism are:
(2) The permanently sinful nature of Man.
(3) The limits of reason.
Taken together they are a repudiation of the optimistic humanism at the core of modernity and their wisdom endures. It was the great hope of the Enlightenment that men could arrive at morality by operation of their minds alone, that morality would prove to be a function of reason, with no gods required. Several hundred years on, we can certainly say that if this was not entirely delusional it has at least proved impossible so far. Part and parcel of this belief in the perfectibility of Man was the tragic embrace of various forms of utopianism--Communism, Nazism, Socialism, Islamicism, etc.--the various visions of political orders in which, because men have made themselves good, it would be impossible for the State to be bad. It's hard to imagine that there's a liberal democrat in the West who will still seriously and coherently assert this proposition. Alternatively, there were Anarchism and Libertarianism, where, because Man was become good, there wasn't even any need for the State. They too are fairly universally acknowledged to be insipid.
These failures are ample to demonstrate the limits of reason when applied to human affairs, but were hardly necessary, for even in Edwards' own time philosophers had realized that in the metaphysical realm reason could actually disprove itself. Hume and Berkeley demonstrated that we could not trust that anything we believed was more than a sensory perception. This famously provoked Samuel Johnson's amusing but inadequate response as he kicked a stone: "I refute it thus". Even Descartes begins from a statement of faith, rather than a rational proof: "I think, therefore I am." Nor has subsequent philosophy moved us beyond this point and science has done little more than confirm it: from Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Schroedinger's Cat to experiments on the brain that suggest the possibility that someone can be made to believe most anything to computer programs that imply that "reality" can be virtual. It would seem that we can only rely on reason, after we make a statement of faith that we believe ourselves and the reality we perceive to truly exist. Reason appears to be not only inherently limited but a subset of faith after all. Edwards theology is not necessarily correct as a result, but it need not yield before the rational mind.
If events and science itself have tended to vindicate Edwards in the long run, it can be argued that throughout American history those who shared and share his ideas have vindicated them in the short run. If academics imagined the American Founding to have been a victory for their brand of optimistic rationalism--which is obvious in their desperate attempts to turn the Founders into little more than a gang Deists, at "worst", atheists at "best"--it is quite apparent to the contrary that the Constitution proceeded from a very dim view of human nature. Writers from de Tocqueville to Fareed Zakaria have recognized the conservative quality of the system they established, a point they made crystal clear themselves in the Federalist Papers, The Federalist (Jean Yarbrough, APSA)
At the bottom of The Federalist's defense of the proposed Constitution is a view of human nature which may best be described as realistic. The authors of The Federalist rejected the popular Enlightenment view that man was basically good, and corrupted only from without by faulty institutions such monarchy or mercantilism. Overthrow these institutions, it was widely believed, and men can live together in harmony with little or government. Although Publius agreed that these institutions were flawed, the authors of The Federalist held that the causes of human quarrelling could not be blamed simply on external conditions. The roots of discord and faction are "sown in the nature of man" (No. 10). Thus, in answer to the question, "Why has government been instituted at all?" Publius replied: "Because the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without restraint" (No. 15). Since no arrangement of the social order could ever make men good, government, with its ultimate threat of coercion, would always be necessary.Even that supposedly most rational and idealistic of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson, said: "In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution." If the intellectual atmosphere that dismissed Edwards was informed by the Enlightenment, the nation in which the dismissal occurred was informed by his Calvinism. So today, even if the elites may still think Edwards an aberration, America, almost alone among the developed nations and in defiance of the predictions of the rationalists, has a populace that still believes in God, the Devil, Heaven, Hell, the Creation rather than Darwinism, evil, etc. What other modern state would have so instinctively embraced the idea that on 9-11 we saw the face of evil. Likewise, nearly alone among the developed nations, America has never gone through a utopian spasm. Americans are too pessimistic (rather, realistic) about human nature to fall for such sugar-coated dreams, though, typically, the intellectual class that was so hostile to Edwards found itself quite thoroughly seduced by Socialism and even Communism. And they've never quite been able to figure out why Americans have such a strong streak of anti-Intellectualism. Suffice it to say, the man they disregarded has a firmer grip on our minds than they do.
The Edwards of Mr. Marsden's book is ultimately then something of an accidental visionary, fighting a rather heroic battle against a modernity whose flaws he can see all too clearly, while many of his peers in Britain and America are still either unawares or blind:
In The Nature of True Virtue--an intellectual gem by any standard--Edwards was challenging the project that dominated Western thought, and eventually much of world thought, for the next two centuries. The grand ideal of the hopeful era was that humans would find it possible to establish on scientific principles a universal system of morality that would bring to an end the destructive conflicts that had plagued human history. Only after the first half of the twentieth century, when the clashes of such ideals had led to the bloodiest era in history and threatened to annihilate humanity, did much of the faith in that project collapse, even though there was no clear alternative to put in its place.Interesting, isn't it, that just as Edwards warned in Sinners that men were dangling over the "bottomless gulf", so too his critique of modernity is a warning that Enlightenment Man stood on the edge of an abyss?
If we're ready by now to concede the case Mr. Marsden has made for the continuing importance of Jonathan Edwards' legacy, we can appreciate and endorse one of the tactics he uses to make Edwards more approachable: a repeated, and favorable, comparison of the seemingly distant Edwards to the most accessible of all the Founders, Benjamin Franklin. When he first mentions the fact, it's genuinely shocking to realize that Edwards and Franklin were almost exact contempraries--Franklin born in 1706; Edwards in 1703. Had Edwards been as long lived, he too would have seen the Revolution. Mr. Marsden even holds out the tantalizing possibility that the two could have met in Philadelphia at one point, though there's no evidence for such a meeting. [Two other facts that move Edwards closer to our time are that he was Aaron Burr's grandfather and his death from a smallpox inoculation--an eminently modern medical innovation.] So the two men are joined temporally--but the interesting thing is to see how they differ and even more how their reputations differ. Franklin, we are always reminded was one of the leading scientists of his day, admired, even revered, in Europe. He lived in France and England for extended periods, where, though a sybarite, he played upon European sympathies by adopting the role of a rustic in homespun. His Autobiography is still popular and always in print. No portrait of the political drama of the Founding is complete unless he's on stage, at the heart of events in his country and beyond, a kind of jovial, secular, wise man--good-natured and reasonable as he midwifes the birth of the nation.
Edmund Morgan's recent biography calls into question much of this portrait of the secular liberal rationalist, but it is certainly the wide perception of the man. Regardless though of whether it is image or reality in Franklin's case, the reality of Edwards stacks up well. Where Franklin adopted the pose of a simple man, Edwards was a genuine ascetic. Edwards too was scientifically minded and well read in the European literature of his day. He too was well-regarded abroad--though he never traveled to Europe. In fact, he was well-regarded by Franklin who published some of his works. Edwards' Life of David Brainerd--about a young missionary who was befriended by the Edwards' family, and loved by his daughter, but died young--was every bit as influential as Franklin's book and a best-seller well into the 19th century. (Mr. Marsden says the book--which I confess not having read--is semi-autobiographical as relates to matters of religious faith.) Edwards, far from being an aberration in his own time, was very much involved in the debates and political tussles of his colony and of his religion. And, as we've seen, though he didn't live long enough to witness the Founding of the new Republic, it was nonetheless very much animated by his worldview.
Grant the accepted wisdom that Franklin was the embodiment of secular rationalism and that Edwards was the last great defender of faith against Reason, and it may be appropriate to say that over the long haul it is Edwards, not Franklin, who has emerged the more definitively American of the two. It is long past time, at any rate, that Edwards voice and vote, which had nearly been expunged from the American tradition, was restored to our democracy of the dead and this restoration Mr. Marsden has achieved brilliantly. This is a book that must be read--a great American biography--a feat, almost, of resurrection.
-PERSONAL SITE: George Marsden (Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame)
-George Marsden: Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History (Notre Dame)
-BOOK SITE: Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M. Marsden (Yale University Press)
-EXCERPT: First Chapter of Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M. Marsden
-ESSAY: Jonathan Edwards, American Augustine: To appreciate Edwards, Christians need to go beyond seeing him as an enigmatic genius, the white whale of American Studies. (George Marsden, Nov/Dec 1999, Books & Culture)
-ESSAY: Liberating Academic Freedom (George M. Marsden, December 1998, First Things)
-ESSAY: The Way We Were (and Are) (George M. Marsden, December 8, 1997, Christianity Today)
-ESSAY: The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (George Marsden, Leadership U)
-ESSAY: God and Man at Yale (1880) (George M. Marsden, April 1994, First Things)
-ESSAY: The Rise and Decline of the Modern Liberal Arts Ideal in the U.S.A. (George Marsden, Institute for Liberal Arts)
-ESSAY: Irony of Ironies: Evaluating the Moderns (George Marsden, April 15, 1987, Christian Century)
-LECTURE: Christianity and Cultures: Transforming Niebuhr's Categories (George Marsden, delivered February 2, l999, at the Austin Theological Seminary, Austin, Tx. Marsden's address commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture lectures, given at Austin Seminary January 31-February 4, l949. The address appeared in Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary, Fall, l999)
-INTERVIEW: On His Own Terms: Edwards has much to say to us today, if we can get past his peculiar accent.: A conversation with George Marsden (Christian History, Winter 2003)
-INTERVIEW: "A truly multicultural society": An e-mail exchange with the historian George Marsden (Wen Stephenson, October 2000, The Atlantic)
-INTERVIEW: Christian History Today: Combining Christian convictions and scholarly conventions, two historians create very different blends.: Conversation with George Marsden and John Woodbridge. (Christian History, Fall 2001)
-INTERVIEW: Spurring on Secularism: The leading historian of fundamentalism assesses the damages inflicted by the fundamentalist-modernist controversy: An interview with George Marsden (Christian History, Summer 1997)
-ESSAY: Taking A Shot At Redemption: A Lutheran considers the Calvin College school of historiography (Douglas A. Sweeney, May/June 1998, Books & Culture)
-ESSAY: Whatever Happened to Christian History?: Evangelical historians have finally earned the respect of the secular academy. A few critics say they've lost their Christian vision. Hardly. (Tim Stafford, 3/23/00, Christianity Today)
-ESSAY: The Opening of the Evangelical Mind: Of all America's religious traditions, the author writes, evangelical Protestantism, at least in the twentieth-century conservative forms, has long ranked "dead last in intellectual stature." Now evangelical thinkers are trying to revitalize their tradition. Can they turn an intellectual backwater into an intellectual beacon? (Alan Wolfe, October 2000, The Atlantic)
-ARCHIVES: marsden (Christianity Today)
-ARCHIVES: "George Marsden" (MagPortal)
-ARCHIVES: George Marsden (Find Articles)
-REVIEW: of Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M. Marsden (Garry Wills, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Robert D. Richardson, Washington Post)
-REVIEW: of Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Edward T. Oakes, Commonweal)
-REVIEW: of Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Thomas D'Evelyn, CS Monitor)
-REVIEW: of Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Elisa New, The New Republic)
-REVIEW: of Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M. Marsden (Edward T. Oakes, Commonweal)
Present at the Creation: Jonathan Edwards, the first American (Gerald McDermott, 10/20/2003, Weekly Standard)
-REVIEW:of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship By George M. Marsden (J.P. Parland, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW:of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Emily Griesinger, Books & Culture)
-REVIEW:of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Michael J. Baxter, First Things)
-REVIEW: of The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-belief. By George Marsden (Phillip E. Johnson, First Things)
-REVIEW: of The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief By George M. Marsden (Robert L. Johnson, Theology Today)
-REVIEW: of Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism By George M. Marsden (James W. Lewis, Theology Today)
Book-related and General Links:
-Jonathan Edwards.Com: World's Largest Jonathan Edwards Site
-Jonathan Edwards on the Web (Hillsdale College, Department of Philosophy and Religion)
-ETEXTS: Christian Classics Ethereal Library: Jonathan Edwards
-ETEXT: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (Enfield, Connecticut, July 8, 1741)
-ETEXT: On the Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards
-BIBLIOGRAPHY: An Index to the Published Writings of Jonathan Edwards (Hillsdale College, Department of Philosophy and Religion)
-ETEXT: Jonathan Edwards: On the Great Awakening, December 12, 1743
-CONFERENCE: Jonathan Edwards' God-Entranced Vision of All Things (October 10-12, Minneapolis, MN, Minneapolis Convention Center)
-Jonathan Edwards (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
-PAL: Chapter 2: Early American Literature: 1700-1800 - Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) (Paul P. Reuben, Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide)
-The SAC LitWeb Jonathan Edwards Page
-Jonathan Edwards (Wikipedia)
-Yale Divinity School: The Works of Jonathan Edwards
-CONFERENCE: Jonathan Edwards' God-Entranced Vision of All Things
-ESSAY: The Anachronism of Jonathan Edwards (H. Richard Niebuhr, May 1, 1996, The Christian Century)
-ESSAY: In the name of love: There was much more to America's greatest preacher than fire and brimstone (Benjamin Anastas, 8/3/2003, Boston Globe)
-ESSAY: Critique of Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will (James D. Strauss, November 1976)
-ESSAY: Jonathan Edwards (Island of Freedom)
-ESSAY:Jonathan Edwards (Victor Shepherd)
-ESSAY: Lessons Learned from the Early American Christians (David Horner, Providence Baptist Church)
-ESSAY: Jonathan Edwards: Enlightened Puritan Admixture of Old and New Ideas (Peter Dassow, Hillsdale College)
-ESSAY: Jonathan Edwards on Nature (Shannon Green, Hillsdale College)
-ESSAY: Jonathan Edwards: Reformed Apologist (Scott Oliphint)
-ESSAY: Jonathan Edwards' sublime book of nature. (Gordon Miller, July 1996, History Today)
-ARCHIVES: "jonathan edwards" (Christianity Today)
-ARCHIVES: George Marsden (Find Articles)
-REVIEW: of One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards. By Gerald R. McDermott (Mark Noll, First Things)
-REVIEW: In Jonathan Edwards' Shadow: Rescuing Nathaniel Taylor (Bruce Kuklick, Books & Culture)
-REVIEW: of Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Walker Howe (Ingrid A. Merikoski, Religion & Liberty)
-REVIEW: of Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy by Leon Chai (Gerald R. Mcdermott, CrossCurrents)
-REVIEW: of The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards. By Amy Plantinga Pauw (Mark A. Noll, Christian Century)
-REVIEW ESSAY: The Great Reckoning: Perry Miller’s Jonathan Edwards and Philip F. Gura’s Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical (Leigh E. Schmidt, Summer 2005, Book Forum)
-REVIEW: of Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical by Philip F. Gura (Allen C. Guelzo, Books & Culture)
-REVIEW: of Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical by Philip F. Gura (Thomas Meaney, Policy Review)
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