Why should we still read Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century “God-intoxicated theologian”? Three leading scholars on Edwards’ life and thought discuss the importance of Edwards’ thinking for the contemporary church, especially for theologically and philosophically formed pastors and church leaders.
Kyle: Oliver, you’re a constructive theologian. You do quite a lot of philosophical theology. You’re one of the leading authors in terms of analytic theology. What lead you to Edwards? What was your interest? What did you see in him?
Oliver Crisp on Why He Studies Jonathan Edwards
Oliver: I think my interest in Edwards predates my interest in philosophy and therefore in analytic theology by some time. Actually, I’d started readying Edwards when I went up to university as an undergraduate and was captivated by his vision of the world, I think.
His way of thinking theologically about everything, his being, as often has been said, a God intoxicated theist and I’m seeing the world through this theological lens.
The Edwards part comes first, really, and quite a lot earlier. Then I couldn’t shake Edwards off. The further I went in my studies, the more I kept coming back to Edwards. I think probably, to some extent, working with Edwards led me to the more philosophical side of theology.
I found myself moving from thinking theologically about a number of the sorts of topics that Edwards does to wondering about what underpins them philosophically and that led me to think, “Oh, maybe I should read some philosophy, as well.” and that’s a short version of a very long journey that ultimately ended up with me working in the kind of interface between philosophy and theology, which is the place where analytic theology started out, I suppose.
It’s been an interesting journey. It’s certainly true that Edwards was very much part of that. It wasn’t incidental to that and engaging with someone like Edwards who’s kind of an analytic theologian before analytic theology in some ways. I mean, he’s very analytical in the way he approaches theological topics, as you know, very careful in parsing out distinctions and making clear things that he wants to say.
He doesn’t seem to waste any words in the way in which he puts things together. Also the sorts of topics he’s interested in are right at this kind of intersection between philosophy and theology, trying to figure out, “Why would God create the world? What’s God’s nature like? What does it mean to say that God is trying you, so and so forth.” He’s been an interesting interlocutor for me, for some of those reasons, I think.
George, you’ve engaged with Edwards from a slightly different perspective, from a more historical perspective, and spent what, five or six years writing a massive biography of Edwards that’s now the sort of standard, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and then later went back and wrote a second, shorter “Life” that’s entirely distinct from the first one on Edwards, with much more t o do with, you know, Ben Franklin and other things.
What led you, as an historian, to think it would be a good idea to spend that much time with this particularly modern thinker?
George Marsden on Why He Studies Jonathan Edwards
George: I discovered Edwards when I was in graduate school. I had a very strong Reformed upbringing as an Orthodox Presbyterian, and after college I went to Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia for a year to find out more about the theological tradition that I was part of, sort of work out some issues I had about the faith. Edwards was not really on the radar among many reform people at that time.
Edwards came up in the history course, but not in the theology courses. Then at graduate school, I discovered Edwards, and what attracted me was this is a wonderful vision of the dynamics of Reformed theology.
Particularly, I have a very clear sense of picking up the idea of beauty as the center of how God is communicating, and responding to us, and drawing us into an idea of beauty and love as the center of reality, that that’s radiating out from God. That’s a dynamic vision of what can be a rather theoretical kind of idea of the sovereignty of God as an abstraction.
This is the idea of God as acting, and the response has to be an effective kind of response. Personally, I learned from Edwards. I would teach about Edwards a little bit, not as a course, but in passing, at least, that it was on my radar.
Then the opportunity came to write a big biography of Edwards for Yale Press on the 300th anniversary of his birth. That was a wonderful opportunity. I jumped at the chance. I had already committed to Eerdmans to write a shorter biography of Edwards. I wrote the big one with the understanding that we’d then go back and write the other one.
It was a wonderful opportunity for me. I was glad to spend what turned out to be maybe 10 years on the two books. That was a really edifying project for me. Kyle, I guess you’re…
Oliver: You’re up next, Kyle. Your work on Edwards is the forefront of what I think of as the new constructive work that has been done on Edwards. George has already mentioned this, that Edwards is often, until relatively recently, been seen as a figure in the history books that people might want to be interested in if they’re interested in the historical dimension.
There’s now this turn to bringing Edwards back into the theological conversation as a dialogue partner. Your work is very much a part of that. What drew you to Edwards?
Kyle Strobel on Why He Studies Jonathan Edwards
Kyle: My journey is almost the opposite of yours, in one real sense, is that I had a real interest in Reformed theology. I went to Aberdeen to do a systematic theological piece. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted my PhD in systematics. I was searching for someone to do it on. I didn’t go there to do Edwards.
It was, interestingly enough, my supervisor, who’s a Bonhoeffer scholar, said, “Have you thought about Edwards?” My response was, “No.” [laughs] “Why are you suggesting him?” It was interesting that he thought of Edwards.
He said, “Kyle, I know you have this particular interest in how theology and spirituality are one thing, not two. It’s almost how Edwards led you into this recognition that there’s this real, profound, analytic way that theology can be done.”
I came in with an instinct that theology should always be spiritual, that spirituality should always be deeply theological, and that we used to know that and we have now forgotten it. I got into Edwards that way.
My own work…When I, probably, first landed on Edwards, my thought was maybe I’ll do something on sanctification, or something a little closer to what I, eventually, later did on Edwards’ spiritual practices, maybe something like that. As I read around, one of the things that struck me is, there was a real gap in the literature, at that point.
As I looked around, I recognized, if I’m going to talk about sanctification, Edwards, or something like it, I’ve got to rest on the work of someone else.
I’ve got to rest on someone who’s talked about his theological method, that’s talked about the doctrine of God, that’s given a really cohesive vision of what is it look like to have this overview of Edwards’ understanding of cosmology, and creation, and all these kinds of things that order and help us locate his doctrine of sanctification.
At least at that point, a lot has changed since then, but, at that point, I was looking around, and I didn’t see a distinctively Reformed read of Edwards and a distinctively…There was a handful, Steve Holmes’s work, was a very key book for me at a time where Holmes recognized that Edwards is a Reformed theologian.
He’s functioning like one of the high orthodox theologians of the reform period, but he’s doing it uniquely. He’s got a different philosophical context. He’s a little more creative. Some of George’s comments, he’s bringing beauty in as a foundational concept.
These things not only awoke me to how there’s a lot here I’m really interested. I think even as a systematic theologian looking at our own context and while a lot of what Edwards was grabbing on to and doing so well, it’s precisely what moment we’re at again in history where we’re longing for theology that’s richly spiritual, that is profoundly analytic at points, is integrated with aesthetics in a real way, recognizes the churchly task of theology.
All of these are very forefront questions right now in theology. I recognize very quickly that, “Wow, Edwards, he’s done this.” For me, he really became a model of what might it look like to be a systematic theologian in a very traditional sense that allows me to—I’m a bit of generalist—play around in his philosophy and his spirituality and these other areas.
Even now, this is one of the reasons I keep reading Edwards.
Obstacles to Reading Jonathan Edwards for Contemporary Christianity
George: What do you see is the obstacles, if people are interested in getting into Edwards…you’ve done a good bit of writing for general audience.
What do you see is the main obstacle thing for people to really get into Edwards and find what we’ve all found that here is someone who is so rich that he could really spend years studying him and still think, “Whoa, this alive.” or you can go back to and say if we want to really understand topic X, go to Edwards.
Kyle: [laughs] As we know, he’s not the easiest guy to read. [laughs] There’s times when he is just difficult. You really feel yourself having to rush through. What is he saying?
George: When people ask me…the only thing I say read the “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” That’s accessible and short. Some of the parts of charity in its fruits are very easy, but then Edwards can be so exhaustive in the way he does things. You have to read in a different tempo, because sometimes he takes a really long time to say something, but he’ll say it very precisely once he does it.
Jonathan Edwards for American Evangelicals (Especially Pastors)
Kyle: I wonder, George, with your work, I particularly think your shorter work, would you compare Edwards to Ben Franklin? I found that to be so helpful because I feel as an American we just have Franklin in our consciousness in a way we don’t have Edwards, yet that wasn’t always the case.
I think that there’s this Edwardian inclination to the American experience, particularly the Evangelical experience that if people knew would actually help them seek out who is this figure that’s been influencing…
George: I thought that people to realize that Edwards and Franklin are very close contemporaries, both brought up in New England with very strongly formed backgrounds, and it’s part of the American story for religious groups in America that some people go in the secular direction and other people amplify their religious heritage.
That’s a constant contrast. Franklin is the archetypical American trust yourself the kind of thing that Emerson picks up later whereas Edwards is saying exactly the opposite. When he talks about humility, for instance, trust God and don’t trust yourself too much, or you trust yourself only to the extent that you’ve trusted God.
That fits very much with the American tradition, but it puts religion rather of God at the center of things.
Kyle: One of the things that’s really struck me about Edwards, particularly just in light of our own context, is that point. With my seminary students even, I see a degree of just exhaustion about how much that they expect of themselves to achieve in their lives that I’ve got to create a self in my own power to fly the life.
They grew up with parents that lied to them by telling them, “You can do anything you set your mind to,” which of course we know is false. Most things we can’t do that we set our minds to, and yet they think, “No, I can do this.” They’ve got all these tools and technology that they can wield to try and create a self that’s powerful in this world.
For Edwards, I think he seemed to meditate on what Paul says in Colossians 3 that your life is hidden with Christ and God. That if you actually discover yourself there and if you allow God to define the truth of yourself, that this actually leads to freedom. We intuit it, as moderns, as a kind of binding as if this will take away freedom.
I think for Edwards, it’s functioning in the very opposite direction that love and receiving this kind of love and recognizing my life in God as an act of love is actually what allows you to be fully human in a profound sense.
George: This is what you’re meant to be and to see, that the universe is essentially relational. One thing Edwards is very strong on is that there’s a person at the center of reality and that the most important questions are personal relations, what your relationship to that person and then to the other persons in reality.
That’s the way we ought to be understanding ourselves, but we’re in a culture that encourages independence from community, and other persons, and thinking of yourself first, thinking of yourself as a very important person. I read something I think in David Brooks who said that, “Today, 80 percent of young people say, ‘I’m a very important person’ where back in the 1950s it was something like 10 percent.”
Our culture just encourages that, what you talked about. You can do anything you want. Edwards is very good at saying things are essentially relational. It’s giving up yourself, but it’s also more essentially fulfilling of your potentiality.
Oliver: He reorients us in a sense. He makes us see reality in a slight different way by turning on its axis, perhaps, from the way that we tend to view things as moderns to bring a spectrum of much more God‑centered and God‑infused way of contemplating the next reality itself.
George: Right, that if you see God at the center of reality then you see you’ll see you’re on the periphery along with everybody else. That’s a much more healthy relationship to others, and it’s the essence or the basis for true charity toward other people, you see their interests as just as important as yours.
Oliver: That is a really important aspect of Edwards’ appeal for me. Precisely, what you’re getting at there, George, that he reconnects us to themes that today we seem to have lost or subverted in various ways. Also—like many great thinkers—Edwards has an appeal precisely because he has this grand vision that speaks into a number of different contexts.
It speaks into the church, it speaks into the way we conceive of the church, the way we conceive ourselves in relation to others, as you’ve just been saying. He speaks to some intellectual communities, the theological community, the philosophical community, and the historical community, and others besides literature and semiotics and goodness knows what else.
Also, he has this unusual position—it seems to me—for a theologian. A lot of theologians, these days, they tend to pursue their ivory tower, academic theology, have their chin up their books, and they teach intellectuals, but the connection that their work has with the church is very indirect.
There’s a trickle‑down effect by means of their students, but it’s very indirect. Someone like Karl Barth, for example, great theologian but the actual effect of his “Church Dogmatics” is a trickle‑down effect. It seems to me in many respects.
Whereas, Edwards is unusual in that he’s a churchman all his life, and also he’s one of the leaders of the Great Awakening. He is intimately involved with the life of the church. He’s not one step removed sitting in his…He is in his study a lot, right?
There’s a way in which his theology isn’t merely a theology of the head, but a theology of the heart. He’s really interested in these sorts of things. One of the things that I really appreciated about your big biography, when I read it, was that it really got at that. It managed to make that world—that’s removed from us now—come alive.
There’s something about that, with respect to Edwards, that he speaks beyond our time and place into different cultures and contexts, as a consequence of the different aspects of his thought that seem to resonate.
George: It speaks to the need for the educated pastor who, well, the Tim Keller sort of person who was a great Edwards fan, but is a communicator and knows how to translate that. That’s a model that one would hope we’d get back to. Edwards lived in a time when it was typical that the pastor would be the best educated person in the community.
That remained the case in some communities for a long time, but that has become rarely the case. It’s a model to think about and you’re both involved in theological education for the pastor or even for the person who might think, “Oh, I want to go into academia.” Maybe you need to go take your talents into the pastoral ministry, too.
Jonathan Edwards Lasting Theological Importance
Kyle: Oliver, I wonder with some of your interests, in light of what you said about Edwards as a churchly theologian. We’re good friends, so I keep up on your work quite a lot, obviously, and we work together. I never told you this but I have wondered, is this the last Edwards’ piece? Like if you… [laughter]
Kyle: and you always surprise me by something you didn’t tell me that comes out and I’m like, “When did this come up?” Why do you keep on doing Edwards?
Oliver: That’s a good question. I keep asking myself that. I never intended to keep doing Edwards. When I started out, I did my doctoral dissertation on Edwards, but then immediately turned to other things. Partly because I wanted to have a broader portfolio of things that I was…It just turns out I was interested in other things as well.
[laughs] I’ve circled back to Edwards over the years. Each time I tried to get away from Edwards, he draws me back in. There’s a gravitational pull there. That ties into the stuff we’ve just been talking about, in a way. What keeps me coming back to Edwards is precisely that he is a multifaceted thinker.
He’s like an Augustine, or he’s like a Barth, or he’s like a Calvin. He has this view, the whole of reality. He has this complete vision. That’s very attractive, and it’s very compelling. The vision that he has, as we’ve already been saying, he’s got these different aspects.
There’s the aesthetic aspect about the beauty of God, and God’s beauty reflected in the created order, and how we’re called to be a community that participates in the life of God, and is made beautiful through being united to Christ with the power of the Spirit.
All of this sort of language, he’s taking very traditional theological concepts, and reconceiving them in various ways, and putting together in a slightly different combination, that makes it really fascinating to encounter and deal with Edwards. For me, Edwards is one of those thinkers. Often theologians, they school themselves with respect to a particular thinker.
They’ll have a period where they apprentice themselves to the work of a great thinker of the past, whoever that is. It might be Schleiermacher, it might be Barth, it might be Calvin, it might be Luther, it might be Thomas Aquinas, or Anselm of Canterbury. Whoever it is, someone whose work you get to know, and helps you to sharpen your own thinking.
For me, Edwards has been very much that person that he has helped me to…I don’t always end up agreeing with Edwards. Some of his views are crazy, but what he helps me to see is where the issues lie, where he might have gone wrong that will help me take a slightly different route, those things. So I think he’s kind of fascinating. He’s irritating and fascinating.
George: [laughs] Yeah, you can take the attitude. You can learn from him even though there’s going to be some things where you just disagree with him. You always have a sense that you’re encountering someone out of the ordinary, both in brilliance of intellect and intensity of spirituality. Put those two things together, and as you say.
A practical person who’s a pastor for a big congregation oversees a spectacular revival in the congregation, part of the great awakening, and in correspondence with people in the English‑speaking world about all things. Doing all this at once, even now there’s some things you might think he goes too far on. Nonetheless, almost any topic, you can count on learning something.
Kyle: That actually, the part of Edwards that I think I’ve come to love the most over the years. I never thought I was going to keep on publishing on Edwards. I thought well, “When he stops teaching me, I’ll just lay him down.” I can’t lay him down because every time I want to think about something I find that he has such a profound way of engaging it.
It’s even when I come to a point where I’m like, “I just can’t follow you here”, that he’s always so instructive. I learn so much, even in his mistakes. It’s a real sign of a great theologian that, no matter what the issue is, no matter if you agree with them or not, they’re helping you think theologically about it.
They’re unveiling, there’s a logic to this that we must follow.
So, Oliver and I just finished a book on Edwards, introducing his thought as a whole. In the last chapter, I really wanted to give a reflection on what it might have looked like to be Edwardsian today. That meant coming face to face with some of these things that I just can’t follow in here.
Most of it, some of us what we now think of as very radical philosophy that got us recreating the world every moment, that there’s no such thing as matter, but everything is ideal. There’s philosophers that hold these things.
In my mind I’m like, “This is radical”, but as I sat with it and thought, “Well, what was Edwards against at this point in The Enlightenment? What’s going on in the world? Who are the people he’s worried about?” Over, and over, and over again, I see Edwards trying to qualify his statements.
When he says, “God does all, and we do all”, he’s doing that within a framework that is heavily deterministic, but he doesn’t want it to be reduced down to such a way that creatures don’t have any real freedom. He’s trying to carve out space in a very mechanized world that he’s been handed for creatures to live and thrive. For so long, Edwards has been painted with a very broad brush.
He’s such an easy thinker to reduce. It’s so easy to take something he said or to take some instinct he has or just read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, and just assume from there. [laughs] What I continually find is that there is such nuance, and he’s so careful.
Even in his mistakes, he’s brilliantly recognizing the tension in his own thought, and trying to constructively consider ways that, “How can I think through this issue, faithfully? That will kind of carve out the view of reality I think scripture gives us.”
Oliver: Absolutely. There’s an old saying by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer that an argument isn’t like a cab. You can’t pay it off when you’ve gone as far as you wanted to go. An argument carries on irrespective of whether you want it to go to its conclusion or not.
One of the things is so compelling about Edwards is that he had seen the conclusions that his various arguments were taking him, and the various aspects of his thought, and embraced them, even if they seemed to us today to be somewhat extreme or counterintuitive.
He’s one of these people that doesn’t want to pay the cab off. He’s willing to embrace a conclusion. In a way, that’s part of his appeal, that he’s someone who is unafraid to embrace some of the apparently strange conclusions to which his theological intuitions drive him. For someone who thinks of everything in the light of God and his glory, all that kind of stuff.
The other thing related to what you just said, Kyle, is that when I started reading Edwards and kept coming back to Edwards was it’s almost like he finds it impossible to write something boring on a theological topic.
Whatever topic you want to think about, if you go and read what Edwards has to say, somehow he has a way of recasting how we think about that topic in such a manner that the result is absolutely fascinating. Even if you think it’s crazy, it’s kind of fascinating. You want to sort of read it, and figure out what he’s got to say.
I’m sad to say that is not always the case with every theologian. So often, you’re reading theology and you think, “This is a bit of a drag.” Here’s someone who’s really careful about how he parses out things and has a unique perspective on a number of these different issues.
I wonder sometimes where the way in which he was such an original thinker, is connected to the place at which he worked and of the time at which he worked, on the frontiers of what was then Western Civilization in the 18th century.
Perhaps the context in which he was formed, actually made him into that thinker, whereas, perhaps if he’d lived in one of the centers of the early Enlightenment like Paris, or London, or Edinburgh, or somewhere like that.
Jonathan Edwards’ Theological Creativity
George: I think one of the reasons for his creativity is that he lived at the intersection of two really attractive worlds and he was brought up in a very strongly Puritan culture. His father’s a Puritan minister. He’s saturated in Reformed theology, and then he’s also totally fascinated by what we call the Enlightenment, and he reads everything he can on what’s going on and seeing those two things in contrast to each other, he has a lot of questions to ask, how do they fit?
He sees the challenge of the Enlightenment, Kyle was suggesting that he provides an alternative to the direction that modernity is going, which is enlightenment as in deism distances God from creation. People begin to get a dualist view that are religious, but then there’s a real world where things just work on sort of a mechanical basis.
That would be the Benjamin Franklin’s view, whereas Edwards is saying, “No, if you’re talking about God at all, God has to be at the center of things.”
You can’t just say, “Well, God has something to do with morality.” If God has something to do with it, God has everything to do with it. That’s a terrific insight that then he explores in great detail, and even if you don’t agree with every detail, the insight is essential.
Jonathan Edwards and the Pastoral Vocation
Kyle: It reminds me when, Oliver, you used on earlier this very point of Edwards’ pastoral vocation in the midst, I think, some of us. I’ve done this at times, I wished, man, why didn’t he go to the academy sooner. Why couldn’t he have written his systematic theology?
We forget that, actually, his greatness is tied to the work he did. It’s like Edwards, why is he giving himself to religious affections? [laughs] Why is he editing Brainerd’s diary? Edwards is, in a sense, forcing himself to be very present to a certain time and place.
Thinking as theologians, it’s very easy for us not to be. We can float above, we can just stay removed from the actual present moment, and simply talk doctrine or talk philosophical theological ideas. While Edwards is doing that, he’s always re‑grounding it. It’s such a profound feature of his legacy.
George: Willing to be a missionary to the Indians, take a family of how many children onto their very dangerous frontier that had been…He’s not just a theoretical person.
Kyle: Yeah. He certainly would have been able to go to the academy, and instead, he’s constantly giving himself to the church, to pastoral ministry, to missions, these other kind of endeavors.
There seems to be in Edwards, at least, and maybe I’m reading this into him. I sense this piece of him where he recognizes for him to do what he really wants to give himself to, the proper location of that’s the church. It’s such an essential feature of this. He gives us one of the greatest works on discerning the spirit, the tradition, that can come out of that.
Oliver: It’s interesting how Edwards bequeaths to his intellectual heirs in the 19th century and beyond, and particularly to evangelicalism as it developed over that period of time, a number of key works that are then seeds from which you see further fruits going in different directions down the line.
The religious affections and his work on the revivals is one such that the Brainerd diary and its effect on the missionary movement in the 19th century, and this whole trajectory kind of Protestant hagiography is another one.
You might think of his work, his doctrinal work on original sin or his philosophical work on freedom of the will. These are still theological issues with which we have to wrestle today. Although he’s not the only thing get you thought about those things, of course.
Nevertheless, within evangelicalism, there’s a sense in which those works by Edwards are a high water mark to which people come back time and time again as they re‑engage in each generation.
What does it mean for us to live out our lives in the presence of God? In what sense are we free? How does original sin affect how we live today? How can I experience God?
All these sorts of things are in many ways are traceable to some of his key works. They’re the fruit precisely, as you’re saying, they’re the fruit of someone who is engaged with the church on a daily basis, who’s spending most of his time writing sermons and dealing with pastoral problems, and stuff like that, and yet somehow finds time to work on these great things as well. It’s a kind of amazing…
Contemplative Spirituality in Jonathan Edwards
George: Also, as Kyle has written about, he adds to all these contemplative practices and just it’s going out, and contemplating, and being enthralled by a sense of God’s presence.
There’s something very attractive of that, that if you’re there in the midst of nature, and you’re seeing the beauty of nature, and you see that as God communicating, then it’s not just you’re seeing something that happens to be beautiful, but this is beauty that has a larger dimension to it, or personal dimension to it.
It’s another angle of his many sidedness that there is almost everything he’s involved in. There’s a recent book on his emphasis on charity, and he practiced secret charity, and he’s promoting. He’s not just talking about big works, but he’s actually trying to get people to do it, so many dimensions.
Kyle: It’s the balance of all those things that’s so incredible to me, at least, where he’s so intellectually brilliant. He’s so philosophically brilliant. You could just imagine a person who can get so lost in the ideas of the thing, and yet for Edwards, God is just so present.
He really is living in a world that is just saturated with divine realities, and that contemplative bent of Edwards that he doesn’t just stay in his study, but he goes and he ventures into the woods. You get a sense of Edwards where he longs to just be out in nature, where he can bathe in God’s presence.
Oliver: Hear God speaking, that heavens declare the glory. This is not a theoretical thing for him.
Kyle: I think a very few…Augustine’s the obvious one that comes to mind of a figure who’s able to have that creative genius that’s wrapped up in someone who’s so able to recognize God’s in the presence to them, there in a real sense.
Oliver: I know in their recent massive turn when had Edwards’s theology, Mike Kleinman, and Jerry McDermott made the point that Edwards may be the theologian for the 21st century, because as we’ve been saying in our conversation, he’s able to speak both to the Harvard historian and to the Pentecostal pastor in Brazil.
There just aren’t very many theologians in the Christian tradition who have that range in terms of people sitting down, and reading their work, and getting something out of it, and utilizing the work in the things that they do.
I’d be interested to talk about the way in which Edwards’ legacy is being re‑appropriated today and, as a Kleinman and McDermott say, what that might mean for us going forward, not just in terms of Edwards’ scholarship, but in terms of Edwards’ impact beyond the scholarly world and into the life of the church.
The Influence of Jonathan Edwards on the Future of Theology
Kyle: One of the most encouraging things to me about Edwards’ studies, at least, is when I started out, not all that long ago, reading Edwards, you could count on one hand the amount of constructive theologians that were really presently working with Edwards’ thought.
By in large, what’s interesting about Edwards’s legacy, for all the reasons we’ve shared, is that it has been a little more at least in the last 50 years. It has been pastors who have grabbed on to Edwards. Now, we’re at a moment where people are recognizing, “Wow, in Edwards, there is a real brilliance”. There is something that we can really grab onto to think constructively about doctrine.
Right now, there’s two different trajectories. One trajectory wants to read Edwards almost as ecumenical. There’s something right about that instinct, but the instinct is actually wrong in terms of how it gets played out.
Edwards is ecumenical because he’s great, and because he’s a great Reformed theologian, and reform thought has always been catholic in its universal thought. It’s in his creative genius from within a very specific tradition, not that he’s somehow traditionless.
There’s this one way of reading Edwards that he had no intellectual father, and so he’s not actually Reformed, he’s kind of this hybrid thing.
That’s a very wrong-headed way to read Edwards. Edwards is so richly Reformed, and yet creative that he really does allow us to never simply just take the tradition because of the tradition said it, but to take the instincts of the tradition, and to really think well about those.
One of the things that struck me is the Westminster Confession, when it’s talking about justification. Says that faith is the instrument by which we receive justification, and Edwards says no.
He signed Westminster, he signed on, yet he says, there’s a mistake here that’s a very problematic. It’s very tiny, it might even appear semantic, but for Edwards, it wasn’t. He said, “Faith is the instrument by which we receive Christ,” and Edwards recognized that by making justification, the telos of faith that justification was the center now of all of our salvation.
Edwards said, “No. Christ is the center,” and it’s that receiving the tradition, living within it, but then really thinking through, how do we take this on and what does it mean to be faithful theologically to this, that allows his creative genius to come alive.
We need to do that work to really sit. In my own work, as you both know, is a lot of where this has led me to Edwards view of theosis, so immediately, we tend to think, “Well, maybe this is Eastern Orthodox”. It’s what is a Reformed doctrine of theosis look like?
That’s our starting point, and then we begin to think, because of the sheer greatness of his thought, how might this allow us to have conversations across these bounds to say, “Wow no one has noticed that the reform has a really robust doctrine of theosis. Maybe we should talk about that”? [laughs]
There is a way to go about bringing Edwards into constructive theology that we have to take seriously that he is a richly Reformed theologian, without losing how creative and brilliant his thought really was.
Oliver: Yeah, absolutely. George, you’ve written a lot about evangelicalism and its development, particularly in the 19th and 20th century. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about the way in which you think Edwards might be a catalyst for changes in evangelical thought going forward.
Did you think he might be a useful interlocutor for evangelical theologians as they try to, as it were, pass on the faith that has been passed on to them in the 21st centuries? Are there ways in which what he says connects deeply with things that are happening in the evangelicalism today and that sort of thing?
George: Yes. It’s encouraging that there’s been such a revival interest in Edwards. It’s related to him being such an evangelical that by any standard, he passes as a genuine evangelical, but evangelicals have the reputation, not wholly undeserved for being anti‑intellectual, and has such a robust theology and even though he’s sometimes a polemicist, he’s…
Kyle: That’s generous. [laughs]
George: There are a lot of at least positive directions that you can take that for enriching various evangelical traditions. Someone said Pentecostal or Reformed that that is not a sectarian kind of thing.
That’s related to the fact that it’s Reformed but it’s Augustinians, and that means it intersects with just about every tradition. There’s some catholic theologians who found things in Edwards to benefit from.
That’s true for each evangelical to find a fresh dynamic there that may have been, I think, one of the things that happened in the 20th century obviously was in the zeal to fight against the modernist theologies that evangelicalism often became rather formulaic and Edwards is a good way of broadening out, one of the ways to broadening out from that.
Kyle: Oliver, I wonder, I’d be curious going to hear similar question for you, but specifically, you’re one of the leading writers in analytic theology. You’re certainly one of the leading on Edwards’ philosophy, which is of course a very hard nest to pull apart.
How is Edwards a model of this? What do you really, even just to teach these folks, even in your own work, how do you see this constructively moving forward?
Oliver: This connects where I really point about Edwards as a theologian, not just a theologian of the church, but a churchman who’s also a theologian, or something like that, a pastor theologian in a very rich sense.
Increasing my concern is to ensure that we have joined up theology, theology that joins up to the life of the church, and that makes a contribution to the life of the church, and that can affect the way we do church in practical ways.
Edwards is a real model for doing that. Not only just his approach to theology is something that is conducive and other analytic theologians have found conducive. It’s not just his careful parsing, and logical bent of mind.
It’s the way in which the deep themes that inform his thought of fundamentally ecclesiastical in nature. He’s wanting to make sure that the church is made fruitful in order that it can carry out the work that it’s been given. He looks to see that the church being formed into the image of Christ, so that it can become his bride in the eschaton and all those sorts of things.
Edwards is a fruitful dialogue partner for a range of different theologians coming to this task, and analyst theologians can certainly benefit. From looking to Edwards as someone whose work is going forward is deeply engaged with the life and the fruitfulness of the church.