The following is excerpted from a review by Samuel T. Logan, Jr., forthcoming in the Westminster Theological Journal (Vol. 65, No. 2). Dr. Logan is president and professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary. To read the rest of this review, subscribe to the Journal.
Jonathan Edwards: A Life
George M. Marsden
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Pp. xx + 615. $35.00, cloth.
There is no question that Marsden’s biography is the best book ever written about America’s (and perhaps the world’s) greatest theologian.
Surely this is an exaggeration. Can such a claim ever be convincingly substantiated? Perhaps not, but the present review will make an attempt to do so.
First of all, there is the matter of the importance of the theological contribution of Jonathan Edwards. On what ground might one argue that he was America’s (and perhaps the world’s) greatest theologian? Other than the fact that 2003 is the 300th anniversary of Edwards’s birth, what can explain the overwhelming amount of recent scholarly production and interest in him? Is there any warrant for Marsden’s assertion that “Edwards was extraordinary,” that “he was the most acute early American philosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians” (p. 1), that he was “America’s greatest theologian” and “colonial America’s most powerful thinker” (p. 369)? Is there any ground for Garry Willis to argue, in his review of Marsden’s volume in The New York Times, that Edwards was “the most important figure in American religious history”? Is there an adequate explanation for Paul Ramsey’s extraordinary remark, in his “Introduction” to the Yale edition of Freedom of the Will, that Edwards was “the greatest philosopher-theologian yet to grace the American scene” (p. 591)? Was there sufficient justification for Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s (possibly hyperbolic?) affirmation that Edwards is the “Mount Everest” of theologians? What exactly did Edwards do or write or say that could possibly justify such claims?
The answer is to be found in the 615 pages of Marsden’s work. There he concentrates much of his scholarly energy on demonstrating exactly how and why Edwards’s contribution was such a massive and crucial one. In one sense, the answer to our question is long and complex, requiring the kind of meticulous and exhaustive scholarship which Marsden displays throughout his work. But a briefer answer can be suggested as the “appetizer” for the full meal that Marsden provides.
The first part of such an answer relates to the cultural and ecclesiastical setting within which Edwards lived and worked. Christopher Hill has argued that the 1640s constituted the most crucial decade in British history. The same could be said of the 1740s in American history. As the 1640s set the intellectual terms of the Restoration establishment in England and shaped the future of both church and state there, so the ideas and alliances of the 1740s shaped Revolutionary and Constitutional America, again in both church and state. And Edwards was at the very heart of the most crucial debates of the 1740s. He was at their heart both as a pastor and as a theologian. He saw and responded to the big issues on a national (and sometimes international scale), and he did so in a way which brought those issues directly home to the lives of the people whom he served as pastor. He provided biblical critiques of the values which were coming to define America (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) and called both his people and all future Americans to the deepest possible understanding of far older values (“glorify God and enjoy Him forever”).
John Adams, second President of the United States, made the following extraordinary statement in a letter to Hezekiah Niles in 1818: “What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American War? The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people; a change in their religious sentiments . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution” (quoted by Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972], 262). Edwards wrote and ministered during this “real” American revolution and his theological insights cut right to the quick of the values which define the nation we now call America. In his brilliant analysis of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (which volume won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize for American History) Bernard Bailyn entitled his massive concluding chapter, “The Contagion of Liberty” (see The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967], 230-320). To the degree that America, to this day, understands itself as “the land of the free” and to the degree that the highest of all American values and virtues (including some spiritual values and virtues) are defined in terms of freedom and liberty, to that very degree is Edwards’s Freedom of the Will, the most fundamental analysis of American culture (see Marsden’s ch. 26). And to the degree that America seeks to export its values to the nations of the earth, to that very degree is Edwards’s The Nature of True Virtue, the most significant biblical critique of current global political and social issues (see Marsden’s ch. 28).
But the 1740s were crucial for more than just political and social reasons. The upheavals which occurred during and in the immediate aftermath of the Great Awakening reshaped the American church and American spirituality in profound ways. The nature of church and ministerial authority was radically changed by the sharp disagreements and church schisms which occurred in the context of the Awakening (see Marsden’s ch. 17). What we today take for granted in American ecclesiastical structures was essentially created during the Awakening, and Edwards himself was one of those doing the creating.
Even more significantly, the Awakening caused clergy and lay Christians alike to think again about “what makes a person a Christian.” The New England Puritan establishment, building in large measure on English Puritan experiences in the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries, had done extraordinary work in seeking to define what it meant to be a “visible saint.” But this work was all done within a fairly homogenous culture. American culture, as noted above, was radically changing as the fourth decade of the eighteenth century dawned and it was in this context of change that “all Heaven broke loose” in the Great Awakening. Old categories simply did not fit the new realities, and Edwards was the most prolific and the most thoughtful of the many who sought to address the specific spiritual issues raised by the Awakening. What is genuinely gracious Christian experience and what is “counterfeit”? It is a fascinating and crucial question at all times, but when two or three times the total population of the country’s largest city attends a single “Awakening” worship service, the stakes are raised considerably, and it was just then that Edwards played his most important role.
The first part of the answer to our original question about Edwards’s importance resides, then, in when he lived and worked. It was a church- and nation-shaping time, and he spoke to the burning issues of his day like no one else. And that, of course, is the second part of our answer: it is not just when Edwards ministered and wrote; it is what he said and did.
Put simply, Edwards’s greatness resides in what he said about issues which continue to define the modern world. Put even more simply, Edwards’s greatness and value to the church today resides in the profundity with which he applied fundamental biblical teachings to the most important matters before Christians and non-Christians today. And most simply of all, Edwards understood and showed, like no one before or since, what it means genuinely to be theocentric and Christocentric individuals and churches.
Why actually does it matter what I believe and do? What does the Bible say is the most fundamental motive for having faith in Christ? What are the primary things that are often used to identify true faith, which, in fact, have no direct relation to true faith one way or the other? What are the characteristics that should be sought in individuals applying for membership in local churches? (And the corollary, what must be expected in a heightened way of those who would be leaders of the church?) What should be the specific goal of preaching (public counseling) and of counseling (private preaching)? These are just a few of the questions asked and answered by Edwards in many of his sermons and treatises, most especially in his Treatise on Religious Affections.
At any time, asking and answering such questions would be extraordinarily important and helpful. Asking and answering them in the context Edwards did gives to his work a unmatched significance for the “culturally sensitive minister/theologian” who would seek to interpret the unchanging word of Scripture to the changing world of the twenty-first century.
These are just a few suggestions about the reasons for the claim made above regarding Edwards’s importance as a theologian. As already suggested, Marsden’s book provides a far more detailed and powerful defense of this claim.
SAMUEL T. LOGAN, JR.
Westminster Theological Seminary