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The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards (Cambridge Companions to Religion)
The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards (Cambridge Companions to Religion)
Stephen J. Stein
Cambridge University Press, 2006
398 pp., 73.00

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Gerald R. McDermott

The Great Divider

Jonathan Edwards and American culture.

At one point toward the middle of my time in grad school, I was rummaging around for a dissertation topic. I had been planning, tentatively, to write about the intersection of religion and politics (which scholars then called "civil religion") in antebellum America. As I searched through the writings of pastors and theologians and other intellectuals during the period, I was struck by a common theme that seemed to pop up everywhere. Nearly everyone seemed to refer to "the great President Edwards" (Jonathan Edwards [1703-58] had been president of the College of New Jersey—the later Princeton), and many of the theologians insisted they were simply carrying on what President Edwards had started. Even when they weren't!

In other words, if you were a pastor or theologian back then and wanted to gain a hearing, you had to claim the mantle of Edwards to be considered legitimate. This wasn't true of every last theologian, but it was surprising to see that even those who clearly rejected important parts of Edwards' thinking, such as Charles Finney, nevertheless felt compelled to claim connections to Edwards and his theology.

So I decided that if I was to understand religion in the early Republic, I would have to go back almost a century, from the early 19th to the mid-18th, to learn what this towering icon had to say. I figured I could spend a week or two there, get control of Edwardsean basics, and then return to more interesting things in the 19th century.

Well, I went back and got stuck. Edwards' deep and penetrating mind would not let me go.

Not everyone who reads Edwards is attracted to him. But he has always provoked extreme reactions. Harriet Beecher Stowe complained that Edwards' sermons on sin and suffering were "refined poetry of torture." After staying up one night reading Edwards' treatise on the will, Mark Twain reported that "Edwards's God shines red and hideous in the glow from the fires of hell, their only right and proper adornment. By God, I was ashamed to be in such company."

Generations of Americans have drawn similar conclusions after reading his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon in their high school and college literature classes. They would be surprised to learn that Edwards was obsessed by God's beauty, not his wrath, and that, as Patrick Sherry recently argued, Edwards made beauty more central to theology than anyone else in the history of Christian thought, including Augustine and the 20th-century Swiss Catholic Hans Urs von Balthasar.

They would also be surprised to learn that Edwards is widely regarded as America's greatest philosopher before the 20th century, and arguably this continent's greatest theologian ever. One measure of his greatness is Yale University Press' critical edition of his works. Another token of his importance is the 3-volume Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, which contains far more references to Edwards than to any other single figure.

Although Edwards was revered for his piety and intellectual prowess in antebellum America, the Unitarians who gained cultural power after the Civil War dismissed him as an anachronistic symbol of the Puritanism that allegedly slowed America's advance to modernity. There were demurrals: Edwards was the hero of H. Richard Niebuhr's Kingdom of God in America (1937), and Ola Elizabeth Winslow's biography of Edwards won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. But with such exceptions noted, American intellectuals between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War II simply did not take Edwards seriously.

That changed in 1949, when Harvard historian Perry Miller published a path-breaking intellectual biography of the New England thinker, suggesting that only Edwards' unshrinking assessment of evil was capable of dispelling modernity's naïve utopianism. Since mid-century, Edwards scholarship has exploded, with the number of dissertations on his work doubling every decade. The most prestigious university presses and journals have published hundreds of books and articles on his thought and influence.

Why such a profusion of interest? One reason is certainly, as William Sparkes Morris once put it, "because genius fascinates," but it is also because of the extraordinary range and depth of Edwards' thought. For Miller, Edwards was a prophet of modernity. Miller said famously that Edwards stood so far above and ahead of his immediate culture that our own time is "barely catching up." Edwards' understanding of the human psyche was so advanced that "it would have taken him about an hour's reading in William James, and two hours in Freud, to catch up completely." Edwards scholars have concluded that his relationship to modernity was far more ambivalent, but Miller's comment shows the intrigue which Edwards has excited in many thinkers outside the bounds of the Christian churches.

Another reason for the breadth of Edwards' influence is the wide range of his work. Historians have studied his role as a pastor and the effect of his sermons and books on the Great Awakening, the American Revolution, the modern missionary movement, and the course of both American theology and philosophy. Theologians appreciate his insights into the history of salvation, the Trinity, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, original sin, typology, and spiritual discernment. Ethicists profit from his writings on true virtue and Christian morality, and his attack on Enlightenment benevolist ethics. Literary critics are fascinated by his masterly employment of imagery; students of aesthetics find beauty central to his vision of God. Historians of American philosophy call him America's premier philosopher before the great flowering of American philosophy at the turn of the 20th century. Some scholars suggest that Edwards offered the 18th century's most penetrating critique of the skeptical and moderate Enlightenments[1] and has something to teach us about how Christians should think about non-Christian religions.

Perhaps most important for serious readers of religion and theology, Edwards is widely recognized as America's greatest theologian. Nearly twenty years ago Robert Jenson, the American Lutheran theologian, published a monograph entitled America's Theologian. The nearest competitor to Edwards for that moniker, H. Richard Niebuhr, confessed he was greatly indebted to Edwards and saw himself as extending the Edwardsean vision. In the 19th century, theologians at Andover, Princeton, and Yale nearly universally claimed his mantle. But it wasn't only the theologians who were impressed: in large sections of antebellum America many homes contained just two books—the Bible and a collection of Edwards' writings.

The scholarly world has always been divided on Edwards. One of Boston's most learned pastor-scholars in the 18th century, Charles Chauncey, in his 1743 tome Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England, denounced Edwards as an "enthusiast" (in today's parlance, a religious nitwit led astray by feelings). In the last two centuries there were many intellectuals who dismissed Edwards as a Puritan reactionary preaching a monster god. According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, for example, Edwards was "the great master of logic and spiritual inhumanity" whose god "would have shed the blood of the prodigal, instead of that of the fatted calf."[2] Historian Vernon Louis Parrington complained that Edwards "followed a path that led back to the absolutist past, rather than forward to a more liberal future."[3]

But there have also been academics who find in Edwards a vision that resonates. Some have taken him as their theological tutor—their Virgil leading them by hand from infernal and purgatorial climes to a God who seems lovelier than any other they had known. Henry May, the great Berkeley historian of the American Enlightenment, confessed in 1984, "I have found Edwards deeply interesting, sometimes repellent, often attractive and moving."[4] Edwards' God was so attractive to Yale's Niebuhr that, in his words, "except for de-mythologizing his hell," he could take Edwards "pretty much straight."

But if Edwards has divided American intellectuals generally, he has morphed into at least six different personas for what has been called the "Edwards industry." Or more accurately, Edwards scholars have assembled six versions of "the true Edwards." They are not mutually exclusive, for many Edwards scholars hold to more than one of these types at the same time. But each represents a distinct Edwards—a persona that is privileged over others by different sets of scholars and their readers.

The first is Edwards the literary artist. Perry Miller said he was one of "America's five or six major artists, who happened to work with ideas instead of with poems and novels." The literary critic Philip Gura has written appreciatively of the ways Edwards "pushed language to its limits" sketching the cosmos and its God. Multiplied thousands of readers and scores of scholars over the last three centuries—even those who cannot abide his God—have marveled at Edwards' poetic use of imagery to open up reality in remarkable ways. (These 20th-century accolades for Edwards' literary skills contrast markedly with the common view in the 19th century.)

There's also Edwards the unsentimental prophet. This was another aspect of Edwards' appeal for Miller, who was at most an agnostic, the unwitting founder of what could be called the "Atheists for Edwards Society." Disgusted by the pollyannish optimism of midcentury liberalism, Miller appreciated Edwards' willingness to face radical evil without blinking. In the same vein, literary scholar Thomas H. Johnson (best known for his pioneering edition of Emily Dickinson's poems) praised Edwards' proclivity for "naked truth."

Edwards the philosopher is unknown to many Edwards-philes and even philosophers. But historian of American philosophy Bruce Kuklick has called Edwards the most important American philosopher before the Civil War. According to the distinguished Hungarian-French philosopher Miklos Vetö, Edwards' theory of knowledge is the veritable culmination of the Western philosophical tradition's attempt to comprehend the metaphysical specificity of spiritual knowledge; his understanding of the will is unprecedented before Kant in its incisive grasp of the autocratic nature of the will and its sui generis intelligibility; and in his rethinking of dogma through philosophical argumentation, Edwards is comparable to Augustine and Aquinas.[5]

Edwards the theologian is best known to serious readers of the 18th-century Massachusetts pastor. There are different estimates of what precisely made Edwards America's greatest religious thinker, but Robert Jenson's is representative: "Jonathan Edwards undertook critique in the service of the gospel and the adumbration of universal harmony as encompassed in triune harmony. He is America's theologian because he so astonishingly accomplished both undertakings. And at the last he penetrated to the ancient dualism, perpetuated in both Puritanism and Enlightenment, which has made critique destructive and harmony silent and impersonal, and transcended it."[6]

Edwards the aesthete and mystic has been most attractive to those who are uncomfortable with his theology but feel drawn to his vision of the harmony Jenson highlighted. The late Roland Delattre was the most important narrator of this vision, showing how absolutely central and pervasive the concept of beauty was in Edwards' preaching, ethics and theology.[7] Edwards' inclination to see images or "types" of the beauty of Christ in all of nature, and his affinities with other mystical views of reality, have led scholars such as Gura to celebrate an Edwardsean spirituality that has unique power to lead to "more good in the world."[8]

There are also those who acknowledge the power of Edwards' mind but consider him nevertheless an unfortunate influence in American culture. They think, one might say, of Edwards the dangerous Great Man. We have already seen Twain's and Holmes' representations of this view. More recently, Stephen Stein, who is Chancellor's Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Indiana University and editor of three important volumes in the Yale edition of Edwards' works, has reminded readers that "morally sensitive individuals" do not share Edwards' justification of "biblical violence." Stein refers to Edwards' endorsement of the war against the Amalekites and their children, the imprecatory psalms, heavenly saints' rejoicing over the punishment of the damned in hell, Herod's destruction of Bethlehem's children as just punishment for Bethlehem's treatment of Mary and her baby, and Golgotha itself—which "today would evoke charges of cruel abuse" because a heavenly Father accepts death as payment for the transgressions of sinners.[9]

Stein also served as editor of the Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards. This impressive volume contains snapshots of all six Edwards personas, but focuses primarily on those which Edwards himself would have said are less significant. Its sixteen chapters, each penned by a scholar known for notable work on Edwards, aim to represent the "full range of his reputation in diverse fields." The intent seems to have been to register the diversity of Edwards' talents and influence, drawing on the massive outpouring of research in recent decades. While the result is a richer understanding of Edwards' historical context, the sum total misses the forest for the trees. Although a number of chapters treat Edwards' theological corpus, only one chapter directly addresses his work as "theologian." One might imagine that perhaps the Cambridge Companion was intended to complement the Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards,[10] which was devoted almost exclusively to Edwards' theology. But this new Companion makes no mention of the earlier one, presenting itself as a stand-alone introduction.

For a theologian who related God and beauty more closely than any other, it is strange not to have a chapter on his aesthetics. To be sure, there are important references to this central category: Brooks Holifield, who did the chapter on "Edwards as theologian," notes that attraction to "excellency" (which for Edwards was almost a synonym for beauty) is reflected in nearly everything he wrote, and Stephen Daniel's "Edwards as philosopher" points out an "aesthetic basis for existence" rooted in an underlying cosmic harmony. But these minor notes do not befit a theologian who majored in the aesthetic.

While Edwards was a remarkable preacher, and his theology cannot be considered apart from his preaching, the Cambridge Companion devotes more attention to his preaching than to his theology per se. Disproportionate space is given to the sermon many moderns find repulsive, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Inadvertently this emphasis reinforces the popular stereotype of Edwards as little more than a hellfire preacher.

Nonetheless, we do gain new understanding of what Yale's Harry Stout calls America's greatest sermon. Wilson Kimnach, the paramount expert on Edwards' preaching, argues the sermon was not really about hellfire but sudden death, and explains that we don't even know how much of the sermon was heard by the original audience in Enfield, Connecticut. Sometime after Edwards had begun to preach, the congregation broke out into a riot, and he was unable to finish.

According to Kimnach, Edwards believed good preaching must point out the danger of damnation, and that while biblical language about fire and torment should not be taken literally, the reality is even worse. But at the same time, Kimnach reminds us, Edwards' preaching was not principally about God's wrath. His first publication from Northampton was about joy in the beauty of holiness. Over time Edwards seems to have become disillusioned about hellfire preaching: in 1747 he reflected that most of his sermons on hell had been duds, and he didn't know what more to say on that subject. "For the remainder of his career in Northampton and Stockbridge," Kimnach writes, "Edwards was not to return to full-blown hellfire preaching."

Apart from matters of emphasis, there are other problems in this collection. Stein mistakenly says that Edwards' notion of "true virtue" elevates benevolence toward being-in-general above love toward "particular beings" or the neighbor. In fact, Edwards said that true benevolence always loves particular beings; he faults only "particular love" that lacks love toward being-in-general. This means that all virtue that does not include love for God, while containing real but "secondary" virtue, falls short of "true" or "primary" virtue.

Philip Gura makes a fundamental mistake that is all too common among scholars who write about Edwards. When describing Edwards' psychology, which is integral to his "profound spirituality," Gura intimates that Edwards' "affections" are merely "emotions," which means that the emotions are what Edwards meant by "heart" and therefore the center of his theological masterpiece, Religious Affections. But this draws a dichotomy between head and heart that Edwards himself emphatically rejected. Edwards insisted that one's deepest inclinations (a better rendering of "affections") often conflict with self-interested feelings (emotions), and that in fact much counterfeit religion is dominated by intense emotion (this in fact is the first "negative" sign of false religion in Religious Affections).

Yet this collection of essays also contains fresh perspectives on Edwards' social world, particularly his conflicted relation to African Americans. Historians Rachel Wheeler, Kenneth Minkema, and Ava Chamberlain show that while Edwards rejected innate white superiority to Indians, he seems to have believed that blacks had less mental capacity. While on one occasion Edwards "acknowledged that there was no justification for enslaving Africans on the basis of race" (George Marsden), he never condemned slavery as contrary to the gospel, and seated slaves in a segregated area of the church gallery. On the other hand, Minkema points out that Edwards was the first of Northampton's ministers to recognize the spiritual equality of black Christians, and he foresaw a time when "many Negroes and Indians will be divines, and excellent books will be published in Africa, Ethiopia and Turkey." The upshot is that while Edwards was a great divine, he was also, in Chamberlain's words, "a man of his times."

Still, Chamberlain asserts that Edwards transcended his times in his treatment of women. He portrayed both men and women as brides of Christ, and depicted conversion and religious life through the experiences of women. This combination "elevated the status of women." As a pastor he refused to go along with the sexual double standard, "which excused male sexual license with a sly wink and nod."

Israeli historian Avihu Zakai and American philosopher Stephens Daniel argue that the distinctiveness of Edwards' philosophy has not been fully recognized. First, according to Zakai, Edwards used Enlightenment tools to undermine Enlightenment metaphysics. He did this by Christianizing the atomic doctrine (by saying that God's infinite power is what holds atoms together) and re-enchanting the world (after "mechanical philosophy" had "freed" it from God's dominion) without deifying it. Second, Daniel explains how Edwards rejected the assumptions of Cartesian philosophy. He denied its reductionist and naturalistic presumptions that ground philosophy on doubt, simplicity, and atomistic individualism. Edwards proposed instead a vision of the unity of nature and experience rooted in a "new sense of the heart." He believed the problems of modern philosophy stemmed from the failure to see underlying harmony and order. The result is intellectual blindness. As Daniel so provocatively puts it, "To the extent that a created mind perceives something without understanding how it fits within the divine economy, it does not really perceive that thing at all. To the extent that a mind fails to appreciate the order and harmony of things … it fails even to be a mind."

British historian David Bebbington highlights another contribution: Edwards' singular role in the development of English evangelicalism and Anglo-American missions. In fascinating detail, Bebbington chronicles how Edwards' "creation of a doctrinal paradigm for mission" helped father modern missions, and also the ways in which "the evangelical Calvinism that flourished in Britain during the nineteenth century owed more to Edwards than to any other writer."

The Cambridge Companion gives hints of where Edwards studies might go in the future. Although Edwards wrote two major single-volume commentaries on the Bible, a commentary on the book of Revelation, numerous comments on the Bible in his enormous private notebooks, plus 1,200 sermons still extant, we still have no major book on Edwards as biblical exegete (although one is in the works).[11] Both Stein and Stephen Crocco mention this lacuna, and predict that one day Edwards the scholar of Scripture will be added to the list of personas.

Holifield notes that Edwards uses Catholic-sounding "infused grace" in his lengthy discussions of justification. This points to the need for more work on Edwards' relevance for ecumenical theology and, more important, the need to get Edwards on the radar screen of European intellectuals. "America's theologian" was a world-class thinker, but very few European intellectuals read him. The first international conferences on Edwards were held in Budapest (2007) and Glasgow (2009), and their results are beginning to register. But more scholarly work needs to compare him with European thinkers and issues, and thereby include him in the ongoing discussions of international philosophy and theology.

Other areas demanding future study include the influence on Edwards of Petrus van Mastricht, the 17th-century German-Dutch theologian whose major work Edwards called the best book besides the Bible.[12] For that matter, we also need a careful study of what Edwards knew and when he knew it—of the classical theological tradition. What did he know of Augustine and the Fathers, Thomas, and Luther? Or even Calvin? How did he use or depart from their approaches? We also need a study of the uses for systematic theology of Edwards' massive typological system, which has relevance for how we understand the Bible, the world, and the history of salvation.

For all its diversity, this volume only begins to explain why so many scholars are attracted to Edwards the theologian and Edwards the Aesthete/Mystic. Only a little is offered to those looking for Edwards the literary artist, and virtually nothing for those intrigued by Edwards the unsentimental prophet.

Another phenomenon which this volume does little to explain is the growing resurgence of interest in Edwards in the churches—among non-scholars. Scholarly conferences on Edwards are lucky to attract 200 people. But in 2003 in Minneapolis, 2,500 people thronged a municipal auditorium to listen to three days of talks about America's theologian. The cover of the September 2006 issue of Christianity Today featured a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, "Jonathan Edwards is My Homeboy." The accompanying story by Collin Hansen described the broad resurgence of American interest in Reformed theology and its premier American theologian—Edwards. In the Companion, Douglas Sweeney very briefly outlines this recent "Edwards renaissance," but the volume as a whole does not account for it.

Yet a little vignette shared by Crocco in the Companion might help us understand this fascination. Crocco tells of the nervousness scholars feel at their Edwards conferences when someone stands up after a dense paper has been read and says, "I'm no scholar and I haven't been able to follow that last paper at all, though I am sure that what it says is important. What I want to say is that I'm a minister of the gospel, and I love Jonathan Edwards because he helps me to understand God better. Next to the Bible, Edwards is the most inspiring reading I know."

Strangely, these ministers (and thousands of non-scholars like them) look at Edwards' God, whom many find repulsive, and see only beauty. As we have seen, the same divide occurs among scholars—between those who find his thought to be intriguing but repellant, and those who conclude Edwards helps them better understand reality. Perhaps one explanation for this uncanny dichotomy comes from Niebuhr, who saw in Edwards (and Luther and Calvin too) the unsentimental prophet, and concluded that what we see in God depends on what we see in ourselves. In a preface to Joseph Haroutunian's Wisdom and Folly in Religion, Niebuhr wrote: "Luther, Calvin and Edwards—read with a humble desire to understand their meaning rather than with a sense of superiority—have illuminated for the author the state of every man in need of God. In them he has found that resolute facing of the hard and unpalatable facts about man and God which the twentieth-century mind demands."[13]

Gerald McDermott, Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College, is the author of several books about Jonathan Edwards, and the editor of Understanding Jonathan Edwards: Introducing America's Theologian (Oxford Univ. Press).

1. I refer to the two phases of Enlightenment which Henry F. May so brilliantly unfolded in his Enlightenment in America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1976).

2. Over the Teacups (Houghton Mifflin, 1891), pp. 249-50; cited in M.X. Lesser, "Edwards in 'American culture,' " in Stein, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards, p. 294n14.

3. Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (Harcourt and Brace, 1927-30), Vol. 1, p. 156.

4. Henry May, "Jonathan Edwards and America," in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, eds. Nathan Hatch and Harry Stout (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 19.

5. Miklos VetVetö, "Jonathan Edwards and Philosophy," paper delivered at international conference, "Jonathan Edwards in Europe," May 8-9, 2007, Budapest.

6. Robert Jenson, America's Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 196.

7. Roland Delattre, Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards: An Essay in Aesthetics and Theological Ethics (Yale Univ. Press, 1968).

8. Philip Gura, Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical (Hill and Wang, 2005), pp. xiv, xv.

9. Stephen Stein, "Jonathan Edwards and the Cultures of Biblical Violence," in Jonathan Edwards at 300: Essays on the Tercentenary of His Birth, ed. Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Caleb J.D. Maskell (Univ. Press of America, 2005), pp. 57-63.

10. Sang Hyun Lee, ed., The Princeton Companion to Jonathon Edwards (Princeton Univ. Press, 2005).

11. Robert Brown's superb Jonathan Edwards and the Bible (Indiana Univ. Press, 2002) is not concerned with Edwards' use of Scripture in his sermons or even theology. Instead it focuses on Edwards' encounter with nascent biblical criticism, and the result of that encounter for Edwards' understanding of both Scripture and the history of salvation.

12. Adriaan C. Neele, Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706): Reformed Orthodoxy—Method and Piety (Brill, 2009), has started this work. But more needs to be done.

13. Quoted in Stephen Crocco, "Edwards's Intellectual Legacy," in Cambridge Companion, p. 312.

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