Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

George Marsden

Jonathan Edwards, American Augustine

To appreciate Edwards, Christians need to go beyond seeing him as an enigmatic genius, the white whale of American Studies.

Leaders and authors have in common the daunting question "Why spend time on this?" Do I really care about William James? Should I fear Virginia Woolf? Should I worry about the ozone layer? Should I spend my time on Karl Marx or Groucho Marx? John Barth or Karl Barth? William James or Henry James? Or are Frank and Jesse more cutting edge? I notice there is a new book on Jonathan Edwards. Should I be interested? Do we need another book on Edwards? Should I write one?

There is always a new book on Edwards. M. X. Lesser's remarkable annotated bibliography lists 38 books dealing with Edwards published from 1979 through 1993. That is in addition to more than 75 doctoral dissertations and hundreds of articles and reviews. To date, Yale University Press's ambitious editorial project, the Works of Jonathan Edwards, has published 17 impressive volumes with wonderfully comprehensive introductions. The recent and forthcoming volumes are making available writings of Edwards that few have seen before. In addition, the editors have issued A Jonathan Edwards Reader and The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards. These readers would be good places to begin1—if one chooses to begin. Or perhaps even better is Michael McClymond's Encounters with God, an excellent and accessible introduction to Edwards's theological vision.

The sheer quantity of scholarly books on Edwards provides presumptive evidence that there is indeed something worth looking into. The contemporary academic revival of Ed wards was sparked at midcentury by America's greatest intellectual historian, Perry Miller, a self-proclaimed atheist. Ever since, the lineup of leading Edwards scholars has covered a spectrum from the strictly Reformed through nonbelievers. Many scholars have found themselves fascinated by Edwards because they are confronted with sheer genius. Many more have found in Edwards not only a human mind of bell-like clarity but also a glimpse of a vision of God that is overwhelming in its beauty.

Historians and literary scholars who operate on the more mundane level of trying to understand American experience have been intrigued by Edwards as an American cultural artifact. Like him or not, he remains a looming presence in the American heritage. For a century after his participation in the great revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, he exerted an immense influence on American theology and church life. He and his works were the fountainhead of a movement that sought to shape the new nation according to the principles of Calvinist revivalism. As Joseph Conforti shows in his account of Edwards's cultural influence, by the first half of the nineteenth century, Edwards's followers had turned him into a New England icon. Since Reformed thinkers dominated American intellectual life, no Protestant theologian could speak without taking Ed wards into account.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the number of his admirers plummeted, yet he remained, as Conforti puts it, "a kind of white whale of American religious history." Controversial in his own lifetime, the relentless rigor of his Calvinism long hovered as a force that could obsess even its enemies. Aaron Burr, Edwards's most famous grandson, spent a lifetime defying the whale. The Unitarians of eastern Massachusetts, whose great-grandparents had rejected the Great Awakening, declared him a fanatic. As late as the early twentieth century, Mark Twain, then a resident of Hartford, Connecticut (not far from Edwards's Northampton, Massachusetts), was still worrying about Edwards. "A resplendent intellect gone mad," he wrote in 1902. In The Mysterious Stranger and Letters from Earth, Twain was contending with versions of Edwardsian theology he had first learned on the Missouri frontier.

By the twentieth century, though, the Unitarians and the skeptics had won so far as the American literary canon was concerned. Children delighted in Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.'s "The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay,' " which lampooned the dramatic collapse of New England Calvinism. All that was left of Edwards was his famous hell-fire sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." It was as though the only thing anyone was supposed to know about Dante was that he had written the Inferno and "entered into complicity with torture" (as David Denby says of Dante in his Great Books). Readers were not likely to recognize that Edwards's sinner, kept only by the thread of God's long-suffering from plunging into the everlasting fires, is part of a much larger picture whose beauty could be as overwhelming as its terror. Rather, in the human-affirming late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, damning Edwards as a hell-fire preacher was an important step in freeing the middle classes from their Puritan past.

During the mid twentieth century, when neo-orthodox theologians were pointing out that a civilization without sin, without God, and without intellect was a bleak prospect, Edwards and the Puritans were dramatically rehabilitated in scholarly reputation. Perry Miller led the way. Edwards, in Miller's estimation, marked a peak in American intellectual life from which there had been steady descent into anti-intellectual superficiality. (Never mind that Miller invented his own essentially modern Ed wards.) Scholarly enthusiasm for Edwards's intellectual prowess continues to inspire impressive scholarship even beyond those who find Ed wards spiritually invigorating. Yet the negative image has not been overcome among wider audiences.

The problem for most Americans is that Edwards does not fit their image of a great American or even of a good one. Twentieth-century common sense staggers in the face of many of the attitudes he took for granted. It's not that the eighteenth century lies beyond the reach of our imaginative sympathies; we can easily feel a kinship with Edwards's Massachusetts contemporary Benjamin Franklin. No, Edwards is simply on "the wrong side" of too many issues. Even many Christians find him so.

Edwards was a Puritan absolutely preoccupied with the centrality of God. He was an elitist. God had ordered everything and had ordered it as hierarchies. Elitism was, of course, the common assumption of the time, and in the eighteenth-century New England colonies, clergy had the authority of a spiritual nobility. Edwards expected to be listened to, as did others in his class. Even though he proclaimed spiritual equality, the idea of social equality hardly occurred to him. He owned African household slaves, as was common among the New England elite. Because he died in 1758, he was never touched by any American revolutionary sentiments. Indeed, al though he was part of an evangelical movement that found many surprising affinities to the Revolution, Edwards himself was as far from the postrevolutionary world as was Rip Van Winkle.

Further away, perhaps, for adding to the distance between Edwards and many later Americans, is his unrelenting attack on many of the humanistic assumptions of the Enlightenment. Be cause the United States was born under the star of Enlightenment self-confidence, Americans typically take many of its assertions as axiomatic. Their first faith is in humans, their native innocence, their natural abilities to do good, the independence of science and their own reason, their individual sovereignty, and their equality. Even many evangelical or traditionalist Christians have shared such assumptions.

Edwards himself was a participant in the Enlightenment in the sense of being an expert on the science and philosophy of his day, but he saw the star of modern self-confidence on the horizon and warned that it was only a projection of human pretension. If the world followed the artificial lights of human independence, individual sovereignty, and sovereign reason, the ensuing ages would be times of horrendous human self-deceptions. Society would be deceived by empty philosophies and unrestrained human corruption. Worse, multitudes would be led astray by religion itself. Liberal churches would celebrate human virtue and reason. Even more ominously, so-called evangelical religion could delude people into false trust in their own emotions. The Devil's answer to revival was to simulate genuine religious experience. God was ushering in the end-time triumphs of true religion, yet the spiritual conflicts of this culminating modern age would be intense.

As these concerns indicate, Edwards viewed the driving forces of history in a way that is alien to assumptions that have dominated mainstream thought in the twentieth century. Our culture's intellectual life has been largely preoccupied with observing material and social forces that lead to change. Typically we think we have found the best explanation of an event when we can see some of the cultural or psychological dynamics that contribute to its development. Edwards was, by contrast, preoccupied with understanding reality that was most essentially the product of God's unceasing action. He realized that if one takes Christian revelation and modern science seriously, God must be immense enough to create and to continuously govern an unimaginably vast universe. Confident that the Scriptures were the only sufficient hope for getting a glimpse of the dynamics of this essential nature of things, Edwards insisted on the biblical premise that spiritual forces were the essence of reality. The real significance of everything was its spiritual significance or how it fit into the great history of redemption.

Edwards seems even further from the common sense of our culture when we realize that, for him, the material world is not the "real" world. Rather, material things are only shadows of the real. By themselves, they are superficial and illusory. They are properly understood only when seen as pointing to the essential reality that is mental and spiritual. God creates and sustains all, so that everything we encounter is most fundamentally the expression of the mind of God, even if distinct from God. By contrast, modern civilization has invested so much in trying to control the physical and enjoying the material that we instinctively think of those as our most solid realities and our surest sources of truth.

Some of Edwards's deepest reflections were on the folly of trusting simply in the first things we can see or feel. He insisted that we must view such things in the perspective of the immense cosmic struggle for redemption. At the center of this struggle is a beauty that, if we are given the grace to glimpse it, will radically change our perspective on everything. That beauty is the ineffable love of God revealed in Christ's sacrifice for self-deluded little creatures who would spit in his face. If our hearts and wills are captured by the enthralling beauty of Christ's ever-active love radiating from the center of things, then our preoccupations with the gratifications of our most immediate sensations seem the ultimate in self-centered self-delusion.

Being an intellectual of his own age, Edwards studied these questions as a scientist and a philosopher as well as a theologian. Like the naturalists of the Enlightenment, he carefully collected data on spiritual phenomena and re ported these to a network of fellow scholars. Much of his work was directed toward classifying and appraising the observable signs of spiritual reality in individuals. As revival wildfires swept through New England, such issues became of urgent practical importance. Churches were torn apart over questions of what was authentic in religious experience. Edwards's Religious Affections is still a stunningly complete analysis of how to tell true from false religious experience. Gerald McDermott, a leading Edwards scholar, shows how this analysis still speaks to us today in Seeing God: Twelve Reliable Signs of True Spirituality, a popular updating of Edwards's classic. Edwards also applied his scientific and philosophical powers in a lifelong quest (found mostly in his private notebooks) to understand the relationship between spiritual and material phenomena. His analysis of the spiritual dynamics of history in the light of God's revelation was based on a relentless scientific methodology as well.

In our era, we do not usually think of such inquiries as scientific. That is because our civilization has defined science as the examination of reality with the spiritual dimensions excluded. In Edwards's day, as during the preceding century among the greatest scientists who fostered the scientific revolution, it was not at all clear that such a line between the spiritual and the material should be drawn. We should recall that Isaac Newton, who revolutionized physics just a generation before Ed wards was born, spent his later years attempting to decipher the numbers in prophetic biblical texts. Newton did not die until 1727, by which time Edwards had formulated his own fundamental ideas. To be a Newtonian, as Edwards was, did not imply that any line should be drawn between the dimensions of reality.

Once we recognize how radically Edwards challenges so many things that are taken for granted we can begin to see one reason to study him, even if our goal were just the lowly one of trying to understand our civilization better. Edwards lived in an era when many of the assumptions associated with modernity were taking shape. He shared aspects of these assumptions, yet he challenged them in the light of dramatically different views drawn from a rigorous version of the Christian heritage. Some of his greatest in sights accordingly grew out of the clash of two world-views. The outlooks that ultimately triumphed in the modern era were then new, and Edwards viewed them from a vantage point that was remarkable even in his day. He could therefore see some of their implications, particularly for the Christian heritage, more acutely than we normally can.

Edwards was an unrelenting Puritan, and his writing and preaching style likewise follows the unadorned Puritan forms. Seldom is there anything flashy. His method, shaped by his training in Ramist logic, is systematic exposition. At this he is luminously clear. He had one of those rare minds of a logical clarity that rings like pure crystal. Some of his images are striking, but seldom does he present the sharp incisive aphorism of a Pascal, nor is he concerned for the poetic forms of a Milton. Perhaps his art can best be compared to that of Bach, his older contemporary. Each develops his elaborate themes entirely within inherited forms. To the unattuned ear, they are not always immediately accessible. Yet once one is accustomed to the forms, their steady, relentless, fugal expositions can be breathtaking.2

Christians who want to appreciate Edwards need to go beyond seeing him as an enigmatic genius who looms on the cultural horizon, the white whale of American studies. His importance for us is not only as a major figure in American history but also as a major figure in the history of Christian theology. Perhaps these two dimensions can best be put together by thinking of him, as a number of interpreters have suggested, as "the American Augustine."

This analogy places Edwards not simply in the context of eighteenth-century America, but in the larger history of Christian thought. In fact, he shared many theological emphases with Augustine. Each stood at a time of transition in Western civilization. Augustine witnessed the collapse of the old pagan establishment and the emergence of an officially Christian age. Edwards lived in the latter days of that officially Christian era and warned against a return to paganism. More important, Edwards (who hoped in his later years to write the modern equivalent to The City of God) followed Augustine in insisting on standards for civilization that went against the wisdom of his era.

Edwards shared with Augustine a view of civilization that made him sharply critical of the mundane shortsightedness of every age. Those who seek only the immediate satisfactions of the world are ultimately undone by their trust in the finite. Their loves, even for the best things of the world, are ultimately based on what satisfies self. The institutions of the world are built on such love. True Christian lives are centered rather on love of God. For our loves to get beyond self-love, they must be grounded in the infinitely beautiful power outside ourselves. That is possible only through the grace of God, which gives us eyes to see the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ and so radically transforms our dominant loves or affections. The people of God are those whose lives reflect and radiate that perfect love of Christ.

Edwards, like Augustine before him, applied these principles only imperfectly in viewing his own civilization. Like almost all Christians since Constantine, they each had difficulty drawing an adequate line between spiritual and temporal powers. Edwards, for instance, took for granted that the church should depend on the state and regarded the English wars against the French as God's way of attacking anti-Christian Roman Catholic power. Edwards's overconfidence that he could relate the actual state of Christendom to the history of redemption suggests some of the problems of being saddled with the Constantinian heritage. In the American colonies, where Constantinianism was doomed (and doomed as much by revivalism as by pluralism and secularism), not even an Augustinian genius could hold the old state/church synthesis together. An American Augustine was bound to be a tragic and often unpopular figure.

Beyond such Christian shortsightedness, nevertheless, is a breathtaking vision. The vision is a vastly long-sighted cosmic and historical perspective centering on the most beautiful thing we can imagine: the sacrificial love of the perfect Trinitarian God for undeserving creatures who have rejected and despised him. Those whose eyes are opened to such beauty will be overwhelmed by it and drawn to it. They will not be able to view it dispassionately, but rather will respond to it with their deepest affections. Truly seeing such good, they will have no choice but to love it. Glimpsing such love of God, they will be drawn out of themselves and drawn to love God and all that God has created.

George M. Marsden is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

1. Another route is Iain H. Murray's Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Banner of Truth Trust, 1987). This is a well-researched celebratory biography of Edwards as saint and exemplar of the Calvinist-Puritan theological tradition. John E. Smith, Jonathan Edwards: Puritan, Preacher, Philosopher (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1992), introduces Edwards from a philosopher's perspective. M. X. Lesser, Jonathan Edwards (Twayne, 1988), presents brief overviews of his life and major writings. Harold Simonson's Jonathan Edwards: Theologian of the Heart (Eerdmans, 1974) is a fine place to start, but out of print. Robert W. Jenson, America's Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), suggests some of the exciting themes in Edwards, although Jenson's contemporary appropriations of Edwards go beyond the historical Edwards.

2. One can find some gems even in his early sermons published in vols. 10 and 14 of the Yale edition as well as in his mature sermons, such as the series Charity and Its Fruits (included in vol. 8 of the Yale edition).

Some recent Edwardsiana

A Jonathan Edwards Reader, John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema, eds. (Yale Univ. Press).

The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney, eds. (Yale Univ. Press).

The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Harry S. Stout, General Editor (Yale Univ. Press).

Vol. 13, The "Miscellanies", Thomas A. Schafer, ed.

Vol. 14, Sermons and Discourses, 1723-1729, Kenneth P. Minkema, ed.

Vol. 15, Notes on Scripture, Stephen J. Stein, ed.

Vol. 16, Letters and Personal Writings, George S. Claghorn, ed.

Vol. 17, Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733, Mark Valeri, ed.

Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, and American Culture, by Joseph A. Conforti (Univ. of North Carolina Press).

Jonathan Edwards's Writings: Text, Context, Interpretation, Stephen J. Stein, ed. (Indiana Univ. Press).

Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy, by Leon Chai (Oxford Univ. Press).

Encounters with God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards, by Michael McClymond (Oxford Univ. Press).

Seeing God: Twelve Reliable Signs of True Spirituality, by Gerald R. McDermott (InterVarsity).

Jonathan Edwards: An Annotated Bibliography, 1979-1993, compiled by M. X. Lesser (Greenwood).

Most ReadMost Shared