Thinking about Jonathan Edwards in his own time is difficult enough. Grasping Edwards as a theological figure today presents its own sets of unique problems.
Understanding how Edwards figures on the contemporary landscape requires a lot of a kind of back-and-forth cultural translation: allowing but then also critiquing (but then also still allowing) reconstructions, appropriations, and reanimaitons, as one attends to how 16th century theology is made relevant and applicable in 21st century theology. It’s one part reception history, one part history of ideas, one part discourse analysis. And the added complication: one has to do history, but then also set it aside, too, as the figure of Edwards at work in contemporary theological thinking is decidedly ahistorical.
One good place to start, to get a sense of how Edwards is talked about theologically right now, is with these videos of Doug Wilson talking about Jonathan Edwards.
Wilson, a pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and one of the founders of New Saint Andrews, is a Reformed thinker who was described himself as ” advanc[ing] what you might call a Chestertonian Calvinism.”
From that position, Wilson argues with Edwards on some points (in particular having to do with Edwards connections to present-day evangelicalism) and praises Edwards and feels himself challenged by Edwards on other points (“This was a man absolutely marinated in scripture“).
Especially of interest to those trying to figure out Edwards present shape or form in theological thought is the last video, where Wilson connects Edwards’ thought with the theology of C.S. Lewis and John Piper, specificall with the theology Piper has promoted, Christian Hedonism.
As Wilson explains it, all three of these men, despite their very different times and contexts and varieties of Christianity, “emphasize … teach, point out, admit” that:
“Everybody chooses that which they believe to be good, and that which they believe to be good for them. Now there’s a way of doing it selfishly. The difference between good and evil is determined by what you call ‘good,’ not whether you pursue good.”
This is one of the main ideas of Edwards — as it’s used and understood and talked about in certain circles of contemporary American Christianity. In Edwards, one can find these ideas even in his very oldest extant sermon, circa 1720 or 1721, where he argued for a necessary link between Godliness and hapiness, starting from exactly this foundational psychological idea that all people seek happiness.
The first words of Edwards first sermon:
“Reasonable beings, while they act as such, naturally choose those things which they are convinced are best for them, and will certainly do those things which they know they had better do than leave undone. (And, indeed, who in the world could imagine that there were such unreasonable creatures in the world, as that at the very same time that they themselves know a thing to be much to their advantage, yet will not choose or do it?)”
For Wilson, as well as Piper and a circle of Reformed Christians in American today, this insight serves as a starting point for understanding and explaining Calvinism. This is a key way in which Edwards “lives,” theologically, right now.
Curiously, there’s another near-contemporary figure who starts from this same place and has this same “disciplined understanding of what makes human beings tick,” as Wilson describes it, but who ends up somewhere very, very different: Ayn Rand. She called it the virtue of selfishness.
Where Wilson says “Everybody chooses that which they believe to be good, and that which they believe to be good for them. Now there’s a way of doing it selfishly. The difference between good and evil is determined by what you call ‘good,’ not whether you pursue good,” Rand agrees, “Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value.”
For her, though, starting with this idea that people do bad things only because they’re confused and think those things are good things, and if they truly understood what was good they would want that instead, ends not in the imperative, “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” but rather: Be selfish. Or, as her fictional spokesman John Galt declares, “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
The ideas are not the same, of course. The trick is articulating why. Which is the history of ideas part of the back-and-forth cultural translation of the tricky business of trying to understand Edwards in our time.
— Daniel Silliman