Tag Archives: theology

Edwards among the theologians and the political philosophers

There are two new titles of interest, both putting Jonathan Edwards into new contexts and perspectives.

51b6qY+1Z2L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The first is The Ecumenical Edwards: Jonathan Edwards and the Theologians, a collection of essays edited by Biola University’s Kyle C. Strobel. The essays are written by scholars from a variety of religious traditions. Each puts Edwards in conversation with a different theologian, from Thomas Aquinas and Gregory of Nyssa to Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg.

The book has a blurb from George Marsden, who writes:

“The Ecumenical Edwards offers a treasure trove of insights on the relationship of one of the greatest theologians in the Reformed tradition to the grand traditionsof Christian theology as represented by Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and other Protestant thinkers. Here is an all-star international ecumenical line-up of analysts who are critical as well as sympathetic in assessing Edwards’s contributions to discussions of some of the most profound theological issues.”

The second book is by Jeff Jay Stone, titled Mysteries of Government: The Political Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards.

81ni89SeRaL._SL1500_A revised dissertation written at the University of Dallas, Stone’s work has long been cited in the literature, but is only now widely available as an ebook. Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, for instance, cited Stone to support the claim that “Edwards in fact cared deeply about civil and public life, and developed elaborate conceptions of how life in the public square ought to be conducted.”

This work treats Edwards as a political philosopher, looking especially at Edwards’ reading of John Locke.

“The few occasions on which Edwards does speak of politics,” writes Stone, “reveal a compeling particularity: he has indeed thought very seriously about politics, but has encountered a problem which he does not clearly enunciate. However, the problem is no less evident for not having been mentioned, and the solution–which is explicit–gives us new insight to the nature of Edwards’ thought as a whole.”

Both books are available now.

— Daniel Silliman

Talk: Edwards as mentor

Rhys Bezzant, the director of the Jonathan Edwards Center Australia and a professor of Christian Thought at Ridley Melbourne Mission & Ministry College, will lecture on Jonathan Edward at the Evangelische Hochschule TABOR in Marburg on Wednesday, June 18. The title of the talk is, Jonathan Edwards ale Mentor: Geistlicher Dienst zwischen Theologie, Spiritualität und Gemeinde.

Bezzant has written extensively on Edwards, focusing specifically on Edward’s ecclesiology. His recent book, Jonathan Edwards and the Church, tracks the development of Edwards’ commitment to the church. Bezzant argues that though Edwards emphasized individual spiritual awakenings and the religious affections of the heart, he didn’t dismiss the importance of the corporate body of believers, nor did he treat the institution as a secondary matter.

“Edwards’s ecclesiology must be viewed as an essential coordinating principle in his response to the vicissitudes of revival,” Bezzant writes. “Edwards’s doctrine of the church and its place in God’s economy were not mere an amorphous shadow cast by the bright fires of spiritual ardor, or a knee-jerk reaction to the pressures of revival, but rather was itself a compass by which he was enabled to navigate the currents and reefs of the revivals waters. It is not impossible for an evangelist to be an ecclessiologist at the same time.”

In his focus on Edwards as a mentor, Bezzant seeks to show that Edwards’ reputation of pastoral ineptitude is not the whole story.

“At one level his personality might have worked against congregational cooperation, creating pastoral tensions,” Bezzant writes. “At another level, however, his character, spiritual discernment, and openness to sharing his life and to new models of communication, were transformative, and created a significant legacy through those whom he mentored.”

Bezzant has himself spent not a little time developing leadership within churches, and says that he thinks Edwards can actually serve as a model for this work.

The talk is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, June 18, at the Evangelische Hochschule, Dürerstraße 43 in Marburg. All are invited to attend.
— Daniel Silliman

Talk: Edwards and Idealism

Prof. Sebastian Rehnman, of the philosophy department of Norway’s University of Stavanger, will be speaking on Jonathan Edwards and Idealism in Heidelberg on Oct. 29, at 8 p.m.

Rehnman has previously written on Edward’s philosophy, including questions of the Divine Attributes, “the task of making explicit what is implicit in the notion of God acquired from or supposed by arguments for the existence of God,” and an Edwardsian theodicy. This is part of an ongoing project he is working on, a monograph titled Edwards on God. He has also written extensively on the Puritan John Owen, and on a range of Reformed thinkers, including Francis Turretin, Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga.

The talk will be held at then Seminarraum des Ökumenischen Instituts, in Heidelberg, at Plankengasse 3. All are welcome to attend.

Edwards in our time

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