Christian History Home > 2003 > 300-Year-Old Man Returns to Lead His Church
300-Year-Old Man Returns to Lead His Church
Evangelicals need this grandfather figure more than ever.
Arecent article by Jay Tolson in U.S. News has reminded me of one of the strangest and most rewarding friendships I have ever enjoyed—one that continues today.
He was a Puritan theologian who had been dead for several centuries and was still known more for his subtle and extensive work in academic philosophy than for his connection with America's first "revival"—the so-called Great Awakening.
I was a young, newly minted, twentieth century Christian in a Pentecostal church, who had spent much of the previous year basking in a sequence of Spirit-led encounters with the living God.
But when I cracked open the Treatise on the Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards (celebrating his 300th birthday this year) and began reading his analysis of the religious revival sweeping his church, I felt like he was talking directly to me and my spiritually juiced-up congregation. Why hadn't anyone told me about this guy?
OK, his page-long paragraphs of convoluted eighteenth-century sentences didn't help. And, yes, his occasional Calvinist laments about how all humans are depraved worms were somewhat off-putting. But I felt any fool could see (because I could) that this was a wise man with a pastor's heart, who really knew and could explain, in brilliantly helpful detail, what happened when the Holy Spirit entered a human heart.
(By the way, if you want a less difficult first exposure to the ideas of Edwards's masterwork, check out Gerald R. McDermott's Seeing God: Twelve Reliable Signs of True Spirituality.)
Here, I thought as I devoured the book, was a person I wanted to know better!
Especially, I was impressed that a scholar, theologian, philosopher—indeed in his younger years a competent scientist who looked like he had a bright scientific career ahead of him—took religious experience seriously. In particular, he credited a kind of revivalistic religious experience that seemed, as I looked around, accessible only to those who foreswore "theology" (kind of a cuss-word in my church) and other sorts of time-wasting intellectualism.
As I entered a master's program at a historically Presbyterian evangelical seminary and spent time getting to know Edwards better through his other books, another thing impressed me. Here was a Calvinist—like many around me at my seminary. But unlike many of them, he seemed more interested in living and promoting a warm-hearted faith than in arguing about doctrine. (Which is to say, he was a Puritan! Though not all Puritans came up to his standard in this area.)
To put that a little differently, he supplemented a thorough knowledge of the Westminster catechism and the works of Calvin and his intellectual descendants with a pastor's concern for "soul cure." He flatly asserted, on many occasions, that a religion of the head, without a living relationship with God, was a dead thing—in fact, not really Christian faith at all. Here was a subtle thinker who credited, with appropriate cautions, the vital realm of religious experience.
He was a sort of pastoral psychologist. He had not only a deep sense of the wretchedness of the human condition, but a detailed, pastoral understanding of how both depravity and grace work themselves out in people's insides—and in their actions.
To me, what Edwards didn't do was almost as inspiring as what he did. Though a highly sophisticated theologian—arguably the most brilliant this country has ever seen—he did not, over 100 years before Darwin and the historical method, feel the need to make theology a hermetically sealed quasi-scientific system, impermeable to human experience. He would have agreed with the great twentieth-century author and lay theologian Dorothy Sayers that "the dogma is the drama." That is: nothing makes you more profoundly aware of the riches of God's love and the wonders of his grace than a lively intellectual understanding of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.
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