300-Year-Old Man Returns to Lead His Church
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.
Edwards's was a theology (study of God) done foremost as doxology (worship of God), and complemented with a generous helping of psychology (experience of God). He wasn't content, to borrow a phrase from J. I. Packer, just to know about God. He knew that if men and women were to find salvation, restoration, and healing, they must first know God, in an empirical sense.
If evangelicalism has indeed—as Ted Olsen suggests in this week's Christianity Todayweblog—taken a great leap in the last decade or two toward rebuilding the intellectual vitality and respectability that marked the seventeenth-century Puritans, its success owes much to this "300-year-old man." He was a giant among modern thinkers. He applied his mind just as much to the daily experiences of real human beings as to the abstruse realms of academic philosophy and dogmatic theology. More profoundly, he understood that these two subject areas are not actually different, but rather two approaches to the same eternal, pressing human questions. And through pulpit and pen, he said so to everyone who would listen.
Scholarship as ministry: Today, nothing could seem more quixotic, even oxymoronic, to many evangelicals. Yet there stands Jonathan Edwards, the great thinker/minister: a Yale-trained genius capable of the most subtle philosophical exploration, who helped shape America's first revival. Out of his careful reflections, God enabled him to shepherd the Great Awakening past its first excesses into a mature, local-church-based revivalism both theologically robust and spiritually impassioned (Religious Affections shows him at his best in that role).
Need evangelicals—especially today's evangelical students who desire above all to serve Christ and his "body" the church—look any further for a model?
Edwards is our grandfather. But not in the distant, vaguely dour way implied by the somber portrait of the Great Man hanging in the Yale art gallery. Rather, he still, after 300 years, gathers his grandkids around him, to teach by loving example that head without heart, and heart without head, both fail to make the kind of faith that lasts and that impacts the world.
We stand in a divided America, where the spiritually useless and doctrinally bankrupt theology of many universities and seminaries and the shallow, emotionally self-indulgent praise-and-worship addiction of many revivalistic churches glare across a seemingly unbridgeable chasm. Stretching his arms across the gulf is this warm-hearted, brilliant grandfather-figure—Jonathan Edwards.
Happy 300th, Jonathan. May your tribe increase.
Christian History threw our own party for Edwards in our issue #77, where you will find an interview with George Marsden on what Edwards can teach us today. Marsden's biography of Edwards is, as Tolson suggests in his article, a great way to get to know Edwards at closer quarters.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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