2017-07-12
On Sunday October 5, Christians around the world, from Hollywood to Seoul, celebrated the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan theologian and pastor. They were joined by conferences and symposia, including one at the Library of Congress where eminent historians and theologians presented papers on topics ranging from "Edwards, the Bible, and Intellectual Culture" to "African-American Engagements with Edwards in the Era of the Slave Trade" and "The Politics of Sex in Northampton."

Had he been able to attend, Edwards may have been bemused by some of what he heard at this symposium, but he would not have shrunk from any of it. He is not only a subject of intellectual investigation, he lived it and recorded it in a constant stream of writing. Much of that writing is available in Yale University Press's splendid edition of Edwards' Works, which now runs to more than 20 volumes. In time for the tricentennial, another whole shelf of books about Edwards has also appeared--most notably George Marsden's biography, published this spring, also by Yale.

Someone should send a set of those volumes to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Perhaps the exacting discipline and intellectual passion they represent would soothe Kristof's well-publicized fears that "the great intellectual traditions of Catholic and Protestant churches alike are withering, leaving the scholarly and religious worlds increasingly antagonistic." Many of the scholars who prepared these volumes are themselves committed Christians, as are their most dedicated readers; clearly they see no conflict between their faith and their scholarship. Then again, I'm not sure that an intensive reading of Edwards would make Kristof rest easier.

Born in colonial Connecticut on what was then the American frontier, Edwards was precociously brilliant and ferociously intense, driven by a desire to know and serve God. He was most himself when he was writing, alone with his thoughts and his Creator, and in his relatively short life--he died in March of 1758, at the age of 54--he left behind a staggering body of work, including a trove of manuscripts that scholars are only now exploring, exceeding even the generous scope of the Yale edition.

Edwards accomplished all this while serving as a pastor and raising a family. He and his beloved wife, Sarah, had 12 children; their daughter Jerusha, Edwards' favorite (named after his favorite sister, who had died at the age of 19) was 17 when she died in 1747. From Marsden's biography and other sources, we get the impression that Edwards' genius and his religious fervor--not separable, finally--left him ill equipped in some respects for ordinary human interaction, and yet he managed reasonably well. As a pastor, he was a leading figure in the first Great Awakening, which set the pattern for so many religious revivals in American--but, like many another pastor before and since, he was ultimately rejected by the congregation to which he had ministered for many years.

An inadvertently comic passage from one his sermons gives us a glimpse of Edwards the pastor. The sermon, included in "The Blessing of God: Previously Unpublished Sermons of Jonathan Edwards," edited by Michael D. McMullen (another fruit of the tricentennial), bears this formidable title: "When the Spirit of God Has Been Remarkably Poured Out on a People, A Thorough Reformation of Those Things That Before Were Amiss Amongst Them Ought to Be the Effect of It." Under this heading, Edwards enumerates six things amiss, the last of which is sleeping in church. With great earnestness, Edwards explains why this is Not Good. (For starters, what will strangers think?) And he urges that "persons would avoid laying down their bodies in their seats in the midst of public worship." Who can resist, while reading this, the image of some oafs sprawled out snoring even as Edwards delivered his sermon?

It is one of the great merits of Marsden's biography that he shows us the decidedly unheroic aspect of Edwards' life (which is, of course, the stuff of every human life) while at the same time doing justice both to his towering intellectual achievements and to his incandescent faith, animated by a palpable sense of the sheer beauty and majesty of God. Neither debunking nor hagiographic, it is an almost supernaturally fair-minded portrait.

Alan Wolfe, the Boston College sociologist who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, conjures up a very different Edwards. In his latest book, "The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith," Wolfe chooses to hold up Edwards as the supreme exemplar of the hot, uncompromising, "old-time religion" that many secular people associate with modern evangelicalism. This is the Edwards that many college graduates know from their reading of his notorious sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (usually anthologized in abridged form, and often the only thing by Edwards that a student will encounter).

Wolfe has good news for nervous secularists: they needn't worry so much about their evangelical neighbors. While some judgmental, fire-breathing types are still to be found, most evangelicals, Wolfe claims, practice a cool faith--not cool as in tepid, but cool as in tolerant, cool as the opposite of uptight. Their God of love isn't angry, ever, it seems, and they don't talk much about sin, let alone damnation. Edwards is history.

A less comfortable version of Edwards is found in the ministry of John Piper, the hyper-Calvinist pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. A prolific writer and a speaker much in demand, Piper would agree with Wolfe's depiction of the general tendency of evangelicalism today, but while Wolfe regards the passing of "old-time religion" as a good thing, Piper deplores it--and he finds in Edwards exactly what Christians today are most urgently in need of.

For those who have taken Piper's message to heart--where I live, they include some of the best and the brightest students at Wheaton College and even groups of high school students who meet to read Piper and Edwards together--Edwards offers an alternative to a flabby faith that has lost its grounding. They positively revel in the Edwards who told his terrified listeners about "the God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire."

Most of the evangelicals I know are neither as "cool" as Wolfe suggests nor as "hot" as Piper and his followers. In some ways they are as distant from Edwards as they are from a congregation in 10th-century Ireland, say. Yet in other ways, they share a common language with the great Puritan--sustained by the conviction that, despite all the transmutations the Church has experienced over the course of 2,000 years, it is all finally one coherent story that Christians bear witness to: a cosmic story of creation, fall, and redemption, Christ's victory over sin and death pointing toward the joyful restoration of all things.

It was in that spirit, I think, that Korean Presbyterians, Midwestern Baptists, and Christians of many other varieties joined in celebrating Jonathan Edwards' 300th birthday.

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