Recovering the Real Jonathan Edwards

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism, Church History, Renewal

One of the more important developments in the study of American evangelicalism is a growing interest in America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards. I have been reading Jonathan Edwards since I became deeply interested in revival studies at age 21. The more I read the more interested I became. Edwards does grow on you once you get beyond the stereotypes, which abound.

jonathan-edwards Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) is generally believed to be America's greatest religious mind. He was a genius. Since the late Perry Miller published an intellectual biography of Edwards in 1949 a flood of dissertations, articles and books have appeared resulting in a modern explosion of studies on the man and his theology.

For many years I thought that I understood Edwards well enough, having listened to second-hand opinions from various preachers who quoted his work. I had read some of his sermons and several of his more well-known works, as well as in sundry material by readers of Edwards. (I also took a class on Edwards from the late John Gerstner at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the late 1970s.) As time went by I re-read Edwards and began to pay attention to other voices in the field with growing interest and appreciation. One of the things that prompted this interest was a surprising conversation about Edwards that I had with a Reformed historian who did not like him at all and told me why. His opposition to Edwards actually made me realize that he was right about what he said and that his questions should be discussed more openly. It was then that I realized Jonathan Edwards was far more interesting, and far less like the person I had been introduced to by popular readers and preachers, than I had imagined.

Eventually a new interest in Edwards was stirred directly by the work of several scholars who happen to also be my friends: Dr. Gerald McDermott and Dr. Michael McClymond. McDermott teaches religion at Roanoke College (VA) and McClymond teaches theology at St. Louis University (MO). These two men have done more to re-calibrate my view of Edwards, in a very positive way, than any other writers and thinkers. I think they grasp the nuance, originality and brilliance of the man and his thought. I commend their work to all.

Understanding Edwards To this end I encourage you to become more aware of this renaissance of Edwards studies. Ordinary people now have great tools which they can use to get to know the real Jonathan Edwards. One of best such "tools"  is McDermott's  carefully edited Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America’s Theologian. Of this book the highly respected historian Mark A. Noll says: "This unusually helpful book is distinctive for how clearly its scholarly authors explain the wide-ranging significance of Jonathan Edwards for readers who are not themselves scholars. The inclusion of European commentators also demonstrates how wide contemporary interest has grown in Edwards as America's greatest theological voice. The book is, in equal measure, authoritative, accessible, and illuminating."

McDermott’s brilliant collection offers an introduction to both Edwards's life and thought and is written at the level of the educated general reader. Each chapter serves as a kind of general introduction to one of Edwards's major topics, including revival, the Bible, beauty, literature, philosophy, typology, and even world religions (a special interest of McDermott). Leading experts contribute to this edited volume thus making it a compendium of immense value.

The second indispensable Edwards book is George A. Marsden’s shorter biography: A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards. (For those who want their Edwards fully caffeinated get the much larger Marsden biography: Jonathan Edwards: A Life.) If you read this biography, and the McDermott collection, you will then be on your way to reading Edwards for yourself with a fresh and renewed appreciation of the real man.