Jonathan Edwards, the Intellectual Magpie:

Introducing Oliver Crisp’s Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians (Eerdmans)

Paul Copan

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is one of my heroes—a true inspiration over the years. His life is worthy of emulation. He was a warm-hearted pastor, a rigorous philosophical theologian, a loving husband, an attentive father, and a dedicated missionary. Of his character, George Whitefield wrote that he had not seen the likes of Edwards in all of New England.

Of course, most people associate Edwards with his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Despite the common, though false, portrayal of Edwards as nothing more than an angry, condemning preacher, biographer George Marsden, exhorts us to take another perspective. For example, Edwards’ grandmother—the mother of his father Timothy—Elizabeth Tuthill (or Tuttle) “was a scandal and a disgrace.” Marsden continues:

Three months after she married Richard Edwards, in 1667, [she] revealed that she was pregnant by another man.  Richard nonetheless protected her by paying the fine for fornication himself and arranging to have the child raised by her parents.  The problem proved to be much deeper.  Elizabeth was given to fits of perversity, “too grievous to forget and too much here to relate,” repeated infidelities, rages, and threats of violence, including to cut Richard’s throat while he was asleep.  The Tuthill family was evidence that New England was not the staid place that we might imagine, but rather one where humans suffered the same horrors found in any era.  One of Elizabeth’s sisters murdered her own child, and a brother killed another sister with an ax.  Jonathan Edwards is sometimes criticized for having too dim a view of human nature, but it may be helpful to be reminded that his grandmother was an incorrigible profligate, his great-aunt committed infanticide, and his great-uncle was an ax-murderer.[1]

Even as a preacher, recent scholarship reveals how Edwards’s thoughtful, Scripture-informed sermons were directed at the “affections”; Edwards was convinced that the sermon was to be experienced, not merely understood, so that the hearers would ultimately be transformed into Christ’s image.

If you want a fine overview of Edwards’ deeply creative thought about preaching and key points of theology, get your hands on Oliver Crisp’s newly-published book, Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians (Eerdmans) This rich, readable volume is truly splendid!

One of the pervasive features of Edwards’s thought is his theological creativity and innovation. (Each day he spent thirteen hours in his study for reflection, reading, and writing.) He would gather a variety of ideas from a host of sources—an “intellectual magpie,” Oliver Crisp calls him. This scholar takes us on a rich, readable tour on the various features of Edwards’s thought: Reformed theology (ch. 1), the doctrine of God (ch. 2), the Trinity (ch. 3), creation (ch. 4), free will (ch. 5), original sin (ch. 6), atonement (ch. 7), preaching (ch. 8), and Christian orthodoxy (ch. 9).

Crisp notes that Edwards was keenly aware of the intellectual challenges coming out of Europe in his own day. And though he saw himself as an heir to the Reformed tradition, he undertook a constructive theology that would address the pressing challenges of his times:

[Edwards’s] intellectual project could be characterized as an attempt to re-envision Reformed theology using aspects of early Enlightenment philosophy. Rather than regarding with suspicion all the literary products of the “new philosophy” . . . Edwards thought of these authors as providing (among other things) new tools by means of which he could undergird Christian theology (p. 4).

Edwards adopted a “theologically entrepreneurial attitude” (p. 15). Throughout the book, Crisp expands upon these interesting theological twists and turns in Edwards’s works—with inevitable surprises for readers less familiar with Edwards’ thought.

For example, although Edwards was comfortable with calling himself a “Calvinist,” he was not beholden to Calvin and did not feel compelled to slavishly follow him or permanently align the Christian faith with a particular theological—or philosophical—tradition (p. 4). Edwards was also able to see past the false philosophical views of a thinker, seeking out any truths to be found while discarding what he took to be false: “we need not,” Edwards said, “reject all truth which is demonstrated by clear evidence, merely because it was once held by some bad man” (cited on p. 5).

Crisp’s analysis may surprise some die-hard Edwards enthusiasts that the latter did not faithfully followed Calvin and the Westminster divines on the primal sin—even though Edwards himself wrote in a 1750 letter to John Erskine that he would he would have “no difficulty” subscribing to the Westminster Confession. Crisp points to the work of Fuller Seminary’s Richard Muller, who has shown how Edwards’s work reflects a strong deterministic departure from the Reformed tradition. Crisp examines the work of Southern Presbyterian theologian John Girardeau (1825-1898), who earlier observed Edwards’s departure from the Reformed path. Indeed, John Calvin and the Westminster divines held to a libertarian understanding of free will before the fall.

John Calvin: “We admit that man’s condition while he still remained upright was such that he could incline to either side” (Institutes 2.3.10); “In this integrity man by free will had the power, if he so willed, to attain eternal life…. Therefore Adam could have stood if he wished, seeing that he fell solely by his own will…. His choice of good and evil was free…until in destroying himself he corrupted his own blessings” (Institutes 1.15.8).

 Westminster Larger Catechism: “Our first parents being left to the freedom of their own will, through the temptation of Satan, transgressed the commandment of God in eating the forbidden fruit; and thereby fell from the estate of innocency wherein they were created” (Question 21).

What about Edwards’s doctrine of God? While many consider him orthodox—following Calvin down the line—Crisp points out other scholarly perspectives. For example, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge considered Edwards pantheistic (i.e., God and the world are identical). And Crisp acknowledges that sometimes “Edwards says rather unguarded things that border on pantheism” (p. 172). Still others consider Edwards panentheistic (i.e., God is somehow “in the world” but not identical to it). Indeed, Edwards wrote that God himself is determined to act in the way he does by his very nature; he could not help but create as an “emanation” or overflow of his nature: “[Edwards’s] more measured remarks are consistent with panentheism, not pantheism” (p. 172).

In the final chapter of the book (“On the Orthodoxy of Jonathan Edwards”), Crisp offers something of a way out for Edwards. He examines key, though not uncontroversial, tenets of Edwards’s theology: panentheism, divine simplicity (God is without distinctions), and occassionalism (God is the sole causal agent in the world, and creatures are only “occasions” for God’s actions; so I don’t raise my arm, but this is an occasion of a divine action). Taken together, these three tenets are contradictory, Crisp argues, and he offers Edwards the least-contradictory path toward a more consistent theology.

These are just a few examples of the various creative theological turns that this “intellectual magpie” took. I won’t say more about Crisp’s book, but I hope you will find the above to be sufficiently intriguing to take up and read this judicious, insightful work on Edwards’s theology.

As a postscript, stay tuned for The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (forthcoming, also from Eerdmans): (It was a privilege for me to contribute an article to this reference work on Edwards and philosophy.) The Encyclopedia is coedited by Edwards scholars Harry Stout, Kenneth Minkema, and Adriaan Neele, and it will surely be a rich resource on Edwards for the scholar and the curious—for many years.

[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 22.

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