Commentary: America's Theologian turns 300

By GERALD R. MCDERMOTT, UPI Guest Columnist  |  Oct. 2, 2003 at 4:24 PM
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SALEM, Va., Oct. 2 (UPI) -- Editor's note: Oct. 5 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of American philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-58). UPI's guest columnist is the Rev. Dr. Gerald McDermott, an evangelical Episcopal theologian who teaches religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. He has written three books on Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards has always provoked extreme reactions. Harriet Beecher Stowe complained that Edwards' sermons on sin and suffering were "refined poetry of torture." After staying up one night reading Edwards's treatise on the will, Mark Twain reported that "Edwards's God shines red and hideous in the glow from the fires of hell, their only right and proper adornment. By God, I was ashamed to be in such company."

Generations of Americans have drawn similar conclusions after reading his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," arguably America's most famous sermon. They would be surprised to learn that Edwards was obsessed by God's beauty not wrath, and that Edwards made beauty more central to theology than anyone else in the history of Christian thought.

They would also be surprised to learn that Edwards is widely regarded as America's greatest philosopher before the 20th century, and arguably this continent's greatest theologian ever. One measure of his greatness is Yale University Press's critical edition of his works, which will shortly reach 27 volumes but even at that point include only half of his written oeuvre.

Another token of Edward's importance is the three-volume "Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience," which contains far more references to Edwards than to any other single figure.

Why has there been such interest in and fascination with Edwards? One reason is the extraordinary range and depth of his thinking. Historians have studied Edwards's role as a pastor and the effect of his sermons and books on the Great Awakening, the American Revolution, the modern missionary movement, and the course of both American theology and philosophy; theologians study his insights into the history of salvation, the Trinity, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, original sin, typology, and spiritual discernment; ethicists profit from his writings on true virtue and Christian morality; literary critics are fascinated by his masterly employment of imagery and other literary strategies.

Perhaps most important for Christians, Edwards is widely recognized as America's greatest theologian. Nearly 20 years ago Robert Jenson, the great American Lutheran theologian, published a monograph titled "America's Theologian." H. Richard Niebuhr, America's foremost religious mind in the 20th century, confessed he was greatly indebted to Edwards and saw himself as extending the Edwardsean vision.

Nineteenth-century American theologians at Andover, Princeton and Yale nearly universally claimed his mantle. But it wasn't only the theologians who were impressed: in large sections of antebellum America most homes contained two books -- the Bible and a collection of Edwards' writings.

George Marsden, one of America's most distinguished historians, has just published a major new biography, "Jonathan Edwards: A Life" (Yale University Press). In this book, Marsden explains why Edwards has become the "white whale" of American religious history -- the dazzling mystery that has attracted even atheists such as Harvard's Miller and Berkeley's Henry May.

Part of the answer, explains Marsden, is the beauty of Edwards's religious vision: for Edwards "all created reality is like a quintessential explosion of light from the sun of God's intertrinitarian love."

Edwards's world is full of beauty because beauty and light constitute the essence of its Creator. In Edwards's memorable words, "God is the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty, from whom all is perfectly derived, and on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom and through whom and to whom is all being and all perfection; and whose being and beauty is as it were the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence: much more than the sun is the fountain and summary comprehension of all the light and brightness of the day."

Another reason for Edwards's uncanny attractiveness was his ability to expose fatal flaws in Enlightenment thinking. According to Marsden, Edwards challenged the Enlightenment's grand idea "that humans would find it possible to establish on scientific principles a universal system of morality that would bring to an end the destructive conflicts that had plagued human history."

Because Edwards was nearly the only moral philosopher in the 18th century to deny natural human goodness, he was among the few to perceive that this dream was not only empty but could lead to unimagined horrors.

It is precisely because of the 20th century's experience of human horror that Edwards' thinking on hell cannot be so easily dismissed. As Marsden puts it, Edwards believed that each person is "by nature incredibly short-sighted, self-absorbed, and blinded by pride." Only a traumatic jolt could burst the bonds of such self-absorption. Therefore the verbal violence of hellfire and damnation "was a gift of God to awaken people who were blindly sleepwalking to their doom."

For more than two centuries, Edwards's steely-eyed willingness to stare down evil without blinking has appealed to many who have fought America's proclivity to pollyannish liberal optimism. For both this realism and his vision of God's beauty, Edwards continues to astonish and inspire today.

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