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Jonathan Edwards: A Life

I just completed George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life. I'm not sure how to begin summarizing such a comprehensive work of incredible breadth and depth, so instead I'll just provide a few historiographical thoughts. In describing his goal for the book, he writes
As a biographer attempting to understand Edwards first as an eighteenth-century figure, I have been working most directly as a cultural historian. Yet I have been doing this always with an eye on the theological question, taking his thought seriously as part of the larger Christian tradition.
I think Marsden succeeds marvelously at this, balancing cultural with intellectual and theological history, understanding Edwards not simply as the result of historical forces of the times, nor as a disembodied theological mind working apart from the influence of the times and culture, but rather as an (albeit exceptional) eighteenth-century clergyman, writer, husband, and father whose theological framework greatly shaped his life and work. By viewing him in this way, he finds an extraordinary, but also humanly-flawed, Jonathan Edwards.

In addition to being inspired and overwhelmed by the amount of research, thinking, and writing involved in crafting this 600-page work, as an aspiring historian I also found insight in Marsden's perspective on the value of biography for Christians:
If one has, as I do, theological mentors from across the ages, then it is valuable to realize that their insights on spiritual matters come framed by their particular personal and cultural circumstances. My belief is that one of the uses of being an historian, particularly if one is part of a community of faith, is to help persons of such communities better understand what they and their community might appropriate from the great mentors of the past and what is extraneous and nonessential...to employ historical consciousness for developing more discriminating assessements of the wisdom of the past...We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from the great figures of the past - both in their brilliance and their shortcomings. Otherwise we are stuck with only the wisdom of the present.

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I just read the NT Wright essay on Mere Christianity, and then I read this. I realized that I don't think much about that kind of historical context when I read some authors. I mean, could we honestly imagine a Lewis without Freud or WWII? I don't know what Edwards's particular issues were, but that is interesting to think how all that teases out into someone's thought.

Here's an idea: perhaps when we read the Reformers bashing the Catholics so much, we might not need to do the same thing just to think ourselves "Reformed," especially after Vatican II. The Reformers had a very different theological and historical context from which they were working, and Rome has changed somewhat since then. I don't actually have much at all worked out in my thoughts towards Catholics, but I think that if we recognized the differences in historical contexts, we might be able to stand firmly in the tradition of Geneva while making friends with Rome. (And hopefully, on the way, we might make a stop together at an empty tomb in Jerusalem.)

Just a thought...


As for your thoughts on Catholic-Protestant relations, I definitely agree that just because it was important for Luther and Calvin to strongly oppose Rome in their time does not mean we need to feel obligated to do so. We should instead be free to ask questions (as many are doing/have done) about where we're at today, what differences we still have, and if there's hope for more familial relations.

From the book, here's a few things I took to be Edwards' particular historical circumstances that we can learn from and try avoid while appropriating the wealth of knowledge and example of piety that he offers:

-Overly optimistic millenialism: He thought the world was coming to an end soon (well, in a couple hundred colonies as English) and therefore interpreted current events in that framework. [Hmm...what could this sound like?] For example, he kept a notebook of setbacks experienced by "Rome," seeing it as the gradual of the Antichrist before the end.
-Nationalism: In this millenial framework, he thought that the New World would become, in the words of John Winthrop, the "city on a hill" through which God would bring about his victory over the world. (I got the impression he tended toward something like postmillenialism.) Thus he often confused England's (or the colonies') interests with God's interests. [Again, still very applicable in 21st century America.]
-Along with that then, a difficulty to separate cultural differences from moral issues. Like most New Englanders, he saw English culture as superior to native cultural because it was "Christian." He did, however, have a much higher view of the native people than many New Englanders, viewing them as equal in worth and value in God's eyes, supporting Indian missions and spending several years of his life as a missionary to the Housatonic Indians.
-He was writing during the Englightenment and so was using categories of the Enlightenment (he was esp. influenced by Locke) in developing his theology. I can't say much more than that without reading his theological work, but it's something to be aware of when reading Edwards.

"couple hundred colonies as English"? I'm pretty sure I meant "couple hundred years." That must have been a cut and paste nightmare.

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