Allen C. Guelzo has written an insightful and argumentative review essay on recent interpretations of Jonathan Edwards. In “Unpalatable to Modern Sensibilities,” Guelzo reviews Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical, by Philip F. Gura — and then goes on to raise larger questions.
Guelzo’s article addresses several controversial issues in Edwards scholarship of recent years, and he steps on many scholarly toes. But his essay makes what I consider to be a very important point. Many recent works on Jonathan Edwards are attempts to turn him into what he certainly was not — a theologian who would fit nicely into the world of modern and postmodern thought.
Gura concedes that “Edwards couched his vision in language that many today would find offensive, or at least unpalatable.” That is an understatment. Just try reading “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” at the local Rotary meeting (or at many churches, for that matter).
Guelzo counters Gura: Still, there is a very real sense in which Edwards, if he cannot be stretched so thin as to provide a theologian for the age of therapy, still has reason to be considered “America’s Evangelical.” But even this is because the Edwards who survived the apparent death of his reputation in 1758 acquired his outsized standing over the following century at the expense of the very things the historical Edwards thought were the most important.
More: Gura is astute enough to see how American evangelicalism has re-made Edwards into something it can admire and “trumpeted him as the progenitor of a remarkable American spirituality”; but apparently that only gives Gura permission to do likewise for those today who are “unaffiliated with any explicitly religious tradition” and who simply want to “reconceive the tenor of the spiritual life.” And there is nothing which Jonathan Edwards would have found more bleakly abhorrent.
Guelzo criticizes Iain Murray for a lack of primary research in writing his Edwards biography, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, but he also concedes that Murray is “by the way, quite a good writer and quite well-read in Edwards’ published works and the secondary literature on Edwards.” He then went on to argue that it is Murray who comes closest to presenting Edwards as he actually was, “an utter partisan of Calvinist orthodoxy with the brains and inclination to confront the most abstruse intellectual challenges to that orthodoxy, a man of the most solemn integrity who would rather be broken by the storm than bend to the self-serving wishes of his own times and his own congregation, a man of ideas for whom personalities come in a distant second.”
From the real Jonathan Edwards:
Whoever thou art, whether young or old, little or great, if thou art in a Christless, unconverted state, this is the wrath, this is the death to which thou art condemned. This is the wrath that abideth on thee; this is the hell over which thou hangest, and into which thou art ready to drop every day and every night. If thou shalt remain blind, and hard, and dead in sin a little longer, this destruction will come upon thee: God hath spoken and he will do it. It is vain for thee to flatter thyself with hopes that thou shalt avoid it, or to say in thine heart, perhaps it will not be; perhaps it will not be just so; perhaps things have been represented worse than they are. [From “The Future Punishment of the Wicked: Unavoidable and Intolerable.”]
The greater the mercy of God is, the more should you be engaged to love him, and live to his glory. But it has been contrariwise with you; the consideration of the mercies of God being so exceeding great, is the thing wherewith you have encouraged yourself in sin. You have heard that the mercy of God was without bounds, that it was sufficient to pardon the greatest sinner, and you have upon that very account ventured to be a very great sinner. Though it was very offensive to God, though you heard that God infinitely hated sin, and that such practices as you went on in were exceeding contrary to his nature, will, and glory, yet that did not make you uneasy; you heard that he was a very merciful God, and had grace enough to pardon you, and so cared not how offensive your sins were to him. How long have some of you gone on in sin, and what great sins have some of you been guilty of, on that presumption! Your own conscience can give testimony to it, that this has made you refuse God’s calls, and has made you regardless of his repeated commands. Now, how righteous would it be if God should swear in his wrath, that you should never be the better for his being infinitely merciful!. [From “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.”]
There also the hateful nature of our sins is manifested in the most affecting manner possible: as we see the dreadful effects of them, in that our Redeemer, who undertook to answer for us, suffered for them. And there we have the most affecting manifestation of God’s hatred of sin, and his wrath and justice in punishing it; as we see his justice in the strictness and inflexibleness of it; and his wrath in its terribleness, in so dreadfully punishing our sins, in one who was infinitely dear to him, and loving to us. So has God disposed things, in the affair of our redemption, and in his glorious dispensations, revealed to us in the gospel, as though everything were purposely contrived in such a manner, as to have the greatest possible tendency to reach our hearts in the most tender part, and move our affections most sensibly and strongly. How great cause have we therefore to be humbled to the dust, that we are no more affected! [From “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections,” Part One, Section Three.]
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
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