Reviews > Culture

Orthodox innovator

Culture

Issue: "Isabel's slow march," Sept. 27, 2003

WHEN I WAS A student at a secularist university, in a secularist philosophy course, my secularist professor opened class one day with an astonished look on his face. He said he wanted to share with us something he had just read. It was a treatise on "Nothingness," arguing that the concept is merely a word, since "nothing" does not exist.

"Now this," the professor marveled, "is a philosopher! And it's Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century Puritan! And he wrote this when he was only 14 years old!"

Oct. 5 marks the 300th anniversary of this child prodigy's birth. He grew up to be one of America's greatest thinkers-the most important theologian from these shores, a philosopher whose ideas reverberated throughout America's literature, arts, and culture, and a leader of what is now hailed as the greatest university in the country. This highly intellectual theologian was also one of America's greatest evangelists, a parish pastor whose preaching ignited the First Great Awakening.

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Edwards was both orthodox and innovative. He was doctrinally and confessionally rigorous while engaging the secular thought of the age in a creative way and bringing thousands to Christ. Three hundred years later, Edwards's ideas remain relevant, and he looms large as a Christian culture warrior worth emulating today.

Pastor, missionary, president

Edwards represents the pinnacle of the American Puritan tradition, though by the time he was born-only three years before Benjamin Franklin-it had already largely passed away. He was born in East Windsor, Conn., the fifth of 11 children, his father being the local pastor. As a boy, he showed precocious talent. By the age of 12, he was reading heavy-duty philosophers and writing discourses such as a refutation of the materiality of the soul and a closely observed account of the behavior of spiders. Just before his 13th birthday, he went off to Yale College, where he graduated with all honors at 17.

After that, he pastored a congregation in New York City and then one in Bolton, Conn., lasting less than a year in both positions, and tutored at Yale for two years. Then in 1726 he took a call to the church in Northampton, Mass. There he served for the better part of his life. After he led his parishioners through one of the greatest spiritual awakenings in history, they voted him out of office in 1750.

From there he was called to Stockbridge, Mass., where he worked as a missionary to Indians. His new congregation consisted of 12 white families and over 200 Indian families. While doing the difficult yet productive work of a missionary, he wrote one of his most acclaimed theological works, Freedom of the Will.

In 1758, he became the third president of Princeton University. He served there only briefly, but his selection demonstrated the connection in those days between Christianity and academia. (According to this year's U.S. News & World Report ranking of colleges and universities, Princeton is tied with Harvard as the best in the nation, though President Edwards would hardly put up with faculty members such as Peter Singer-who advocates infanticide, the killing of the handicapped, and animal-human sex-who holds an endowed chair in, of all things, ethics.) Edwards died of a botched smallpox inoculation in 1758 at the age of 55.

Enlightened

At a time when the Enlightenment was threatening Christianity, the Age of Reason supplanting the Age of Revelation, Edwards boldly engaged the new ideas. But whereas the liberals of his day (and ours) sought to change Christianity to conform with the culture and with the latest fashionable ideas, Edwards did the opposite. Instead of letting the new ways of thinking swallow up Christianity, Edwards found a way for Christianity to swallow up the new ways of thinking.

Just as Thomas Aquinas reconciled classical philosophy with Christianity, Edwards reconciled the Enlightenment with Christianity. While fighting and refuting its atheistic-and deistic-side, Edwards took the valid contributions of Enlightenment thinkers and reappropriated them according to a biblical worldview. He made cynical, skeptical thinkers like Hobbes (for whom human nature is "nasty, brutish, and short") and Hume (with his chain of deterministic causality) serve the biblical doctrine of the Fall. More significantly, he Christianized the empirical thinking of John Locke.

But Edwards did more than Christianize the Enlightenment. He added to the Enlightenment what was missing. To an "Age of Reason," Edwards showed the part emotions also rightly play in human life. Instead of advocating an arid rationalism, which the Romantics would later react against, Edwards anticipated them in cultivating also the inner life of feeling, emotion, and experience.

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