Stephen J. Nichols, a professor at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School, lives with his wife and two sons in Lancaster, Pa. Nichols received a Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary and has authored six books, including a new one published in June by Crossway, Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards's Vision of Living in Between.
WORLD: In between what?
SJN: Between the promise of heaven and being there. Christians have wrestled with being in the world and not of it since the days of Christ. Augustine tackled it in his classic City of God. And, Jonathan Edwards had a great deal to say about it-much of which, I'm convinced, speaks directly to being disciples in the 21st century.
WORLD: So let's dive in. You write that the apostle Paul's statement to the Philippians that "Our citizenship is in heaven" should be contextualized by the understanding of Roman citizenship common at the time. You note that it didn't mean a Roman citizen in Philippi should hasten to Rome, but that he should bring the glory of Rome to Philippi . . .
SJN: Some take this text to mean that we should have very little to do with this world, with life on earth. Heaven is our home, this interpretation argues, and that is where our allegiances lie. Recently, however, some New Testament scholars have made a compelling case for thinking about this text differently. Citizens of Rome who lived in Philippi were not to pine away for Rome. Instead, they were to bring Rome to Philippi. We shouldn't pine away for heaven. Instead, as citizens of heaven living on earth we should bring heaven here, even if it is only in miniature. Remarkably, Edwards was preaching such an insight to his Northampton congregation three centuries ago.
WORLD: Doesn't your summary of Edwards's appeal-that we should be Christians "because of the pleasure it brings in this life"-go against our common understanding of his teaching and that of the Puritans generally?
SJN: It certainly does. Much of our culture is content to live with an oversimplified caricature of the Puritans as stodgy, mean-spirited kill-joys, a la the portrayals in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and Miller's The Crucible. Reality, however, disappoints those hanging on to the common understanding. Edwards had a capacious mind and spirit. He simply can't be contained in the caricature. We know him mostly as the preacher of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." But, he also preached the sermon "Heaven Is a World of Love," and the sermon you're referring to, "The Pleasantness of Religion," in which he makes a winsome case that Christianity is pleasure-full.
WORLD: Pleasure-full-and you write (this would shock many of the University of Texas students I teach) that Christianity helps us to maximize sensory pleasure. How?
SJN: In "The Pleasantness of Religion" Edwards explains that seeking pleasure without any checks or balances can actually boomerang to pain. Who hasn't been to a smorgasbord, only to waddle out muttering, "Why did I eat so much?" Edwards shows us the proper pursuit of pleasure. The sting of conscience can eclipse pleasure, but Christians may pursue pleasure "peaceably" and not in "slavish fear." We can enjoy sensory pleasure because we realize that God has made this world for us to enjoy and to savor, or as Edwards would put it, to relish. Edwards often uses the illustration of honey. We should enjoy its sweetness just as we should enjoy all of God's gifts.
WORLD: So why, in Edwards's time and our own, has Christianity been saddled with the reputation of being anti-pleasure?
SJN: Some of it's a caricature, but some of it's deserved. Christians often stumble when talking about pleasure. We tend to talk about what we're against. For instance, we tout sexual abstinence when we should also be touting the pleasures of sex in marriage. We tend to be, or at least appear to be, uncomfortable in this world, which is tragically ironic since this world belongs to our Father. On a deeper level, we should also be challenging contemporary society's redefinition of happiness from a life of virtue to the rather vacuous self-centered and self-absorbed life. My pleasure isn't only about me; pleasure is more than what makes me happy.
WORLD: John Piper has written about "The Pleasures of God." How does your approach complement his?
SJN: There is so much in John Piper that I appreciate, not the least of which is his recovery of Edwards for the church. What I'm trying to do in this book directly reflects what he's been doing in showing us Edwards's contagious vision of enjoying and glorifying God in all of life. I look at how Edwards's anticipation of life with God in heaven isn't something far off, but something that starts now, something that has everything to do with life on earth. This life is the prelude to the grand symphony of heaven.
WORLD: So we're supposed to have pleasure all through the day, not just on weekends-but doesn't confusion about work, and our calling to particular occupations, get in the way? How can we be helped by Edwards's philosophical answer to the question about how we find happiness; "When the creature is in that state that is most agreeable to the proper perfection of its nature, then it is in its most happy state"?
SJN: A sports analogy may help. A running back isn't happy sitting on the bench, nor is he happy on defense. He's happy when he's in the game and gets called for the play. On a fundamental level, we were made to serve and worship and glorify God. We are only truly happy in doing so. This is made concrete in our lives as spouses, parents and children, as teachers, journalists, managers, and employees. Our vocation is what God has created us for and what He has gifted us to do. By doing it we are serving and glorifying Him. We are-using a word that only Edwards could coin-happified.
WORLD: So the goal of work is not just to earn but to serve and glorify. These days the "prosperity gospel" often makes economic success a centerpiece-so how does Edwards's typical emphasis on happiness differ sharply from that doctrine?
SJN: If we remember that Edwards's understanding of happiness stems from glorifying and enjoying God, then we quickly realize that our own prosperity, material or otherwise, recedes. Edwards's most stinging criticism of the "prosperity gospel" would likely be that it has radically displaced God, that it has subverted God's glory for one's own success. And, Edwards himself did not lead a charmed life. He knew the pain of suffering and loss. He even experienced failure when he was voted out of his church in Northampton.
WORLD: What earthly pleasures did Edwards enjoy?
SJN: He did like chocolate, and apparently he had a taste for good cheese imported from England. Due to his gracious and capable wife, Sarah, he enjoyed his bookish life of study and writing. He relished nature, often taking long horseback rides through his beloved Connecticut River Valley. But, he faced challenges. Contention with his congregation filled the last five years of his life at Northampton. In the 1750s he endured personal attacks as he stumbled into a political fiasco at the Mohican mission in Stockbridge. He died of complications from a smallpox inoculation, suffering greatly the last few weeks of his life. I'm not sure most of us would want to trade places with him.
WORLD: So how does the emphasis on pleasure, rightly understood, go with Edwards's belief that-to quote one of his sermon titles-"The True Christian's Life [is] a Journey toward Heaven?"
SJN: Edwards once said that since heaven is a world of love, the way to heaven is the way of love. In heaven we will enjoy God and others, free from sin and selfish ambitions, "unclogged" as Edwards put it. In heaven, we will have, as Milton told us, Paradise regained. Edwards wants us to see that the journey isn't distinct from the destination. As C.S. Lewis once said, those "who did the most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next."