If they can distinguish him from the British folk singer of several decades ago, Americans think of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) as a hellfire and damnation preacher famous for his 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Few Christians know that he is widely regarded as the greatest religious mind in the history of the Americas. Or that Yale University Press recently completed the seventy-three-volume critical edition of his Works. Or that some scholars believe that beauty was more central to his vision of God than to that of any other theologian in the history of Christian thought.

Edwards wrote in his masterpiece on spiritual discernment, Religious Affections, “God is God, and to be chiefly distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above them, chiefly by his divine beauty.” The love among the three persons of the Trinity, especially as shown in redemption by the Son of God, “is the beauty of the Godhead, and the divinity of Divinity (if I may so speak), the good of the infinite Fountain of Good; without which God himself (if that were possible to be) would be an infinite evil; without which, we ourselves had better never have been; and without which there had better have been no being.”

It is this theological daring that has stimulated a veritable industry of Edwards scholarship in the last seventy years, including a new short introduction to the man and his thought by George Marsden, the doyen of American religious history. Marsden’s definitive biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003), won the Bancroft Prize, the closest thing in history to a Nobel Prize.   

In this new book—intended to bring Edwards “into the twenty-first century”—Marsden has returned to the Edwards he first discovered in his twenties. The New England thinker’s “invigorating emphasis on the dynamic beauty of God at the heart of reality” grabbed him then and has not let him go. As Marsden says, “You don’t get tired of beauty.”  

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But cancel culture is now threatening Edwards’s reputation. The Massachusetts pastor owned African slaves for most of his career. While this has been well-known for centuries, some are now questioning whether Edwards should be kept on the roll call of great theologians. The Massachusetts pastor-theologian has been castigated by assorted voices online, from theologians to journalists and Twitter trolls for the grave moral wrong of slave-owning. And though Edwards’s error was indeed egregious, Marsden—like all careful historians—warns us against self-righteous presentism. He insists that we can still learn profound things from people with seriously mistaken beliefs.  

This little biography is thick with insights into Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield, the two Edwards contemporaries with whom he has often been compared. In contrast to Edwards, who could be “unyielding and inflexible,” Franklin (1705-90) was “witty and congenial.” A religious skeptic, he was “the first great prophet of the self-made person” and anticipated the humanistic and “moralistic, therapeutic deism” so prevalent today.  

Whitefield (1714-70), the Great Awakening preacher whose pronunciation of the word “Mesopotamia” was said to be capable of bringing a grown man to tears, illustrated many traits of later evangelicalism that Marsden highlights: celebrity culture, self-promotion, distrust of established institutional authority, and increasing trust in individual experience.  

Yet Marsden suggests that a focus on one’s own experience is sometimes necessary in a world of competing and confusing religious claims. This was the purpose of Edwards’s Religious Affections, which Marsden wisely retitles A Treatise on Religious Loves. Edwards has been called the American Augustine, and Marsden concurs. The Affections are not about preferences or feelings but one’s strongest inclinations toward or against the Christian God, like Augustine’s loves for either the City of God or the City of Man.  

So the question in this greatest of all Edwards treatises is, “How do I discern if I am on the road to the true God?” Since Edwards taught our near-infinite capacity for self-deception, we need help to sort things out. He provided twelve “negative” and twelve “positive” signs. The negative signs are unreliable signs that attest to nothing certain. Hearing voices or seeing visions, for example, can sometimes be authentic experiences of true Christians. But they can also be conjured up by the self or the devil.  

The positive signs, on the other hand, are those that accompany every true pilgrim on the road to the celestial city. Marsden highlights a few of these—eyes to see the beauty of God’s perfect love on the cross, a “sense of the heart” that perceives holiness like the way one tastes honey as sweet, humility, and Christian practice such as helping the poor.

Marsden has a gift for bringing clarity to complex events and ideas. For example, to illustrate Edwards’s metaphysics of the cosmos as dependent on mental perception, he translates the theologian’s use of the new science of optics. The color green is not in leaves themselves, says Marsden. But “leaves absorb the rays that make the other colors and reflect only those that our eyes perceive as green.” 

Yet there are slight but significant omissions. One concerns eschatology, on which Edwards wrote at great length. Marsden asserts that for Edwards the Antichrist was the Roman Catholic Church. True but incomplete. First, Edwards meant by this not all of Catholic history but that which centered in the papacy claiming universal rule starting in 606, and especially those popes who oversaw the persecution of  Protestants since the Reformation. Second, Edwards prophesied in his History of the Work of Redemption that in the last centuries of the world Satan would oppose Christ’s kingdom by “two mighty kingdoms of Antichrist and Mohammed . . .  [B]y the false prophet [in the book of Revelation] is sometimes meant the Pope and his clergy, but here an eye also seems to be had to Mohammed whom his followers call the great prophet of God.”  

In this new book intended to bring Edwards “into the twenty-first century,” Marsden has returned to the Edwards he first discovered in his twenties. The New England thinker’s “invigorating emphasis on the dynamic beauty of God at the heart of reality” grabbed him then and has not let him go. As Marsden says, “You don’t get tired of beauty.”

One also wonders about the overall portrait presented. For example, Marsden puts an emphasis on university education that Edwards would probably reject. He rightly praises the “highly educated clergy” in Puritan New England and criticizes “Bible alone” primitivists of the nineteenth century for “disparaging the outlooks of the highly educated and experts.” But when he claims that Edwards faults true Christians for poor proportion because of their “lack of education,” he suggests that Edwards means by “want of proper instructions” a lack of academic education.  

This is probably untrue. In Edwards’s fourth positive sign (the mind’s enlightenment) he argues that “a gracious leading of the Spirit . . . lies in instruction . . . being guided by a spiritual and distinguishing taste . . . without being at the trouble of a train of reasoning.” By “instruction” Edwards seems to have meant something very different from university education.  

Edwards would probably object to Marsden’s related assertion that scholars “provide the best means for keeping church doctrines within the bounds of the best interpretations of biblical teaching that have stood the test of time.” Edwards’s greatest theological opponent was Harvard-educated scholar and pastor Charles Chauncy, who not only opposed the Great Awakening but also secretly taught his disciples the heresy of universal salvation. One thinks of today’s academic theologians who teach in the name of “Christ” not just universalism but salvation through other religions, the sanctity of gay marriage and abortion, and whiteness theology that treats skin color as inherently moral.

The reader of this otherwise delightful introduction could also get the impression that for Edwards true religion is ultimately about me and Jesus. Marsden touches on the church here and there, but the picture of Edwards’s spirituality is primarily individualist: “Christianity is essentially about personal relationships to the divine.”

To be sure, Edwards’s theological masterpiece teaches discernment about the individual’s walk with God, and Marsden devotes his last chapter to it. But Thomas Schafer was right when he argued that Edwards sought to minimize the traditional Protestant distinction between a visible and invisible church, promoted trans-local authority over individual congregations, and called in Humble Attempt (1747) for an international Christian community that would be a “visible union among God’s people.” He famously held that just as “man is incomplete without the woman . . . so Christ is not complete without his spouse [the church].”

A short introduction like this cannot do everything. But a volume intended to bring Edwards into this new century omits the most striking feature of Edwards studies in this century—their international dimensions. Black Pentecostals in South Africa, for example, are drawn to Edwards because he is the premier theologian of revival while at the same time a deep intellectual dive. International scholars run Edwards centers in Japan and Korea, Hungary and Germany, Brazil and Australia.   

It is not only Protestants outside America who have gone to Edwards. Catholic scholars have found, for example, that his identification of God as “Being in general,” his use of biblical and natural typology, and his extensive treatment of God’s purposes in creating are similar to the patristic and medieval traditions. His doctrine of justification, like that of Augustine, held that not only faith but also perseverance and obedience are conditions of salvation. Love is just as important as faith, with one the necessary fruit of the other. 

Edwards’s realist sacramental theology also had Catholic overtones. In a 1743 sacramental sermon on John 6:51 he shared that Christ’s “flesh and blood are [the saints’] meat and drink,” and we partake of these at communion. Furthermore, his embrace of metaphysics as foundational for theology resonates with the Roman tradition.

Another reason for Edwards’s international appeal has been the Eastern flavor to his theology. Participation in God’s being, love, knowledge, and happiness constitutes the essential meaning of salvation for the New England divine. Many scholars have written on his deep embrace of divinization. His Trinitarianism asserted an ontological priority of the Father and affirmed both a single procession of the Spirit from the Father and a double procession from Father and Son, which might help mediate between traditional Eastern and traditional Western views of the Trinity.

Finally, Edwards might be the only major theologian of the last few centuries who is widely known and influential in the burgeoning Pentecostal and charismatic churches whose members number perhaps 600 million Christians. Edwards was a cessationist on the charismatic gifts but he also took an empiricist’s approach to revivals, judging them by their observable fruits rather than by a priori reasoning. Thus his popularity in this enormous world, primarily in the global south. 

Perhaps if Marsden had written a larger introduction, he might have discussed these further dimensions of Edwards’s thought. They are essential to any consideration of “Jonathan Edwards for the Twenty-First Century.”

Image by Mikhail Markovskiy and licensed via Adobe Stock. Image resized.