One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to pursue a handful of theological mentors as a lifelong learner. I believe it was John Piper who wrote something to that effect in one of his books. He had chosen Jonathan Edwards as one of his own “dead mentors,” and I too began to be intrigued by the idea that I could take just a few of the great dead theologians and study their thinking reflectively. I mean, really delve deeply into their thought and way of life to absorb as much as possible about them.
In some sense, we must all choose between reading broadly and reading deeply to some extent. We could choose, for instance, to read quite broadly from a bit of Augustine, Luther, and Edwards here, and then a little bit of Warfield, Lewis, Piper, Packer and others there. In fact, I see great value in that sort of enterprise. After all, I do want to be well read, and I think most other scholars, theologians, and pastors feel the same. But we’d probably have to skim across the top, and read just a few of their well known works to really get to know each of them.
Another approach could be to choose to read deeply and reflectively in just one or two of these authors, if perhaps only for a few months or years at a time. After all, the shortness of human life, the finitude of our humanity, and the competition for our time from other endeavors in life (such as the priority of church, ministry, and family) all necessarily limit our scope and ability to read all that we want to read.
So I took Piper’s advice and for the last three years, I have been trying to live in the mind of just two men, the dead theologian Jonathan Edwards, and the living theologian John Frame. I have to admit that this has been very good for my overall thinking.
I chose Jonathan Edwards for my doctoral dissertation at Reformed Theological Seminary, and I didn’t look back. I made this decision consciously, and having already sampled quite a bit of his material in prior years, especially his sermons. I determined to read Edwards for a number of reasons: 1. Edwards represents some of the best thinking in my own tradition, Reformed or Calvinistic evangelicalism. 2. Edwards is regarded as one of the best, if not the best, theologian America has ever produced. I could read him in his own language, English, untranslated. 3. But my third reason was most important: he spoke about joy as much or more as any other theologian I know of. If Luther is the theologian of justification, and Calvin is the theologian of the Holy Spirit, Edwards must certainly be the theologian of joy.
Stressed and worn by several hard years of pastoral ministry, I needed a good dose of joy and Edwards was just the one to give it to me. My topic for my dissertation then became “Jonathan Edwards’s Theology of Joy.”
So for the past three years I have been studying the life and ministry of Jonathan Edwards. I read his Religious Affections, The End for Which God Created the World, The Nature of True Virtue, The Distinguishing Marks, Freedom of the Will, and many more.
In the best sense of the word, I have stalked him. I’ve been rummaging through his major works. I’ve been ruminating in his personal papers and Miscellanies. Even eavesdropping into his private letters. And I have found joy everywhere.
[See also my post: Top Ten Edwards Books]
In the coming months, I hope to publish my findings from my dissertation more broadly so that others too can savor the gleanings of joy that I found in Edwards. But before I wrap up this post, I want to give just a few reasons why you too should consider spending a few months or years in the mind of a genius like Edwards.
1. Choosing a dead theologian takes us out of our limited culture and experience and puts us into the midst of the trials and struggles of saints who have gone before us. I especially appreciated walking with Edwards as he found joy in the tumults of his own times: the threats of Native Americans, the tensions regarding the Great Awakening, and even the looming danger of such diseases as tuberculosis, which eventually took the life of his friend David Brainerd. These struggles, although greatly different from our own, actually show us how much we have in common.
2. Reading a dead theologian helps us to think perspectivally. As I go through my day, reading my Bible, talking to my staff, playing with my children – I can’t help but be myself. None of us can be anything other than ourselves! And yet reading deeply and reflectively in another man’s works helps us to see life (even our Bibles!) through another lense. Through another perspective. Having read dozens of books by and about Edwards, I can’t help but ask myself “How would Edwards have viewed this?” or “What would Edwards have done about this problem?” Considering our situations from another perspective helps us to be more objective thinkers and overall, more creative and credible preachers, and writers (or artists, homemakers, or engineers as the case may be).
3. Finally, by reading a dead theologian, I got a fresh glimpse of Edwards’s God. The Northampton Puritan helped me to see God again and in bright, daring new ways. The God of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is certainly different from the milder, more domesticated God of many seeker-friendly churches today! Edwards expanded my view of God’s greatness; His holiness, justice, and power. Most of all, and perhaps this is particular to Edwards, I saw God again as Holy Trinity. Edwards is constantly reminding his readers that salvation is accomplished by a thrice-holy God, ever existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this God – is relentlessly joyful in Himself.
Matthew Everhard is the senior pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida and the curator of EdwardsStudies.com.