Four Reasons Not to Study Jonathan Edwards

This is a website devoted to the writings and philosophy of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the Puritan/pastor/philosopher. Here, we commonly examine his extant works, tease out the implications of the same, and discuss the richness of his voluminous writings in conversation with competent and able scholars who have devoted years to pouring over Edwards’s thoughts.

As studying Jonathan Edwards has been a major intellectual challenge for me over the past ten years – not to mention an outstanding source of devotional piety –  I thought it might be appropriate to also give some cautions to beginning scholars. Henceforth, in this brief article, I present

Four Reasons NOT to Study Jonathan Edwards

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1. Edwards is Trendy. There is no doubt that Jonathan Edwards has experienced a stunning upsurge in popularity in the  previous century. Despite Ezra Stiles’s woebegone prediction that Edwards’s writings would soon be relegated to the dustbin of history, the opposite has happened. The Wigged Puritan has mounted an incomparable comeback in the last one hundred years. Ever since Perry Miller’s work in the 1950’s, Edwards has been on a virtual tear. The lauding of Reformed stalwarts Martyn Lloyd-Jones and R.C. Sproul have been a boon to Edwards’s reputation. Popularizers such as John Piper and Sam Storms have brought Edwards to unseen heights. Scores of doctoral dissertations have been written on the Northampton Pulpiteer. Major publishers such as Crossway cannot seem to crank out enough books to satisfy the trending popular thirst for more of Edwards. I have compiled a list of outstanding books, most of which have been written in the last ten to twenty years, that comb through Edwards’s major thoughts and ideas extensively. They sell like hotcakes.

And yet popularity alone is not sufficient. If you ask me, trends and fascinations alone are not compelling enough reason to begin a lifetime of study on any particular historical person. Since what can be read in one lifetime is so minuscule compared to what we need to know, we ought to choose better reasons to study any particular saint in history than that they are currently popular. Edwards’s biography is not nearly as adventuresome as Livingstone or Carey. His works are not nearly as quotable as Spurgeon’s. His life story not as significant as Luther’s. His theology not as paradigmatic as Calvin’s. Yes, reading Edwards will be richly rewarding to those who try, but his mere popularity alone is not a good enough reason. If you are undeterred still, read on and consider that

2. Edwards is Difficult. If you are expecting to immediately dive into Edwards and reap dividends, perhaps I can caution you and save you some time. He is a very hard read at times. Please do not begin with the Freedom of the Will. Yes, Sproul says that “this is the most important work ever published in America,” but please do not interpret that as in any way suggesting that it is one of the most approachable works. It is relentlessly logical. It is dense in its progression. It circles around and around again. It assumes the reader has technical awareness of the issues at hand. Its language is dated. It engages interlocutors that have long been dead. It argues at a philosophical level that transcends 98% of the books you will find in the average Christian bookstore!

Now this is not to suggest that Edwards is impossible to understand however. Far from it. Begin with his sermons if you like. His sermons at times can be rather easy to understand (if very difficult to live up to!). And there are more readable works such as the The Religious Affections, which I believe, most Christians can read to great devotional benefit, even if being lost in his vocabulary or argumentation at points. But if you are still so eager to dive into even Edwards’s more difficult works and treatises, be warned that

3. Edwards is Voluminous. Very few people will ever make it through the entire corpus of Edwards’s own writings. In fact, this is impossible since many of his works are still being transcribed from his nearly indiscernible handwriting. What does exist in print fills 26 volumes of the Yale Editions. The Edwards.Yale.edu websight (a wonder of the modern world in its own right) contains somewhere around 70 volumes of digitized works. And yet more keep being added. This is because Edwards thought and wrote with his pen in hand almost every day of his life.

Please understand: Edwards is not an author or subject of study that one can “master.” His works are too many. The hill is too high. The mountain nearly impossible to scale. Without trying to frustrate the scholar, our hopes of reading all that Edwards has to say about biblical interpretation, theology, sermonizing, philosophy, typology, and history (to name a few) cannot be mastered by any one person. This is why relentless dialogue between scholars of various fields is so important. He is not like other writers who have just a handful of works which one can easily digest in the course of a few months or years. Edwards is the Mount Everest of Puritan theology. But if you still persist, consider

4. Edwards is (Mostly) Orthodox. His Calvinism will offend your modern sensibilities. He will drive you back to your Bible over and over. He will preach the damnable sinfulness of man until your conscience aches. He will insist on divine predestination and the sovereignty of God. He will tell you that you cannot convert yourself. He will close all possible doors on universalism. He is the exemplar of Puritan High Orthodoxy. If this offends you, it would be better to turn elsewhere. Jonathan Edwards believed in the doctrines of grace and the essential tenets of Reformed (or Calvinistic) orthodoxy. Evangelicals with wimpier theological bona fides will find themselves pressed between the rock of Edwards’s relentless logic and the hard place of his King James Bible. In short, Edwards will insist that “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9) and that there is “there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

And yet just when you have Edwards all “figured out,” he will go ahead and thwart you with his innovative doctrine of continuous creation, or his flirtation with panentheism (in places), or by refusing to use the inherited traditional language of justification agreed upon in the Reformed tradition.

Conclusion. Perhaps it would be better NOT to study Jonathan Edwards. There are easier men to read. There are others out there who will not stun your conscience as often or insist so much on holy living as Edwards. There are those who will leave you with a warm feeling instead of a knot in your stomach and a cramp in your brain. There are others whose writings can be digested in a few light readings.

But not Edwards.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a life-time companion who will challenge you, demand rigorous intellectual engagement from you, and stir your soul to reconsider the greatness and the beauty of God – Jonathan Edwards is just the friend you are looking for.

 

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