Editor’s Note: Adam Newcomb Boyd recently published a new book entitled Jonathan Edwards, Beauty, and Younger Evangelicals published by JESociety Press. This book can be purchased on Amazon here. What follows is a recent interview with the author about his faith and life, as well as a synopsis of the new book.
Adam, give us an introduction to your own life and work for those not familiar.
I became a Christian during my freshman year in College through an enthusiastically charismatic ministry. After growing up with an under-applied faith, I was ready to be all in. I didn’t want to miss anything, and there were a lot of things going on with the charismatic movement at that time. At some point my brother Bobby handed me a copy of the Westminster Confession and I finally ended up at RTS in Jackson. If you look at the school directories from those years you will see written in the description under my picture in year 1, “Assemblies of God;” year 2, “Non-Denominational;” year 3 “PCA.” It was a gentle, gracious education thanks to men like Knox Chamblin and Ligon Duncan.
I grew up with my family running summer camps, first in Atlanta and then in North Carolina, but Ann and I were not interested in that. It was hard work, and we frankly lacked vision for the impact camps could have. Instead the plan was either missions or campus ministry until we were both struck by an oddly undeniable call back into camping. What we found was that a seminary degree was the perfect training for leading staff and developing a mission that was surprisingly effective for the gospel. We feel like we found a niche where Christians can learn to be a blessing to the world and unbelievers can see the beauty of the gospel.
Tell us about the camps you run. How do you like doing ministry in a non-ecclesiastical setting? I bet you have a great opportunity to impact many people’s lives.
Both our camps are expressly Christian programs. Our counselors are thoughtful believers who share a high view of the Bible and are growing in grace. It’s really fun to work with these guys, especially because our campers do not necessarily come from Christian homes. This is our 75th summer, and some campers come because of that tradition. Others come because friends are coming, etc., but the important thing is that they come back summer after summer. I heard someone say that a broken world view is like a broken bone. It must be handled very gently, with empathy. Many of our campers come from homes with broken world views and we have the chance to gently help them experience the gospel through friends and adventure. After they have been with us for seven or eight years, after they have learned to take risks in kayaks and on ropes, and make friends who are more like family because they live together, we see them becoming Christians.
And of course the ones who come from Christian homes (about half of our campers) have the chance to see what their parents are teaching them demonstrated by counselors that they watch summer after summer.
What drew you into the field of Jonathan Edwards studies?
Honestly, I found myself asking what is wrong with me? Why am I more entertained by Breaking Bad than Second Corinthians? There has to be an ontological break in me and Edwards helped me find that break. So I started reading Jonathan Edwards because of a very narrow, very personal question. I have kept reading him because of the way he answers this and so many others.
I love the perspicuity of scripture. Sadly, there is no perspicuity of Jonathan Edwards, and there is precious little perspicuity of his commentators. The good part about this is that reading Edwards requires me to slow down and think about what he is saying. The bad part is that it takes commitment, which is tough if Breaking Bad is coming on.
Who are some of your favorite Edwards scholars, and what books inspired you to go deeper with JE?
I like some of the older guys: Conrad Cherry and Perry Miller are a great way to measure the growth in current scholarship and they help with a feel for some of the high points. More recently I have enjoyed JE Society’s The Miscellanies Companion, and your article there in particular. I also love Patricia Tracy’s historical lens, but Ronald Delattre was the most helpful on zeroing in on Edwards’s concept of beauty. His Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards is my first recommendation for understanding Edwards’s aesthetic.
Hey! Thanks for the kind words! So you’ve written the new book Jonathan Edwards, Beauty, and Younger Evangelicals. Give us a brief synopsis of your overall goals.
A lot of people understand that you cannot separate the head and the heart (the 18” truism). Edwards shows us why. He takes us on a journey through the veins and sinew that feed and bind these things together. He uncovers the neural pathways of inclination. I think this is what our younger evangelicals are looking for; some way of reconciling what they find beautiful (inclination) and their faith. The book is about that.
It is also about Edwards’s method. He was too confident to be protectionist. He knew that new ideas could push us deeper into God’s world so he was never afraid to engage. Younger Evangelicals want that too. They want to engage with the world rather than hide from it, and we all know that; none of this is new. What is new (or forgotten) is the way Edwards shows us how to do that.
In the first part, you did some biblical exegetical work. What did you focus on?
I wanted to show how the church has engaged with beauty throughout the history of redemption. The church wants what the Bible describes. I wanted to show that these are not new ideas, they are not inventions to make the faith sound relevant. The beauty of God is fundamental throughout scripture. Christian faith is primarily about finding something so beautiful that we cannot live without it.
After that, you dove pretty deeply in the Religious Affections. Why did you choose that work among Edwards’ many treatises?
I think Religious Affections is more accessible to some readers. It’s organization is intuitive so I could spend time unpacking his syntax rather than his argument. I also felt that its close ties to the events of Edwards’s day gives another handle for a first-time Edwards reader to grab onto. It is easier to understand what people are talking about when you understand why they were talking.
In the next main section, you do some comparison and contrasting to Newton and Locke. How does Edwards compare to these giants?
He compares as an equal. Each had their chosen primary studies: physics and mathematics for Newton, moral and political philosophy for Locke and of course practical theology for Edwards. But their brilliance is shown in their curiosity and overlap into other fields. I spent some time on this because Edwards that overlap proves the confidence of his method. It also contrasts with the way we often engage new ideas.
Towards the end of the book, you do quite a bit of pastoral application. Give our readers a taste of that.
Let me give one example as a “quick taste.” I read somewhere that if you want employees tell them what to do. If you want leaders tell them why you do what you do. Matthew says that we (and our students) are the light of the world – we are building leaders. That is why I added a “why did we?” section at the end of most of the lessons described in the last section. I added this for the readers, but I also included it when I taught this material at my church. The idea was to explain the content along with how we employ it in the way we teach.
God’s truth is for God’s people so I wanted to help readers think through how they might make it accessible.