The Essential Jonathan Edwards by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney

The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America's Greatest Theologian

As an incurable reader, I often find myself stumped over what kind of book I need to read next.  My tastes range from theology to literature to history to politics to poetry to philosophy to biography and more.  I could almost paraphrase Will Rogers and say, “I never met a book I didn’t like.”  I have met a few that were not to my liking, but I am prone to find something of use in even the worst of readings.

My morning reading time is when I focus on Biblical and theological books.  If a book is devotional, without being fluffy, and enlightening, it makes for a good start for the morning stack of books.  I have about an hour to read and usually read a chapter or about 10 pages from each of 3 or 4 books.  (This method works well for me.)  After the book aimed at the heart, I am more ready for the book aimed at the mind.  So, a book applying Bible teachings might be read from first and then followed by a bit more weighty theological reading.  The preferred third book is usually more focused on Christian worldview thinking.  It might be on history, education, current issues, philosophy, or some other area.  It might or might not be a specifically Christian book.

This brings us to the topic of The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney.  This book is published by Moody Publishers.

In light of the different types of books I like to read in the morning session, The Essential Jonathan Edwards can fit into any of the categories.  The breadth of the approach of the book itself is similar to the breadth of the subject.  Jonathan Edwards is acclaimed as one of the great preachers of all time.  He is also one of the great theologians.  He was also a prolific writer.  He is recognized for his contributions to the field of philosophy.  He is studied for his views on any number of topics, both those pertinent to his times and to ours.

As the subject of biography, Edwards’ life is also rich.  He lived in colonial America during a period that was just past the heyday of Puritan thought and just before the period leading up to the American Revolution and War for Independence.  I will assume for the moment that the term “American Revolution” refers to the change in thinking and outlook that developed prior to any shots being fired at Lexington and Concord, and I am borrowing this definition from John Adams.  Back to Edwards:  He was a major figure in the Great Awakening.  Along his labors were limited geographically to a small part of New England, his role through his preaching and writing explained, furthered, and cautioned against aspects of the revival.  He was the spokesman for this side of the Atlantic.

His marriage and family are models for both understanding American culture and for spiritual edification.  His tumultuous relationship with his Northhampton congregation is insightful into the workings of colonial communities and all too familiar territory for many pastors and their churches.  Edwards was briefly connected to the still new Princeton University and had been educated at Yale.  His life shows the richness of potential opportunities in the colonial period even accounting for the particular genius and gifts of the man.

The most scholarly and library-bound academic wanting to grapple with theological conundrums (like free will and Original Sin) can study Edwards alongside the more profound student of philosophy, especially the one interested in American contributions.  But the pastor can also find Edwards a helpful mentor giving encouragement to his soul as he prepares sermons and lessons for his congregation.  Again, the study of Edwards is a hall filled with treasures.

So where do you begin?  Or how can you access the wealth of Edwards’ life, faith, and thought?

The Essential Jonathan Edwards is an excellent place to begin.  The book contains an account of Edwards’ life, but it is only partially a biography.  Much of the focus is on the teachings of Edwards.  The book is heavy laden with quotes and lengthy ones at that.  It doesn’t take many lines of reading Edwards to realize that this guy cannot be skim read.  He is not impossible or overly technical, but his language is rich and detailed.  While the entire book reveals biographical details, the first section is more largely focused on his life.

The authors cover a number of larger and then more particular topics in subsequent chapters.  The second section of the book is on the topic of Beauty.  As has been noted, some of the higher, more liturgical churches focus on beauty in their church buildings and liturgies.  The Protestants who are more in the tradition of Edwards in terms of evangelical emphases have overlooked the topic of Beauty.  (As a former pastor, I am asking myself, “When did you preach on the Beauty of God, of Christ, of the Church?”)

The third section focuses on the Good Life.  This is yet another case of the authors bringing an unused phrase into Christian thinking.  Living the Christian life is the good life.  Man’s chief end is enjoying God forever, which does not mean that we start when we get to heaven.  Edwards wrote, “God in seeking his glory, therein seeks the good of his creatures: because the emanation of his glory (which he seeks and delights in, as he delights in himself and his own eternal glory) implies the communicated excellency and happiness of his creatures.” (Found on page 199)

The fourth section deals with a troublesome issue in Edwards’ ministry and in our times.  Statistics show certain numbers of people who are Christian by profession.  Church rolls show smaller groups of the same.  Yet nominalism, that is, being Christian in name only, is a huge problem.  Protestants like to think it is merely a Roman Catholic problem.  Within Protestant groups, one group will wag their heads at another for this plague, but the truth is that it hits ever section of Christianity and every church.  If you don’t know of where to locate the dangers of nominal Christianity, begin by looking in a mirror.  I am not saying that you and I are believers in name only.  But I do know it is a real threat to me.  Those of us in Christian works (and I teach in a Christian school) can easily confuse occupation with salvation.  The problem beset Edwards both in the times of his grandfather’s Half-Way Covenant approach and in his own dealings with a congregation that fired him.

The final section deals with heaven and hell.  Edwards is once again a needed instructor to our times.  Because Christianity offers so much in this world, we can easily undervalue what it teaches about the world to come.  And the doctrine of Hell is just uncomfortable.

I recently posted a blog review highlighting a number of books on, by, or about Edwards.  For the reader wanting to meet the great theologian, this is the book to start with.  For the reader who has already read a lot by and about Edwards, this book is also a great read.

Jonathan Edwards–Recent Books on His Life and Thought

 

John Piper has often recounted the story of one of his seminary professors advising him to devote his studies to the Bible and one theologian whose thought he would seek to master.  Piper chose Jonathan Edwards.  Other men of God that I know have done similar things. Baptist pastor Fred Zaspel has devoted lots of study to Presbyterian theologian Benjamin B. Warfield and has written two fine books on Warfield.  George Grant has collected and read almost everything written by and about Scottish preacher, author, and theologian Thomas Chalmers.  Douglas Douma, still a young man, is rapidly advancing toward being the key authority on philosopher and theologian Gordon Clark.  Bradford Littlejohn has already produced a number of volumes on the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker.  And Joel Osteen has extensively studied and spoken about the theological insights of Joel Osteen.

I confess that I have been way too much of a gadfly to have mastered any theologian, philosopher, or historian.  I think I have some sort of advanced ADD because my interest and focus will be intense for short bursts of time, and then I am off in a totally different direction.  But I keep trying.  I also think that the advice Piper received was good.  And the choice Piper made–that of studying Edwards–was good as well.

The current popularity of Edwards is an amazing phenomena in our time.  It is the result of the contributions of at least four unlikely team players and a university and quite a few publishing houses.  The four men involved are Perry Miller, Iain Murray, George Marsden, and John Piper.  Miller was a historian and an unbeliever who went against the history department druthers of his day and decided to study Puritans.  He did not agree with Puritan theology or their worldview, but did find them to be worthy of more serious academic consideration.  He single-handedly revived Puritanism as a field of academic pursuit.

Iain Murray shares my characteristic of being widely focused on lots of key figures in church history.  Some years ago, he wrote a laudatory biography of Jonathan Edwards for Banner of Truth. Murray never wrote for scholars, but for thinking Christians.  He did not sugarcoat his subjects and create pious plastic figures, but his biographies were designed to instruct and model Christian living,  sound doctrine, and better preaching and teaching.  His biography won many over to Edwards or put more life into the pictures we had of this man.

George Marsden’s later biography of Edwards filled in the gap left by Murray by providing a more scholarly, academic study of Edwards’ life.  I don’t know of any two other biographies that better complement each other than Murray’s and Marden’s books on Edwards.  John Piper brought Edwards back into the pulpit and Christian conference.  With a style far from Edwards’ reserve and manner, Piper–with passion and emotion–shared Edwards’ thoughts, words, and ideas.  The fire that burned in Edwards’ life and beliefs might not have appeared so hot and blazing had it not been for Piper.

The university that came to the forefront is Yale which began the vast project of producing modern editions of Edwards’ writings.  Yale’s Works of Jonathan Edwards number twenty-six printed volumes and many more on-line volumes.  We often use blanket statements to describe modern secular universities and modern scholarship.  Truth is that many great Christian books are published by secular university presses.  Whether those behind the books share the lack of Christian beliefs like Miller or whether they are true believers and scholars is beside the point.  The books are there.

As you can see from this PARTIAL SELECTION from my own collection, I have accumulated quite a few books on Edwards.  If I could start over again, I might choose him as Piper did, but would probably still be a gadfly flitting from Edwards to Kuyper to Warfield to Calvin to more recent writers.  But I do intend to learn more of Edwards.  On one side of eternity or the other, I hope to get a greater vision for the grandeur of God and His saving work.

Here follows a few short comments on the review books I have (and am behind in reading) on Edwards:

Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought is by Oliver D. Crisp and Kyle C. Strobel.  It is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans.

One of the essential things about studying Jonathan Edwards is that the vast pool of Edwards’ thought and Edwardsian studies consists of a deep end and a even much deeper end.  Edwards was a first rate preacher, but also a top notch theologian and philosopher.  This study is not for the beginner, the novice, or the one who heard of Edwards from a Piper sermon and wants to know more.  This book requires strong black coffee, maybe with a shot of espresso.

Both authors have written other books on Edwards and have interacted with fellow scholars.  This book is on the deeper end of the pool.  In my morning readings, I prefer to start with a very accessible book that is ministering to both heart and mind.  After reading and while starting on the second cup of coffee, I can then trudge through this kind of work.

The opening chapter is on the intellectual context of Edwards.  Studies generally try to figure out where he is in the Reformed and Puritan realm and where he is engaging in more of the then-current Enlightenment thought.  Subsequent chapters deal with “God of Beauty and Glory,” “God of Creation,” “The Atonement,” and then two very inviting chapters titled “Becoming Beautiful” and “Becoming Edwardsean.”

Also published by Eerdmans is The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia, edited by Harry S. Stout.

This is not a read from beginning to end work, but is a work that can be dipped into randomly or used for specific research.  The list of contributors is a “Who’s Who” among contemporary Edwards scholars. That in itself is impressive to me.

Just flipping through the book, I come across articles about Calvinism, economic thought, Jerusha Edwards (Jonathan’s daughter), King George’s War, Mahican (Stockbridge) Indians, and more.

This book is a goldmine for the history and literature teacher (like myself) who teaches about Edwards and for the preacher and theology students who studies Edwards.

The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America's Greatest Theologian

The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeny.

I think that this introduction book is more geared to the student and pastorally inclined reader than the one above.  Edwards is not a lightweight, but he is worth the effort and a book like this will help the reader get a grasp on his theology.

Since I just got this book and have barely had time to read anything but the preface, I will hold further comments until later.  But the preface by the authors and the foreword by Piper have whetted my appetite.

Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards by Owen Strachan is published by Tyndale.

Who would have guess a hundred years ago that a day by day devotional reader consisting of Jonathan Edwards’ words with a brief commentary and Bible verse would be published?  This book is just right for all of us who want and need to be guided by Edwards, even if it is just being spoon fed in small portions.

I have for years complained about daily devotional books.  Granted there are plenty of sappy, light, fluffy, sugary devotional works that have been filling Christians with an appearance of substance.  But with books like this, even I must admit that the reader of a short devotional can take in some good theology.

Owen Strachan, the author, is the co-author of the book above and one of the contributors to the Encyclopedia.  

Be patient with me, gentle blog readers, for it may be well into the new year before I can come by with having completed or having read extensively in these and a few other books on America’s greatest theologian, greatest philosopher, and one of its greatest preachers.