- Jonathan Edwards:Puritan or Pluralist?
The name Jonathan Edwards elicits in readers images of fire and brimstone; Edwards has become synonymous with the emotive preaching style of early evangelicalism. The title of his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," seems to say it all. And upon reading his wonderfully descriptive visions of sinners' skins melting in the fires of Hell, one senses that he scared eighteenth-century sinners straight. He helped foment one of the most successful revivals in eighteenth-century New England, but his methods are perhaps more infamous than his actual beliefs. Edwards was more than the one-dimensional preacher of hell and redemption; he was born during the age of transatlantic Enlightenment, and he ultimately reflected this age through his theology.
Recent scholarship on Edwards reveals a deeper conversation on this fiery minister, getting beyond the broad outlines of his dramatic, better-known writings. There has been an unprecedented flurry of research on Edwards in the past few decades. Many of the approximately 3,000 works on Edwards were published in the past forty years (see Harry S. Stout, "The Puritans and Edwards" in The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards, 274). And this interest has been growing, as evidenced in the number of dissertations on Edwards, which has doubled each decade since 1950 (Mark Noll, "Edwards' Theology after Edwards," in Princeton Companion, 304). Yale has spent years publishing more than twenty volumes of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, and numerous evaluations of his life and theology [End Page 113] have emerged. Philip Gura's biography, Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical (2005) is the best place to start if you need an introduction to this massive scholarship. The other books under review here, The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards (2005), edited by Sang Hyun Lee, and Amy Plantinga Pauw's Supreme Harmony of All (2002), are more theologically oriented and meant for readers with a deep interest in Edwards's life and works.
As Edwards was an exemplar of early evangelicalism, scholars commonly seek to characterize his mindset: was he a backward-looking Puritan or a forward-looking, Enlightenment philosopher? Did his evangelism push his followers away from Enlightenment thought or toward a new age? Was he torn between Puritanism and pluralism, or did he find a harmonious blend? Clearly, Enlightenment ideas engaged Edwards, but he also promoted the mysteries of the divine in counterbalance to the contemporaneous surge of interest in rational forms of religion. For all of his love of rational philosophers, Edwards was firmly opposed to deism and the idea that human rationality was sufficient for moral guidance and political institutions. He held that divine revelation was necessary to humans and superior to human reasoning in matters of social, personal, and political governance. Indisputably Calvinist in his theology, Edwards fought against eighteenth-century rational religion and Arminianism as they seemed to undermine Calvinism's endorsement of divine omnipotence.
Enlightenment rationality was not the natural enemy of religiosity. Certainly, many eighteenth-century evangelicals did not protest against the advancement of rational philosophies and empiricism. Philip Gura underscores the evangelical view of unity between the rational and the religious: "Irresistible in its force, overwhelming in its effect, unlike anything a 'natural' man knew, the divine and supernatural light that marked the presence of God in a believer was, however, not at all mysterious. It appeared and worked rationally, according to laws that governed the scientifically verifiable universe" (69). Experiential or evangelical religion moved toward explaining God's presence in the world, documenting the sorts of signs and expressions that religious people could expect to discover for themselves empirically.
Gura's Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical (2005) will inevitably be compared to George Marsden's recent biography Jonathan Edwards: An Eighteenth-Century Life (2003). Marsden frames his...