An Interview on “The Theology of Jonathan Edwards”
Michael McClymond (associate professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University) and Gerald McDermott (Jordan-Trexler professor of religion at Roanoke College) were kind enough to answer some questions about their new book, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2011).
How did each of you come to be interested in Edwards and his theology?
Gerry: I had intended to write my dissertation on the civil religion of JE and the New Divinity back in the mid-80s, and then realized the public theology of JE was plenty big for a book. Besides, I soon realized that Edwards had a far greater mind than his disciples’ and was worthy of a lifetime of study.
Michael: My interest in Edwards started while I was studying at Yale Divinity School. David Kelsey did a seminar on “The Reformed Tradition,” giving special attention to John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Barth. You might say that I got stuck in the middle. The in-between guy seemed to have gotten a lot of attention from American historians and literary analysts, but less from theological readers. Then in 1985 I received a Christmas gift of the two-volume, Banner of Truth edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Christian Book Distributors offered it, as I recall, for only $35. Given the number of pages, and the size of the font, these two volumes had more theological bang for the buck than any other book I ever got. I read End of Creation and was hooked by this conceptually sophisticated and yet spiritually edifying account of God. I was drawn in by that great vision of God’s glory that also drew Edwards in. My University of Chicago dissertation centered on End of Creation. Later I was pleased to see John Piper republish this work, and assign it great importance.
How did the two of you team up to write this book together?
Gerry: Mike approached me several years ago with the idea, and came up with an initial Table of Contents which we then revised. It just so happened that I was due for a sabbatical. As it turned out, I spent a whole year doing nothing else but work on this book, and Mike spent nearly the same amount of time.
Michael: The timing of Gerry’s academic leave and mine—in retrospect—seems providential. With the completion of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, it struck me that it was high time for someone to do a fresh examination of the whole of Edwards’s theology. Yet it struck me that this might be a very lonely task for any one person. So I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to collaborate with Gerry on this. Our earlier publications on Edwards seemed to juxtapose—like the alphabetization of our names. If placed into a directory, “McClymond” and “McDermott” would land very near one another.
How long did it take to write such a sizable volume, and how did you go about it?
Gerry: It was a gargantuan task, larger than either of us imagined. As we said, it took a full year for both of us, doing little besides. We divided the chapters between us, edited all of them together, and sent them out to many JE experts for feedback.
Michael: I give Gerry credit for keeping the project moving at some points where I was getting bogged down with one or another chapter. I admit to having perfectionistic tendencies, and that can be a fatal thing when one is dealing with 73 volumes of primary text, as well as some 5000 secondary books, articles, and dissertations. He who hesitates is lost. When it comes to Edwards, one could always spend more time in reading and reflection. In the preface to our book we say that “we hope the book will serve as a starting point for many new lines of inquiry and investigation.” There is so much more to say about Edwards. Perhaps our book will help to encourage a rising generation of scholars on Edwards—not to mention the preachers and Christian leaders and activists we also hope to inspire with this book.
Has anything like this—a comprehensive theology of Edwards—been attempted before?
Gerry: Not on this scale. This is the largest single-volume treatment of JE’s theology ever attempted. John Gerstner did a 3-volume overview of Edwards’s theology, but much of it was primary source material, and his perspective was more rationalistic and less comprehensive than ours. Another difference is that ours is based on what was not available to Gerstner or anyone else before now—the full 73-volume corpus prepared by the Yale edition. Furthermore, we have reviewed all the secondary literature produced in the last twenty years that has appeared since Gerstner’s death.
Michael: The Princeton Companion to Edwards included nineteen chapters on Edwards’s thought, and yet ours includes forty-five chapters. What is more, an edited volume—like the Princeton Companion—is not able, so to speak, to connect the dots in Edwards’s thinking. Attentive readers will find that our book contains literally hundreds of internal cross-references—”(see ch. 13),” “(ch. 4, 8, 19),” etc. These are points in our exposition of Edwards where it would be tedious to repeat the argument presented in another context. Our book on Edwards is in fact a single argument, stretching from chapter 1 to chapter 45.
Assuming it’s possible to speak of the “center” of Edwards’s theology, how would you summarize it?
Gerry: We think it is misleading to speak of one center. Therefore our book speaks of multiple aspects—Trinitarian communication, creaturely participation, necessitarian dispositionalism, theocentric voluntarism, and harmonious constitutionalism. Like Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, it is dangerous to speak of one center, for such description necessarily misses much of the density and diversity of a great thinker’s vision. On the other hand, we do suggest throughout the volume that Edwards’s aestheticism—and its centrality to his vision of God—is singular in the history of Christian thought.
Michael: I echo Gerry’s point. The history of scholarship on Edwards has shown the danger of locating any one central idea, theme, or motif—as though Edwards’s thought was like a bicycle wheel in which every spoke linked to a single center. The opening pages of our book, using the symphony analogy, suggests that the different parts of the orchestra—strings, woodwinds, horns, etc.—are all playing at the same time. The major themes move back and forth from the acoustical foreground to the background, and then reverse themselves once again as the music continues. Does every thinker have to have a single “center”? Not necessarily. If one examines the literature on the Apostle Paul, one finds competing ideas as to what is the true “center” of Paul’s thought. Was it eschatology? Justification? Union with Christ? Freedom in Christ? The uniting of Jew and Gentile? Scholars have made a reasonable case for each of these. In a complex thinker like Paul, it isn’t necessary to focus on a single center. So it is for Edwards too.
Calvin doctrinal rule of “modesty and sobriety” was that we should not “speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word” (Inst. 1.14.4). What advantages and drawbacks might there be to Edwards’s more speculative and imaginative approach in certain areas?
Gerry: The greatest advantage of course is that Edwards is more theological than many, if by theology we mean reflection on the meaning and implication of divine revelation. The consequent disadvantage is the danger of going beyond biblical testimony in ways that confuse Christ and culture, or bind the church too closely to one philosophy or temporal framework. But all theology necessarily goes beyond repeating the mere words of Scripture, and should! So the real question is not whether we should discuss what is obscure, for all theology must do so in order to be theology, but whether it does so in disciplined ways. For the most part, I think, Edwards shows biblical and traditional discipline without letting the latter prevent him from seeing things in new and helpful ways.
Michael: This is a challenging question! I am tempted to answer with the immortal slogan of the National Enquirer newspaper: “Enquiring minds want to know.” Of course, for tabloid readers this slogan means a need to know the gossip about the latest Hollywood scandals, mishaps, and divorces. Yet Edwards’s burning curiosity turned toward the being of God, the will of God, the ways of God, the works of God, and the final purposes of God. John Piper refers to Edwards as “God-besotted.” It is hard to fault him for having this particular passion—even if at time his thinking verges toward the outer limits of what human beings can possibly know about God. Regarding Calvin, I am not completely convinced that Calvin himself consistently followed his own rule of “modesty and sobriety.” When challenged on the topic of predestination, it seems to me that Calvin may have expatiated further and said more than he should have said. This is not, however, to minimize or detract from Calvin’s vast contributions to biblical interpretation, theology, and Christian practice.
For those who know Edwards, there’s widespread agreement that the common picture of Edwards as only the morbid, graceless preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a caricature. But I wonder if there are other pictures of Edwards—in the evangelical Calvinist world, or in the scholarly community—that you might want to correct, even if the distortions aren’t nearly as grotesque as the pop culture version.
Gerry: We think we correct a number of scholarly distortions and misrepresentations, such as the notions that 1) Edwards never changed in his basic outlooks or theological approaches, 2) his idea of sola scriptura dismissed the use of tradition in both principle and practice, 3) his use of “affections” meant that true religion is rooted in emotion, 4) Edwards departed from Calvinist covenantalism, 5) Edwards perpetuated traditional Calvinist uses of the covenant, 6) his doctrine of justification is what has been considered traditionally Protestant, 7) his theology can rightly be deployed against the basic structures of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology, 8) his eschatology was provincial and Americanist, predicting the imminent outbreak of the millennium in New England, 9) Edwards had little or no sacramental theology, 10) he had little or no concern for those outside the church, 11) he was uninterested in world religions, and 12) the principal distinctiveness of his theology is that it is for America and by a proto-American.
Michael: Gerry has already summarized the principal points. I would also call attention to the element of desire and delight. Edwards was not so much compelled by moral obligation as drawn by divine beauty. I recall an incident many years ago, when I was walking around the old city of Jerusalem, and I accidentally stumbled across the Russian Cathedral in Jerusalem. The church door, just cracked open, revealed the most beautiful frescoes depicting Christ and the saints. I simply had to go in. Edwards’s life was like that. Very early on, he had a glimpse of something so beautiful that he chose to spend the rest of his life exploring it. This picture of an enraptured Edwards is poles apart from the popular misconception of a narrow, parsimonious, judgmental person.
I know that this is an academic tome, and that there must be an element of academic detachment associated with a project like this, but I wonder if you could relay to readers the personal effect that living with Edwards’ theology has had upon you?
Gerry: I have become more overwhelmed than ever by the massive mind and sensitive spirit of Jonathan Edwards. His work has challenged me to think ever more with him before I settle on my own theological conceptions, and to try to imitate his hungry heart for God. Furthermore, his determination to sacrifice anything and everything in his pursuit of deeper intimacy with the Triune God continues to challenge me.
Michael: Edwards’s complete consecration of his life and thought to the glory of God is a great challenge to me—as I know it has been to so many others. Only a holy person can write books that stir others to holiness. What is more, the completion of the book feels to me like a graduation ceremony. Now I am ready to launch into whatever new thing God might have in store. And with Edwards, I want to say: “Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.”
In your view, what is the greatest lesson that Edwards’s theology has for today’s church and academy?
Gerry: We believe (and argue in our book) that Edwards’s theology is perfectly suited for global Christianity in the 21st century. For it is a bridge (as we try to show) between Protestants and Catholics, East and west, charismatics and non-charismatics, and liberals and conservatives. It exalts not only the Word in ways that evangelicals hold dear, but also the Spirit in ways that Pentecostals appreciate, and the Trinity in ways that resonate with both Catholics and Orthodox.
Michael: When reading Edwards, I sometimes think: “What a brilliant mind!” But more often than not, something else comes to mind: “What an awesome God!” To me, this is the highest testimonial that one could give to Edwards, and the one that he would most appreciate. Edwards ultimately does not call attention to himself but to the God he served so diligently and indefatigably.