Reading “Charity and Its Fruits” Today: An Interview with Kyle Strobel
Jonathan Edwards scholar Kyle Strobel (PhD, University of Aberdeen) has edited a new, unabridged edition of Edwards’s classic, Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God’s Love (Crossway, 2012). He is a brief interview we did together:
R.C. Sproul puts Charity and Its Fruits among the top books he recommends. Tim Keller and John Piper have both cited it as deeply influential for their understandings of justice, virtue, and love. But it doesn’t seem that many people today have read it. Why should they?
Yes, compared to Edwards’s other famous works Charity is often forgotten about. It is both the most beloved and the least read of his great works.
I think it is incredibly important for people to read Charity for several reasons.
First, what Edwards is really providing in these sermons is a theology of love. He is utilizing 1 Corinthians 13 as the way into a theology of love, but above all this is a treatise that gets to the heart of a Christian life defined by love of God and love of neighbor.
Second, of all of Edwards’s works, it is probably the best introduction to his thought. As important as Religious Affections, Freedom of the Will, and the Two Dissertations are (End for Which God Created the World and True Virtue), Charity really cuts across all of Edwards’s thought. You get the importance of religious affection, virtue, glory, etc., and you get it woven together in a pastoral discourse.
Last, and one of the more important in my mind, is that you get a great example of what it means to be a theologian as a pastor. Edwards is shepherding a congregation with these sermons, a congregation he knows well. As universally helpful as this work is, it started out as a very particular word to a particular people. If you want an example of a pastor who is theologically oriented, then this is about as good of an example as you will get.
Tell us a little bit about the underlying text.
Well, as readers might know, there are several other editions of Charity and Its Fruits available. What makes them different is that they use a highly edited text that was first published by Edwards’s great, great grandson in 1852. The text I used comes from the Yale edition of Edwards’s works, which is bound together with the rest of Edwards’s ethical writings and costs about $150.00! After lengthy negotiations with Yale I was able to get permission to use their text for my edition.
What makes this text unusual is that it goes back to Edwards’s original sermon manuscripts. Edwards’s great, great grandson didn’t like some of Edwards’s language and emphases, so he edited that out (they were a bit more open to do that kind of thing than we are). By going back to the original we have Edwards’s real emphases and language open to us.
What work did you do to the original manuscripts?
Edwards is never easy to read. I wanted to put out a volume for the many people who want to read more of Edwards (or even just some of Edwards) but have never been able to do it. I sat down and tried to think through what makes Edwards so difficult, and a couple of things came to mind.
First, his use of language is often times so outdated and technical that he can seem impenetrable. So I defined all of these terms either in footnotes or textboxes.
Second, Edwards was a systematic thinker who never wrote a systematic theology (he died before he could), so it is often hard to see how his thought coheres together. I included in my introduction a brief overview of key theological principles that will help people understand what his theology is about.
Third, as in all great theologians, Edwards’s spiritual and doctrinal writings are not divided but united together. In both the introduction and conclusion I have developed aspects of his spiritual thought as well as advice on how to read his work in such a way as to hold these two things together.
Last, for those new to Edwards and theology, one of the most frustrating aspects of his writings is just how packed they are with dense theological ideas. To remedy this stumbling-block, I added 174 textboxes throughout the book that explain these difficult ideas. Sometimes I just let Edwards speak for himself and quote something he said elsewhere with greater clarity. Often, I step back and outline what he is saying and why he is saying it. In other words, I try to pull back the curtain a bit to unveil what makes Edwards’s theology tick.
Sproul once wrote about these sermons: “Instead of being a maudlin, romantic wedding recitation, Edwards’ treatment of 1 Corinthians 13 becomes one of the most demanding and humbling pieces on divine revelation we may ever encounter. Under Edwards’ scrutiny, our failure to live the love we’re called to is so clear that we are driven once more to cling to the cross.” How would you summarize Edwards’s understanding of the relationship between the cross and spiritual formation?
As a good Reformed theologian, Edwards’s theology is all about God. The place we come to meet God is the cross, because that is where God has met and redeemed us. One of the great mistakes made in discussions (and practices) of spiritual formation is to leave the cross and try to grow ourselves. Rather, for Edwards, the cross embodies the posture of the Christian—dependence, submission, and humble yearning for God. Therefore, instead of a discussion of “spiritual disciplines” we find an emphasis on “means of grace.”
What is frustrating is that Edwards’s spirituality is very undeveloped in the field, with virtually no resources on it. Alongside of this new volume of Charity and Its Fruits, I have tried to address this in a forthcoming book, Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards (due out next Spring from IVP). I answer your question in full in that book, which I wrote at a popular level—it is Edwards’s spirituality without all the difficulty in reading Edwards!
How did you first become interested in Edwards and why did you stay interested in studying his theology?
When I was starting my PhD I jumped from one topic to another and from one thinker to another until I landed on Edwards. I had never read him before (other than snippets here and there). What amazed me was how little work has been done on Edwards from a theological standpoint. I would venture to guess that of all the thinkers who are clearly the “great theologians,” Edwards is the least developed. Most of the good work done on Edwards is from an historical standpoint rather than a theological one, which is why I think his theology rarely gets utilized even though his person is revered.
What I love about Edwards was his adamant refusal to bifurcate the theological task. Edwards was a pastor and yet wrote high-level “academic” theology—he knew that theology was a task of the church and not the academy. He didn’t separate spirituality from theology or his vocation as pastor from theology but saw the deep integration of all things. He was a biblical scholar just as much as a theological one, and he recognized that pastoral care was a part of his calling (even though he believed he wasn’t good at it). I believe that one of the great mistakes of the church today is shirking away from aspects of our calling because we don’t believe we are good at it. We want to minister out of strength rather than grasp that God’s grace is perfected in weakness. Edwards came to understand the nature of weakness: in his pastoral calling, in his firing, in his ministry to the native Americans and eventually Princeton. I don’t think that can be underestimated.
Ultimately, I stuck with Edwards because he truly is a great theologian. I don’t agree with everything he said, but he grasps what it means to be a theologian. As someone who wants to think well for the glory of God, I have found that Edwards is a good mentor for this journey.
Why can Edwards be so hard to read at times, and why do you think his writings continue to resonate both in the academy and in the church?
Like every great theologian, Edwards resonates to the church and academy because he wielded everything the Lord gave him for the glory of God. He understood with the early church theologians that theology and spirituality were one, and that theology must start and end with God.
Like medieval theology Edwards focused his attention on careful analysis of virtue and doctrine, seeking to be faithful to his call as witness to the God of glory.
Like the Reformers Edwards battled against false doctrine and yet also battled against sinfulness in his community and his own heart.
Like every era before him, Edwards understood that being given eyes to see and ears to hear means that we are privy to a world saturated with the glory and beauty of God—a world that cries out in praise of its Creator.
Like all great theologians, Edwards’s work teaches us the melody of that great song.
What makes Edwards hard to read is a bit more difficult to explain. We live in an age where theology and spirituality have nothing to do with each other and are even pitted against each other as mutually exclusive. We tend to invoke pragmatics in church life, thinking theology belongs to the academy. We leave things like ethics to philosophers, and look to our preachers to give us a simple plan for growth. In Edwards we find something totally different and foreign. Some of that difference is just cultural—Edwards lived in a different time, spoke an older form of English, and preached in a different and more academic mode. It would be a mistake to underestimate how hard it is to get beyond that. That said, I think more of it is how foreign he is to us. But it is that foreignness that is so intriguing, provocative, and attractive. It is hard to put into words, but every great theologian has the trait of being able to cut across debates and differences to captivate people with their ability to cast a vision of who God is. Edwards truly is a great theologian.