Faith / Scripture / Spirituality

A Tale of Two Parties: The 300th Birthday of Jonathan Edwards

On October fifth, 1703, a little boy was born on the Colonial frontier in East Windsor, Connecticut. Three centuries later in 2003, eight events took place around the U.S. to commemorate the birth of this baby. In recent decades, Jonathan Edwards has enjoyed a revival among Christians and non-Christians; in both scholarly and popular venues. Many have come to recognize him as one of the most significant figures in American religious and intellectual history. With so many people from such different perspectives gathering to criticize and commemorate the life of one man, we should consider how Christians ought to remember him.

A common, but sad, stanza in the history of Christianity is that of the faithful believer raised to hero status and praised for his or her example of saintliness, only to be later toppled by the revelation of private sin. Yet the long tradition of hagiography (writing about the saints) has demonstrated a need for Christian “heroes.” This leads me to ponder in this article: How should we balance celebrating and criticizing as we consider a spiritual predecessor as a model for Christian living?

An Experiment in Historiography
On October third and fourth, I attended “Jonathan Edwards at 300: A National Symposium” in Washington, D.C. Yale University and the Library of Congress sponsored this lavish, academic event. I arrived a little late at the Capital Hill Club in downtown Washington, D.C., for the Friday evening banquet. Two wood-carved elephants flanked the entrance and rich images met my eyes: crystal stem-ware, tuxedo-clad waiters with trays of hors d’oeuvres, oil portraits of George H. Bush and General Eisenhower greeted me.

This was a mixed gathering of one hundred and eighty-five scholars, composed of Liberal Christians, Atheists and Evangelicals. In his keynote address, Evangelical historian George Marsden delivered a memorable challenge to his Liberal and Atheist colleagues. He acknowledged their differing viewpoints, but urged them to reappraise not only Edwards, but his vision of God as well. “Following the Enlightenment,” Marsden explained, “most of us start with Self and tailor God to fit. Edwards begins with God and tailors Man to fit.”

The following day, the gathering heard some fine papers from distinguished scholars such as Amy Plantinga-Pauw, Ava Chamberlain, Douglas Sweeney, Richard R. Niebuhr, and Mark Noll on Edwards’ life, philosophy, theology and writings. That evening when the final speaker had concluded, Dr. Marsden lingered behind to answer a few questions. His new six hundred and forty page biography (Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003) is a stunningly thorough attempt to understand what it must have been like to be a minister in Eighteenth Century New England. While his work is explicitly sympathetic to Edwards’ Reformed faith, he speaks frankly when the story becomes complex. With an attempt toward objectivity, Marsden airs the dirty laundry and makes no excuses for shortcomings in Edwards’ spiritual quest.

Marsden shared with me a few personal reflections of how the ten-year biography project had affected him. He said that Edwards had edified him and brought him a renewed exhilaration at the beauty and sensibility of his Divine vision. “Studying a man of such great integrity and consistency was satisfying—there is much to admire about him.”

“Yet he was a saint with flaws,” Marsden was careful to point out, “an imperfect perfectionist. Because of this intensity, he may have been difficult to live with in-person.” Marsden lamented that Edwards seemed rigid at times. “He could be brittle in an argument, and if he didn’t win, he might sit and write out a treatise to get the last word.” Evident from his own journals, Edwards was prone to valleys of depression, when the heights of spiritual ecstasy lessened. As Marsden bid me goodnight and I began my journey back home, I had much to think about from the day’s experience.

An Experiment in Hagiography
The following weekend (Oct. 10-12), my wife and I dropped the kids at their grandparents’ and took off to Minneapolis for another—very different—conference. “A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: 300 Years Later ~ 1703-2003, The Unrivaled Legacy of Jonathan Edwards” was the banner for what Desiring God Ministries (DGM) described as “a conference for all who desire to see and savor the glory of God.”

Like eager pilgrims at a medieval cathedral, twenty-five hundred Edwards admirers filled the Minneapolis Convention Center. In a well-coordinated effort, pastor and author, John Piper encouraged them (with help from his wife Noel, the venerable J.I. Packer and several other speakers) to imitate Jonathan Edwards’ lifelong passion for God. To counter the risk of Evangelical hagiolatry (saint-worship), conference speakers offered some explicit caveats to Edwards’ belief and practice. For example, Noel Piper wisely acknowledged that Jonathan and his wife Sarah owned slaves and that they found no biblical impediment from doing so. (Other speakers had previously referred to these people as “servants.”)

Yet of everyone attending the conference, few had studied the life of Jonathan Edwards more thoroughly than the Scottish biographer Rev. Iain Murray. Readers have praised Murray’s famous work (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987) for its insightful coverage of Edwards’ spiritual pursuit and I personally recommend it as a well-told account. Still, scholars have criticized it for not including (some say censoring) some of the Edwards family’s less pious moments and leaving behind only their best side. In the preface of his biography, Marsden respectfully critiques Murray’s work for delivering an image that is “uncritical, in the tradition of Edwards’ admirers.”

In his conference address, Rev. Murray was clear to point out that we must look at Edwards “as a sinner who became a Christian.” He urged the audience to read Edwards’ writings “not for academics, but for missionary zeal!” Following his lecture, I asked Murray, “How can we honor Edwards without putting him on too high a pedestal?” He rightly pointed out that the balance relates to our personal spirituality and a Biblical way of looking at people.

When I asked Murray about several specific faults that Marsden had found in Edwards, he disagreed with his analysis. He said that it would have been out of character for Edwards to react as a bad loser, “he was not concerned about what others said of him.” Murray felt that if Edwards was rigid, it was simply because he would not yield to watered-down theology. Murray suggested that it was legitimate to reveal particular shortcomings in Edwards’ character, but he seemed uninterested to discuss them himself.

DGM planners designed this event to be a God-centered birthday party. Generally speaking, they delivered the conference as advertised. My wife and I came away from the event desiring greater holiness and to be satisfied in God more than before. We felt the pleasure of God in fierce, unencumbered worship and inspiration to know Him in the life changing way that Edwards knew Him. This was hagiography done right.

What are We To Do With Edwards?
Marsden and Murray are two Christians who have chosen to remember a “saint” in different ways, though for the same ultimate purpose: to glorify God. Therefore, as we evaluate the usefulness of these two approaches, it might help to ask, by which one will God be the most glorified?

At times, one application of history may be appropriate for an audience of Believers and a different one for nonbelievers. However, there are certain interpretive principles which we must observe always, despite the audience—especially the principle of historical integrity. If we attempt to describe a person’s life in any sustained, nonfiction way, we must commit to examine the development of the whole person, with conflicting old and new natures. If we cannot make this commitment, then we depart from the example of Holy Writ which candidly testifies that Adam and Eve committed blatant disobedience, Noah was once drunk, Moses had an anger problem, Sampson was a playboy and King David was an adulterer and murderer.

Therefore, when Protestant Christians look back over the history of the Church, they must be humble in the face of controversy and honest enough to consider that Martin Luther may have been filthy-mouthed, anti-Semitic and endorsed a case of bigamy. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they must face the possibility that John Calvin could have cruelly violated Servetus’ freedom of conscience when he approved his execution, or that Billy Graham made ugly, blanket statements about Jewish people.

The fact that God uses SINNERS to magnify His glory should not surprise us. It is His work and not ours to exonerate the sins of His servants and justify their virtue (Luke 5:31-2). Though as Christians we should remember that we are all at different places along a journey toward a God-worked sanctification. In this methodological conflict, it seems there are two corrective motives at work which George Marsden and Iain Murray are, each in his own way, attempting to navigate between: the pursuit of reform and the need for heroes.

The healthy pursuit of reform brings blessings of liberty, freedom and restoration of order. But when imbalanced and corrupt, it wreaks havoc on order and tradition, spreading a violent phobia of establishment, a poison of distrust and disillusionment, even of that which is good. We all naturally want to dig up dirt on our neighbor and pull down the pious to make ourselves look not-so-bad by comparison (Numbers 16). Perhaps it is this kind of bourgeois free-for-all that Christians like Iain Murray want to counter.

The other motive is the need for virtuous heroes: flesh and blood examples that we can learn from. However, we tend to idolize them quickly, become defensive, and try to raise them above the bog of sinfulness. Yet by presenting an “altered” view of our favorite people, we mislead ourselves and others to think that they are actually larger than life. By expressing prominent disclaimers about our heroes, we can protect ourselves against later embarrassment and disillusionment when we discover their human faults. Personal sinfulness is a historical, universal human reality. Neglecting to remember that reality will come back to haunt us (1 John 1:8). This is a danger with which Christians like George Marsden have become concerned.

The Battle for Balance
As Murray suggested, to lovingly grapple with such a complex analysis of these motives requires that our faith be stretched and our dependence on the Holy Spirit be strengthened. Rather than discourage or alienate us, humble acknowledgments of our heroes’ sinfulness should encourage us that God is willing to use each of us—despite our flagrant treason and idolatry. He can create something good and beautiful out of something disgusting (1 Cor 1:27-31 “. . . God has chosen the weak things of the world…”). To answer our question, I think that we will more glorify God when we see sinful men and women for who they really are and the redemptive, sacrificially loving God for who He really is.

While Jonathan Edwards undeniably was a practicing sinner, I believe more than ever that his intimate, God-centered delight is desperately needed today as one of the few good models for us to imitate. If Edwards was imperfect, then I must be too. This is no excuse for me, but it does help to ward off the foul arrogance of self-righteousness. Since studying Edwards’ life and faith, I have experienced a change in my affections. I care (a bit) more about other people and have a powerful new sense of ultimate purpose: to glorify God and be satisfied in Him above all other things. In my own case, an academic study of Edwards has led to missionary zeal.