Jonathan Edwards: Why Read Him?
Jonathan Edwards’ writings fill twenty-five imposing volumes in the Yale Works. The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, a beacon of unfiltered light in American academe, has plans to disseminate many more online. Did you catch that, or did your eyes skip over it? 25 volumes! And they’re not boring or meandering. If you just open them, and start reading, you find yourself face-to-face with America’s greatest preacher, theologian, philosopher, and mystic.
Why read Jonathan Edwards? Let me quickly try to capture the essence of what makes Edwards so, well, great.
First, the Northampton pastor was a breathtakingly imaginative thinker, by which I do not mean “harmfully extra-textual” as it might sound (though he did love creativity), but rather that Edwards was able to capture biblical teaching in all its glory and nuance and breadth. Your average superhero movie is fantastic on a normal screen; when you watch it on IMAX, though, it’s a whole other ballgame. So it is with Edwards and his work. The biblical mind and imagination lives and breathes. The Bible seems living and active in Edwards’ hands. Of course, as historian George Marsden has pointed out, Edwards became an excellent writer over the course of his life, and so to read him is to read a marvelously gifted stylist, which is pleasurable in any field.
Second, Edwards consistently pointed up the power of God in Christ. This isn’t, interestingly, to say that he consistently gave the kind of quick biblical-theological summary of redemption now common in evangelical preaching. Jesus, however, was the ideal, the apex, and the key of Scripture. Not only Scripture, though—all of nature. When you read all the way through Edwards’ Miscellanies you’ll discover the man found Christ in moths. Beat that.
Third, it is positively breathtaking how swiftly Edwards, especially in his sermons, can travel from the farthest reaches of the theological cosmos to the day-to-day life of the sin-fighting Christian. The application sections of the pastor’s sermons are regularly remarkable. They’re not pure application by a long shot, but rather what you could call theological spirituality, or heavily theological application. Warning: you may read these sermons and weep, so rich is the diet of Edwards’ preaching compared to many modern pulpits.
Permit me a quick detour: if you haven’t read Edwards’ sermons, you’re missing out tremendously. Many people will never read Edwards; some will read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”; a chosen few will read a couple of his major works (maybe the poleaxing Diary of David Brainerd or the shrewdly edifying Religious Affections); a super-minority will read some of his sermons, probably by felicitous happenstance—wandering through a library, picking a book off a shelf, and so on.
Let me encourage you, dear reader: if you want to go deep in theology-driven spirituality, read Edwards’ sermons. There are many, many undiscovered gems. You could read a page each day on your lunch break and be happy for the rest of your life.
I must credit John Piper with a form of this reading program. I heard Piper detail it in a Copernican “Henry Lecture” while I was an intern at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C.(during my internship Mark Dever re-preached the entirety of “Sinners”). Piper spoke of how he read his wife Noel a page of Edwards’ philosophical writings a day while a doctoral student. It immediately started me on a one-page-a-day plan. I started with the “Excellency of Christ,” a sermon as true as it is eloquent.
Hopefully this can serve to pique the interest of readers hungry for outstanding biblical material. In a future post I’ll suggest four great paragraphs from Edwards’ writings.
Want to read some of Jonathan Edwards’ works? Owen Strachan has edited, along with Doug Sweeney, The Essential Edwards Collection. This series of five books covers Edwards’ life and major writings opening an accessible window into the heart and mind of the man credited for starting the First Great Awakening. Buy it from the Ligonier Store.