Learning from the life of Jonathan Edwards (4)

Learning from the life of Jonathan Edwards (4)

Part IV: War, Princeton, Death & Other Stuff

All this drama was played against a colourful worldwide backdrop. In 1754 the international scene was becoming very unstable. Benjamin Franklin met with leaders from 7 other colonies to discuss the French intentions in the frontiers. The English were at each other’s throats and various groups of Indians were aggressively rising up against some of their former colonial allies. It must have been a brutal and bleak time for all concerned. Despite this, Edwards persisted in trying to preach the gospel to the Indian population as the British Empire made advances into their land. His view was that once they were subjugated, evangelised, and discipled according to Western principles and Reformed Christianity, then they would become less savage and more civilised. However we read into this view, one thing is for sure, the stress was getting to Edwards. In 1755  we learn that he became so ill that many feared for his life. Thankfully, he recovered, although war and rumours of war (both from the French and the Indians) raged all around him.

In 1758 Edwards was offered the role of principal of Princeton, which he initially declined, but reluctantly accepted after he put the matter into the hands of a council of local ministers (interesting practice).

Now toward the end of the book I was a bit confused by the Author’s thinking. He seemed to jump in and out of Edwards’ views on Free Will, Arminianism and Original Sin and it’s relation to human virtue. Opponents to his Calvinism thought his view of the human race too severe and depressing. They wanted to see society through the lens of some of its goodness and virtue. Edward’s strength, and in my opinion the strength of Calvinism as a whole, is that this view was based on a high view of God’s sovereignty and His holiness as well as a realistic view of humanity. (How his opponents could not quite grasp the doctrine of total depravity in the light of their climate of war is beyond me).

Some of his greatest work (and there is much) was done in trying to answer the question of why God created the world. According to Edwards, God did not create the world because of some lack in Himself but to extend to the world the perfect triune goodness and love of the Godhead. God delighted to express his perfect delight in His own glory to intelligent created beings that would reflect something of that back to Him. (It is so very obvious at this point that John Piper has been much influenced by these thoughts). It all gets a bit heavy duty and metaphysical here but consider this sentence (for about 3 weeks!): ‘The beams of glory come from God, and are something of God, and are refunded back again to their original. So that the whole is of God, and in God, and to God: and God is the beginning, middle and end of this affair.’ (p463) In the words of that famous student philosopher of the early 80’s, Adrian (The Young One’s) that is ‘heavy man!’ Note to self: In a nutshell, we have been created to share in God’s joy and delight in the perfection of His own Glory. My love for God should always be growing and what blows me away is that I have eternity to reach out to Him in His great heights and yet I will never reach the peak of my worship of His infinite greatness (I hope that makes sense – it does in my head!)

Back to Princeton. Edwards arrived there at 54 years old with much of his written work (in his mind anyway) still left undone. By the time he got there, Reformed Theology was taking hits on quite a few fronts. Men like John Locke had written extensively on interpreting scripture in light of ‘reason’. This paved the way for reinterpreting the ‘miraculous’ and in turn would lead to a wholesale ‘demythologising’ of the Bible from ‘Liberal’ sources. Edwards wrote copiously in defending the Bible against these critics.

Amazingly for that time, when Edwards accepted the call to Princeton, his father was 89 and his mother would go on to live until 98 years of age. Smallpox was rife in the area and Edwards was inoculated by a local doctor. Unfortunately, he developed complications, was unable to eat and died on March 22 1758. Several weeks later his daughter, Esther died and left the family devastated. Sarah Edwards, who, sadly, is mentioned too infrequently in the book, was still able to write these words: ‘…my God lives; and he has my heart.’ (p495). She died of dysentery aged 48 in October of the same year on her way to care for her orphaned grand children. She was buried next to her husband.

Marsden ends the book by wondering, amongst other things,  how Edwards would have fared with the American war of Independence and the signing of the declaration. More wisely, he comments that despite many Twenty-First Century thinkers and commentators being able to criticise many of his provincial eighteenth century views and opinions, Edwards has left us a formidable legacy. His challenge that this world is not the ‘real’ one stands today as true as it has ever been. Seeing the redemptive love in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners as the true centre of all reality will never go out of fashion or be lost in the sea of so-called scientific, human progress, even in our so called post-enlightened age.

This is a great piece of work. A truly stunning biography. Yes, I would have liked more on the personal life of the man in terms of his relationship to Sarah and the children. We do get glimpses but have to accept that Marsden was hampered in this by the sheer lack of any written evidence. Thankfully, he didn’t wander off into flames of fancy but kept to the historical evidence where he could.

This book warmed my soul, revived my spirit, challenged my prejudices and gave me a bigger picture and a greater love for Almighty God. This needs to be not only on your bookshelf but read, reread and recommended to every serious minded Christian you know. An absolute must.