In Edwards’s greatest sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” he depicts the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ as a light flowing from the center of reality. Since that light reveals the beauty of a loving person, it can be truly known only affectively. Someone might have just a rational knowledge about that love but not truly sense it. Edwards uses the analogy of our human loves. “There is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance” (Works, 17:414).
What about the theological insights of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) makes them so exhilarating for many who discover them today?
As a Reformed Christian who has long benefited from Edwards’s insights, I have been fascinated by that question. Sixty years ago, when I was a student, Edwards was respected in Reformed circles, but not often celebrated. Within thirty years, however, he had been rediscovered and had become widely revered as the one American theologian who might be mentioned in the same breath with Augustine and Calvin. So, in my studies of Edwards, I have kept asking which of his insights are most valuable for shaping Christian sensibilities today.
How does Edwards speak to us now in the twenty-first century?
Two Worlds Collide
As a historian of American religion and culture, I have been especially interested in how Edwards’s own cultural context helps us understand his continuing relevance. Especially important for that understanding is that Edwards lived at a dramatic turning point in Western culture.
As a precocious teenager, Jonathan struggled passionately with how to reconcile two very attractive worlds. The son of a strict and impressive New England Reformed pastor, he was heir to what had become one of the most formidable intellectual-spiritual traditions of the time. Yet he also was fascinated by the exciting new outlooks arising from the scientific revolution shaped by Isaac Newton, the philosophical insights of John Locke, and what we know as the Enlightenment. We might think of his close New England contemporary Benjamin Franklin, who also was confronted with these two worlds and embraced the Enlightenment.
Edwards recounted that, as a teenager wrestling with these two outlooks, he was full of objections to the “sovereignty of God,” which he thought was a “horrible” doctrine. But then, in a way he could not quite explain, he came to embrace that teaching as “a delightful conviction.” He then goes on to speak of his experiences of an “inward, sweet delight in God and divine things” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 16:792).
In brief, I think the best explanation for this paradigm shift is that Edwards’s early view of God’s sovereignty was too small. He came to see that if God’s sovereignty is understood properly, it extends to the very essence of all reality. And not only that, but it means that the universe is essentially personal. God’s sovereignty, in biblical terms, is an expression of the language of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).
God’s language is not identical with God, but it is nonetheless an intimately personal expression. And that language is the language of love. God created the universe and sustains it every microsecond ultimately in order to communicate love to creatures capable of love. And the supreme expression of that love is the sacrificial love of Christ for the undeserving.
Our Impersonal Age
Edwards’s view of the universe as essentially personal offers a view of reality opposite from the direction his enlightened contemporaries — and eventually the whole modern world — were moving.
For Isaac Newton, the physical universe could be understood as interacting impersonal mechanisms. One could add the God of Christianity to this outlook (as Newton himself did), or a vague Providence (as Franklin did), but practically speaking, most things could be understood as the operations of impersonal forces.