Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians by James P. Byrd

Presenting a fresh view of Jonathan Edwards to the "average Joe" (current American political connotations of that phrase notwithstanding) is always a bit of a trick. For those who have heard of Edwards, all they really know about him is that he was a Puritan (strike 1!) and that he preached a sermon called "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which most read in high school (strikes 2 and 3 combined!). Attuned to the odds he is up against, James Byrd, professor at Vanderbilt, takes on this difficult task in his book, Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians.

As i said in the previous post, the Armchair Theologians series is a delightful little series that is described by the publisher as "Written by experts but designed for the novice, the Armchair series provides accurate, concise, and witty overviews of some of the most profound moments and theologians in Christian history." Byrd's volume is no exception. Surveying the broad scope of Edwards's life and work, the author carefully interweaves both, letting Edwards's big ideas frame the overall structure of the book.

Giving them roughly a chapter a piece, topics included in this volume include, in order, Edwards's exploration of divine beauty in particular reference to the "Spider Letter," Revival and Religious Affections, the dismissal from Northampton, Edwards on the Will, Edwards on Original Sin, his two dissertations, and his ever-expanding legacy.

The great value of this book is twofold. First is the skill by which the author eschews the confusing, complex philosophical language often employed by Edwards (esp. on the Will and Original Sin) in order to explain the concepts in plain language. This is not to say that Edwards's works have been dumbed down. Far from it! The complexity of the arguments are retained and key philosophical terms are still defined and used, but the material is presented and illustrated in such a way that one can begin to grasp what Edwards was driving at and responding to without having to have previous experience in Enlightenment philosophy, particularly of the Lockean flavor.

Second, the last chapter on Edwards's legacy is especially helpful in demonstrating the "so what" of Edwards's continued importance today. The author quickly traces Edwards's influence from the abolitionist movement, to 19th century revivalism, to the crusades of 20th century evangelists, finally ending up in the resurgence of traditional Calvinism that has been observed among many modern evangelicals, especially in the younger groups. This chapter proves that the study of Edwards is vital to understanding the unfolding of American history from its pre-Revolution days to the post-9/11 situation that exists today, though there is still much work that needs to be done in this area of Edwards's legacy, both at home in America and abroad.

In short, this book is a wonderful survey of the life and work of Jonathan Edwards and is recommended to a wide variety of readers, whether you've been deeply immersed in Edwards studies for decades, have been away for a while and need a refresher, or if you need that extra nudge to begin wading through the inestimable richness of America's greatest theologian.

p.s. Did i mention that this is a THEOLOGY book with CARTOONS?? While, as George Marsden states in his endorsement, "[Edwards] would have been unhappy about some of the cartoons," the drawings do provide some levity and illustration to the deep concepts being read about. My personal favorite is found on page 162.


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