Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Harold Simonson Jonathan Edwards Theologian of the Heart

Harold Simonson's much neglected volume, Jonathan Edwards: Theologian of the Heart, is a fascinating account of some of the key themes in JE. In the opening lines of the Introduction Simonson draws a line of comparison between JE and Kierkegaard - particularly with reference to Fear and Trembling. Often such comparisons are ahistorical and anachronistic but Simonson balances his concerns with a deft analysis. The connection is not epistemology (HS acknowledges the vast differences) but urgency. Like SK, 'this same profound urgency possessed the mind of Jonathan Edwards.' (11)

Reflecting on Edwards' Personal Narrative and JE's reliance on I Timothy 1:17 HS notes that '[t]hrough the years he orchestrated these words into a magnificent corpus of writing which sustained the theme of God's glory and the sense of it in the human heart. Edwards experience this effulgence to a greater extent than Kierkegaard did; nevertheless, there was in both writers a religious passion that dominated their lives and a sense of the heart that infused their words, to the extent that today's reader finds himself strangely compelled to return again and again to their writing.' (11)

HS's work is an extended reflection on the 'sense of the heart' - because 'it informs Edwards' whole theology.' (12)

In the opening two chapters HS looks at religious experience in Edwards' experience and in New England. In particular, the author examines some of Edwards key works defending the revival. In chapters 3 & 4 he moves on to 'importance consequences of religious experience.' These chapters are more speculative and look at 'imagination (vision) and language' in Edwards. The final two chapters look at JE as a preacher and writer and the way he formed people to receive this new sense.

What I particularly like about this book is the beauty of the author's prose. HS was an English Professor and he is master of his craft. I'll just offer some selections to illustrate this aspect:

(On the early diary etc) 'An intensity permeates the record, as if from an early age Edwards knew that the truly fundamental business of life concerned religion. Solid as this conviction was, he also realized that such a pilgrimage includes profound experiences of dread and even terror. (18)

(On Edwards' conversion) '... Edwards' conversion was not an instantaneous happening but rather a succession of deepening disturbances that relentlessly quickened in him both the sense of his natural weakness, even wretchedness, and the sense of divine grace.' (21)

'Few persons in American intellectual history rooted their written word more profoundly in private experience.' (22)

(after a great discussion of Locke and James) 'Edwards was a Christian thinker, and the adjective makes all the difference. He wrote from within the full sense of the heart. His faith was like a grand cathedral. Standing outside, one sees no glory, nor can possibly imagine any; standing within, every ray of light reveals a harmony of unspeakable splendours. The metaphor, belonging to Hawthorne in The Marble Faun (ch. 33) captures the essence of Edwards' epistemology. Where he stood determined what he saw and knew.' (32)

This is brilliant - in his exposition of Sinners - 'To miss the contemporaneity of this sermon corroborates Berdyaev's verdict that smugness today may indeed have an eschatological character and "may be man's final destiny."' (136)

On Edwards' Treatise on Grace - 'Few things that Edwards wrote surpass it in intellectual and rhetorical brilliance. Pulsating through it, moreover, is a certain religious enthusiasm that owes its presence to Edwards' own religious imagination and vision.' (142)

One final quotation, from the last paragraph of the book:

'Edwards' theology records his own spiritual journeyings from darkness to light. Although his writings demonstrate intellectual discipline, finely honed logic, and reasoned argument of the highest order, their central theme concerns religious knowledge as held not in the head but in the heart. Edwards believed that only through the sense of the heart was man able to know the depths and the heights, and only in this way was he able to go beyond the tragedy implicit in human limitation. That Edwards seldom made his writings overtly autobiographical does not hide the great wellspring of heart and mind that impelled his work. As if corroborating the Calvinist irony, Edwards plunged into those dark waters and discovered his sunlit apotheosis. What this means theologically is that by virtue of the believer's union with Christ he has come to possess all things.' (156)


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