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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards, Theologian of Love?

Ronald Story, Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

Ronald Story, Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of LoveThis is a wonderful introduction to Edwards for people reared to assume that he was mainly a Calvinist scold who majored in hellfire and brimstone. Ronald Story, an emeritus professor of modern history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, used to assume the same thing. Raised in a strict Southern Baptist home, he long thought of Edwards only as the fearful preacher of—yes, that’s right, you guessed it—“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But in the late 1990s, Story stumbled into Edwards’ congregation in Northampton, soon became a member, and discovered the Edwards of love, the Edwards of Charity and Its Fruits who spoke of “Heaven as a World of Love” much more than he spoke of hell.

This book serves as an apology from Story for the many years he spent misconstruing Edwards’ life and significance (in places such as his best-selling text, A More Perfect Union: Documents in U.S. History). It overcompensates a little bit for Story’s earlier sins, portraying Edwards as a progressive social prophet of reform whose social teachings paved a way for Theodore Parker, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Martin Luther King. In the main, though, it portrays Edwards accurately, fairly, and with honest sympathy.

Here is Story’s main thesis: “Love pervades Jonathan Edwards’s ministry and writings, a point often overlooked given his lingering reputation as a preacher of damnation. In fact, Edwards, though understanding, as we have seen, that fear had its utility in the pulpit, was overwhelmingly a minister of the gospel of love rather than of fear. . . . Though a Calvinist, Edwards was not chiefly a preacher of damnation. Though damnation was ever at hand, Edwards the Calvinist was chiefly a preacher within the tradition of Christian love. Considering Edwards in this context will locate him at the epicenter of his faith and increase our understanding of what he was about” (98).

Story stresses what he calls “Edwards’s preoccupation with the poor” (60), his opposition to “materialism and avaricious scheming” (73), and his “notion of togetherness—social peace, amiableness, unity, harmony, collective worship, conversation, friendship, neighborliness, holy community, the oneness of mankind” (75). His work will likely evoke for specialists fond memories of older books by Roland Delattre and Gerald McDermott.

I recommend this book to everyone whose journey is like Story’s, and to students everywhere who know of Edwards only as the “fiery Puritan” of yesteryear.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Reformed Spirituality

Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

I delighted in this essay. Belden Lane, a Presbyterian and graduate of Fuller, teaches theology and American religion with the Jesuits of St. Louis University. He devotes the bulk of his time to mining the history of theology for sources of ecological and moral inspiration. In this book, the culmination of many years of painful struggle to come to terms with the ethos of Reformed Christianity, he pursues what he refers to as “a historical, theological, ethical, and even liturgical agenda . . . . to articulate a spirituality of desire in the history of the Reformed tradition, asking how major figures from John Calvin to Jonathan Edwards have emphasized the beauty of the world as a way of contemplating the beauty of God” (p. 13).

The Reformed tradition is not well-known for its aesthetic sensibility. It has received far more attention for its allegedly distant, cold, predestinarian doctrine of God, stern approach to the moral life, and dim view of worldly beauty. However, in Lane’s earthy hands, Reformed Protestantism brims with love for the world, indeed the cosmos, as the theater of God’s glory, goading readers to groan deeply for its coming restoration and to care, in the mean time, for its creatures.

His chapters on Edwards build on the work of Roland Delattre and Sang Hyun Lee to argue, not that Edwards himself worked as an eco-theologian, but that Edwards’ doctrine of God and theology of beauty can inspire and make good sense of environmental ethics today. “The physical universe,” for Edwards, is “a mirror of God’s glory, participating in what it reflects. The world is not simply a thin veil through which we reach toward a God wholly beyond it. For Edwards, nature—in all of its sensory palpability—is itself taken up into the still more sensuous glory of God. In the process, it teaches us desire, opening its mysteries to all who have received a new sense for the perceiving and extending of beauty in their common life” (pp. 199-200).

Or as Lane concludes in a chapter on what he has taken from Edwards’ ethics, “Jonathan Edwards . . . was a man for whom God was a constant amazement, a man for whom angels were ultimately more real than carriage bolts. But he never dismissed the tactile world of carriage bolts and harnesses, quill pens and mint sprigs as unimportant. He simply knew that reality, at its deepest level, is more than mere ‘stuff.’ It’s a matter of intimate relationships initiated by a communicative God. A purely material, non-relational world (like that of Thomas Hobbes) could never be ‘real’ for him. Yet the closest he came to imagining God’s ideal Beauty was by attending to the endless array of nature’s interrelationships. He loved the world because of the access it offered him to God, but he loved it nonetheless” (p. 210).

Historians may cringe from time to time in Lane’s story. He harbors “a love-hate relationship” with Reformed spirituality (p. 57). A recovering fundamentalist (a status he describes at numerous points throughout the book), he seeks to compensate for the harshness of his boyhood Calvinism by construing his tradition in a much more liberal way. He mines it for things he finds retrievable, discarding and even attempting to destroy what he dislikes (not an eco-friendly method). He is honest and open about this. In the end, though, it yields a rather attenuated Calvinism pruned for present purposes more than a panoramic picture of the Reformed spiritual landscape (in all its biodiversity).

As Lane suggests in a typical moment of spiritual profundity, “It isn’t the mastery of truth, but a relentless longing for it that qualifies those who become trusted guides for others” (p. 1). He misleads from time to time. But in the main, Lane has proven himself to be a trusted guide for those who long for the whole world to magnify the glory of God.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS