A Glorious Vision: The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Part 2)

Jonathan_Edwards_engravingWhitney Oates once identified Augustine’s theological method as one of an “open system” approach (The Basic Writings of St. Augustine). According to McClymond and McDermott the same can be said of Jonathan Edwards (The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 9). Though Edwards stands out as a the greatest theologian of his time, in many ways he stands out above theologians of all times. For while he affirmed the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, he also believed in the validity of intense intellectual engagement with ideas. Edwards believed that theological thought required him to exhaust his mental faculties in studying.

To call Jonathan Edwards a man of deep thought is a bit of an understatement. He never saw an idea he could exhaust before he exhausted himself. This is really the key difference between an open system thinker and a closed system thinker. An open system thinker wrestles with ideas in a process of continually unfolding thought. McClymond and McDermott elaborate:

The open system thinker approaches most intellectual issues as works-in-progress and hence returns again and again to the same perennial themes…This does not mean that the open system thinker is chaotic or undirected, but that there are broad patterns that emerge over time and are continually refined and developed. New insights come along, and when they do, they force a reshaping of familiar patterns. The result is a continual unfolding of thought. In principle the process is unending.

The open system thinker never closes the book on a subject, never masters it. Rather he continually refines his thought on the subject. In contrast, the closed system thinker finds his stopping place.

In contrast, a closed system thinker lays stress on systematicity. Once a given intellectual issue is discussed and resolved, the closed system thinker moves on to another topic. (9)

Edwards was most certainly an open system thinker. His journals contained their own systems of emendations, new pages added to further develop ideas, and internally cross-referenced themes. There was always some new avenue to explore.

Edwards’ mind was constantly reeling with ideas, questions, and challenges. His process of study was one of “investigation and discovery by writing” (10).  He wrote out his ideas, developing his thought in long arguments, responding to counterarguments and evaluating all their weakest points. He explained to trustees at Princeton College that his method of study was one of writing, stating that:

He would “improve every important hint; pursuing the clue to the utmost, when anything in reading, meditation, or conversation, has been suggested” to his mind that might “promise light in any weighty point.” This method became “habitual” and he found as time went on that “the further I traveled in this way, the more and wider the field opened.” (10)

Edwards was constantly writing. In fact historians have discovered that the man frequently ran short of paper. He could not rest an idea until he had sufficiently engaged it with his mind.

For Edwards, it was not enough merely to say “the Bible says so.” Though he submitted fully to the written, authoritative, inerrant, and sufficient Word of God he wanted to explore every facet of this Word. He wanted to know why God said it, why he said it the way he said it, what in full detail it meant, and how it related to every facet of life. Biblical though he was, Edwards was also a rational man. He wanted to understand his faith, not merely blindly follow it. Edwards held reason in high regard. If John Gerstner seems to put more emphasis on Edwards’ view of reason that may be warranted, he is right that Edwards regards it highly. Edwards used his mind to the fullest capacity he could. To do so was, he believed, to honor God.

Many Christians today have a strange fear of deep thought. There are many for whom it feels more pious to accept matters of faith blindly, without reasoning them out and thinking through them. Edwards was thoroughly Biblical but he understood that the more he plumbed the depths of his theology the more joy he got out of knowing it, and the more honor he brought to God. Pastors, theologians, and Christians of all kinds can learn something from Edwards Biblical Rational theological approach. Explore God until you exhaust him. Of course, since we can never exhaust him we should never rest from exploring him. We’ll see later that this is part of Edwards belief in the eternal joy of knowing God, there was always more to know. For Edwards, however, there was a necessary connection between theological study and intellectual engagement. That connection is one many Christians need to rediscover today.

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