Follow me on Twitter @revbrock

Friday, September 13, 2013

Jonathan Edwards is (almost) My Homeboy

One of the bright spots from the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement is the t-shirt that features a picture of 18th-century Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards with the words “Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy” beneath. The movement was highlighted in a 2006 issue of Christianity Today and has been central in lives of many of my Baptist contemporaries who are a part of the “Reformed” movement in Baptist life.[1]

My first experience with Jonathan Edwards was through his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”[2] I read it (as I assume many of you did) in high school as a part of the English curriculum on American literature. The sermon struck me as painfully dark, judgmental, and as an attempt to “scare” people into salvation. Although I had no formal education in theology I realized that what Edwards was preaching was far from the sermons I heard every week at FBC St. Francisville, LA. God was portrayed as a wrathful, disgusted deity who, for some unknowable reason, tolerated miserable humanity just long enough to delight in casting them into justified hellfire. The God I worshipped was the God made flesh in Jesus Christ, the one who forgives iniquity and restores humanity to right relationship with a loving God. I came away from that assignment curious - how could Protestants stomach such blatantly bad theology?

It wasn’t until my experiences with Roger E. Olson at Truett Seminary that I was properly taught and equipped to understand and critique Edwards’ Calvinism.[3] Thankfully I have arrived at a more historically appropriate theological place that is somewhere between Calvinism and Arminianism. I now understand Edwards as representative of a theological tradition with which I do not agree.

This Sunday I decided to title my sermon “Sinners in the Hands of a Forgiving God.” The passages assigned by the lectionary bear in them the theme of God’s mercy and the images of God searching for sinners like a shepherd searches for a lost sheep. I was intending on referencing Edwards’ 1739 sermon only in passing, hoping to implicitly create contrast in the minds of my congregation. However, in my time preparing and writing my sermon I was drawn down the rabbit-hole known as the ATLA database into a world of research on Edwards and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” To my surprise (and dismay) I found things about Edwards’ theology that resonated with me as a nerd.

One journal article in particular pricked my heart of stone about Edwards and all he represents: “Feeling the Force of Certainty: The Divine Science, Newtonianism, and Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”” by Christopher Lukasik.[4] What intrigued me about the article was that Edwards’ sermon “rests not simply on…searing images of hellfire and the insecurity they elicit but also in [Edwards’] ability to draw upon the new science to infuse the old religion with an equally terrifying account of the logic of certainty.”[5] This “logic of certainty” was the language of Newtonian mechanics, a language that demonstrated the inevitability of the motion of the universe. Edwards integrated this type of thinking into his theological system with great effect. Lukasik says, “The skilled preacher was not simply raiding contemporary scientific and philosophic discourses for convenient metaphors; rather, Newtonianism was for Edwards an integral[6] part of a larger, ongoing intellectual project.”[7]

This project was lifelong and affected Edwards’ preaching and writing, especially his works on natural philosophy. McClymond and McDermott write, “In his early years, Jonathan Edwards was an enthusiastic exponent of the new physics of Isaac Newton, just beginning to make its impact in New England during the early 1700s.”[8] Edwards’ early writings on atoms, light, rainbows, and spiders were all settings in which he explored the relationship between the emerging Newtonian scientific worldview and his own Calvinism. God’s providence is consistently present even in these diverse works, though:

Throughout his writings, Edwards maintained that God constantly upholds the physical universe. Sometimes he asserted this in unusual ways, as when he stated, “The mere exertion of a new thought is a certain proof of God. For certainly there is something that immediately produces and upholds that thought; here is a new thing, and there is a necessity of a cause.” In various passages, Edwards showed a tendency toward occasionalism or the idea that all events are effects of God's agency and that creatures are not properly capable of producing effects on one another. According to Edwards's biblical interpretation, “it [is] most agreeable to the Scripture, to suppose creation to be performed new every moment.” Edwards's presentation of God's creative power in Original Sin suggested that no created thing could be a cause of its own existence from moment to moment: “God's upholding created existence, or causing its existence, is altogether equivalent to an immediate production out of nothing, at each moment, because its existence at this moment is not merely in part from God, but wholly from him; and not in any part or degree from its antecedent existence.”[9]

This stirred my soul because of my own fondness for mathematics and the predictable order of the universe. Although I do not feel spiritually compelled to preach divine determinism in relation to those laws of mathematics, I am touched to see that Edwards was a man of science, and I am especially proud to know that such a man as he was interested in many subjects and disciplines. Edwards relied upon the certainty and inevitability of gravity to connect with his congregation. If he could liken their own natural depravity to the immovable laws of the universe, then he could shake them from their spiritual complacency and inertia and help them feel their own need for God’s grace.[10]

I often go too far into nerdiness in my preaching by drawing upon images and principles of science and mathematics to make my point. I remember my very first sermon at Wildwood Baptist Church in Clinton, MS, “The Physics of Christianity.” It was a train wreck. I am comforted now to know, though, that one as great and skilled as Edwards took the language of the universe and wove its principles into his own theology. Maybe there’s hope for us nerdy preachers yet.

I will never be one of the “Young, Restless, Reformed”, and I’ll probably never consider Jonathan Edwards to be my homeboy in the sense that folks in that movement do. I have gained a new appreciation for the old preacher, though. So here’s a note of thanks to Dr. Caillouet who made me read it in the first place, to Dr. Olson who helped me parse its theology, and to God Almighty for making me the nerdy preacher I am. That’s not too deterministic, is it?

[4] Lukasik, Christopher, “Feeling the Force of Certainty: The Divine Science, Newtonianism, and Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The New England Quarterly 73 no 2, 222-245.
[5] Ibid, 222.
[6] I hope Lukasik inserted this pun intentionally.
[7] Ibid, 223.
[8] McClymond, Michael J. and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 107.
[9] Ibid, 110.
[10] Lukasik, 240.

No comments:

Post a Comment