America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards
by robert jenson
oxford university press, 224 pages, $26
At first glance it is surprising that an avowedly Lutheran theologian, steeped, by his own admission, in the European theological tradition, should find so much to recommend in an American Calvinist. Even Robert Jenson’s profound indebtedness to the twentieth-century Swiss Calvinist Karl Barth does not fully explain his enthusiastic endorsement of an early eighteenth-century New England pastor, known to most only as the author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” However in America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards, Jenson uncovers a remarkable convergence between Edwards’ theological approach and context and his own.
Those familiar with Jenson’s original and provocative writings on the Trinity, both in The Triune Identity and in his contributions as co-author of Christian Dogmatics, will quickly perceive one source of the attraction. For the Trinity occupies a central place in Edwards’ theological vision as well, particularly in his vast, unpublished notebooks, the Miscellanies. The personal, communal being of God as Father, Son, and Spirit defined the basic character of reality for Edwards. It is from this vantage point that he construed human existence as intrinsically social and communal as well. Human persons, Edwards believed, are created for fellowship, both with God and with each other.
Edwards saw the love and communion of the trinitarian society as the dynamic force behind the universe. The creation of the natural and spiritual world is an expression of God’s love; and all creatures are intended to be “images and shadows” of this love, dimly reflecting the “supreme Harmony” of the Trinity through the beauty of their own relations of consent. The history of redemption, which coincided for Edwards with human history as a whole, climaxes in the ultimate manifestation of God’s love in the passion and death of Jesus Christ. The final goal of human existence is participation in the love of the trinitarian society itself, as the cherished spouse of Christ. Jenson deftly shows the role of Edwards’ “free metaphysical speculation” in articulating this eschatological harmony.
Another source of Edwards’ attraction for Jenson is the similarity he perceives in their social contexts. Both are American Christians, confronting in their own day the church that “the Enlightenment created,” and finding it wanting. The Arminian religiosity against which Edwards struggled has decisively triumphed in Jenson’s time. In a scathing critique of the contemporary American church, Jenson shows how Edwards’ affirmation of God’s sovereignty and his communal vision of reality have given way to belief in the unquestioned priority of the individual and the demand that God be “fair.” The result is an impotent, self-absorbed church without any sense of common mission. Jenson believes that Edwards has a message the twentieth-century American church needs to hear.
And Jenson documents the corrosive effect that the loss of Edwards’ religious vision has had on American political life as well. He persuasively correlates Edwards’ theological polemics with the political realities of his day. Edwards argued for the reality of original sin in response to a widespread denial of basic human solidarity; he defended God’s electing grace in opposition to a growing rejection of God’s sovereignty over individual lives. Yet the deistic individualism Edwards opposed has become the foundation of American political life. The “Enlightened” founders of America have relegated religion to the realm of private values, denying it a role in the public sphere. Jenson wants the American nation, too, to hear again Edwards’ alternative vision of reality.
However it is precisely this double audience, both the American church and the American nation as a whole, that creates profound tensions in Jenson’s proposal. (I might add that Christian Dogmatics exhibits a similar tension.) Insofar as Jenson addresses the church, existing in post-Christian America “as one sect among many,” his advocacy of Edwards is daring and yet comprehensible. The same cannot be said with respect to Jenson’s second audience. Granted that American social mores grew out of Arminian religious values, it is hard to see in what sense Jenson is recommending the Edwardsian vision to twentieth-century American society in general. For it is an explicitly Christian vision. Edwards, like Jenson, rejected the remote, generic God of the deists, and set his faith on the God defined by the biblical narrative, “Jesus the Israelite,” as Jenson provocatively puts it at one point. Edwards hoped for a great social unification by means of a massive conversion to the Christian faith. His hope for enduring social harmony rested on signs of the Spirit’s work in spreading love for the “excellency of Christ.” The basis of Jenson’s hope for American social harmony today is not as clear.
There are hints of Edwards’ unabashedly Christian witness in Jenson, as when he urges the American church “to assert the God of our gospel as the one true God who creates and rules all.” The society at large must discover, Jenson says, that the only plausible alternative to “pure communal nihilism” is a trust in “Edwards’ God,” for it is Edwards’ God who sovereignly “rules this world.” But for the most part Jenson’s missionary zeal is much more vaguely directed towards “the Enlightenment’s vision of cosmic harmony.” He suggests that America adopt a common “civil worship . . . which can be shared also with those not called to baptism or the prayer of the synagogue”; however, in the same breath, he eschews “lowest common denominator” religion. The content of this proposed civil religion is remarkably hard to discern, as is its connection with the triune Edwardsian vision.
Jenson recommends Edwards with one major reservation. Both Jenson’s denominational affiliation and his theological predilections lead him to reject the centrality of the Holy Spirit in Edwards’ trinitarian vision. His approval of Edwards’ opposition to Charles Chauncy, the urbane personifier of Enlightenment values, does not extend to Edwards’ embrace of the Great Awakening. Certainly Jenson is right in noting that the emphasis on the Holy Spirit in American religious life has tended towards the individualistic piety that both Jenson and Edwards reject. But while Edwards reflected the traditionally Reformed view of the Spirit’s role in applying the Word, he did not view the Spirit’s presence in the individual Christian as ultimately a private matter. Edwards’ clear intention was to affirm the new and “surprising” work of the Spirit in ways that would strengthen the bonds of the church community. At the end of Religious Affections, Edwards asserted that the Christian has no uniquely privileged access to his own spiritual state, but is dependent on the Christian community for its discernment. Nor does the church function for Edwards mainly as an adjudicator of inward spiritual experiences: the fruit of the Spirit is visible, habitual participation in Christian communal life and practice. In place of Edwards’ emphasis on the Spirit, Jenson advocates the naked “ontological” power of the Word as spoken in the church. As hastily sketched in this book, Jenson’s alternative appears perilously close to an ex opere operato view, which both Edwards and the Reformation repudiated. Is this really the way to the vibrant spiritual community Jenson desires?
Jenson’s elliptical style of writing and his tendency to subordinate sober historical portrayal to his particular theological agenda will not recommend themselves to readers previously unacquainted with Jonathan Edwards. Moreover, his agile leaps across centuries of Christian tradition, from the fourth-century Alexandrians to Kant, Schleiermacher, and Barth, may prove difficult for the theological novice to follow. And yet Jenson’s insights into Edwards’ thought in itself and its possibilities as an alternative vision for the American church and society make the book well worth pondering by all dissatisfied heirs of the Enlightenment, whether Edwardsian or not.
Amy Plantinga Pauw is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Yale University. She is currently completing a dissertation on Jonathan Edwards.