I have two items for my write-up today on George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life.
1. In my latest reading, Marsden went into Jonathan Edwards’ views regarding the historical critical method of studying the Bible. This was an issue that concerned Edwards, for he wrote at great length in his journals about the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, defending the notion that Moses was the Pentateuch’s author. Edwards had problems with at least three aspects of the historical-critical method. His first problem was that it assumed that only scholars of ancient history and languages could understand the Bible. Edwards had doubts that God’s revelation would be that abstruse, for it would have to be understandable by many generations in order to function as revelation, especially the generation that lived in the last days. His second problem was that the historical-critical method treated the Bible like any other book. Edwards held that the Bible was divinely-inspired and was thus deeper than other books. Edwards’ third problem was the rejection of miracles in prominent strands of the historical-critical method. For Edwards, we should not reject the historicity of miracles if miracles are attested by sources whose authors were reasonable. Moreover, Edwards notes that many of us accept the credibility of historical sources that discuss strange things that their authors did not fully understand, such as electricity. For this last point, Edwards was also responding to thinkers such as Lessing, who believed that history was unreliable in terms of theology and that we should rely instead on a priori truths.
But there was another side to Edwards’ approach. Edwards believed in a learned clergy. Edwards himself studied Hebrew and ancient history, and he made notes about these things when he was studying the Bible. And Edwards somewhat acknowledged that history was not the most solid foundation for theology, for we don’t necessarily know when histories were written. Consequently, Edwards affirmed the importance of the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, as God enlightened people about the beauties that are in the Scriptures. I especially like what Marsden says on page 481 about Edwards’ thoughts regarding the limits of scholarship: “If Christians had to wait until scholars answered all the objections to the truth of Scripture, ‘miserable is the condition of the Houssatunnuck Indians, and others, who have lately manifested a desire to be instructed in Christianity; if they can come at no evidence of the truth of Christianity, sufficient to induce ’em to sell all for Christ, in no other way but this.'”
I’ll take Edwards’ insight in a different direction: If we have to wait for conservative Christian scholars to harmonize the contradictions in the Bible and show us that it is perfect and inerrant, notwithstanding its apparent bumps, then we are left with an imperfect Bible until that happens—-and here I’m essentially equating the Bible with how we see the Bible according to our imperfect understanding. They’re not the same, I know, but my impression is that all we’re left with when it comes to the Bible is our imperfect understanding, and so, even if the Bible is perfect in a way that we cannot immediately see, how does that help us exactly, when our understanding is imperfect? Christians will say that we’re not left to our own devices, for we have the Holy Spirit to guide us. But, if that is the case, why do Christians arrive at different interpretations of the Bible?
2. Marsden narrates the death of Jonathan Edwards, his wife, and his daughter Esther—-who, by the way, was the mother of Aaron Burr, the Vice-President under Thomas Jefferson who shot Alexander Hamilton. Esther actually portrays little Aaron as a brat in one of her writings. Edwards, his wife, and Esther died at young ages according to today’s standards—-Edwards died in his fifties. Edwards’ parents, by contrast, lived to ripe old ages, even according to the standards of today. Marsden wonders what would have happened had Jonathan Edwards lived longer. How would he have felt about the Revolutionary War? And how would he have influenced some of the people who became America’s Founding Fathers—-if Edwards had lived longer, he would probably have been the President of Princeton when James Madison was attending it.
When Esther died, her friend Sarah Prince was distraught. Sarah also felt guilty because she thought that she loved Esther more than God. Esther was a comfort to Sarah, and Sarah admired Esther for her kindness to everyone she met. She would miss Esther intensely.
Within evangelical Christianity, I’ve long been told that I should not idolize people, for people will let me down, whereas God will not. In a number of cases, that’s probably true. But Sarah Prince did not feel that way about Esther Edwards. Is there a way to honor the friends who have been good to us, without resorting to idolatry? Perhaps we can incorporate our appreciation for their love into our appreciation of God’s love, seeing their love as a reflection of what God is like.