Gerald R. McDermott. Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Jonathan Edwards was an eighteenth century pastor and theologian. Many of you may know him on account of his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which is a standard reading assignment in high school American literature courses. But there was much more to Jonathan Edwards than fire and brimstone. Edwards had thoughts about the beauty of God, and, as Gerald McDermott talks about in Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods, the topic of faith and reason and the role of God in non-Christian religions also were a part of Edwards’ thought.
Edwards was contending against deism, a belief in God that tended to dismiss the Bible as God’s divine revelation. Deists believed that the truth should be available to everybody, not just Israel, the church, or those who happen to have been exposed to the Bible or Christianity. This truth, according to them, was attained through reason. Deists also tended to believe that parts of the Bible should be accepted or rejected on the basis of their agreement with reason (or what they thought was reasonable). Moreover, there were deists who thought that God as he was portrayed in the Bible and by Christianity was narcissistic, conceited, and obsessed with others giving him glory.
Jonathan Edwards himself supported reason, but he did not dismiss the value of special revelation. While he believed that the truths of special revelation were reasonable, sometimes in a manner not apparent to us, he did not think that human beings could climb to certain Gospel truths solely through the use of their reason, and thus these concepts needed to be revealed by God, both through the Bible and the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit. Edwards also noted the existence of paradox in reason and nature, and thus he did not agree with the deist belief that paradoxical things in the Bible should not be accepted because they diverge from reason. On the question of whether God was narcissistic, Edwards maintained that God was beautiful, exuded that beauty, appreciated it within the Trinity, and desired the happiness of his creatures.
Edwards thought that even people in non-Christian cultures had some access to God’s special revelation, even if they did not have an explicit understanding of the Christian Gospel. According to Edwards, Noah’s sons spread the truth of God throughout the world, and Israel also communicated aspects of God’s special revelation to other countries. Edwards relied on writings that argued that there were parallels between non-Christian philosophies and religions and the Gospel: that Plato believed in the Trinity, that China talked about a Savior, etc. While Edwards’ Reformed predecessors held that people in non-Christian religions knew of God as creator, Edwards went a step farther and posited that they knew some things about the Gospel of Jesus Christ as well, albeit in a veiled form. Edwards maintained that people in non-Christian cultures had enough light to respond to the Gospel, even if they never read a Bible or met a Christian missionary. Moreover, on the basis of what Edwards said about salvation in pre-Christian times and the Gentile centurion Cornelius (Acts 10), McDermott speculates that Edwards may have been open to the possibility that people who had never heard the full Gospel could be saved. Because Edwards emphasized disposition, McDermott argues that Edwards could have believed that those in non-Christian cultures with a proper disposition to God—-those who acknowledged their sinfulness and need for divine mercy—-could receive salvation.
McDermott also explores Edwards’ attitudes towards Judaism, Islam, and Native Americans. Edwards was a step up from the anti-Judaism of the deists, for Edwards believed that the history of Israel and her laws played a significant role in God’s plan and activity in history. Edwards also thought that Christians were part of God’s covenant with Israel, and he looked forward to the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. On Islam, Edwards maintained that Islam was the false prophet of the Book of Revelation, the right arm of the Antichrist (the papacy, according to him and many Puritans). Yet, Edwards was familiar with what was in the Koran, knew that Muslims worshiped Allah rather than Muhammad (unlike some of his day), and honored the fact that Muslims believed Jesus was the Messiah. On Native Americans, Edwards thought that they were descended from the lost ten tribes of Israel and that their religion was devil worship. Yet, he was grateful to a Native American tribe on account of the acceptance that they extended to him when he was preaching to them, after his own church had kicked him out.
I especially appreciate McDermott’s attention to nuance. For one, McDermott contrasts Edwards’ understandings of world religions and Greek philosophy with the world religions and Greek philosophers themselves, and he does not find their alleged parallels with Christianity to be iron-clad or particularly convincing, when they are viewed in context. For example, regarding Chinese religion, McDermott states that “the passages that Edwards’s sources interpreted as messianic were almost certainly intended to describe the ‘superior person,’ an entire class of human beings who manifest Confucian virtue” (page 216). While McDermott highlights the differences between non-Christian religions and philosophies and Christianity, he argues in another book that God may still play a role in non-Christian religions (see my review of that book here). Second, McDermott had an interesting paragraph about the diversity within deism, as some deists ascribed to God a greater providential role than did other deists.