Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney. The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian. Moody, 2018. See here to purchase the book.
Owen Strachan teaches Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Douglas A. Sweeney teaches church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and he served at Yale as a contributing editor on its Works of Jonathan Edwards series. Jonathan Edwards was an eighteenth century American Reformed pastor and theologian. Many know him from his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which they may have read in high school. But Edwards wrote many other works, as well. This book, The Essential Jonathan Edwards, is a condensed version of the five-volume Essential Edwards Collection.
The book has five parts, with chapters in each part. Part 1, “Lover of God,” is about Edwards’ life. Part 2, “Beauty,” covers Edwards’ thought on the beauty of God, creation, Christ, the church, and the Trinity. Part 3 is entitled “The Good Life.” It discusses how the Christian life coincides with happiness, sin’s disruption of the good life, the way that conversion orients believers and gives them a taste and an appreciation for the divine, and the importance of reading Scripture in preparing a person for conversion and feeding believers. Part 4, “True Christianity,” engages the difference between authentic Christianity and being merely a nominal Christian. It examines Edwards’ thoughts on how people can identify whether they are authentic Christians. It also tells the story of two Christians: David Brainerd, a friend of Edwards who was a missionary to Native Americans, and Abigail Hutchinson, a bedridden convert in the first Great Awakening. Part 5 concerns “Heaven and Hell.” There is a chapter about hell’s eternity and the pain that unbelievers experience from God’s intense wrath at their sin. There is also a chapter about heaven and how it is a world of love, where God is glorified and jealousy is absent.
The book can be called a homiletical introduction to Edwards. Part 1 is like a Sunday school lesson on Edwards’ life. Strachan and Sweeney would mention and describe Edwards’ friendship with the successful evangelist George Whitfield, for example, then they would talk about the importance of not being jealous and of being more concerned about the promulgation of the Gospel. Edwards’ solitude is held up as an example to Christians, as is his love for and interaction with his family. This part is rather hagiographical, yet it does acknowledge that Edwards was flawed, as when he supported slavery and when he failed to handle certain interpersonal interactions that well. Some of his weaknesses coincided with his strengths, Strachan and Sweeney contend. Overall, Strachan and Sweeney are sympathetic towards Edwards. They seem to agree with him on communion being restricted to those who can demonstrate that they are true believers, one of the controversies that led to Edwards’ removal from the pastorate. His grisly teachings on hell are upheld as an example for today’s church, which ignores or neglects the doctrine.
The book often quotes passages from Edwards’ writings, then comments on them in a homiletical fashion. The authors’ prose is very lucid, so it is like the reader is being given a friendly tour through Edwards’ thought.
This book is a satisfying and an edifying read. Parts of it did not teach me anything that I did not previously know, but it was enjoyable to mull over such concepts as the necessity and the eternity of God with Edwards. Edwards is a compelling example of one who was enamored with God and with what he saw of God in the world around him. There were parts of the book that taught me something new, or something that I had not considered before. Edwards’ attraction to his wife’s spiritual qualities, his struggle to find a pastorate, his articulation of the Trinity, and the Old Testament passages that he applied to hell are examples of this.
One can also feel discouragement yet hope in reading this book. Reading the discussions on how to identify oneself as a true Christian, I found myself saying, “Well, I guess I flunk that test, and I cannot picture myself ever being THAT good!” In reading Edwards’ graphic discussions of hell, I thought, “Wow, I hope that’s not how things are!” Yet, Edwards offered people hope. He encouraged them to seek the Lord while they can, to go to God for mercy. He said that Bible reading can prepare them for conversion, even if they do not feel particularly converted right now. And the book upholds David Brainerd as an example of one who struggled with depression and a long fruitlessness in ministry yet persevered.
Some discussions could have been developed more: the one on Edwards’ Freedom of the Will, for example, failed to highlight Edwards’ point that God somehow causes people’s choices. Still, the book is an effective introduction to Edwards’ thought. It can be a spiritual feast to newcomers and to those who have already read Edwards.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!