A review of George M. Madsen’s Jonathan Edwards – A Life.

Matthew Lipscomb

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

REL 4999, Religion in the time of Edwards, Wesley and Whitfield





London Yale University Press.  615 pp.  $25.00 (paper), ISBN 0-300-09693-3.




         Jonathan Edwards – A Life, by George M. Marsden, represents one of the best examinations of Jonathan Edwards amid an ever-growing body of Edwardsian scholarship. In it, Marsden explores the life and times of one of Evangelicalisms foremost fathers though the lenses of his historical background, his personality, his writings, and the many and multifaceted individuals and events that shaped and guided him. Through Marsden’s exploration of the life of Jonathan Edwards – we can see more clearly the reasons that Edwards holds his fatherly focus from within multiple echelons of Evangelical history: he is a father to those who studiously examine theology, to those who wrestle with their faith, to those who embrace science as an important and equal aspect when properly understood, and more so importantly – all those who love to expound secondly on the justice and truth of God, but primarily – and, for them, more importantly – the sweet grace of God.

         It must be conceded, however, that any book can be found wanting in some inventive-to-the-reader regard. No book can cover everything in such comprehensive detail whereas to be sufficient for everyone, everywhere, and concerning everything. But Marsden comes as close to a gold standard as can be considered possible. Marsden allows a detailed – yet approachable writing style that benefits both the seminary student and the blue-collar deacon. When Marsden describes why Edwards might have had “too dim a view on human nature” by telling us that there were various horrific murders by the hands of his own relatives – and that his grandmother was “an incorrigible profligate” (22) – we can almost see Marsden winking at us through the pages; too respectful to use the word ‘slut’ – too honest to leave it out.  Though Marsden may use eloquent language to innocuously avoid the rhetorical banality of the more crass & common descriptor for Edward’s grandmother – Marsden keeps his language otherwise remarkably accessible and open.

         This avoidance of seminarian jargon is especially helpful when covering the topics of how and why Calvinists believe that God’s grace cannot be controlled (28), the sovereignty of God in Edward’s theology (11), his polemics against Arminianism (87-88), Edward’s belief in how and why the Universe actually exists (77), Edwards thoughts on then-modern social conundrums – such as Slavery (255) and the American Indians (174-175, 390), and many others.

         A second strength in Marsden’s book is the varieties of lenses through which Marsden provides us images of Edwards. Marsden does in fact us a historical accounting of Edwards – as would be normally expected of any biographer. However, Marsden shows his true biographical mastery in further existentially refracting Edwards through the prisms of both his philosophy and his love of science. We are entreated to not just a theologian, philosopher, and scientist – but also a true revolutionary. When Marsden describes how Edwards understands the idea of Intertrinitarian (488) and Redemptive Love (4, 192-194) the nature of the Universe (74) and how he believed it to have been literally created for the communication of divine love to mankind (77), we see a picture of a man who can hardly be described succinctly as a fire & brimstone preacher – but, more so, an outspoken and tireless advocate and apostle of God’s Love.

         Marsden shows us a theologian who has both Love and the idea of the Sovereignty of God at the forefront of his mind (11), a scientist who studies Newton & (72) and a philosopher who has both wrestled with Liebniz (72) and the age-old question of the role of language (221). Through Marsden we see a man who is as apt to contemplate both how light works (75) and how the world works in cosmic terms (88) as much as he is driven to contemplate the deep mysteries of God.

         But are there ‘mysteries’ about Edwards that Marsden could have attempted an exploration of?  Much greater understanding has been reached in regards to certain types of Autism – such as Asperger’s Syndrome. Many historical characters, such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison have been psychologically recontextualized, in light of different assumptions of personality and behavioral norms. Most historians agree that both Einstein and Edison were very likely ‘Aspies’ – as the Asperger’s community often refers to its members as in terms of being. Marsden’s assertions that Edwards seemingly possessed ‘no middle gears’ (39) and that he set virtually impossible standards for himself (34) would seem as classic tell-tale signs of Aspergian behavior; a tendency to hyper-focus and not adequately manage a proper level of attention across one’s responsibilities – those both great and those small – as well as a life built around logic and idealism vs. emotion. Perhaps Edwards’ fixation on the emotion and love of God echoed out of his own struggle to properly understand and appropriate his own (Aspies tend to understand and feel love from a logical progression & appropriated nature vs. an ecstatic and/or emotional loci). A Detailed analysis, from the perspective of an authoritative biographical master such as Marsden, would have arguably been a significant contribution to Edwardsian scholarship.

         But a masterpiece is defined by it’s own summation – not the list of things that could have been, or should have been – by the ever-changing standards of other scholars and laypersons.  Within Marsden’s book we can find more then enough to chew on about Edward’s life then we can likely expend within our own lifetime. And it is in the benefit of such digestion – that Marsden’s mastery makes it own case. Edward’s does not just belong to his own time – he belongs to ours as well – and of those future generations to come, who will struggle, fight and overcome frustrations, fears, and challenges – just as Edward’s did in his own age. 


About hollerscholar

I'm a theology & philosophy student, writer, web developer, and medical laboratory professional.
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