Book Review: George M. Madsen. Jonathan Edwards – A Life. (One of two on this book)

REL 4920, Theology of Jonathan Edwards


George M. Madsen.  Jonathan Edwards – A Life.

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


Reviewed by Matthew Lipscomb (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga)

Submitted per Required Coursework (December, 2010)

Commissioned by Gene Mills


A Review of Jonathan Edwards – A Life





Jonathan Edwards – A Life by George M. Marsden, is an excellent review of both the life and thought of the Puritan pastor, writer and theologian. Foremost known in the collective cultural conscious as being the author of the sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God – Edwards is shown by Marsden to be a much more complex and nuanced individual then he is often assumed by the many to be. Marsden shows us that Edwards is much more then just a ‘hellfire and brimstone’ preacher, in that he paints a picture of an Edwards who is rather more of a nuanced theologian and a skilled writer then just a ranting hack – and more so importantly – that he is ever more so concerned with the task of grafting the wonder, the beauty, and the grace of God into the hearts of his parishioners – much more so then his account is often so afforded.

Marsden begins his story of Edwards with an apparently innocuous bible verse – strategically placed just before the table of contents.


But we have this treasure in earthen vessels,

that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. 

– II Corinthians 4:7


The way the Marsden writes can be understood to essentially be an embodiment of the basic premise expressed by this verse. Marsden does not shy away from the aspects of Edwards that bring a degree of humility to the table in regards to his personality: his potential interpersonal stiffness towards others, his often single-minded determination which at times served to his own detriment, his struggle with an apparent depression while questioning his own salvation, and his positional, ideological, and cultural entrenchment in the aristocratic culture of New England – to name just a few.  In this sense, Marsden’s biography does not savage Edwards, but neither does it place him on a lofty pedestal. Whereas some biographies sharply veer into either hagiographic or polemic dimensions – Marsden avoids both extremes, and even offers a degree of self-critique in his own self-reflective stance. This strength offers a firm foundation upon which he builds his work and it may well serve as the strongest light by which Marsden illuminates Edwards along both his historical and theological continuums.

A second balance that Marsden maintains is in the exploration of the issues that Edwards struggled with in the context of his life. Marsden does not shy away from the theological techno-speak inherent to such discussion, but neither does he merely reduce it to the indecipherable-to-the-lay-person ‘private language’ so common to many specific disciplines at their higher, academic levels.  This is perhaps the strongest point of Marsden’s review in that he goes through the theological issues that Edwards wrestled with throughout his careers as an academic, pastor and writer – and presents them both with their complexities and their nuances intact, and, for the most part, Marsden does not alienate those who lack a seminarian’s vocabulary. In this sense – Marsden executes, with a beautifully crisp clarity, the delicate task of explaining both the theological, historical, and more importantly, personal contexts for Edwards and does not leave the average reader befuddled. Marsden accomplishes a further magisterial task, as one walks away from the reading of his work – in its fullness – with the sense that one has been imparted with not just an understanding of Edwards himself and his times – but also with a deeper degree of understanding in regards to the theology which Edwards both loved and courageously fought for. There is evident, perhaps, a kind of hidden anthem of reciprocity here: that in our exploration of Edwards, he is once again – through the pen of Marsden – preaching to yet another congregation; an act which is itself both an achievement and an honor, bestowable upon both biographer and his subject.

The task of writing a book that travels through the daunting continuums of both history and theology doubly predisposes the endeavor of its writing to be of a potentially tedious, boring, and generally confusing nature – for even the most educated and interested of readers. Marsden displays a deft hand against this seemingly Cerberus-like tendency by interweaving his subject matter with both humor and genuinely touching moments placed carefully throughout the discourse of his narrative. Marsden hilariously recalls the laugh-out-loud story of how a new building at Yale was almost inadvertently given the surely ignominious-to-future-generations name of “Belcher” Hall, and then goes on in later pages to tenderly describe the passion of Edwards, as he lay dying, for his wife; whom he felt a love so special that he hoped that it might persist for all eternity.  It is a love story, surely befitting any theologian. In this sense, Marsden achieves what could be though of as a third balance, in that it is both thorough in its examination of Edwards yet retains the viewers attentivity with a wise use of both humor and what another reviewer has termed its romantic ‘you’ve got mail’ moments:  those by which Marsden keeps the story seemingly aglow with the love affair between Jonathan and ‘the girl from New Haven’ as he affectionately once wrote of her – Sara Pierpont.

Marsden’s work is very thorough and completely adequate for a single-volume study. The only criticism that this writer can offer would be, admittedly, at best anecdotal in nature.  It might have been interesting to have the quirks and overall nature of Edward’s personality interpreted though the various lenses of modern psychiatric theory and diagnostic criteria. Could Edwards be seen as being a candidate for having had Aspergers Syndrome? Various other luminaries such as Einstein and Edison have been subject to such comparisons due to their respective personality quirks. Marsden’s example of Edwards as having  “no middle gears,” his evident ability to ‘hyper-focus,’ as well as the distinct and unique way that he understood inter-relational love to function almost only from within a logical & idealistic framework at the arguable expense of any role for pure, non-reason mediated emotion, are all hallmarks of Aspergian Autism in which love (for the Aspergian [or “Aspie” as is often used as a self-referencing moniker]) is generally experienced as a thought-derivation, rather then an emotionally derived dynamic/experience.  Could Edwards have been possessive of the non-neurotypical interrelational dynamic/tendency of Aspies to generally experience love from a logically-oriented locus, and if so – could it have influenced and/or even mediated Edwards work on The Divine Affections, whereby he sought a middle ground between mere emotions and pure reason? There is some meat here for further study – but it may also be arguably too tangential to the core goal of a biography.   Other forms of evidenced non-neurotypicality were perhaps at work in the Edward’s household, as even Edward’s wife, Sara Pierpont, bears hallmarks of some potential degree of manic depression, as does Edwards self-description of himself as being in a “low & sunk estate.” It must be added, that there is always a degree of potential unfairness in making such assumptions and relegating individuals to often vague and ever-changing categories of psychiatric orders, but – as Marsden shows Edwards to be – Edwards could easily have qualified as a polymath; especially in regards to his multidisciplinary proclivities as a man of both Science, Philosophy, and Religion.

Edwards fearlessly integrated both Science and Faith. As Marsden points out, Edwards owed the loss of his life, in part, to his taking of an early & primitive smallpox vaccine.  Edwards demonstrated a love of science both in his early years – as evidenced by his Spider Letter and in those late in his life as well. He was truly more then just a philosopher and theologian – the man the Marsden shows us – held very much the heart of a scientist within his breast.          Anyone interested in both modern and/or historical theology or the life of Edwards will decidedly benefit from opening the canvas that Marsden has painted.  From Marsden’s pallet we see Edwards not just as a Pastor, Theologian, Philosopher, Generational Zeitgeist and even Scientist – but also as a prophet convinced of a supreme and irresistible divine and intertrinitarian love; one he saw as saturating all of creation in its hues and vividities. We see much more then just an angry preacher, but a man dedicated to showing others the beauty and the power of a Divine Love which he felt both crucial, evident, and more so even the very fabric and sustenance of the very universe as he saw it.




About hollerscholar

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