Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians. By James P. Byrd. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008. 173 pages. Softcover, $14.95.
“Written by experts but designed for the novice; [providing] accurate, concise, and witty overviews of some of the most profound moments and theologians in church history.” This is James Byrd’s, Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians. A fine contribution to both the Armchair series and to the ever-growing Edwards corpus, Byrd’s work is clear, cogent and teeming with content. Indeed, the great challenge to the authors in this series is not merely the consolidation of details regarding a historically important individual or movement. It is a challenge to make these individuals and movements enjoyably accessible. Byrd’s work has done just that.
Chapter one, The Young Edwards: Exploring Divine Beauty (Even in Spiders) is more than simply the clear, logical beginning to the Edwards narrative. It is signally and most appropriately an introduction to the topic which singularly consumed Edwards from his youth, namely, God’s own happiness in himself and its resultant expression, as humanity’s only true happiness and the bedrock of all reality (13–15). Byrd subtly, but noticeably, weds this chief concept in Edwards’ thought to each respective topic in the remaining chapters of the work. Such a careful structure demonstrates Byrd’s familiarity both with Edwards and the competing opinions regarding Edwards’ own theological and philosophical allegiances.
Chapter two, An Affection for Revival, recounts Edwards’ involvement with American revivalism. This is arguably the least complicated reading of the remaining chapters of the work, for two reasons. First, it is a familiar historical period. Second, as this is the least literary productive period during Edwards’ life (in terms of number of works published), it follows that, aside from comments about Edwards’ Distinguishing Marks or Religious Affections, there is little need for any substantive conceptual distillation of Edwards’ work.
In chapter three, Exodus from Northampton, Byrd introduces what is probably the most historically complicated period in Edwards’ life. Despite the manifold difficulties of unfolding the variety of circumstances surrounding Edwards’ dismissal from Northampton and his subsequent move to Stockbridge, Byrd nevertheless composes a lively, detailed, and fluid narrative account of the most prominent features of this period.
Chapters four through six mark a clear shift and considerable slowing in Byrd’s narrative account of Edwards’ life. Such a change is clearly in support of Byrd’s notion that Edwards’ importance in church history is as an intellectual activist (147–73). Byrd begins his theological explication in chapter four with Edwards’ Freedom of the Will. Aptly, Byrd emphasizes not only the distinctly Edwardsian categorization of natural, moral ability and necessity, but also the stridency of Edwards’ resolution to combat what he believed the greatest threat to revivalism in America—the nascent moral optimism of Arminianism’s concept of the will (82). In chapter five, Original Sin, Byrd shows Edwards’ enduring commitment to the logical and biblical arguments against Arminianism.
Surveying Edwards’ two final works, The End for which God Created the World and The Nature of True Virtue, in chapter six, Byrd examines Edwards’ effort to respond to the growing mechanistic world of the Enlightenment. Published together posthumously, these works constitute the fulfillment of Edwards’ intellectual energies and reveal the supreme interest of Edwards’ life, namely, God’s love of himself as the chief reason for all existence, and the appropriate creaturely response.
In the final chapter, A Legacy Begun: The Edwards Ethos, Byrd traces three trajectories of Edwards’ theological heritage. First, he argues for Edwards’ powerful influence upon the American abolitionist movement. Specifically, he highlights the efforts of Edwards’ first ministerial student, Samuel Hopkins, who “adapted” Edwards’ notions of True Virtue to form the “more [forceful], ‘disinterested benevolence’” (153). As Byrd recounts, “this kind of ‘disinterested’ love would focus on the needs of the lowest and weakest in society—namely, African slaves” (153). The second trajectory, and the one that dominates most of this chapter, is that of Edwards’ influence upon revivalism in America. Byrd is careful to show both the positive and negative effects of Edwards’ moderate “New Light” position as expressed in the revival preaching from Charles Finney to Billy Graham. Lastly, Byrd highlights Edwards’ incomparable influence on the American academy. Byrd concludes simply, but profoundly, that no other American theologian has precipitated such enduring interest as Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians will engage all readers, but especially those who enjoy intellectual history. Readers will find this volume a re-acquaintance with a sometimes maligned and misunderstood American theologian (xii). Perhaps this work will mark the beginning of a decline in the number of tired defenses against the hell-consumed Puritan caricature of Jonathan Edwards.
S. Mark Hamilton
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary