The Anachronism of Jonathan Edwards

In 1958, H. Richard Niebuhr gave an address for the bicentennial of Edwards death, which he titled: “The Anachronism of Jonathan Edwards.” In light of Kent’s earlier post on the interaction between Myers and Marsden, this piece came to mind. Myers concern is somewhat similar to Niebuhr’s: How do we do justice to historical sources so that they can truly speak into our experience (particularly in the form of critique)?

Niebuhr’s concerns are admittedly different from Myers. He is speaking to a gathering of people to honor Jonathan Edwards (“honoring” might be a good category for speaking about theologians from history). Niebuhr says this:

By what right do we join the funeral procession, stand beside the grave, intrude ourselves into the company of those who mourn him (Edwards)? When we think of his exile from Northamptonand his more inclusive exile from the company of all right-thinking modern men, we must apply to ourselves on this occasion the indictment that Jesus made of ‘hypocrites’ who ‘build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous’…When we move from the eighteenth century down to our present time we cannot really convince ourselves that if Edwards now lived among us he would be more respected in the 1950s than he was in the 1750s.”

The question Niebuhr poses is incredibly important. Can we decide how to read history? In other words, can we decide how the historical buffet is navigated while doing justice to the very cause those figures stood for? Or again, can we honor someone like Edwards as a philosopher, a scientist, or even a father, without ever mentioning Edwards the pastor, theologian, and, above all, Christian? Niebuhr continues on:

There is no really honest and consistent way of honoring Edwards at all this day except in the context of honoring, of acknowledging and renewing our dedication to his cause. That cause was nothing less than the glory of God…What Edwards knew, what he believed in his heart and with his mind, was that man was made to stand in the presence of eternal, unending absolute glory, to participate in the celebration of cosmic deliverance from everything putrid, destructive, defiling, to rejoice in the service of the stupendous artist who flung universes of stars on his canvas, sculptured the forms of angelic powers, etched with loving care miniature worlds within worlds.”

Reading Edwards anachronistically is reading Edwards with our agenda over and against his. As Niebuhr points out, the famous Enfield Sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was not so much about hell as it was about the uncertainty of life (a reminder many in the Western world have had all too recently). I will leave you with a final thought from Niebuhr concerning the possibility of honoring someone like Edwards:

The anachronism of our Edwards celebration is not so much that we try to honor him in a time of atheism, when men do not believe in God; but that we seek to know and respect a servant of the Almighty, of the Lord, the Source of Being itself, of Power beyond all powers, in a time when our God is someone we try to keep alive by religious devotions, to use for solving our personal problems, for assuring us that we are beloved. He is without wrath, because we have made this image wrathless; his love is not holy love because we have painted the icon without holiness.”

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