Historical counterfactuals fascinate me. What if the British had won the Revolutionary War? What if Constantine had lost the Battle of Milan? What if Hitler had never been born?
As an amateur scholar of Jonathan Edwards, one of the most intriguing counterfactuals to me centers around Edwards’s untimely death in 1758. After accepting the position of president of the College of New Jersey, Edwards died of a small pox vaccination. He was 54 years old.
The reason that Edwards’s early death is particularly vexing for church historians and theologians is that we know what Edwards was working on before his death. In a letter to the Trustees of the College of New Jersey, in which Edwards responds to their selection of him as the next President, Edwards writes,
But besides these, I have had on my mind and heart (which I long ago began, not with any view to publication) a great work, which I call A History of the Work of Redemption, a body of divinity in an entire new method, being thrown into the form of an history, considering the affair of Christian theology, as the whole of it, in each part, stands in reference to the great work of redemption by Jesus Christ; which I suppose is to be the grand design of all God's designs, and the summum and ultimum of all the divine operations and degrees; particularly considering all parts of the grand scheme in their historical order.
The order of their existence, or their being brought forth to view, in the course of divine dispensations, or the wonderful series of successive acts and events; beginning from eternity and descending from thence to the great work and successive dispensations of the infinitely wise God in time, considering the chief events coming to pass in the church of God, and revolutions in the world of mankind, affecting the state of the church and the affair of redemption, which we have an account of in history or prophecy; till at last we come to the general resurrection, last judgment, and consummation of all things.
Three Noteworthy Points
- Edwards plans to write a “body of divinity” (essentially a systematic theology) “in an entire new method,” namely one that is organized historically, rather than topically. While many such biblical theologies are being written today, in Edwards’ time this would have been quite an innovation. What’s more, Edwards regarded this method as “most scriptural and most natural.”
- Edwards was not merely writing an overview of the Bible. He would certainly cover the Old and New Testaments, but he was also planning to include the “chief events” in church history and indeed in “the world of mankind.” In other words, Edwards planned to start with creation, cover all of the Scriptures, and then keep right on going all the way to the consummation of all things.
- Edwards planned to treat all of his topics in light of “the great work of redemption by Jesus Christ…the grand design of all God’s designs.” In other words, Edwards planned to treat all of history as redemptive history, as the unfolding of God’s eternal plan of redemption in Jesus Christ.
So, a God-centered biblical theology and world history, integrated by Christ’s work of redemption, and written by one of the greatest theologians in the history of the church. Don’t you wonder what would have been in it?
Joe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary.