To See His Supernova God, Put Your Eye to Edwards' Telescope

To See His Supernova God, Put Your Eye to Edwards' Telescope

I stand in awe of Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott’s massive The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2011). Edwards is worthy of this scope of treatment.

But may I register a disagreement with one way this book is being commended.

Alistair McGrath said that it is “unquestionably the best starting place for anyone wanting to grapple with the ideas of America’s greatest theologian.”

And Kenneth Minkema said, “This volume provides the single best entry point into Edwards’ writings and ideas for the specialist and general reader alike.”

If what they mean is that this is the best secondary source for entrance into the thought of Edwards, then I won’t quarrel. But that’s not what they said.

I would protest that the best “starting place” and the best “entry point” for anyone wanting to grapple with Edwards’ thought is to read Jonathan Edwards himself. C. S. Lewis expresses my view exactly. Substitute Edwards for Plato in the following quote (and don’t assume that McClymond and McDermott’s book is “dreary”):

I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.

The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.

The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

The issue here is “starting place” and “entry point.” For those who have a lot of Edwards already under their belt, a major synthetic treatment may be a gold mine of clarification. But for the beginner, I suspect, starting with a massive secondary analysis will hinder a real discovery of the clarity and power and height and depth of Edwards’ biblical vision of God.

The reason hundreds of books are written about Edwards is precisely because his writing and thinking is in a class by itself. Reading about Edwards before you read him is like reading about the sunrise at night instead of getting up early to see it.

I am jealous for the God of Jonathan Edwards to be seen through the worshipful eyes of Jonathan Edwards. It is his God-besotted heart and mind that makes all the difference in the display of God’s glory. The aim is to see the supernova of God. Edwards’ telescope is clear and stunning. Put your eye to it. After you have done that for a few years, then look at the charts others have drawn of what they think he saw.

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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.