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Jonathan Edwards has had a few tough innings of late.

On the left, some dismiss him out of hand for having owned enslaved Africans (at least four, maybe more). On the right he’s had the dubious honor of becoming a hero to some theo-bros who love his unremitting devotion to the sovereignty of God—to a tough-guy God, that is, the posture the bros in question want to see in the mirror. Double predestination, penal substitutionary atonement, remorseless interrogation into the byways of sin—no drippy femme sentimentalism here.

Onto this stage steps George Marsden, Edwards’s greatest modern biographer, with An Infinite Fountain of Light: Jonathan Edwards for the Twenty-First Century (IVP, 2023). Marsden (mentally, I’m calling him George, personal mentor and friend that he is, but we’ll maintain formal respect here in public) won the Bancroft Prize, the American history guild’s Nobel, for his magisterial Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale, 2003). Eerdmans issued a shorter re-working in 2008.

This new book is not another biography, then, but at once a personal appreciation, a critique of 21st century culture, and a standard by which American Christians might find redemption going forward. All this simultaneously around the figure who was both a founder of Evangelicalism in its revivalist mode and America’s greatest philosophical theologian.  

Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father 

Marsden takes up his task by imagining Edwards and Benjamin Franklin, his near contemporary, encountering our current scene. Edwards would be a complete alien, alternately puzzled and shocked; Franklin would be bemused but chatty and comfortable, for our world is the fruit of his attitudes and inventions. It is materialist, at once nationalist and cosmopolitan, and sexually relaxed. It prizes technological invention, not least in cutting-edge communications. It is devoted to liberty, equality, and opportunity under the sovereignty of market capitalism. Religiously, it adheres under many labels to a moralistic therapeutic deism that serves its real god, the self-made person. 

That is to say, Marsden offers, today’s postmodern world is Franklin taken to the Nth degree, only with his Enlightenment confidence in objective truth wrought by science and reason wrecked on the shoals of relativism and suspicion. The legacy of scientism, on the other hand, remains in place. We live in an utterly disenchanted world ruled by natural laws, an “essentially dead” realm in which “living things sometimes happen to pop up.” (59) Vertically, the transcendent is in total eclipse; horizontally, personal connections and loyalties are running thin in the ceaseless quest (redoubled by social media) to discover, enhance, and redefine the real me. 

God’s Love: The Other Gravity

Isaac Newton

To this regime Marsden offers Edwards as a source of renewal. (23) Not the Edwards stereotyped by his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the chestnut endlessly anthologized to make it easier for students to despise the man. Instead, the ontological Edwards, the philosopher who saw the entire universe sustained moment to moment by the active mind of God. Edwards as a teenager at Yale eagerly absorbed the new science of Isaac Newton and found in his laws of gravity an analogy to all things living.

Everything exists in a vast web of relationships, Edwards saw, bound together not as mere “matter in motion” but by the boundless, quickening, renewing love of God. That love has been made most manifest in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Calvary and the empty tomb thus define all reality, tiny atom to meadow flower to hearth and home to teeming city. 

If God not only keeps all reality in being every moment but suffuses it with love, our job as humans is to give that love back and extend it to our neighbors. Marsden draws out several policy prescriptions from that mandate. If material things express “the language of God’s love” (49), then surely we should respect, honor, and treasure that world, not exploit it as a commodity for our own convenience.

Interpersonally, Edwards insisted amidst the bustling commerce of Northampton, Massachusetts that the poor be remembered first, dismissing all the excuses people piled up about costs, the “undeserving” poor, etc. Marsden quotes the late Tim Keller to seal the point: “Justification leads to justice. Justice is the sign of justification.” (135) For Christians the two must be forever reciprocal. Then there’s Edwards’s admonition to some of Keller’s company at the Gospel Coalition. The theo-bros’ warrior pose is 180 degrees misdirected; Christian fortitude “much more appears in resisting and suppressing the enemies that are within us” than on those we might spy without. (123)   


Northampton Church, 1737

All this is laid out in Marsden’s wonderful chapter on “The Dynamic Beauty of God,” plus some parts of his concluding chapter on Edwards’s distinction between true and false religion. In between is an exposition of the evangelicalism that grew out of Edwards’s revival in Northampton and culminated in two “Great Awakenings,” one in the mid-eighteenth century, the other in the early nineteenth. Here I’m more skeptical than Marsden, not least because of the very need to follow upon this history—as Edwards soon learned to his chagrin in his own church—with an anatomy of the counterfeit piety manifest in Evangelical ranks. More on that in my post next month. 

For now, two questions from the material already covered. First, Marsden nicely foregrounds the aesthetic in Edwards who was a prime theologian of beauty, giving particular attention to the analogies he drew from nature and romantic love. Edwards defined beauty by eighteenth-century standards: symmetry, harmony, proportion. Fair enough; as Marsden says at the outset, we need to distinguish between the lasting value and the cultural context in which it appeared.

But ethics must follow from aesthetics, and that Marsden has Edwards articulate (with a strong nod to Augustine) as “rightly ordered loves.” (106) Now I like Haydn as much as the next guy, but not all the time. In our own age, what does God sound like after Mahler? Amid hip-hop? And how might our ethics change as a result? 

And what about gender reception? Edwards quotes Calvin (who in turn is quoting Augustine) to the effect that “the first precept of the Christian” is humility, humility, and humility. (119-20) How did this sound to young Jonathan’s mother and nine sisters, or to father Jonathan’s wife and ten daughters, the lot of them quite able at the give and take around the dinner table? Did 18th-century women of the Edwardses’ middling sort need to be cautioned against pride? Doubtless, of one sort thereof. But Edwards’s injunction that true Christians are “lamb-like, dove-like” in the spirit of Christ was better directed to males than to females in his context, and certainly in the one in which I was reared. I’ll let younger people speak for themselves.   


Still, Marsden’s point is poignant, daunting, breathtaking. To see the natural world not as matter in motion, nor as an accident arriving out of nowhere, nor as dust in the wind, but as a mirror of the face of God—to me (though not, blessedly, to David Schelhaas in this space yesterday) that is quite a stretcher. (Mark Twain, himself haunted by Edwards.)

To see “the infinite beauty of the love of God at the heart of reality” (139) is counterintuitive in the extreme to the sensibility with which we are surrounded and which we absorb, willy-nilly. The tension might drive one to prayer.

Marsden offers a good one: “that I may be given eyes to see the beauty of the astonishing sacrificial love of Christ that is the great dynamo at the heart of reality.” 

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Love it, thank you.

  • Doug says:

    Can’t wait for the “post next month.” Thanks for this one.

  • John Hubers says:

    So refreshing to see Marsden’s rehabilitation of this philosopher/theologian hailed by European scholars as the first great American theologian for his creative relections on a God-soaked universe. The fact that his first adolescent writings were on his delight and awe of spiders says far more about who he was than the sermon (which he felt was one of his worst) about sinners dangling over a pit of hell fire.

    Bravo to Marsden for resurrecting Edwards – and your fine review alerting us to his work.

  • jack roeda says:

    Thank you Jim for this final review. I look forward to reading the book.

  • Pam Adams says:

    I read the 2003 Jonathan Edwards: A Life and really loved it. Marsden is a wonderful writer so maybe I should buy it and read it. You make references to other historical people who are interesting to read about. Thank you.

  • David Schelhaas says:

    I don’t think I quite said that the garden was a mirror of the face of God though I may have been a bit more extravagant in the praise of it than realism demands. I just now came in from picking beans and my arms itch, I’m sweating, and glad to be in my air-conditioned home.
    Years ago, when I taught high school American Lit, I used to set Frost’s poem “Design” against Edwards’ short piece about flying spiders. To him it was all a wondrous example of the design of God. Frost, in contrast, writes after describing the spider devouring the moth, “What but design of darkness to appall?/If design govern in a thing so small.” I agreed with Frost.

    • Jim says:

      Maybe not a mirror—I meant that yr whole article conveyed the sense of a God/supernaturally saturated world. And yeah, JE had a thing for spiders….

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