I know that you, like me, often sit around and ask yourself questions like “Just who IS America’s greatest theologian?”
No? Fine, me either. But listen, here is something to think about for a moment. This country is so blessed with amazing religious liberty, a rich history of the Christian church and continuing move of God, how did it get that way? Who were the men and women God used to grow and shape His work in America?
I love biographies, and history and theology and I found all three in The Essential Jonathan Edwards. The very long subtitle of the book reveals that this “an introduction to the life and teaching of America’s greatest theologian.” I don’t know when the contest for America’s Greatest Theologian took place, but the authors, Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney voted for Edwards.
If you think this book isn’t a poolside read for you, you may be right but you also may be wrong. Essential isn’t as heavy a read as the title leads you to believe. While it is a carefully researched work, it is a very accessible read. It is more concise than comprehensive, and has a great flow to the topics.
The book begins with a look at Edwards’s life, conversion, family and ministry life. It’s not a comprehensive biography, but complete enough to help you know the man and see his influence in the American church. I really appreciated the inclusion of a section that ends every chapter-“Following Edwards”. In it we see what we can learn in light of scripture from both the successes and failures of Edwards’s life. I find it valuable when a biographer gives you a true picture of a person of faith, not only the great victories but the mistakes they made that we can learn from.
The majority of the book focuses on the theology of Edwards. Edwards was not a scholar in a study writing dry sermons and books, but a man who loved the outdoors and reveled in the beauty of God in creation. He often wrote with a poetic flair about the beauty of God seen through creation, and this theme of beauty frames the section of Edwards’s views on God, creation, Christ, the church and the afterlife. Other sections address the Good Life, True Christianity and Heaven and Hell. The authors feature many excerpts from Edwards’s writings here, giving clarity and application to the more densely theological passages. Again, each chapter ends with a way for us to apply what we learn from scripture and Edwards teaching of it to our own life today.
Why would I recommend this book? While I, you, or somebody might not always agree with all of Edwards’s positions on non-essentials, and whether or not he won America’s Greatest Theologian, his life and work is important to know about and there is much to learn from him beyond his most famous sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.” I knew very little of him beyond that sermon prior to reading Essential. Though over 400 pages long, I rolled through this book, unmindful of its length because the flow of topic, commentary and application kept me engaged.
Christian history and biography is relevant in today’s shifting culture of progressive theology and celebrity. We need to look beyond our basic understanding of theology, every one of us, and do the work of laying hold the deep and unchanging truths of the character of God, His Word and discovering our right response to the continuing grace of the gospel. Looking at our faith history and the people who have contributed to it is one helpful way to do that.
Read well, friends!
Moody Publishers, 2018
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