I came to realize not too long ago that, for a man of such importance, I knew shockingly little about Jonathan Edwards. I had some knowledge of the basic outline of his life and teachings, but knew little beyond that. Having heard so many positive reviews of George Marsden’s recent biography of the man, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, I turned to this book to learn more about this giant of the faith. I was richly rewarded. And if ever I have felt inadequate to the task of summarizing a book in just a few short paragraphs, this is the time.
Whether we are aware of it or not, most contemporary Calvinists are deeply indebted to Edwards. His defense of Calvinism in works such as Freedom of the Will have made a deep and lasting impact on Reformed theology. It did not take me long to realize that much of what I believe, much of what I have taught to others and much of what has been passed down to me originated with Edwards. A lifelong student of the Bible, he wrestled with the great doctrines of the Scriptures and expounded them for countless generations of other Christians. Truly his impact can hardly be exaggerated.
I have sometimes found that biographies can become bogged down with examinations of the most minute details of a person’s teaching. When I have been looking for the story of a person’s life I have instead found a thorough examination of the person’s thought and writing. I was pleased to see that, by and large, Marsden does a good job of incorporating Edwards’ teaching into the story of his life, rather than examining them as separate entities. A possible exception to this is in three of the final four chapters where he focuses on Edwards’ major theological treatises, but even here he summarizes them in a brief but satisfying way. He provides the framework of what made Edwards’ teaching unique without becoming bogged down with details. The book strikes that delicate balance between describing and explaining the subject as a father, pastor, revivalist and theologian. The biographer, while clearly holding Edwards in high esteem, seems objective and honest with his subject’s shortcomings and failings.
As I read about Jonathan Edwards, I could not help but draw comparisons to some of the great pastors and theologians who have lived since, but especially of John Piper who, in so many ways, is an Edwards to this generation. Piper has been so profoundly impacted by Edwards and, as I understand it, considers himself a teacher who brings before this generation the great work of men like Owen and Edwards. From what I know of his teaching and his life, he certainly does seem to exemplify the teachings and the ideals of his historical hero. Much of what has come from the mouth and the pen of Piper came first from the pen of Edwards.
Edwards is a towering figure in the history of the church and one whose impact will continue to be felt, I am sure, until the Lord returns. He lived a life that seemed both too difficult and too short. And yet he wasted scarcely a moment, dedicating his life to the great cause of defending and expounding biblical truths. This book surely presents Edwards as he was–a man who, though certainly flawed and sinful, was used greatly by God. Though he may have been brilliant in intellect, what makes Edwards such an important figure is his love for the Lord and his dedication to knowing Him more. These are ideals we can all imitate and all strive towards. Like any good biography of a follower of Christ, this one makes me long to mimic those aspects of the man that set him apart.
Praise for this book has been near-universal. I am glad to add my esteem for it as well. Jonathan Edwards: A Life is a great and stirring biography. It is a masterpiece.