Dane C. Ortlund. Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. 208 pp. $18.99.
You cannot complete high school without hearing about Jonathan Edwards in an American History class. Regardless of whether your teacher called him a fire and brimstone Northampton preacher of judgment, a pious and reflective missionary to Native Americans, or a theological giant who led as the first President of Princeton, you’ve heard something about Jonathan Edwards. He is a looming figure over the hallowed history of Colonial America. A great mind, a great shepherd, and a great leader are all apt ascriptions for this man.
Many argue that Edwards is the greatest theologian that America has seen and may ever see. The opening words of Doug Sweeney’s preface to Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought say, “Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is the most influential thinker in all evangelical history” (17). In Jonathan Edwards: A Life, George Marsden says, “Edwards was extraordinary. By many estimates, he was the most acute early American philosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians” (1).
There are numerous biographies that portray Edwards the man. There is also a swathe of academic literature on his works. But too few accessible works are available that aim at a popular lay audience while also fulfilling the lofty target of encapsulating the center of Edwards’s vision for the Christian life. Edwards on the Christian Life by Dane C. Ortlund fills this void. Ortlund displays a savvy grasp on Edwards’s 26 Volume corpus of literature best studied from Yale University Press’s set of Jonathan Edwards Works; chapter by chapter of Edwards on the Christ Life models this savvy for readers.
Edwards on the Christian Life’s thirteen chapters survey Edwards’s perspective on a dozen themes related to the Christian Life. The unifying theme for all of Edwards’s thought, according to Ortlund, is his understanding of beauty; this is the first chapter. “Divine loveliness, enjoyed and reflected in his creatures: this is Edwards’s legacy” (24).
Ultimately, the creatures seeing the beauty of God in turn are beautified:
“A Christian is the one who is being beautified. This is because Christian living is fundamentally participation in the unceasing explosion of delighted intratrinitarian joy and love” (31).
This is just the beginning of what awaits in Edwards on the Christian Life. Among my other favorite chapters include New Birth (chapter two), Gentleness (chapter five), Prayer (chapter seven), and Heaven (chapter twelve). Edwards on the Christian Life concludes with four thoughtful and tactful criticisms on Edwards’s views (chapter thirteen).
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
Edwards on the Christian Life is a delightful primer that introduces readers to Jonathan Edwards and most noticeably his thought. Ortlund’s careful research unearths treasures from the primary works of Edwards. Meanwhile, Ortlund also benefits from the companion secondary literature from the likes of Doug Sweeney, George Marsden, Gerald McDermott, and Stephen Nichols. Yet, curation of primary and secondary sources to dialogue together on a person and his thought is not enough. It’s the personal engagement and furthering of the conversation that makes any work a fine addition for study and re-study. Ortlund’s thoughtful interaction at this level is what sets Edwards on the Christian Life apart. We find this to be the case throughout this book.
A simple example from Ortlund’s chapter on joy may suffice to demonstrate this (chapter four). After seriously engaging and illuminating Edwards’s thought on joy, while also pointing the reader to another great mind, Cornelius Plantinga. Ortlund reminds us: “If a Christian leader wants believers to feel joy in Christ, he doesn’t mainly tell them about joy. He shows them Christ. Joy sneaks unbidden in the back door” (77). What a profound and devotional thought for any reader!
If you’re not aware, Edwards on the Christian Life is part of a series from Crossway. This series includes books on Francis Schaeffer, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and others. One thing that Ortlund intentionally does is he interacts with some of these other great figures in Christianity — and still others not part of the series. He compares and contrasts these people to Edwards.
For instance, in the final chapter on four criticisms, Ortlund compares Edwards preoccupation with introspection to both Martin Luther’s and C. S. Lewis’s intentional move away from introspection. Ortlund maintains: “Each coaches us away from unhealthy Edwardsian introspection” (183). This exercise not just allows us to have a more round understanding of Edwards, but it also helps us to discover and process the fruit of looking at a collection of Christian exemplars — though truly only Christ may be found to fulfill the role of exemplar par excellence.
Essential — Recommended — Helpful — Pass It By
Edwards on the Christian Life doesn’t just help us understand beauty; it helps us view Christ as beautiful, the one who beautifies his bride.