I was a graduate student at Westminster Theological Seminary. I had spent three years in PhD seminars, writing papers that would form chapters of the future dissertation on Jonathan Edwards. As I was nearing the end of my class work and preparing for my comprehensive exams, my PhD advisor, the historian D. G. Hart, uttered immortal words that changed the course of my life, “Edwards is overdone; if you want me to be your advisor, do something else.” And even though Hart would leave Westminster in Philadelphia before I had a chance to write my dissertation proposal, I did in fact write on something else, the 19th century southern Presbyterian theological Robert Lewis Dabney.
There is a sense that many people would look at recent work on Jonathan Edwards and say, “Edwards is overdone; do something else.” I’ve even documented that fact in a bibliographic essay for a book I co-edited on Edwards. So, the question could be rightly asked, “If Edwards is overdone, then why in the world did you write this book on Edwards? And why in the world should I read it?”
These two questions actually have a single answer: while there has been a great deal written, there are actually surprising gaps in what people have said about him. In particular, there has been little recent writing that attempts to synthesize Edwards’ thought into a single “theology of Edwards.” And most of what has been written is inaccessible to most general readers with no to some knowledge of Edwards.
And so, God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards is an attempt to write an accessible, synthetic theology of Edwards. As such, it encompasses a great deal of what I have learned and personally benefited from reading him. Let me highlight four things that are unique to the book and important to me.
- Trinity and covenant: While theologian Amy Pauw has written a marvelous book on Edwards’ Trinitarianism and while Conrad Cherry’s classic work on Edwards’ theology highlighted the covenant idea, I try to show how foundational these theological ideas were for Edwards’ larger goal of showing how the end for which God created the world and purposed redemption was to bring himself glory.
- Self-deception: Many, many people have written about Edwards and religious affections. But only one—historian Ava Chamberlain—noted how the theme of self-deception actually represented a darker side of Edwards’ work on the affections. To me, this theme is pastorally important because it helps to explain life in the church, where some appear to follow Christ for a time but turn out to be self-deceived.
- Means of grace: For all of his “modern” sensibilities, Edwards was a fairly traditional Reformed theologian. As a result, he believed that the “ordinary means of grace”—the ministry of the Word, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and prayer—were used by God to enable people to persevere. I am not aware of another book that talks about the means of grace for the Christian life like this one does.
- Christian life as a journey: Again, Edwards was a eighteenth-century inheritor of the Puritan tradition. As such, he favored the theme of the Christian life as a journey and focused his ministry on preparing his people in each stage of life to die well. The final chapter, which links the first part on redemptive history with the second part on redemption applied, shows how believers who die well participate in God’s grand design: being drawn up into heaven in order to enjoy the fullness of God’s glorious love forever.
These four things, I say, are fairly unique and hopefully make the book worth reading. I know that, for myself, reading Jonathan Edwards has proved to be an enriching spiritual experiencing, one that has furthered my own Christian walk. I hope that those who read God’s Grand Design will find the same thing.