Dane C. Ortlund. Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 208 pp. $18.99.
Of the writing of books about Jonathan Edwards there is no end. Scholars have focused their attention on aspects of the 18th-century pastor’s theology, philosophy, ethics, or role in interpreting and promoting revival. Popular writers have tended to emphasize the latter or Edwards’s Calvinism. Some evangelical authors have commended him as a spiritual role model, notably Iain Murray, R. C. Sproul, Sam Storms, Steve Lawson, Michael Haykin, Josh Moody, and especially John Piper. However, until recently, few scholars had given sustained attention to Edwards’s spirituality. That is beginning to change.
In the past decade or so, numerous evangelicals have written essay-length studies of Edwards’s spiritual thought ranging from technical scholarship to pastoral application.
Since 2010, Sean Lucas and Kyle Strobel have written books devoted to Edwardsean spirituality. Strobel is currently preparing a scholarly anthology of Edwards’s spiritual writings with Ken Minkema and Adriaan Neele of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. Haykin has edited a more popular anthology that focuses on Edwards’s correspondence. Dane Ortlund’s new book, Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God, which is part of Crossway’s warmly received Theologians of the Christian Life series, arrives in a milieu where Edwardsean spirituality is being studied and retrieved by scholars and ministers alike.
Beauty Defined and Expounded
Like all other books in this series, Ortlund, senior vice president for Bible publishing at Crossway Books, organizes Edwards on the Christian Life around a central theme. In the case of Edwards, that theme is beauty. According to Ortlund, “Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ. That is Edwards’s theology of the Christian life in a single sentence” (24). This is the major theme of chapter one. The following 11 chapters examine additional themes in Edwards’s spiritual thought that Ortlund contends flow from this central emphasis.
There is a definite logic to Ortlund’s chapter progression in the first half of the book. In the new birth our affections are awakened to the beauty of God in Christ (chapter two). Following regeneration, our loves are reordered as we are caught up into the perfect love of the Triune God (chapter three). Godly love results in godly joy, which Ortlund suggest fuels our spiritual life (chapter four). Love also leads us to embrace godly gentleness, though in this case gentleness wars against sin, is zealous for good works, and (for men) is manly rather than effeminate (chapter five). These spiritual priorities are cultivated through particular means of grace, especially the Scriptures (chapter six) and prayer (chapter seven), the two of which are closely linked in Edwards’s piety.
The latter chapters seem to be a bit more loosely connected, though each addresses a theme in Edwards’s spiritual thought. Like his Puritan forebears, Edwards envisions the Christian life as a pilgrimage from this life to the next (chapter eight). The regenerated heart and its new loves and affections result in a life of obedience to God’s commands in Scripture (chapter nine). Satan is the great enemy of the Christian life who uses several tactics to derail our spiritual pilgrimage (chapter ten). Because we are created for eternity, care of the soul is of utmost concern in the Christian life, taking precedence over the things of this world (chapter eleven). Our spiritual journey ultimately terminates in heaven, which Edwards envisions as a community of love that perfectly reflects the trinitarian love that we are first caught up into upon our regeneration (chapter twelve). In all these chapters, Ortlund engages widely with critical primary sources and relevant secondary studies.
Not a Perfect Spiritual Role Model
Unlike some popular interpreters of Edwards’s life and thought who tend towards hagiography, Ortlund is careful to criticize what he sees as weaknesses in Edwards’s theology of the Christian life. In his final chapter he addresses four: (1) failure to apply the gospel to the lives of believers; (2) elevation of the spiritual over the material; (3) an approach to biblical interpretation that is too prone to typological excesses; and (4) an overly negative view of the unregenerate and a too-sunny view of the regenerate. Martin Luther, Herman Bavinck, John Owen, and C. S. Lewis are commended as thinkers who balance some of these shortcomings in Edwards’s thought.
It is refreshing to see a forthright yet friendly critique from an author who is clearly sympathetic to his subject and eager to commend the subject’s thought to the book’s readers. And Edwards would certainly agree that Jesus alone is a perfect spiritual role model.
Evaluating Ortlund’s Edwards
Scholars, especially evangelical historians and theologians, will appreciate Ortlund’s scholarly yet warm introduction to Edwards’s spiritual thought. Nevertheless, many will demur from some of Ortlund’s interpretations. First and foremost, it is not at all clear that beauty is the organizing theme in Edwards’s spiritual thought, though it is no doubt close to the center. God’s glory and the work of redemption could also have been appropriate choices for an organizing theme. Some scholars would object, in principle, to suggesting any organizing theme for such an eclectic, creative, and occasional theologian.
Others will wonder why there is no sustained treatment of Edwards’s understanding of affections. Clearly, spiritual affections were at the center of Edwards’s spiritual thought, and, to be clear, Ortlund treats the theme in numerous places. However, in light of Edwards’s extensive discussion of affections and his own attempts to discern true and false affections in the religious experiences of his parishioners, it seems like this topic deserves a chapter-length treatment. Perhaps the chapters on pilgrimage and heaven could have been combined to make place for a chapter on affections; the former themes are closely connected in Edwards’s thought. Or a chapter on affections could have replaced the chapter on Satan, which sticks out awkwardly and which, unlike the other chapters, Ortlund does not tie in any direct way to Edwards’s view of beauty.
While the chapter on Edwards’s weaknesses is refreshing, Ortlund is arguably anachronistic when he discusses Edwards’s hermeneutic. While Edwards could be idiosyncratic, especially in interpreting nature typologically, he was part of a historical milieu far more open to typology and even allegory than is often the case today. Readers sympathetic to the “theological interpretation of Scripture” might not see this as a weakness in Edwards, but rather a strength.
Edwards is a complicated figure who defies scholarly consensus, even among evangelicals. For that reason, even scholars and informed pastors who disagree with Ortlund on these or other points will appreciate this fine book. Edwards on the Christian Life is an excellent introduction to Edwardsean spiritual thought that is well researched yet written at such a level that students, pastors, and engaged laypeople will benefit. It is a welcome contribution to Edwardsean studies and a worthy entry in what continues to be a fine series on historical and spiritual theology.