Here is Tim Keller’s foreword for Collin Hansen’s new book, Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church (Crossway, 2015):
Jonathan Edwards was keenly interested in the philosophy and thought of his day, and at the same time he was fully committed to the absolute authority of the Scriptures. As a result he was, as Richard Lints put it, “arguably the most creative and the most orthodox theologian [at once] that America has ever produced.”
Edwards was also as deeply committed to sound, systematic biblical doctrine as he was fascinated by the workings of the heart and how the emotions and senses relate to our reason. This meant, “He stands with Augustine and Luther in the depth of his analysis of religious experience, [and] he stands with Aquinas and Calvin in the breadth of his intellectual grasp of the gospel.”
This breadth of interest is, however, extraordinarily hard to maintain. Historian Mark A. Noll demonstrates this in his essay “Jonathan Edwards and Nineteenth-Century Theology,” in which he traces out Edwards’s legacy in the American church over the hundred years or so after his death.
Old Princeton, including Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, were the most true to Edwards’s orthodox Reformed theology. However, not only were they “far from independent or original thinkers”; they were increasingly inattentive to matters of revival and spiritual experience.
Edwards’s New England disciples such as Samuel Hopkins, Jonathan Edwards Jr., and later Nathaniel Taylor were social activists, abolitionists, and creative theological thinkers, but they left behind much of Edwards’s biblically faithful doctrine.
So did Charles Finney, an enthusiastic reader of Edwards on revivals who strongly rejected his Reformed theology.
Noll’s essay demonstrates that there were some who maintained Edwards’s doctrinal orthodoxy, some who adopted his creative cultural engagement, and some who kept his enthusiasm for revivals and mission.
Ironically, each of these parties claiming Edwards as inspiration was hostile and critical toward the others during much of the early nineteenth century. Some theologians and ministers kept these various strands—doctrine, cultural engagement, and revival—interwoven and integrated, but that was not true of most.
You must not think by this foreword that Collin Hansen’s book is about church history or the historic schools of
American Reformed theology. It is not at all. Rather, it is an extended essay on how Christians in Western societies today are responding and how they need to respond to a culture quickly growing post-Christian. Christians have not come to consensus on how to respond to this new world.
Collin sees us fragmenting into at least three distinct responses, each with its own peculiar blind spots, and each one highly critical of the other two.
The three parties of Edwards’s followers correspond roughly to the groups that Collin discerns on the scene today.
This is evidence that these fissures within our ranks have been with us for a long time and that each party has latched
onto some true aspect of what it means to live the Christian life.
The “courage” group stands valiantly for the truth; the ”compassion” people stress service, listening, and engagement; while the “commissioned” folks are all about building up the church and reaching the lost.
Once things are broken down like that, it becomes clear that these should be strands in a single cord. Each group goes bad to the degree it distances itself from the others.
I am, of course, here making this much simpler than it is. Within the pages that follow, Collin Hansen judiciously weighs and discusses the complexities of where we are and what must be done.
You can find out more about this thoughtful and provocative book here.