God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan EdwardsWritten by Sean Michael Lucas Reviewed By Peter Beck
Jonathan Edwards has been called many things: America’s theologian; the theologian of revival; America’s evangelical. To this list, Sean Lucas adds “theologian of the Christian life” (p. 11).
Edwards wrote, “I felt in me a burning desire to be in everything a complete Christian.” To that end, the American theologian devoted his heart and his mind to grasp the meaning and the depth of the Christian experience and to share it with others. Thus, the pastor-theologian wrote and preached what he lived. Since Edwards’s concerns of 250 years ago remain the concerns of committed Christians today, Sean Lucas wrote this volume dedicated to explaining the theological heartbeat of America’s greatest theologian.
Lucas is well-equipped to explore the mind of Edwards and present his theology in the language of the church. Lucas began writing this book when he served on the faculty at Covenant Theological Seminary, though by the time he completed it he was serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In addition to his other books, he also co-edited The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Baker, 2003) with D. G. Hart and Stephen Nichols.
Over the years many Edwards scholars have attempted to locate the “center” of Edwards’s theology. Perry Miller presented Edwards as a philosophical artist. Stephen Holmes read him as a proto-Barthian. Allen Guelzo’s masterwork pointed to Edwards’s understanding of faith. John Piper famously summarized the loci of Edwards’s thought in the glory of God. Here Lucas, too, sees the glory of God as the summa of his life’s work but finely nuances his thesis by arguing that this is best seen in Edwards’s theology of the Christian life: “Christian life that started with God’s glory and ended with all creation returning that glory” (p. 11).
For Edwards, the Christian life, argues Lucas, must be understood in light of God’s grand design, that is, the “cosmic purpose of God himself—namely, for God to glorify himself and enjoy himself forever” (p. 23). To explain Edwards’s thesis, Lucas divides the book into two intimately related parts: the metanarrative of God’s plan of salvation and the personal application of that plan. To that end, Lucas presents his case systematically, first considering the Trinity, creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, each time highlighting Edwards’s theological commitments and concerns. In this first half of the book, Lucas follows in broad strokes Edwards’s own understanding of the history of redemption, making the case that “history serves to advance . . . God’s purpose in uniting all things in himself, his determination to glorify himself by emanating and remanating his own delight to and from his creation” (p. 43).
The second half of God’s Grand Design follows this same redemptive pattern, this time at the personal level of application. Beginning with the work of salvation at the individual level, Lucas contends that Edwards believed that “God grants his people spiritual knowledge so that they might delight and rejoice and love him” (p. 88). The remainder of the Christian life, Lucas suggests, displays this beatific concern as he explores the role of the affections, the life of virtue, and the various means of grace in Edwards’s writings. In the end, the teleological end, the pilgrimage of the Christian life does not end at death but truly begins as it fulfills God’s purposes. As Lucas closes, “To die well is to have longed to delight in God’s glory and to have prayed for God’s kingdom because in heaven those longings will be satisfied eternally” (p. 189).
God’s Grand Design offers much to the reader. Lucas has produced a well-read and well-written summary of Edwards’s theology. Lucas knows the Edwardsian corpus and knows how to explain it. The author deftly takes very difficult theological concepts, concepts often muddied in contemporary discussions and frequently confusing in Edwarsdian works, and presents them in a way that both the experienced scholar and the uninitiated lay person can understand. From the theological constructs that defined Edwards’s Trinitarian analogies to his immensely helpful, but often misunderstood, exploration of affections to his glorious visions of heaven, Lucas handles all with clarity. Anyone looking for a good summary of a broad swath of Edwards’s thought, particularly those unable or uninterested in wading into the much deeper waters of other treatments, would do well to read this book.
For readers looking for more than a simple overview of Edwards’s theology, God’s Grand Design offers that as well. Each chapter is well-documented. Lucas references a broad body of Edwards’s work. Rather than depending too heavily upon the vast field of contemporary interpretations, Lucas uses everything from Edwards’s sermons to his treatises and the “miscellanies” in between, allowing Edwards to explain Edwards. While some readers will complain that in his far-ranging research Lucas overlooks Edwards’s more philosophical works like Freedom of the Will, Lucas’s approach is helpful in that Edwards developed his ideas in the laboratory of his Christian life for the benefit of others living theirs (p. 199). The sermons and more accessible works are simply the practical outworking of the more difficult concepts explored elsewhere. Edwards did this himself. Lucas wisely follows that example here.
In addition to masterfully integrating Edwards’s theology of glory with the practical aspects of the Christian life, Lucas offers two useful appendices. Displaying the breadth of his own reading, Lucas first offers the novice an annotated bibliography of the most important of Edwards’s works and the secondary literature necessary to understand those works. Lucas offers an excellent chapter along these same lines in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (pp. 228–47). The second draws upon both aspects of Lucas’s vocational life, the pastor and the professor, and seeks to guide would-be undershepherds into the vital area of the minister’s spiritual formation as Edwards saw it. Here Lucas summarizes the lessons Edwards learned during his ministerial youth, lessons about “how we as Christians and particularly as ministers of the gospel should live for God’s glory” (p. 209).
There is much to commend Sean Lucas’s latest work, God’s Grand Design. Excellent writing and thoroughness are the hallmarks of this exceptional volume. While any reader interested in Edwards or the Christian life might enjoy this book, in the hands of the right reader it becomes a shining example of what the academy can do for the church when it turns the eyes of God’s people toward the glory of God’s work in redemptive history that “they might participate and communicate in the eternal happiness of God” (p. 27).
Charleston Southern University
Charleston, South Carolina, USA