It is not a commonplace that when a weary soul goes questing for life change, he turns to academic history. Not many people turn to academic history, period (and thus the source of so many of the world’s problems). Like an icy province off the coast of Newfoundland, academic history draws few tourists. It is the residency not of the intellectually faint-hearted but of hardy types, those who actually enjoy reading technical footnotes and who sigh pointedly when they see a critical monograph on 18th-century clothing patterns in the New Hebrides missing from the bibliography.
It might seem odd, then, that the page that has deeply affected my life is the very last of a 615-page work of academic history. George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale, 2003) appeared in my final year of college. I received it as a gift from a dear friend, an event that always makes a book seem friendlier and more meaningful. During the summer of 2003, while prepping for the intensive internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, I read Jonathan Edwards in installments. This reading program was a matter of sheer personal discipline, because the book was so rich, so well-written, that I wanted to storm through it in a week of late nights. I did not, however, and was the better for it.
After 500 carefully crafted pages, sketching the stratospheric life of Edwards, Marsden sets himself up to make a closing statement. He discusses the classic problems of free will and determinism briefly before offering his final paragraph in his masterwork. Answers are hard-bought on such questions, Marsden notes, but Edwards offers exquisite guidance:
Yet Edwards’s solution—a post-Newtonian statement of classic Augustinian themes—can be breathtaking. God’s Trinitarian essence is love. God’s purpose in creating a universe in which sin is permitted must be to communicate that love to creatures. The highest or most beautiful love is sacrificial love for the undeserving. Those—ultimately the vast majority of humans—who are given eyes to see that ineffable beauty will be enthralled by it. They will see the beauty of a universe in which unsentimental love triumphs over real evil. They will not be able to view Christ’s love dispassionately but rather will respond to it with their deepest affections. Truly seeing such good they will have no choice but to love it. Glimpsing such love, they will be drawn away from their preoccupations with the gratifications of their most immediate sensations. They will be drawn from their self-centered universes. Seeing the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ is the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he has created (505).
This is, simply put, one of the most eloquent statements I’ve ever read on the purpose and meaning of life. It is of course deeply Edwardsean, for the historian is channeling the pastor-theologian; “beauty” and “sensations” figure prominently here. This soaring close reminds the reader of sermons like “Heaven Is a World of Love,” perhaps my favorite Edwards homily (it also reminds me of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow and David Brooks’s The Social Animal, each of which close on a dime). It shows us that love is at the center of God in Christ, and that our union with him is an unstoppable river of pure affection. It was for this reason, the shedding abroad of God’s love, that all things exist.
This is striking language, to be sure. But those who enjoy authors like John Piper will not be taken aback by it. Why the fuss? Because this passage closes the work of an academic history book, a dense tome with nearly 100 pages of endnotes alone. This history text, furthermore, is published by a secular press, and Yale University Press at that. Maybe that doesn’t spill your milk. Suffice it to say that such declarations, however carefully hedged, are so rare in works of scholarly history as to be nearly nil. In other words, we see in this stemwinder of a conclusion a master historian at the top of his game summing up the indisputably authoritative academic text on Edwards by laying his cards down on the table and saying, “Yes, I have executed objective, source-driven scholarship in page after page of this text, taking care not to allow my sympathy for Edwards to derail the rigor of my research, but here’s the thing: God is real, and his lordship of love rules the universe.”
That, if I may say so, was life-changing. It animates how I try to think and work in Christian ministry, how I teach systematic theology and church history, how I play with my kids, how I butter my toast.
The Experience of Love
Page 505 of Jonathan Edwards is noteworthy first because its gives voice to the central declaration of Scripture, and second because it explodes the endless how-do-you-think-in-public-as-a-Christian debates. It demonstrates that you can do fantastic, paradigm-shifting work in the academy (in this case, reading Edwards once more as a theologically orthodox yet intellectually nimble Christian) and prosecute such work from a staunchly evangelical worldview. It shows, furthermore, that academic history—or at least some of its many texts—deserves more tourism than it receives.
My personal “historiography” debate referenced above ended in July 2003, when I read Marsden’s final page. The experiencing of the undeserved “redemptive” love of Christ, however, will take a lifetime to plumb—ten thousand lifetimes—as with Christ and all his children we dwell for all eternity in a world where our preoccupation is nothing but God and our life is nothing but love.