How Jonathan Edwards Processed Theology

The new theology of Jonathan Edwards by Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott is a magnificent achievement in bringing theological synthesis to the copious works of America’s most noteworthy theologian. Now that the works of Edwards are online and more accessible than ever, I’m sure other volumes of similar magnitude will follow in the future, but to date there’s nothing that compares to this new volume in scale and breadth. McClymond and McDermott’s work is to the theology of Edwards what Marsden’s work is to the life of Edwards, and unless the second half is a major disappointment it will be my book of the year in 2011. (Since it’s technically copyright 2012, it may be my selection next year, too!)

In one of the earliest sections of the book the authors explain the different ways Edwards processed different theological ideas (pages 10–12). Since my friend Andy recently dissected the theological brain of the greatest Canadian theologian, I thought I would write a summary of how the theological brain of America’s greatest theologian worked, a very brief one.

According to McClymond and McDermott, Edwards processed his theology on three fronts by juggling, connecting, and infusing ideas.

By juggling ideas, Edwards studied many different theological topics at the same time. His 1,400 recorded miscellanies testify to how well he captured and developed various ideas. It was to these notebooks that Edwards turned in developing books and sermons, a well to withdraw years of recorded and retrievable thoughts.

By connecting ideas, Edwards thoughts were not merely atomized, random miscellanies. The genius of Edwards is not only how deeply he thought with atomized topics recorded in his notebooks, but how he connected and cross-pollinated orthodox theological themes that led him to consider fairly novel conclusions. What he discovered was a nearly limitless interrelationship between the themes, tying strings to the various themes he had once juggled.

By infusing ideas, Edwards was able to take the major conclusions of his research and infuse those ideas into his larger theological picture. The topics he juggled in his mind, began to grow and connect, which he then worked into major themes – notably the brilliant idea that God’s passion for His own glory and man’s happiness are not at odds. In my mind infusing a key theme (or a few key themes) into the whole structure of one’s theological convictions is really the most difficult of the three, and something only a few exegetically-grounded, deep thinking theologians will achieve with much public success (think John Piper).

Yet for all his brilliance, Edwards leaves us a pattern that I find helpful. As those who research Scripture and theology we need (1) a place to record our developing thoughts, (2) time to see how themes of Scripture relate to one another, and (3) deeply-rooted convictions about major themes.

3 thoughts on “How Jonathan Edwards Processed Theology

  1. Your account of Edward’s mode of thinking is fascinating (“juggling,” “connecting,” “infusing”). I find what you have written here at least as interesting as what Gerry and I wrote in our book. Thanks so much for your instructive comments.

  2. “McClymond and McDermott’s work is to the theology of Edwards what Marsden’s work is to the life of Edwards, and unless the second half is a major disappointment it will be my book of the year in 2011. ”

    Doe this mean a return of the Books of the Year post? Huzzah!

    And there was a great rejoicing…

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