A tough day at the office today, the office being teaching remedial English III to a small class of kids who failed it. A couple are new and one is not happy- at all- to be in school this summer. So I’m earning the big bucks like a real teacher this week. My fan club is small and getting smaller.
Into all this I have the assignment of teaching a short lesson on Jonathan Edwards and “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” (I won’t skip it. Too significant in American Lit.) The excerpt we use is a collection of the most intense metaphors, and I’m supposed to teach Edwards’ linguistic approach, not his theology. So I try to extract Edwards from the stereotypical ditch this sermons puts him into and I hope that someday a student will associate Edwards with the excerpts from his diary I also share with them and not just spiders hanging over flame.
Actually, I’m not an Edwards’ fan. As far as I am concerned, he made the entire Christian faith much more difficult and considerably less Jesus shaped than I believe that it is. Despite his brilliant intellect, Edwards seems to be about more about speculation and revivalism than the Gospel. His desire to awaken unconverted church members sounds very familiar to me, and his rhetorical intensity is familiar ground as well. I heard it all in the front row of fundamentalistic revivalism growing up. An inscrutable angry God demanding we wake up and realize we’re going to hell. Yes, church member who thinks he’s saved, that means you.
It’s bizarre that a man who was the most brilliant mind of his time, and the inspiration for various waves of awakening from Calvinism to Charismata, doesn’t come off to me nearly as impressed by Jesus and the Gospel as he is by the sovereignty of that “Divine Being” he keeps talking about.
While teaching my students about spiders hanging over flame, flood waters about to crash over them and arrows aimed right at their heart- all images for the wrath of God in that famous sermon- I wondered if it ever occurred to Edwards to take those intense and disturbing images and turn them into descriptions of what Christ did for us on the cross? The hell, the flood, the arrow- they all were his, for my sake. When Edwards says that God “abhors” sinners, I wonder why he didn’t make the cross the measurement of that abhorrence, so that the love of God for sinners could shine through?
The balance of the Reformation Gospel is this: we see God best in Jesus. Not in speculations, relentless logic or metaphorical bombshells. God revealed himself in Jesus. It is the kindness of God that appears and saves us when we cannot save ourselves. It is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. It was the Gospel story of the crucifixion, not of sinners in the hands of an angry God, that caused 3,000 to be “cut to the heart.”
I’m probably not smart enough to write a post on Jonathan Edwards, but I am smart enough to know that too many theological fanboys are impressed with how to turn the Gospel into revivalistic demands or incomprehensible explorations of the divine will. Both are ways to have power over the rest of us. Edwards at least came out humble in his life, so maybe there’s hope.
We are given a very simple message. It may rest on profound and intimidating revelation that only truly great minds can grasp, but any one of us slower types can go to the cross and hear Jesus say, “Father, forgive them….” I don’t understand it, but as theology, it can’t be surpassed.