When I was a young scholar, I was given some excellent advice. “Choose one or two great thinkers,” I was told, “and make them your specialties. Live with them, reading them regularly, and you will become a better thinker for it.” I chose Augustine and Jonathan Edwards, and I have no regrets. No matter who else I study, these two continue to grow on me.
If-heaven forbid!-I were forced to choose between them, I would choose Edwards. This is not primarily because he loves the same Reformed and Puritan theologians I love, nor because he interacts with the early modern philosophers who occupy me professionally, but because his whole outlook is so thoroughly steeped in Scripture. Of course, Augustine was a great biblical scholar, and his ever-increasing commitment to the Scriptures is displayed in his works. But Augustine started reading Scripture relatively late in his life, when he was about thirty; and consequently some of his earlier works are more neo-Platonic than scriptural. Edwards, by contrast, had the Scriptures before him from his earliest days. One of his teenaged resolutions was “to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.” He kept that resolution. As Iain Murray remarks, “The key to an understanding of Jonathan Edwards is [to see] that he was a man who put faithfulness to the Word of God before every other consideration.” Or, as pastor and theologian John Piper puts it, in God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards, Edwards saw “the unlimited expanse of divine Reality” that is deposited in the Scriptures, and this led him to erect a banner over all his philosophico-theological explorings: “We have scarcely begun to see all of God that the Scriptures give us to see, and what we have not yet seen is exceedingly glorious.”
Piper’s book is his testimony to what living with Edwards can do. It can invigorate and transform one’s Christian heart and mind. For Piper was given essentially the same advice as I was when he was in seminary, and he too chose Edwards for his constant companion. The first half of Piper’s book is his account of how reading Edwards’ “God-centered, soul-satisfying, sin-destroying vision of reality” has shaped him over the past thirty years. The second half reprints Edwards’ dissertation on The End for Which God Created the World.
As Piper observes, there are primary and secondary teachers in theology as in every other great intellectual discipline. A primary teacher is one of the centuries’ great minds who does as much to shape his time as his time does to shape him. A secondary teacher learns from such masters. So a secondary teacher’s function should not be to aggrandize himself and thus eclipse his masters, but to introduce his students to his masters, teaching them how to learn directly from the great books on which he himself has fed. This book is Piper’s most deliberate attempt to function as a secondary teacher.
In his introduction, Piper strives to convince us of what we shall miss if we don’t read Edwards-and particularly if we don’t read The End for Which God Created the World. In general, what we shall miss is what Wheaton professor Mark Noll has called Edwards’ “God-entranced worldview”-his “theocentric emphasis.” It is possible, Noll says, to get Edwards’ piety or his theology secondhand, but it is not possible to get his God-intoxicated vision of life in any other way than by reading him. More specifically, what we shall miss if we don’t read The End for Which God Created the World is Edwards’ biblical, theological, and philosophical defense of the claims that what God seeks, in both creation and redemption, is his own glory and that our reveling in that glory is our only real and ultimate happiness. But, as Piper says, “the depth and wonder and power” of Edwards’ book is his demonstration “that these two ends are [not two but] one.” God’s glory is most fully realized, in other words, in the happiness that his intelligent creatures obtain by seeing and celebrating it. So in seeking his own glory and requiring us to seek his glory, God is not being selfish but rather offering us the greatest good there is-himself.
This is among the most profound thoughts that can enter a human mind: “God in seeking his glory seeks the good of his creatures, because the emanation”-or outgoing or manifestation-“of his glory … implies the…excellency and happiness of his creatures” (Edwards’ text, 114). It is one, as Piper realizes, that present-day Evangelicalism, with its “drift … into pragmatic, doctrinally vague, audience-driven, culturally uncritical Christianity” is unlikely even to consider; and it is one that many Christians, when they do consider it, just don’t get. Indeed, the situation is even worse than this. For as I have observed elsewhere in this issue, many evangelicals now are arguing that God’s glory ought not to be taken to be the ultimate purpose that all creation serves-that God’s seeking his own glory would indeed be somehow selfish, immoral, and bad. But what follows from accepting that contention is a massive revision of biblical Christianity, including a rejection of the scripturally based claim that God is glorified in the everlasting destruction of the wicked as well as in the everlasting redemption of his saints.
Edwards’ book, with Piper’s introduction to it, is simply the best way to confront these issues. Edwards’ text is tremendously difficult, as we should expect, since it is dealing with an issue that is right at the edge of human comprehension and one that can only be grasped and gloried in through God’s Spirit illuminating our minds and regenerating our hearts as we labor to understand some of Scripture’s profoundest claims. Piper helps us to understand these life-transforming claims, not only by first surveying Edwards’ thought in ways that make it more accessible, but also through his very helpful addition of extra headings and explanatory footnotes to Edwards’ text. He has also been wise enough to suggest ways to read Edwards’ text that can make it more relevant to the common reader-and he even tells us which parts to skip if we are finding the going too tough.
Most of us, as readers of modernReformation, have already had our hearts, minds, and lives transformed by our coming into direct or indirect contact with one or another of the Church’s great primary teachers-with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, John Owen, or someone who has drunk deeply from masters like these. Most of us know, moreover, that a rallying cry of the Reformation was “Ad fontes“-or back to the fount or original sources. For the Reformers this meant back primarily to Scripture, but it also meant back to the Church Fathers-and especially Augustine-because they and he opened the Reformers’ eyes to scriptural truths that they otherwise might not have seen. Here is a book that encourages and enables us to come in direct contact with one of the Christian Church’s greatest masters in one of his greatest works, and by that contact to be ushered into a greater appreciation of what the Scriptures themselves say. Crossway Books is to be commended for publishing it; indeed, I hope that they and other evangelical publishers will print many more such texts. In the meantime, I recommend this particular book very highly.