Today we have an interview with Dr. Kyle Strobel, Associate Professor of Spiritual Theology and Formation here at Talbot School of Theology, and co-author of the new book Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought with Dr. Oliver Crisp, Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Dr. Strobel is an Edwards scholar who writes in the area of systematic theology, spiritual formation, and, quite often, on various aspects of Edwards’s theology. One of his frequent refrains is that, if you let him, Edwards will surprise you. Our hope in this interview is that we discover why he thinks Edwards is such a surprising and important figure for the church to pay attention to today.
Good Book Blog: There seems to be a lot of activity around the thought of Jonathan Edwards, can you explain a bit why there is such interest in him these days?
That is certainly true, there is a lot of interest in Edwards right now! It is astonishing really. Some of that is because Edwards is such a profound mind. But I think it is more than that. I think what makes Edwards so compelling is that what he offered is so rare to find these days. Edwards is able to pull together in his thought a breadth and depth that is difficult to comprehend. Edwards doesn’t run into the kinds of intellectual boundaries we create for ourselves. Instead of sighing and saying, “Well, that’s just not my area,” Edwards gave himself to a depth of integrative work that spanned what we now consider different academic disciplines. Edwards wandered into the depths of scriptural questions, theology, philosophy, spirituality, psychology and science without hesitation. He was well read in Newton and Locke, and was consuming digested accounts of Eastern thought, ancient history, as well as novels and poetry, all while addressing pressing theological issues in the colonies that commanded his immediate attention. But overall I think it is how Edwards pulls together theoretical material for the sake of “living unto God by Christ.” That was the goal of his theology, to articulate a profoundly biblical vision of life with God.
GBB: You talk about being “surprised” by Edwards. Can you give us some details about what you have found so surprising about his thought?
One area of Edwards’s thought that surprises people is that he is generally considered as the greatest theologian of beauty in the Christian tradition. Beauty pervades Edwards’s thought. Furthermore, Edwards didn’t believe you could come to God out of a fear, but only if you discover that God is beautiful. This “discovering” is only available through an illumination of the Spirit – to truly see and know that in Christ Jesus we are seeing the visible image of the invisible God – but he takes this as necessary to have a true knowledge of God. This true knowledge is knowledge that is affectionate (hence, religious affection). One of the areas that really struck me when doing my Ph.D. is that Edwards’s starting point to talk about God is God’s infinite and eternal happiness. Likewise, in my more popular-level work, “Formed for the Glory of God,” I was struck by how profound his vision of Christian spirituality was, and how Christ-centered and church-centered it was. One of the reasons I think it is so important to recover historic evangelical spiritual formation is that their conceptions of these things were so guided by their understanding of the church as the family of God, and the home as the place where so much of that family life was lived out. In my most recent book with Oliver Crisp, Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought, one of my new areas of research was Edwards’s doctrine of the atonement. What surprised me was that the two main realities that govern Edwards’s doctrine are the wisdom and the love of God. Edwards’s view of the atonement is built upon and governed by these two notions, and it reveals the incredible biblical depth of what Christ accomplished in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
GBB: In your new book you give an account of “becoming Edwardsean.” What are you hoping to do in this chapter?
Both Oliver and I consider ourselves Edwardseans, but we both reject certain problematic (as we understand them) features of Edwards’s thought. But that raises a question. What does it mean to be faithful to a figure like Edwards? For us, it cannot mean just parroting his thought. It has to mean more. It has to mean something more like doing the kind of theology he did. So when we consider “becoming Edwardsean” in our world today, we have to consider the world Edwards lived in and what were some of its problematic features. In particular, Edwards was handed a cosmology that was entirely antithetical to a Christian view of the world. He was receiving Enlightenment conceptions of how God and the world relate which was increasingly leaving people to embrace deism. In response, Edwards turned to what we now consider radical philosophical notions to try to reimagine Christian belief in a world that doesn’t allow for it. If we follow Edwards down this path we will simply make his same mistakes. What we want to do is to cast a vision for following Edwards’s theological instincts beyond his problematic philosophy. What we find there is a profoundly classical theology, that points us to the beauty and glory of God.
GBB: Dr. Strobel, can you tell us a bit about what you call “The Jonathan Edwards Project?”
After working on my dissertation on Edwards I knew that there was so much in his thought to digest, and that most people can’t devote the time to canvas his vast output, and so I wanted to provide a developmental sequence of books to help readers do so. So I edited a new edition of his Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God’s Love as the first place to begin reading him. Then, building on that work, I wrote Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards that gives an account of Edwards’s understanding of spiritual formation. This is for lay-level readers to get a sense of Edwards’s spirituality (and, really, early evangelical spirituality). But this latest project, Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought, co-written book with my friend Oliver, tries to fill a gap in the literature by offering an account of Edwards’s thought for seminary-level readers. This book tries to give an account of Edwards’s thought that doesn’t apologize for his idiosyncrasies or even some of his more radical notions, but presents them as he understood them, and then tries to help us understand what to do about that. Then my most developed and dense academic work on Edwards, which started as my dissertation, I published as Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation. This work focuses on how Edwards’s theological system hangs together, and how to read him theologically, with a particular emphasis on the doctrines of the Trinity, glory, regeneration, spiritual knowledge and affection.