2008 Stone Lectures - Lecture I: “Rip Van Edwards”

2008 Stone Lectures: “Rip Van Edwards”
Monday, October 6, 2008
By George Marsden
Princeton Theological Seminary

In the first of the 2008 Stone Lectures, entitled “Rip Van Edwards,” noted historian George Marsden set out to provide a kind of preface to what he would speak about during the rest of the week. The lecture series as a whole is going under the name, “Rip Van Edwards: President Jonathan Edwards Returns to Princeton after 250 Years.” The basic question which Marsden hopes to examine through these lectures is: what might Edwards say to us today, 250 years later? That is, how might he criticize, analyze, and assess our culture today? What would interest him, shock him, confuse him? And what can we learn from him for our own lives in the modern world? Marsden will bring in various dialogue partners for each of the following lectures: in the second lecture, Benjamin Franklin; in the third, George Whitefield; in the fourth, Edwards’s wife, Sarah Edwards; and in the fifth, their daughter, Esther Edwards Burr.

Tonight’s lecture was really only a preparation for what will come. He began by telling a humorous and imaginative story about Rip Van Edwards. In the story, we learn that Edwards came back to Princeton on March 22 of this year, the 250th anniversary of his death in 1758. Marsden happened to be in Princeton at the time, and they met up at the Nassau Inn. In the course of the conversation, Marsden learned that Edwards had actually been in purgatory all this time, and part of his task in purgatory involves going back to the place of one’s life and assessing how things are now. With this story, Marsden sets up the rest of the lectures as an attempt to bring Edwards’s social, political, and theological views to bear on our modern American culture.

After the humorous set-up, Marsden addressed three things in this first lecture: first, what was life like in 1758; second, how did Edwards view his own world; and, third, what can we expect to learn from Edwards today, since we are separated by 250 years of cultural, political, and scientific changes which make his world utterly foreign to our own?

First, then, Marsden briefly summarized the nature of Edwards’s world in the mid-1700s. The central feature is, of course, the fact that the American Revolution had not yet taken place. Edwards was a British colonial. Moreover, New Englanders of his day had especially close ties to Britain, and like Franklin at the time, Edwards was loyal to the monarchy. The culture of this time presupposed hierarchical and patriarchal relationships. Slavery was taken for granted. Interest in egalitarianism did not come into public discourse for another generation after his death. His era was marked by the confluence of three cultures: British Protestantism, French Catholicism, and Native Americans. It was also a particular dangerous time. People of Edwards’s day, including members of his own family, were fearful of being killed by American Indians.

Second, Edwards had a very unique perspective on the world. Two things are especially worth noting here. First, his loyalty to the British monarchy was entirely in service of his loyalty to Protestantism. He viewed the monarchy as the divinely ordained agent to accomplish the conversion of the world to Protestantism. They were the best hope for Christianity in the New World, which was thoroughly dominated by Catholicism, both to the North and to the South. Edwards saw Britain, therefore, as the chosen means for the spread of the gospel. He combined an OT model of divine providence with a NT history of redemption, filtered through an anti-Catholic bias. The result is that Britain was part of a cosmic struggle between Christ and the Antichrist, whose headquarters are found in Rome. Second, Edwards was a biblical literalist who saw the Bible and the world through the lens of postmillennialism. He believed that world history was progressing towards a “golden age” by means of Christian conversions. Through various revivals and religious awakenings, God was bringing the world toward its telos, the literal thousand-year reign of Christ. Mass conversions were the moving force behind world history. Unlike modern-day premillennialists and dispensationalists, Edwards had a very optimistic view of God’s providence. Based on various numerical calculations, he accepted the view that roughly 98% of all the people who have ever lived would be converted. Also, his highly providential view of divine action led him to see the hand of God in almost everything, whether big or small.

Third, and finally, Marsden said a few words about what we can expect to learn from someone who’s views seem so outdated and even offensive to us today. The obvious responses were listed: if we excised everyone who’s views were outdated and offensive, we would have to dispense with just about everyone of importance and interest; theologians work within traditions which have elements that transcend cultural particularities; and we need not confine ourselves to an “all or nothing” approach to historical figures like Edwards. Instead, Marsden argued, Edwards has valuable insights for our culture today. To get at those insights, we have to distinguish between the lasting ideas and the nonessential ones. We all too often approach theology from our own particular socio-political concerns, and then invoke a deity to address those concerns. By studying history, we are not only able to reflect critically on these parochial interests of ours, but we also realize that Edwards did the same thing! His theology was also shaped by particular cultural concerns and individual motives.

Like Augustine, Edwards lived in a unique historical period. Where Augustine lived on the cusp of Christendom, Edwards lived on the cusp of modernity. He sought to defend the Protestant heritage while interacting with and addressing the issues of his day, including Newton’s scientific theories and Locke’s political philosophy. His theology brought together Puritanism and modernity in a creative way. Not unlike us, Edwards was faced with the challenge of how to relate the world of the Bible with the modern world—one that was just emerging in his day and is now fully fledged. For this reason, we have much to learn from this great theologian. He still speaks today, not simply as a museum artifact but as a living voice. In the rest of the series, Marsden will seek to help us hear that voice as it addresses our contemporary situation.


Thanks David! This was a very helpful summary.
Ben Myers said…
"we have to distinguish between the lasting ideas and the nonessential ones" — I know these were only very brief remarks on historical methodology, but I was very disappointed by this part of the lecture. If we learn from the past by distinguishing the "perennial core" from the nonessential (i.e. flawed) elements, then we're really acting as though our own commitments are the final arbiter of history — i.e., we're assuming that history has found its goal in us. And one of the unfortunate side-effects of this approach is that we're no longer in a position to be critiqued by history. This would explain the strange fact that Marsden didn't find any contemporary critical significance in Edwards' millenialism, his belief in progress, his theology of the election of nations, etc (c'mon, isn't all this just a little relevant to American foreign policy??).

In contrast, surely the point of historical study (as Rowan Williams so beautifully argues in his little book on church history) is to encounter the past in all its irreducible strangeness — and yet to perceive this strangeness itself (not some timeless "core") as something that was really possible for the church. If we recognise even Edwards' most unpalatable ideas as possibilities of the Christian church, then we're placed in a position where Edwards can challenge and question our own most basic assumptions about what counts as "Christian".

Anyway, sorry for the rant. I really admire Marsden's work, and I think he's a superb historian — but sometimes historians are not very good at reflecting on historiography!

That's exactly what bothered me about the lecture. It struck me as a kind of crude, 19th century, von Harnackian form of demythologization: peel away the historical-cultural husk and find the timeless kernel of truth inside.

I hope the rest is better. But I feel like I know what the series is going to be like. First, he'll discuss a modern-day issue or problem. Second, he'll show how Edwards dealt with something analogous in his own day. Third, he'll argue that what Edwards did in his time still has relevance for how we think through this problem today. Fourth, he'll sketch what this Edwardsian response might be.

Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing or unhelpful, but it strikes me as rather prosaic and not all that interesting. Maybe he'll mix it up or something. Who knows.
Michael said…
Hi David,

Thanks for the helpful summary of Marsden’s lecture.

Since Edwards was, as Marsden demonstrates in Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale, 2003), “the most acute early American philosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians,” it is interesting to consider what Edwards would make of the world today. Here, perhaps, is a hint of why this might be helpful: “Edwards was so enamored with seeing the eternal significance of human history that his “entire new [theological] method” not only ran counter to the Deist trends of the age but also departed from the traditional deductive-logical method that had long shaped Christian theology itself. … History, instead of being an encumbrance to the logic of theology, was the essence for understanding God’s ways” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 488).
Anonymous said…
Thank you all so much! Now I don't have to go to the lectures (though I did this afternoon) but can still get the gist (or essential kernel if you will) of them!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the post, I wish I could attend. Thanks for the thoughts as well Ben. I am a bit surprised by that from Marsden.

Since I have not heard the lectures, I say this in light of the summary above. I have a hard time seeing Edwards putting as much faith in the monarchy as was suggested. Certainly, Edwards believed the monarchy should be the light to the world, but I don't believe he saw them as doing such. In fact, in his History of the Work of Redemption, not to mention numerous letters and notes, Edwards bemoans the arminian hersy that had infiltrated the Church of England.

It seems more likely, to me at least, that the British monarchy was not the "best hope for Christianity in the New World," but that was the particular task of the New England which needed to push against the arminianizing of the English church and be a stronghold for Reformed doctrine and practice. This was certaintly closer to home than Deism was for Edwards, and was closer to his overall polemic, particularly in his early years (his masters thesis for instance).

Anyway, thanks for the thoughts!