Earlier this month, Mr Deity, the rationalist-skeptic comic team, produced a biting satire of historical Christian teachings about hellfire. The skit concludes with some suitably appalling quotations from the 18th-century Congregationalist preacher Jonathan Edwards, whom some evangelicals today hail as one of America’s greatest theologians.
I have to confess that I don’t really understand the appeal Edwards holds for American evangelical intellectuals, apart, of course, from the cachet of his historical prominence. (“You’ve heard of Jonathan Edwards–you must have read about him back in American history; he’s important enough there was probably even a picture of him in the textbook. Well, he was one of us.” Preen, preen.) I suppose that for contemporary evangelical scholars like George Marsden and Mark Noll, Edwards must represent the good old days, when hellfire-believing evangelicals were part of the furniture at elite institutions like Yale and Princeton and didn’t have to feel defensive about their belief in biblical inerrancy.
Okay, so I “get,” cerebally, why Edwards matters to them. I just don’t feel it myself. Even setting aside the hellfire business, which doesn’t exactly endear me to him, what I’ve read of Edwards’s theology–Freedom of the Will–strikes me as arcane. This is what you’re holding up as some of America’s best religious thinking? Yawn. But then, I’m not a Calvinist, so I’m not invested in the particular theological muddles to which he was working out apparently clever and elegant solutions.