Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths

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Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths. By Gerald R. McDermott. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. xii + 245 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

The reader of this unusual book shares McDermott's surprise as in his preface he relates how during earlier research on Jonathan Edwards he came across voluminous unpublished notes Edwards made on world religions. The typical impression that most have of Edwards is that of a stem, rather forbidding Calvinist, renowned and known only as the preacher of "the sermon that New England would never forget," namely, "Sinners in the hands of an angry God." Not only is the discovery that Edwards wrote on non-Christian religions surprising, it also forces a reevaluation of Edwards and his theology-- and popular misconceptions of both.

McDermott, a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of South West Virginia and an Associate Professor of Religion at Roanoke College, draws on his own earlier work on Edwards and his intellectual and ecclesiastical worlds, as well as the voluminous unpublished notebooks, to carefully situate Edwards's thought on world religions. Thus he demonstrates that Edwards's thought on world religions is to be understood within the wider context of the eighteenth-century debate on rationality and particularity, epitomized by the rise of Deism. McDermott convincingly demonstrates that Edwards engaged in this research as a planned response to Deist challenges to Christianity. In so doing Edwards presented a revised Reformed theology remarkably open to many elements of non-Christian religions. This he accomplished through a repristination of the patristic concept of the prisca theologia, which held that elements of truth are discerned in non-Christian traditions. This Edwards did with a similar intent, to protect the orthodox view of God and God's goodness and justice from Enlightenment critiques. However, he broadened the traditional typological system to include not only Hebrew history and nature, but also other religions, all of which then served as "types" not only of God as creator, but also of Christ's work of redemption. …