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

By Gerald R. McDermott | Go to book overview

8
JUDAISM

A Light among the Nations

The eighteenth century marked the beginning of a reevaluation of Judaism. For the first time since Marcion, Jews were regarded as religiously unrelated to Christians. The deists, who dominated intellectual life in England at the beginning of the century and were the leaders of this reappraisal, portrayed Judaism as essentially pagan, unspiritual, unnecessary to Christianity, and in fact the source of all that was wrong with traditional Christianity. They learned from Johann Buxtdorf the Elder ( 1564-1629), whose guide to synagogue life depicts Judaism as a "confused" and "disorderly" religion obsessively devoted to empty ritual. Voltaire, who studied the deists when in London in the 1720s, Bolingbroke, Gibbon, and other Enlightenment thinkers began to regard Jews as simply another political entity, unprotected by divine covenant. Pogroms against them were considered natural consequences of their creation of a cruel and irrational god. Gibbon, for example, argued that Rome fell because of the Jewish character in the Christian religion which had infected the empire.1 It was against this background of deist severance of the religious link between Christians and Jews that Jonathan Edwards argued for one covenant binding the two religions. But in order to appreciate the contrast which Edwards's covenant struck, we must look more closely at deist objections to Judaism.

____________________
1
For eighteenth-century attitudes to Judaism, see Manuel, The Changing of the Gods, and The Broken Staff; Goldman, Hebrew and the Bible in America; and Pailin, Attitudes to Other Religions. For this paragraph, see Manuel, The Broken Staff, 85-90, 166, 175, 291, and Gibbon, Decline and Fall, 1:384-91, 446-48; 2:804, 807.

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