Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) on the starting point of theology

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When Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) as a young tutor at Yale University pushed past the muddle of everyday life and became aware of God’s ineffable character, it was as if scales fell from his eyes. The theater, the cosmic drama, of God’s reign over the world came into view, and Edwards stood transfixed. He saw heaven and hell, man and Satan, in clearer view than ever before. But above all, Edwards saw the Lord. He knew then that God was no abstract deity, but was a personal being whom all creation could not contain. In his sermon “God’s Excellencies” (1720), preached in the same year of his spiritual breakthrough, Edwards considered the qualities of God that robed Him in splendour. He prefaced his analysis with a warning of his unworthiness of the task:

“What poor, miserable creatures, then, are we, to talk of the infinite and transcendent gloriousness of the great, eternal, and almighty Jehovah; what miserable work do worms of the dust make, when they get upon such a theme as this, which the very angels do stammer at? But yet, although we are but worms and insects, less than insects, nothing at all, yea, less than nothing, yet so has God dignified us, that he has made [us] for this very end: to think and be astonished [at] his glorious perfections. And this is what we hope will be our business to all eternity; to think on, to delight [in], to speak of, and sing forth, the infinite excellencies of the Deity. He has made us capable of understanding so much of him here as is necessary in order to our acceptable worshipping and praising him, and he has instructed us, and taught us, as little ignorant babes and infants, and has helped our weak understanding by his instructions; he has told us what he is, has condescended to our poor capacities and described himself to us after the manner of thinking of things, and come down to their childish capacities, so has God taught us concerning himself.”

– Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), Works, Vol. 10, 417-418

The one who spoke of God, in Edwards’ mind, did so as a created, lowly being, a “worm of the dust.” This is a striking beginning for the study of God. One did not discuss the Lord as an abstract concept. One begins the study of theology lying in the dust beside the prophet Ezekiel, heart pounding, eyes straining to shut out the piercing glory of God (Ezekiel 1:28-2:10).

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