Jonathan Edwards’s Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment

Avihu Zakai Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ March 24, 2003
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In this carefully researched and well-written study of Jonathan Edwards’s view of history, Zakai not only explains that view and how it developed, but he also demonstrates the influence this eighteenth-century pastor’s perspective has had on later American religious thought. In language which is only slightly hyperbolic, Zakai calls Edwards the “American Augustine.” “The New England theologian constructed out of his many struggles against various strains of early modern thought an interpretation that has had a lasting influence on Protestant life and culture in America. . . . Both [Edwards and Augustine] were not only apologists of Christianity but philosophers of importance who undertook a whole reconstruction of the human condition in many spheres—in space and time, soul and ethics” (p. 334).

Zakai argues that Edwards’s philosophy of history was an apologetic for historic Christian belief in divine sovereignty, developed and clarified in reaction against the rejection of any divine purpose in history by Enlightenment thinkers. “Against the growing de-Christianization of the world of history and the de-divination of the historical process, as evidenced in the various Enlightenment narratives of history, Edwards’s quest was for the reenthronement of God as the sole author and Lord of history” (p. 5). According to Edwards history is the outworking of God’s plan of redemption. Thus all events in human history find their meaning in this redemptive story, and history has an eschatological goal and focus.

What makes Edwards’s view of history particularly noteworthy and significant for American Protestantism is his perception of the role of revivals in the history of redemption. Revivals, or the outpouring of the Spirit of God, are the means by which God brings His work to completion, according to Edwards. “The effect wrought by the outpouring of God’s Spirit is the main source of historical change” (p. 250). However, these “surges of unprecedented divine grace, as manifested in a series of decisive awakenings, were usually followed by decline, degeneration, sin, and despair” (p. 252). Not surprisingly, Edwards saw evidence of this pattern in the series of revivals in his lifetime.

Zakai leads the reader through Edwards’s series of 1,739 sermons, published as History of the Work of Redemption. Zakai also integrates various notebook entries, particularly in “The Miscellanies,” and the major works written in defense of the Great Awakening to validate his claim. Particularly helpful is his evaluation of Edwards’s distinctive view of the millennium, a thousand-year period of time during which Christ is reigning from heaven. Edwards expected the millennium to begin around A.D. 2000 and to be centered in the Old World, not New England. He viewed the millennium as the penultimate stage of the culmination of redemptive history, and entertained the hope that the outpouring of the Spirit of God during the 1740s would be the forerunner to the millennium.

Although Edwards’s interpretation of the significance of the Great Awakening was overly optimistic, his revivalistic interpretation of human history has had a significant impact. Many have followed in his train, believing that perhaps this work of the Spirit in revivals would be the one which would usher in a new stage in God’s eschatological plan. Although such an optimistic view of the work of the Spirit seems to fit better into a postmillennial perspective, many premillennialists also have viewed revivals as the means by which the spiritual life is nurtured and the social ills of society addressed. Zakai’s excellent work is valuable not only for Edwardsean scholars but for all who desire help in understanding the influence of revivalism on evangelical thought.

—Glenn R. Kreider

January 1, 2006
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2006 vol. 163 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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