What makes a good biography? If the biographer communicates a sustained vision of the subject’s culture, values, relationships, etc. the reader usually walks away from the book with a greater understanding of that person in their own time. What makes a good Christian biography? If the biographer communicates the subject’s commitment to Christ, how that led them to make decisions, and how that affected the world around them, the reader is encouraged to look to Christ in a similar way and walk accordingly. It’s Philippians 3:17 postmortem style.
There is a problem though: Christian biographers create a good Christian biography and forget to make a good biography. How does this happen? From the small children’s biographies of famous missionaries up to the bigger tomes on prominent theologians (Edwards included), the common mistake seems to be that in their rush to portray the subject as a Christian, the biographer forgets to substantially include the setting that gives context to the subject’s commitment to Christ.
George Marsden, thankfully, doesn’t fall into this trap. In his biography of Jonathan Edwards, he supplies both a biography and a Christian biography. Properly placing Edwards’ faith in its historical context yields much fruit for those who are familiar with his works, or for those interested in reading Edwards. Three things stood out to me:
1) I consider Marden’s biography essential reading before delving into Edwards’ theological works. I’ve read The Religious Affections and The Freedom of the Will, and my understanding of both has been greatly served by reading Marsden’s biography. When the reader understands Edwards’ postmillenial interpretation of Scripture, his works come alive. But even more so, Marden does well to show the theological and philosophical background of the day, and especially the beliefs of those whom Edwards is arguing against in his theological treatise. Religious Affections argues against the “Old Light” Puritan beliefs concerning conversion, and instead argues positively for a conversion that shows up in an individual’s emotions and experience. Freedom of the Will argues against both the Arminian understanding of soteriology, as well as a libertarian view of man’s will. I recommend both… after you read this biography.
2) I consider Marden’s biography important reading before reading other biographies on Edwards. The only other Edwards biography I’ve found especially helpful is Iain Murray’s, but even that one leans too far on the Christian side of biography. The others I’ve been acquainted with lean too far one way or the other, and are less helpful in of themselves. A helpful addition is Marsden’s examination at the end of the book on how Edwards has been viewed throughout the years by different biographers. An examination of Edwards in light of the 21st century surge in Calvinism would have been nice, but in 2003 that may have been off Marsden’s radar, and is likely too nuanced for him to include in a future edition.
3) Marden’s biography is good devotional reading. He quotes Edwards directly (as any good biographer should), showing Edwards transformation from a generally curious and inquisitive youth into a theological and philosophical powerhouse. Along the way, we see his internal struggles with his own sin, his external struggles with people, and his personal struggle with his ambition to do something great for the sake of the Gospel. It’s this ambition that I found particularly compelling. When reading other good biographies, the reader gets a sense of nuanced personal ambition. Thus, Jim Elliot wanted to take Christ where He was not named; Whitefield’s wanted to spread Christ’s fame among the churched but unconverted populace in England and America. Edwards ambition was writing for the glory of God. He saw history coming to a decisive turning point in the Church’s struggle against evil in the world, and he saw himself as a warrior in the struggle. Thus, he lended his great intellectual abilities and pen to the cause of Christ within a postmillenial framework. Today’s Church benefits from his writing, regardless of our millenial understandings.
So, Edwards becomes an example in the manner of Philippians 3:17 to show others how one pursued Christ, and by implication challenges others to follow him as he follows Christ. With head, heart, and hands, Edwards wanted more of Christ. Marden’s biography is the best introduction that I’ve read to the life of Edwards.