by Kyle Strobel
Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity. 178 pages
Anyone who has stuck with Jonathan Edwards longer than the requisite high-school reading of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” has met a theologian whose preoccupations are not hellfire and brimstone, but thebeauty of the Triune God and impassioned response of the human heart. Still, the man generally considered to be America’s greatest theologian is discussed mostly among historians and specialists, while most of the church seems to be somewhat relieved to leave him in their school anthologies. Kyle Strobel has done the church a great service by making Edwards accessible as a spiritual guide whose spiritual concerns line up surprisingly well with those of our own age.
Strobel begins by embracing the contemporary description of the Christian life as that of a “journey,” but suggests that Edwards offers a helpful corrective to contemporary spiritual wandering by clarifying that the journey has a specific destination: the overwhelming, participatory vision of the beauty of God. Strobel shows that for Edwards this spiritual journey is a way of love and thus rooted in the heart’s affections. Reading of Edwards’ rich theology of glory in which all true knowledge of God is a captivating, heart-awakening love for God, makes contemporary spiritualities seem thin and pale in comparison to that of the colonial Puritan pastor.
Part Two of the book treats various spiritual disciplines as practiced and interpreted by Edwards. Strobel demonstrates and effectively critiques the way that modern conceptions of “spiritual disciplines” quickly devolve into mere self-help strategies that frustrate rather than enliven. He reintroduces the term “means of grace” as a preferable way of thinking of spiritual practices: “These actions are powerless in themselves to change our lives or make us holy. If we think they can, the Christian life will inevitably become a self-help project,” which is far too small a project for Edwards’ expansive view of God. Means of grace, rather, “are opportunities to come to God in a posture of dependence,” rather than a strategy to grow ourselves into someone better than we were before.
Strobel treats meditation, contemplation, and self-examination at length, all of which are centered on the reading of God’s Word. Shorter descriptions of Sabbath, fasting, “conferencing,” “soliloquy,” solitude and silence follow, with helpful insights given from Edwards’ distinctive piety. The book concludes with four intriguing appendices, inviting the reader into practices of prayer, spiritual conversation, retreat and spiritual reading with Edwards as a guide and model.
In a time when so many “spiritual but not religious” seekers turn away from empty religious formalism, seeking instead a stirring vision of glorious transcendence that captures the heart, who would have suspected that Jonathan Edwards would emerge as a man for such a time as this? Strobel’s book deserves a wide readership for establishing Edwards’ place at the table of great spiritual guides of the church.
ANDY NAGAL is associate pastor of Neelsville Presbyterian Church in Germantown, Md.