There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on thinking and reflecting at all.” – Michel Foucault

Few potential accusations can strike fear into the hearts of enlightened moderns as devastatingly as the charge of being “narrow-minded.” Bighearted tolerance and open-minded liberalism are very much in vogue in the public arena. These qualities are regularly equated with intellectual virtue. Christians, on the other hand, are frequently and derisively mocked as narrow – admittedly, sometimes with ample cause.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) had another interpretation, one opposed to every secular intuition and instinct. This uncompromising Puritan – who today, regrettably, is written off and emembered only for the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”1 – labored to demonstrate that the essence of narrow-mindedness was actually on display in the increasing tendency of Western culture to marginalize God from every area of human existence.2 God was rarely denied outright by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, but He nevertheless was removed from the center of reality in all fields of inquiry. This cataclysmic shift was regarded by Edwards to be a profound tragedy, one that he lamented and fought against his whole life:

“Tis a strange disposition that men have to thrust God out of the world, or to put Him as far out of sight as they can, and to have in no respect immediately and sensibly to do with Him. Therefore so many schemes have been drawn to exclude, or extenuate, or remove at a great distance, any influence of the Divine Being.”3

As Michael McClymond has pointed out, “[F]or adherents of the moderate Enlightenment, a little religion was a good thing. Yet Edwards abhorred moderation in religion…He was the self-appointed apostle to the spiritually indifferent.”4 Allen Guelzo has argued that Edwards was “the most consistently unsecular thinker in American history.”5 Such sentiments do not, I suspect, possess much allure for contemporary readers who are comfortable with spirituality in small doses and who tend to agree with Yeats that the best lack all conviction. By that measure, Edwards comes down to us through the ages as the devil incarnate.

So it would be easy to dismiss Edwards’ challenge with a flippant, casual wave of the hand when he indicts the modern mindset as inherently narrow-minded. I plead with you to resist that urge. A respectful yet critical consideration of a perspective of pure “otherness” – even if ultimately rejected and deemed ridiculous – is a healthy experience for most of us occasionally to endure. As C. S. Lewis has so poignantly urged, it is actually we moderns (naturally prone to “chronological snobbery” as we are) who need such counterintuitive perspectives most desperately:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions…. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books…. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.6

Just such an old book is Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue. Published posthumously in 1758 along with The End for Which God Created the World (together called the Two Dissertations),7 True Virtue is Edwards’ most renowned philosophical work. In 18th-century debates on ethical theory, the Enlightenment’s decentralization of God took the shape of distancing Christianity from moral virtue. The stunning implication was that, perhaps for the first time in human history, it became theoretically possible for people to be good without reference to God. Edwards, however, would have none of it; he insisted upon a teleological ethic grounded in God’s purpose in creating the universe, rather than human happiness or social flourishing considered in isolation from that design. God’s goal in creation – namely, the relational extension to human beings of His own trinitarian glory – determines from the outset the nature and scope of true virtue in human society.8

Edwards’ decision to cast his treatment of ethics within a teleological framework was a stroke of genius, for it allowed him to include far broader considerations than most “freethinkers” of his age. If God created human beings with the primary function of knowing and loving Him, then to be “good” must be defined in light of that divine intention and never autonomously.

A basic example may help to flesh out the intimate connection between “purpose” (teleology) and “goodness” (virtue): a broken can opener may still prove useful as a defensive weapon against a burglar or for banging a nail into the wall. Nonetheless, if the tool is no longer able to actually open cans, it is not a “good” can opener. Think now of the creation story in Genesis 1. When God concludes His opening work by declaring all of His creation “very good”, the thrust is that everything in the cosmos was once fulfilling its original function. But to fall out of line with one’s design is, by definition, to cease to be “good.” Therefore, before we can decide what makes a human being “good”, we must first discover – in Wendell Berry’s phrase – what people are for, if anything.9 And if Edwards is on target and human beings exist to participate in the knowledge, love and delight that flow mutually between the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, then to exclude such “religious” criteria from any ethical discussion is irreducibly narrow-minded:

Hence it appears that these schemes of religion or moral philosophy, which, however well in some respects they may treat of benevolence to mankind, and other virtues depending on it, yet have not a supreme regard to God, and love to him, laid in the foundation and all other virtues handled in a connection with this, and in a subordination to this, are no true schemes of philosophy, but are fundamentally and essentially defective… It may be asserted in general that nothing is of the nature of true virtue, in which God is not the first and the last; or which, with regard to their exercises in general, have not their first foundation and source in apprehensions of God’s supreme dignity and glory, and in answerable esteem and love of him, and have not respect to God as the supreme end.10

In The Nature of True Virtue, Edwards engages the leading philosophical trends of his day on their own ground and in vivid fashion makes a compelling case for this simple, blunt proposition: any human behavior whatsoever that ignores God’s goal for humanity cannot be good in any ultimate sense. There are, at the last, no truly virtuous unbelievers to be found in the world. If Edwards’ hunch on the centrality of God is vindicated, it can shed enormous light on the many biblical passages that make such drastic claims (consider Genesis 6:5, 8:21, Psalm 14:1-3, 53:1-3, 58:3, 143:2, Proverbs 20:9, Ecclesiastes 7:20, 9:3, Isaiah 64:6, Matthew 19:17, Romans 3:9-20, etc.).

However, Edwards is also keenly aware of this objection: the moral conduct of those who ignore or reject God’s design for their existence often seems less than evil and sometimes even praiseworthy. From the standpoint of Christian theology, this is the classic problem of the “virtuous pagan.” Edwards does not deny outright this common observation – in fact, he labels such secular virtue “secondary beauty” – but neither is he convinced that it contradicts his main point. How can that be? I have found three striking, complementary illustrations in his writings that have achieved coherence in the midst of seeming contradiction. The first illustration employs the dynamics of the marriage relationship to elucidate the matter: “Let a woman seek to give all the content to her husband that may be, not out of any love to him, but only out of love to another man, he abhors all that she doth.”11 The imagined scenario is one in which an adulterous wife acts charitably and affectionately towards her spouse in all of their intimate moments spent together in the private life of the home. Crucially, the illegitimate affair is still unknown to her husband as he contemplates her acts. From a narrow point of view, all of these “good works” (perhaps cooking a meal, complimenting her husband, buying him a gift) are praiseworthy. However, from the largest, widest perspective (that is, the real one), our perception changes radically: she acts benevolently towards her husband only so that he will not suspect her affair with another man. This illicit liaison is what she chiefly treasures and is unwilling to forsake. No longer viewing her individual actions with tunnel vision, we concur with Edwards: once the knowledge of the wife’s overarching motive (protecting the cherished affair) is gained, the husband will despise everything that she does. All of her good works have become as filthy rags.

A second hypothetical scene: a charismatic military leader is addressing his troops with fierce passion and tender care as they prepare for imminent warfare. With a lengthy track record of faithfulness and service to his men – often fighting on the front line himself and making every personal sacrifice conceivable – the leader authentically communicates his deep love and appreciation for his comrades. No false note is hit. He means all that he says. His men, in turn, would unhesitatingly lay down their lives for their captain; to them, he is a hero, the embodiment of courage and integrity. Once again, with this (narrow and limited) insight into the situation, our hearts are stirred and our evaluation is positive. This man is “good” in all that we have opportunity to witness. Now back up. This man is further revealed to us as a brutal, merciless rebel who has revolted against the true king of the land – a king who protects his people and acts with wisdom and justice in his reign as all prosper under him. Furthermore, his motives are malignant: he desires riches and power for himself, not for the good of others. He is spurred on by an inordinate hatred of the king, deeply jealous of the love and loyalty the people of the land have for the rightful monarch. He tortures those who oppose him and burns villages to the ground with inhabitants still trapped within the torched buildings. Again, we are compelled to reevaluate our initial perception: what initially seemed like moral goodness from a narrow perspective has turned out to be absolutely repugnant, once all of the relevant facts are taken into account. We were once narrow-minded, but no longer; once blind, we now see. Finally, bring to mind your favorite childhood song. To be tangible, I’ll assume you have conjured up something from U2’s The Joshua Tree. Hearing the cherished melody stirs up nostalgic memories of years gone by. The rhythm and the lyrics combine to move your spirit in a way that only a beloved piece of music can. In this moment so narrowly conceived, beauty soaks into the depths of your being. Yet – back up now and take the larger picture in, one last time. This individual tune, which in isolation pulsates with energy and harmony and joy, actually turns out to have been intended by the composer to play an integral part in a larger performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41. The song, beautiful with reference only to itself, loses its initial luster; moreover, given its interconnected location within the overall symphony for which it was designed, it actually becomes a disruptive, anarchic force of disharmony that conspires against the whole.12 It doesn’t fit. And thus, it has become worthless and no good. For the person whose ear is in tune with the flow of the entire performance, this individual song is painful to hear and impossible to appreciate or enjoy.

In a universe in which the God Who has made Himself known in Jesus Christ is the source and goal of everything that exists, we cannot pursue morality (or business, or mathematics, or art, or sex, or government, or happiness, or anything) without reference to Him. If we do, we will have become narrow-minded in the process, for any attempt to exclude Him will necessarily disregard the most important part of the narrative, the most relevant fact for consideration. The beauty and goodness which we believe mark our lives can only be evaluated as such when we take the narrow view, the contorted perspective that blocks out the most significant part of our existence. Human “virtue” apart from the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is spiritually equivalent to the morality of the adulterous wife, the greatness of the selfish rebel leader, and the loveliness of the disharmonious song that disrupts the grand symphony. Once all of the relevant facts are taken into consideration, what once impressed us in our ethical ignorance now returns to us as broken, revolting and hideously deformed. John Piper summarizes The Nature of True Virtue by asserting that we are “infinitely parochial” if we embrace everything in creation but forget our Creator.13 Jonathan Edwards’ essential contention, then, is this: whatever “secondary beauty” may exist among those who have chosen to rupture the harmony of God’s creation song by singing their own tune in a different key,14 the best of this fallen human conduct apart from Christ will turn out to be, upon closer inspection, mere honor among thieves.

The Nature of True Virtue thus provides a daring philosophical explanation of Paul’s claim that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But Edwards does not abandon us to the gloom of our misery in Adam, starkly bitter and real as it is. Creation is regained through the redemption of Christ, and God’s goal for His image bearers is being restored within this new humanity. C.S. Lewis was fond of referring to this phenomenon as the most important kind of evolution: the redevelopment of God’s image within the community of sinners who embrace His Son.15 What will it look like when the task is finished? I’ll leave that piece of imagination to Edwards:

By these things it appears that a truly virtuous mind, being as it were under the sovereign dominion of love to God, does above all things seek the glory of God, and makes this his supreme, governing, and ultimate end: consisting in the expression of God’s perfections in their proper effects, and in the manifestation of God’s glory to created understandings, and the communications of the infinite fullness of God to the creature; in the creature’s highest esteem of God, love to God, and joy in God, and in the proper exercises and expressions of these…. And that temper or disposition of heart, that consent, union, or propensity of mind … which appears chiefly in such exercises, is virtue, truly so called; or in other words, true grace and real holiness. And no other dispositionor affection but this is of the nature of true virtue.16

[1] “Identifying Jonathan Edwards with ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ is like identifying Jesus with the woes against Chorazin and Bethsaida. This is a fraction of the whole, and it is not the main achievement.” John Piper, God’s Passion For His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), p. 83.

[2] I will define “narrow-mindedness,” quite simply, as any way of thinking that refuses to take into account all of the relevant facts for a given situation or theme. Accordingly, there can be varying degrees or levels of narrow-mindedness, depending on how significant the ignored data are.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings, ed. Paul Helm (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1971), p. 53.

[4] Encounters With God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 108.

[5] Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Theological Debate (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), ix.

[6] “On the Reading of Old Books”, in God In The Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 202.

[7] “Edwards intended these dissertations to be published together. The one is the mirror image of the other; the ‘end’ for which God created the world must be the ‘end’ of a truly virtuous and holy life.” Paul Ramsey, Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 8: Ethical Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 5.

[8] God’s intra-trinitarian glory is defined by Edwards, via John 17, as the knowledge, love and joy which are shared eternally between the Father and the Son, communicated through the Spirit. In creation and redemption, God’s

overarching purpose is to “extend” this reality to human beings, who participate in God’s own life through the Spirit as they behold God’s beauty in the face of the Son.

[9] Edwards explicitly draws this link between teleology and goodness: “[T]he true goodness of a thing (as was observed before) must be its agreeableness to its end, or its fitness to answer the design for which it was made. Or, at least, this must be its goodness in the eyes of the workman. Therefore they are good moral agents whose temper of mind or propensity of heart is agreeable to the end for which God made moral agents.” The Nature of True Virtue, in Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 8: Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 558-59.

[10] The Nature of True Virtue, p. 560.

[11] Miscellany 676 in Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 18, The ‘Miscellanies’ 501-832, ed. Ava Chamberlain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 236-37.

[12] “Yet if such benevolences, however attractive in themselves, are out of tune with the great symphony of God’s love that animates the universe, they are ultimately discordant, rather than truly beautiful.” George Marsden, Jonathan

Edwards: A Life, p. 469.

[13] Piper, p. 108.

[14] For a breathtaking narrative depiction of this idea, see the creation story at the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.

[15] See the final chapters of Mere Christianity, especially “The New Men.”

[16] The Nature of True Virtue, pp. 559-60.