Gerald McDermott answers 10 Questions about how Jonathan Edwards has opened his eyes to God’s beauty in nature, his commitment to the Orthodox Anglican church, and why he has written on how Christians should approach cancer. McDermott (PhD, University of Iowa) is the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. He is the author, co-author or editor of many books, including A Trinitarian Theology of Religions (with Harold Netland), Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land, Cancer: A Medical and Spiritual Guide for Patients and their Families. His Theology of Jonathan Edwards (coauthored with Michael McClymond) won Christianity Today’s 2013 award for Top Book in Theology/Ethics.
Having written half a dozen books on Jonathan Edwards, what first drew you to him and his theology? Why has Edwards had such an impact on your thinking?
I was drawn to his beautiful mind. More specifically, when I read his Religious Affections in the Yale edition, I felt my chest was being sawn open and my heart ripped apart. I was determined to dive into this phenomenally spiritually-sensitive mind who, I was later to conclude, was one of the five greatest theologians in the history of the Church.
Something else I saw early on was Edwards’s aesthetics. Patrick Sherry concluded in his Spirit and Beauty: A History of Theological Aesthetics that for Edwards beauty was more central to his vision of God than for anyone else in Christian history, even Augustine and Balthasar. Edwards’s theology of God’s beauty has hooked me ever since.
How has the Edwardsean way of seeing the world influenced the role of nature in your life? Did you find yourself outside more when you first encountered Edwards’ Images of Divine Things?
In Everyday Glory: The Revelation of God in All Reality, I attempt to sketch Edward’s typological view of reality in a way he might have done if he had been around in this 21st century. This is why my chapters include nature in so many ways—animals, nature itself, modern science’s discoveries, and even sex.
To answer your question, absolutely. Ever since I read his Images notebook and exclaimed “GaGa,” I have wondered what this leaf says, what that sunset bespeaks, what the waterfall and dog and bird are saying to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Nature has become for me so much richer and deeper and more beautiful.
In Everyday Glory, you seek to recapture a Christian view of all reality by positing that general revelation gives us resemblances of the Triune God. What should be the Christian way of seeing reality?
Well, the short answer is, Read this book! It takes a book and not a paragraph. The paragraph will inevitably distort. Reality is infinitely complex, and to see it properly is delicate and subtle and complex. Yet these are complexities that the uneducated who know God see intuitively. So . . . it’s a big question. But another short answer is that we should see reality the way the biblical authors saw it, as the beautiful outworking of the Trinitarian God as he works in and through not just his intelligent but also his inanimate creation. And we should realize, as the best theologians in the Great Tradition have, that all the world is full of types. As Ephrem of Syria put it, “In every place, Christ’s symbol is there, and wherever you read, you will find his types. For in him all creatures were created, and he traced his symbols on his property.”
Other than Jonathan Edwards, what theologians have you learned from the most?
Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, and Joseph Ratzinger. But others too, as I have explained in my book The Great Theologians.
You have invested heavily in the study of world religions. What is it about the Christian view of God that distinguishes Christianity from other religions?
Many things. The most prominent are that God is Trinity and that he saves through the perfect life and infinite suffering of His Son. No other world religion teaches anything close to that. But I would suggest readers go to the book I wrote with Harold Netland, A Trinitarian Theology of Religions (Oxford University Press) for better answers to this question.
You are teaching pastor at Christ the King Anglican Church in Birmingham. For those who are not familiar with Orthodox Anglicanism, what do Anglicans believe that is distinct from other Protestants?
We Anglicans believe that the Son of God inspired the historic liturgy so that we could join him by the Spirit in adoration of the Father. We also believe that God loves matter and comes to us material creatures through the mediation of matter in the sacraments.
Now of course all Protestants believe in prayer, but many reject the idea of a pre-set liturgy. And while all Protestants believe in the Lord’s Supper and baptism, only some believe that they are primarily acts of God rather than merely our ways of remembering Him. Or that in the Eucharist we share in the humanity and not just the divinity of the Son: his very body and blood. We should see reality the way the biblical authors saw it, as the beautiful outworking of the Trinitarian God as he works in and through not just his intelligent but also his inanimate creation. Click To Tweet
A vast quantity of literature has been written on the meaning and relevance of Israel in the Bible. You’ve dedicated time to the topic. What is “New Christian Zionism” that you propose and how is it distinguished from other treatments of Israel and the land?
Well, I have dedicated not only time but two books and many articles. I would hope that some readers take the trouble to at least start with the short book Israel Matters. The New Christian Zionism is new because (1) it has nothing to do with dispensationalism; (2) it does not censor criticism of today’s state of Israel; (3) it is agnostic on eschatological details except to say that there is a future in God’s history of redemption for both the Jewish people and the land of Israel; and (4) that the history of Christian Zionism did not start in the nineteenth century but in the first. The authors of the New Testament were Zionists in so far as they looked to a future return of diaspora Jews to the land (Acts 3.21; 1.6, e.g.), and they believed that non-messianic Jews were still “beloved” to God and that their covenant was “irrevocable” (Rom 11.28-29). We have not seen these things because we have been trained not to see them.
In 2004, you wrote Cancer: A Medical and Spiritual Guide for Patients and Their Families. Why did you write this book and how has it changed the way you view suffering?
Actually this was the third book I co-wrote on cancer with a Christian oncologist. I wrote them because he asked me for help. He found there was nothing on the market that dealt with both the medical and spiritual questions from a responsible theological perspective, and he was not a writer but brilliant at answering the medical questions. So, he wrote the first draft of the medical chapters and I rewrote them. I wrote the first draft of the spiritual/theological chapters and he pushed and prodded me on this or that. There is also a lot of cancer in my family, which helped me say yes to his request.
Since 2015, you’ve served at Beeson Divinity School as the Anglican Professor of Divinity. At the end of the 2018-2019 academic year, Timothy George, the founding dean, will transition out of his deanship while remaining on faculty. What have you learned from Timothy George during your time under his leadership?
I have learned what it is like to serve under a humble and sensitive leader-theologian who is not afraid to be clearly orthodox in this heretical and confusing culture. It has been a great gift to me to serve under such a Dean. We have also become friends—a relationship I treasure.
What is one thing you want your students and congregation to remember about you?
I want them to learn to read the Bible at the feet of the Great Tradition. Unless they learn that, they will be tempted to become liberal Protestants.