Jonathan Edwards, Walt Whitman, and the Inescapability of Theology

I don’t think I’ve read any Christian theologian as much as I’ve read Jonathan Edwards. I knew I had come upon a theologian for my life when I read how Edwards described a spider’s web that captivated him. He observed the intricacies, the design, the way the spider “launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself . . . ” as Walt Whitman would describe in his poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” What the poet Whitman observed in his lifetime a century after Edwards’ life, Edwards observed a century earlier, but through a vastly different theological lens. Edwards, unlike Whitman, understood that God was and is the Prince/Author of life, to use Peter’s phrase (Acts 3:14-15).

The NASB translates it this way:

But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses. (Acts 3:14-15, NASB)

The ESV translates the same passage this way:

But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. (Acts 3:14-15, ESV)

What the apostle Peter was doing in the above passage was rebuking his hearers, what he calls the “men of Israel” (Acts 3:12), for their rejection of the truth, for their crucifying the truth, for their sin. Jesus, the God-man, had come, and yet they (and the world generally) rejected Him. They didn’t want the truth. They hated the truth.

But when I read this bio of Jonathan Edwards (my thanks to my friend, Justin, for sending it to me), I was reminded–once again–that Edwards did what Whitman apparently never did. Edwards truly believed the gospel. He understood God’s glory and he was ravished by it.

He understood it from the ways in which a spider spins webs of intricacy. He understood it from the ways sunglight dances on leaves in dappled wonder. He understood it in the ways the Holy Spirit convicts sinners of our sin and brings us back to God’s redeeming good news, the gospel.

Edwards was consumed by the glory, the wisdom, the mercy of the God of the Bible, the only God who is.

If the spider is as instructive through its crafting of intricate webs, how much greater is the God who created corral, zebras, giraffes, fawns, whales, stars, babies, sunsets, grapes, the Swiss Alps, and the colors of Hawaii?

When I was a college kid and graduate student studying literature, I was invariably moved when I read and wrote about Whitman’s poem below:

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Why so moved? Because the speaker sees the intricacies but rejects their Maker, and the speaker’s soul is left detached, disconnected, unrooted. Unlike the spider’s filament which does what it’s supposed to do in accordance with its design, Whitman’s speaker refuses and is left detached. And the poem is therefore a lamentation.

How different from Edwards’ theology.

For Edwards, he discovered that beauty exists because of the One who is beauty Himself. Truth exists because of the One who is truth Himself.

And that makes all the difference.

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