(Note: this is a slightly expanded version of an essay I wrote for the Harvard Ichthus a few years ago)
“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.” Large-hearted tolerance and open-minded liberalism are currently 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 in our society—admittedly, sometimes with ample cause.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) was convinced otherwise, against every secular intuition and instinct. This intense, uncompromising Puritan—who today is regrettably remembered and written off for the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—labored to demonstrate that the reverse state of affairs actually held true. For Edwards, the essence of narrow-mindedness was on display in the increasing tendency of Western culture to marginalize God from every area of human existence. God was rarely denied outright by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, but He was nonetheless removed from the center of reality in all fields of inquiry. This cataclysmic shift in Europe and America was regarded by Edwards to be a profound tragedy and 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.”
As Michael McClymond has pointed out, “for 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.” Allen C. Guelzo has argued that Edwards was “the most consistently unsecular thinker in American history.” 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, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. 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 for a few moments. 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 to occasionally endure. As C. S. Lewis has so poignantly urged, it is actually we moderns (so naturally prone to “chronological snobbery” as we are) who need such counter-intuitive 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. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. 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. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. 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. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.”
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), True Virtue is probably Edwards’ most renowned philosophical work. Some background is fitting: in 18th-century academic debates on ethical theory, the Enlightenment’s decentralizing of God took the shape of distancing orthodox 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 any reference to God. Edwards would have none of it, insisting upon a teleological ethic grounded in God’s purpose in creating the universe, not human happiness or social flourishing considered in relative 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.
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 “free thinkers” of his age were interested in pondering. 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 design and never autonomously, apart from the divine intention which undergirds everything.
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 hard on a door when jammed shut. Nonetheless, if the tool is no longer able to actually open cans, it is not a “good” can opener, regardless of what other tasks it can perform outside of that original design. 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. And if Edwards is on target and human beings really are divinely intended to participate in the primal knowing, loving and delighting that mutually flow back and forth 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. And whatever other benevolence or generosity towards mankind, and other virtues, or moral qualifications which go by that name, any are possessed of that are not attended with a love to God, which is altogether above them, and to which they are subordinate, and on which they are dependent, there is nothing of the nature of true virtue or religion in them. 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.”
In The Nature of True Virtue, Edwards engages the leading philosophical trends of his day on their own ground, employing their own chosen weapons, 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 an 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, this would shed enormous light on the many biblical passages that make such claims, claims that even many Christians often pass over in silent embarrassment (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, I John 3:4-10, etc.).
However, Edwards is also keenly aware that the moral conduct of the irreligious who ignore or reject God’s design for their existence cannot always be designated with justice as undiluted evil. Such conduct may at times even be evaluated as praiseworthy, in some sense at least. From the standpoint of Christian theology, this is the classic problem of “good pagans.” Edwards does not deny outright this common observation—in fact, he labels such secular virtue as “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 extensive 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.” 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 washing the dishes, cooking a meal, complimenting her husband, buying him a gift, whatever) 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 affair is what she truly delights in 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. Biblically, the term for this phenomenon is idolatry. Romans 1:18-32 charges all humanity with indulging in it incessantly, frivolously playing the role of this adulterous wife before our Creator without shame or sorrow.
A second hypothetical scene: a charismatic, talented military leader is addressing the men of his army 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 taking the lead in battle on the front line himself and making every personal sacrifice conceivable—the leader authentically communicates his deep love and appreciation for his comrades. He does not feign any emotion. No false note is hit. He means all that he says. His men, in turn, would willingly and unhesitatingly lay down their lives for this captain. To them, he is a hero, the embodiment of courage and integrity. Once again, with this (narrow, 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 military leader is further revealed to us as a brutal, merciless rebel prince 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 his righteous guidance. Furthermore, the motives of the prince are malignant: he desires riches and power for himself, not for the good of others. He is spurred on by an inordinate hate of the king, deeply jealous as he is of the love and loyalty the people of the land have long displayed towards the rightful monarch. He tortures those who oppose him and burns villages to the ground with their habitants 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 we were blind, but now we see.
Finally, bring to mind your favorite piece of music or song from childhood. Hearing your cherished rock melody reach its climax stirs up nostalgic memories and distant, faint echoes of sweet experiences from 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 your soul and all is as it should be. Yet—now we back up 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 originally commissioned and intended by the composer to play an integral part in a larger performance of Mozart’s symphony 41. What was once beautiful with reference only to itself not only loses its initial luster, as crushing as that alone would be. Given its interconnected location within the overall symphony it was designed for, the song actually becomes a disruptive, anarchic force of disharmony that actually conspires against the whole. It doesn’t fit. It cannot function according to its intended aim and purpose. 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 tune 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…) without reference to Him, without becoming narrow-minded in the process. For if we attempt to exclude Him, we have not taken into account the most important part of the narrative, the most relevant fact for consideration. The beauty and goodness which we believe mark out our lives can only be so evaluated when we take the narrow view, the contorted perspective that blocks out the most important realities in the universe. 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 comes 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. Jonathan Edwards’ essential contention is that—whatever “secondary beauty” may exist among those who have chosen to rupture the harmony of God’s creation song by singing their own preferred tune out of key—the best of fallen human conduct apart from Christ turns out to be, upon closer inspection, mere honor among thieves.
The Nature of True Virtue thus provides a daring philosophical explanation of “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But Edwards does not abandon us finally to the gloom of our misery in Adam, starkly bitter and real as it is. Creation is regained through the redemption accomplished by Christ and announced in the gospel, and God’s goal for His image bearers is being ever so slowly restored within this new humanity. It is a phenomenon that C. S. Lewis was fond of referring to as the most important kind of evolution—namely, the redevelopment of God’s image within the community of sinners who embrace His Son. 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 so far as a virtuous mind exercises true virtue in benevolence to created beings, it chiefly seeks the good of the creature, consisting in its knowledge or view of God’s glory and beauty, its union with God, and conformity to him, love to him, and joy in him. And that temper or disposition of heart, that consent, union, or propensity of mind to Being in general [i.e. God and all that He has created], which appears chiefly in such exercises, is virtue, truly so called; or in other words, true grace and real holiness. And no other disposition or affection but this is of the nature of true virtue.”
 “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)
 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 is.
 From a purely historical point of view, quite unsuccessfully: “Simply put, Edwards’ thought vanished because it was swimming against an overwhelming tide. Thought about the world, so the new orthodoxy of the eighteenth century ran, must begin with the world; thought about God must begin with human nature; thought about revelation must rest upon a natural foundation. The naturalistic drift of Western thought was sweeping all before it, even the thinking of sincere Christians. Edwards’ protests, however skillful, were in vain. Only recently in American academic discourse is the note heard which was life itself to Edwards—that our knowledge of the world, of ourselves, and of God begins, most properly, with God…Since Edwards, American evangelicals have not thought about life from the ground up as Christians because their entire culture has ceased to do so. Edwards’ piety continued on in the revivalist tradition, his theology continued on in academic Calvinism, but there were no successors to his God-entranced world-view or his profoundly theological philosophy.” (Mark Noll, “Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Philosophy, and the Secularization of American Christian Thought,” Reformed Journal, February, 1983, p. 26)
 Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings, ed. Paul Helm (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1971), p. 53
 Encounters With God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 108. “The first and greatest figure of the Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, was also its least typical. Like most profound thinkers, he cannot be fitted into any category. Despite his eager appropriation of Locke and Newton and Hutcheson for his own purposes, he was not a man of the moderate, rational English Enlightenment of his day. Indeed he was the most powerful enemy of that way of thought.” (Henry May, The Enlightenment in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 49)
 Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Theological Debate (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), ix
 “On the Reading of Old Books”, in God In The Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 202
 “…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)
 “Edwards’s dissertation on the Nature of True Virtue was undoubtedly the best work in moral philosophy written by an American in the eighteenth century.” (Norman Fiering, Moral Philosophy at Seventeenth-Century Harvard (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), p. 300). George Marsden concurs, arguing that “in The Nature of True Virtue—an intellectual gem by any standard—Edwards was challenging the project that dominated Western thought, and eventually much of world thought, for the next two centuries.” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 470-71)
 “Here again we might appeal to all mankind, whether there be no Benevolence but what flows from a View of Reward from the Deity? Nay, do we not see a great deal of it among those who entertain few if any Thoughts of Devotion at all?” (Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry Concerning the Original of Our Ideas of Virtue or Moral Good, 1725). In a personal letter to Thomas Foxcroft in 1757, Edwards explicitly named Hutcheson as one of the ethicists whose ideas he was seeking to counter in Two Dissertations (see Yale Works 16:696).
 God’s intra-trinitarian glory is defined by Edwards, via John 17 and a host of other biblical passages, 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. The argument for this thesis is set forth by Edwards in the first half of Two Dissertations, aptly named The End for Which God Created the World. For a helpful overview of this overlooked masterpiece (along with the full text itself), see John Piper’s God’s Passion For His Glory. I hope to deal at length with End of Creation in later articles for the Ichthus.
 Edwards explicitly draws this link between teleology and goodness: “The most proper evidence of love to a created being, its arising from that temper of mind wherein consists a supreme propensity of heart to God, seems to be the agreeableness of the kind and degree of our love to God’s end in creation and in the creation of all things, and the coincidence of the exercises of our love, in their manner, order, and measure, with the manner in which God himself exercises love to the creature in the creation and government of the world, and the way in which God as the first cause and supreme disposer of all things, has respect to the creature’s happiness, in subordination to himself as his own supreme end. For the true virtue of created beings is doubtless their highest excellency, and their true goodness, and that by which they are especially agreeable to the mind of their Creator. But the 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)
 The Nature of True Virtue, p. 560
 “There seems to be an inconsistence in some writers on morality, in this respect, that they don’t wholly exclude a regard to the Deity out of their schemes or morality, but yet mention it so slightly, that they leave me room and reason to suspect they esteem it a less important and a subordinate part of true morality; and insist on benevolence to the created system in such a manner as would naturally lead one to suppose they look upon that as by far the most important and essential thing in their scheme…If true virtue consists partly in a respect to God, then doubtless it consists chiefly in it. If true morality requires that we should have some regard, some benevolent affection to our Creator, as well as to his creatures, then doubtless it requires the first regard to be paid to him; and that he be every way the supreme object of our benevolence.” (The Nature of True Virtue, pp. 552-53)
 Miscellany 676 in Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 18, The ‘Miscellanies’ 501-832, ed. Ava Chamberlain (New Haven:YaleUniversity Press, 2000), pp. 236-37
 “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)
 God’s Passion For His Glory, p. 108
 For a breathtaking narrative depiction of this idea, see the creation story at the beginning of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.
 See the final chapters of Mere Christianity, especially “The New Men”.
 The Nature of True Virtue, pp. 559-60