Here is a little secret that until now I have only told close friends. It is the kind of information that could damage your ministry, or at least alienate you from certain quarters of the church. Here it is: I really don’t enjoy reading Jonathon Edwards. Oh, it feels so cathartic to write that! Crazy, but it’s true. After slogging through several of Edwards’ works, such as The Freedom of the Will or The Nature of Virtue, I find him to be like Thomas Aquinas: so exceedingly cerebral that it usually puts me to sleep. I know his ideas are profound and life changing (and when I hear them mediated through Piper they often have that effect) but for me it’s about as dry as last month’s Italian bread.
If you are like I am, tending toward right-brain creativity, I have two pieces of good news for you. First, praise God you weren’t born between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries in the heyday of scholasticism. Secondly, there is a new book by Ben Stevens in which he offers a new adaptation of Jonathan Edward’s classic work, Why God Created the World. This remarkable volume brings Edwards’ powerful arguments to life in fresh, contemporary language. I obtained my copy last week and have not been able to put it down. In the following interview with Ben, you’ll get his perspective on why he wrote the book and why its message is so important for today.
What got you interested in this topic?
I stumbled onto it while working on a different project, actually. I have always been intrigued by the statement “everything that’s important in the Bible is counter-intuitive.” And I’ve been trying to identify all those main counter-intuitive hooks in Scripture to use in a kind of theological confession I’m writing for my work in Berlin. Well, one day it dawned on me that the question “Why did God create the world in the first place?” should play a big part in any such explanation of Christianity…and that I had no clue how to answer it. So that got me looking for answers.
Your book is an adaptation of a book you found on the topic. So where did you first hear about the book itself?
Right. The original was called A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, and it was written by Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century theologian in New England. One of my seminary friends had mentioned the book to me in passing once, and I had attempted, and subsequently failed, to get through the first chapter while in school. But then I heard an interview with John Piper years later in which he called it the “most important book I ever read, second only to the Bible.” Given such an endorsement, and the fact that I knew of no other books like it, I decided to take a peek at it again. And I’m glad I did.
Now, the subtitle of the book is “A Jonathan Edwards Adaptation.” What exactly does that mean and why was it necessary to adapt the book?
Edwards had a rather wordy style. You hear it, for example, in the name of one of his other books. It was called:
“A Humble Attempt at Promoting Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People Through the World in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth Pursuant to Scripture, Promise, and Prophecies Concerning the Last Times.”
Some people say this is the only way he could have said such things, and that you can only explain complex topics with complex sentences. I think Jesus’ own teaching shows that that’s not true. So I quickly decided that it would be helpful to translate, or adapt, his brilliant ideas into words that modern readers could understand. I read a paragraph, digested it, and then restated it. The style and tone of the book are mine, and the ideas are his.
Okay, I know it’s a big subject, but is it possible to summarize his answer briefly? Why did God create the world?
Yes, I think so. It revolves around three core ideas.
First, it makes no sense to say God created the world to fulfill a need. There’s nothing material we have which He couldn’t have had without us, and even when it comes to community, Christianity says God had better fellowship in the Trinity before time than we can offer Him. It also doesn’t work to say He created it because of His love for us because we weren’t always there to love and at some point had to be thought up too. So what motivated Him to start thinking about the creation of anything.
Second, if God didn’t create the world to fulfill a need He had, He must have done it to promote something He valued, something like goodness, truth, or beauty. That is to say, if He is promoting something He values, it must be something which He already valued before creation existed.
Third, a question: what existed before the creation of the world which was good, true, and beautiful? I believe you will see that everything which existed before the creation of the world, which was good, true, and beautiful . . . was God. If there is a God who created the universe as we know it, then that means there was also a time when everything we love, which inspires us, and which gives us goose bumps, was all simply an aspect of His personality.
Creation must have arisen because of the way it accomplishes something God values. God values things like goodness, truth, and beauty. And yet those words are simply labels we have come up with to describe things which were, before creation, all Him. So I think we are logical to conclude that if God could have created the universe to expand and increase Himself—and, implicitly, all the things which we have come to know in the abstract as goodness, truth, and beauty—then that best explains the logic behind His decision to create a universe in the first place. Suffice it to say the book handles this answer, and the logical objections against it, with in a lot more detail.
This sounds good to Christian ears, but some would argue that this is not really good news for us. I mean, if God is focused on increasing Himself, what good does that do us?
There’s an analogy Edwards used which I embellished a bit, and it speaks really well to this question. Here’s how I put it in the book:
What is it that we cherish about diamonds? We cherish the way they sparkle and reflect the light. That is, we value them because they magnify and reveal something else. Our admiration for the things themselves is a bit ironic. The beauty we see in a gemstone is really just the beauty of the light. What value would diamonds have in a dark world?
There is no dichotomy between a diamond’s desire to sparkle and the sun’s desire to shine. In fact, from the point of view of the diamond, these two goals are inseparable. When you rush to see a shiny new diamond on someone’s finger, you are in fact, knowingly or unknowingly, rushing to admire how beautiful the light can be when seen through a vessel made specifically to reflect it well. And the diamond you find on that finger will be beautiful only insofar as the sun shines brightly.
I think this analogy applies well to God’s desire to glorify Himself and our desire to flourish. It shows how they can be one in the same process.
You say in the preface that this is one of the few books, or maybe the only book, which has tried to answer this question from a Christian perspective. Given the significance of the question, why do you think that is?
I think it’s sadly a product of what we do with Christianity. We try to make it one of the things from which we draw inspiration. We add God to the constellation of people and things which we see as orbiting around us. Of course, it is this view itself, that God Himself orbits around us, that He exists primarily as a source for our inspiration, which is close to the heart of sin itself, whether packaged in secular or in Christian language.
While I was still writing the proposal for the book, I contacted a well-known Christian author I had met once to ask him what he thought of it. He replied that he had never heard anyone ever ask this question before, and that there would be no market for it. He suggested that I should write a book called “Why God Created You” instead. “Always think reader-first.”
I understand the concern on a marketing level, but I can’t help but think it belies a me-first view of God, too. How can it be possibly be irrelevant why God created the world for anyone who is truly interested in living out His will? For that reason, I’m very hopeful this book will help sew seeds of doubt inside the Christianity Lite camp.
Do you have any other adaptations in mind? Should we expect more books like this from you?
I’m actually in the early stages of a second adaptation right now. I don’t think I’ll say which one yet, but here’s a clue: it’s the book which C.S. Lewis said “baptized his intellect.” Hope to be back to talk about that project some day soon!
Ben Stevens holds an MDiv with an emphases in preaching and intercultural studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Born in west Tennessee and raised throughout the South, he later studied German at Missouri State University and at Philipps Universität (Marburg, Germany). He and his wife, Becky, serve cross-culturally in Berlin, Germany. His writing has been published in the online versions of The Washington Times, First Things, Huffington Post, Christianity Today, Relevant Magazine, and the Gospel Coalition blog.