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Archive for March, 2011

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Civil Religion

Carole Lynn Stewart, Strange Jeremiahs: Civil Religion and the Literary Imaginations of Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville, and W. E. B. Du Bois, Religions of the Americas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010)

This is a book about civil religion that uses Edwards to promote more democratic and inclusive forms of American public life. All three of its “strange Jeremiahs” (Edwards, Melville, and Du Bois) are viewed as masters of the prophetic art of “jeremiadic” speech, speech that calls its listeners out of sin—in the manner of the ancient Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah–to new and liberating beginnings. Edwards employed this art to call his listeners publicly to conversion, preparing a way, according to Stewart, for the American Revolution. Melville used it to question the culture and language of optimism in a youthful nation that had yet to rid itself of the evils of slavery. And Du Bois used it to call America upward after a bloody Civil War and Reconstruction, redeeming the promise of his nation as a people shaped by a longing for revolutionary democracy.

Stewart interprets Edwards himself in view of these larger cultural ends and with the help of Hannah Arendt and Du Bois, in particular. “For Edwards, she writes, “the enjoyment and glorification of God were the first and last ends of the human being. Through such glorification,” however, “the plural diversity rooted in original sin could reveal the beauty and inclusive nature of human community.” Thus her “chapters on Edwards are an extended discussion of how he bases the formation of a ‘secular’ heterogeneous community on the acknowledgment of a revealed God of transcendence” (20).

As this quotation indicates, Stewart abstracts from Edwards’ work for her own, more secular public purposes, making Edwards speak the civil religion she hopes can breathe new life, once again, into pluralistic America. Specialists in Edwards will not discover a great deal here that is helpful to their work. But those who seek to retrieve a usable Edwards for late-modern America will find in Stewart a thoughtful, hopeful, generous interlocutor.

If I could make but one change to Stewart’s overall analysis, I would include the work of Edward Blum in her treatment of Du Bois as a strange Jeremiah (full as it is of hope regarding Du Bois’ prophetic religiosity). Still, I highly recommended this book for graduate students and others who are interested in the roles that civil religion might yet play in the formation of an American national culture and identity that celebrates the pluribus in its unum.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Dissertation Notes: “Orderly but Not Ordinary: Jonathan Edwards’s Evangelical Ecclesiology”

Rhys Stewart Bezzant, “Orderly but Not Ordinary: Jonathan Edwards’s Evangelical Ecclesiology” (PhD diss., Australian College of Theology, 2010).

Did Jonathan Edwards care all that much about the church? Didn’t he undermine it by hammering for revival and emphasizing the conversion of the individual? And if he didn’t undermine it, were his efforts to restore a pure church model just a knee-jerk reaction against innovations by trying to return to the Eden of Puritan order?

These questions drive Rhys Stewart Bezzant’s learned dissertation on Edwards’ ecclesiology. Bezzant, the Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center Australia at Ridley Melbourne, contends that Edwards, in fact, wrote about the church at great length and that his ecclesiology forms a core element of his broader theology. He argues that while Edwards was indeed “not ordinary” in that he emphasized individual affections and immediate conversion, he was nonetheless “orderly” in his conception of the church as God’s ordained instrument for carrying the gospel to the world. Rather than return to an outdated old church model, Edwards brought the old and the new together into a new synthesis that addressed the concerns of his day.

Bezzant first grounds his discussion in the history of Reformation and Puritan ecclesiology. Several debates highlight the centrality of ecclesiology in Puritanism: the role of human preparation versus God’s providential rule, the means God uses to promote the gospel (e.g., the Halfway Covenant and the Antinomian controversy with Anne Hutchinson), and the church’s purpose as a stationary beacon or an out-moving mission. Bezzant thus establishes the continuity of interest in the nature and state of the church into the eighteenth century.

Bezzant orders the rest of his dissertation in three chronological phases of Edwards’ life, offering close readings of major texts with an eye toward ecclesiology. The first phase (1703–1734) examines Edwards’ early thoughts on ecclesiology, shaped by his father’s strict adherence to a three-step morphology of conversion and his grandfather’s unusual mixture of open communion and firm clerical authority. Edwards’ combating of “Arminian” philosophy in the Anglican church arose largely from his concern that its ecclesiastical polity threatened the local congregation’s authority. Ultimately, Edwards found the “grammar” for his ecclesiology in the work of the Trinity (59), and Bezzant argues that “his dynamic and ordered conception of Trinitarian relations has its echo in the dynamic yet ordered life of the church in the world” (65).

In the second phase of Edwards’ life, Bezzant explores the ecclesiological themes in Edwards’ writings during the waxing and waning of the revivals—including A Faithful Narrative, Charity and Its Fruits, A History of the Work of Redemption, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, and Religious Affections (1735–1746). On the one hand we clearly see the “not ordinary”—and potentially destabilizing—nature of Edwards’ ecclesiology in this era. Edwards distanced himself from preparationism, arguing that God can make a shorter work of conversion than prescribed in the morphology of conversion. On the other hand, Edwards upheld an orderly structure within which immediate conversion could take place. In Charity and Its Fruits, for example, Edwards preached that love, a distinctive quality of the church, produces order rather than chaos. God’s work of redemption also brought purpose to the church within God’s design, and Edwards’ emphasis on the objective signs of conversion further revealed his desire for order. Edwards’ mediating ecclesiological position was “to allow for the rise of new practices and conventions, without destroying the received order of the church” (123).

In the third phase Bezzant displays Edwards’ visions of the church and its purposeful ends by engaging An Humble Attempt, The Life of David Brainerd, An Humble Inquiry, A Farewell Sermon, and, briefly, Edwards’ Stockbridge treatises (1747–1758). Here Bezzant pulls back the curtain on Edwards’ grand vision of God’s purposes in human history, in which the church plays a pivotal role. His call to promote prayer grew out of his view that the universal church’s united action would hasten the millennium. Similar concerns underlay Edwards’ aims in upholding Brainerd as a model Christian who embodied a new ecclesiology—a break from the state-church conception of Christendom to a missional mode of spreading the gospel through a renewed church. Furthermore, Bezzant contends that the Communion controversy that largely contributed to Edwards’ dismissal from Northampton cannot be adequately explained by saying that he fearfully ran away from changing social norms to the safe contours of an old ecclesiology; instead, Edwards’ theological concern for the church’s visible union with Christ lay at the heart of his actions. His Farewell Sermon further highlights his “prophetic ecclesiology,” which destabilized the church in its laxity but upheld the visible reality of the church.

Ultimately, Bezzant shows that Edwards’ “ecclesiology was generated by superimposing revivalist conditions and social aspirations onto Reformed convictions (sometimes with the revivalist strand eclipsing his patrimony), making it innovatively evangelical rather than generically Protestant” (209). As Bezzant explains, “For Edwards, the order of the Word creates with the dynamism of the Spirit an elliptical account of the church’s life, which makes it both orderly but not ordinary.” (213)

One of the surprises with Bezzant’s dissertation is that it had not been previously written. He marshals evidence from such a wide array of Edwards’ major works to demonstrate decidedly that ecclesiology constituted a core component of Edwards’ theology and impacted his life in significant ways. How has this gone untreated at the monograph level for so long?

Only a couple things would have strengthened this already excellent work. First, it would have been helpful at the beginning of the dissertation to have some definition of Bezzant’s own category of “ecclesiology.” Bezzant robustly constructs Edwards’ category throughout his work, but at the outset it would have helped to understand the breadth of what Bezzant would consider in examining Edwards’ works. And second, on occasion Bezzant did not make plain the connection between his discussion of Edwards’ writings and Edwards’ ecclesiology. While Bezzant generally brought things together, it would have helped in a few places to make clearer links between his analysis of Edwards’ works and the doctrine of the church.

These quibbles aside, Bezzant’s work is a welcome contribution to Edwards studies, and it stands as a solid piece of scholarship that nuances our understanding of Edwards’ ecclesiology, an evangelical synthesis that both embraced innovation and grounded it in an ordered structure, all to further the gospel of Christ in this world.

— David Barshinger, Senior Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS

Sweeney’s Booknotes: A Pastoral-Theological Perspective on Edwards and Virtue

Phil C. Zylla, Virtue as Consent to Being: A Pastoral-Theological Perspective on Jonathan Edwards’s Construct of Virtue, McMaster Ministry Studies Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011)

This unusual, creative, and thought-provoking book represents a fine effort in pastoral theology. It will prove to be most helpful to unusually thoughtful clergy who are working in the trenches (but will go above the heads of most others in the parish). It “seeks to modify and advance Jonathan Edwards’s concept of virtue as ‘consent to being’ by offering the pastoral theological notion of virtue as a relational dynamic of ‘suffering with’” (p. 1). After offering reflections on Edwards’ pastoral life and work (chapter one), surveying Edwards’ ethics (chapter two), and discussing what the author calls “the language of moral vision” (chapter three), Zylla constructs a proposal regarding the use of Edwards’ ethics in pastoral care.

Zylla begins, though, with a commendation of “virtue ethics” to readers, who are more accustomed today to “divine command” morality, the duty-based ethics of Kant’s more secular but pietistic ethical imperatives (“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,” to quote his famous categorical imperative), and the consequentialist reasoning of pragmatic, utilitarian, and scientific ethics. Virtue ethics, by contrast, emphasizes the importance of building character in community and, in Christian virtue ethics, making choices that are consonant with God’s design for robust human flourishing. Edwards himself defined “true virtue” in his Nature of True Virtue (1765) as “benevolence to Being in general. Or perhaps to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to Being in general, that is immediately exercised in a general good will.” Being in general, he explained, is both God (the highest Being) as well as the whole system of being God created for God’s glory. A truly virtuous individual is one who lives for that glory, according to God’s design. Most others exhibit benevolence to members of their family, to those they find attractive and to those with something to give them. But the truly virtuous person exhibits good will to all. She loves others in the service of God and the world.

Zylla finds much to recommend in Edwards’ moral thought. He argues (correctly) that Edwards failed to flesh it out consistently. He was withdrawn and legalistic at times, despite his own teaching. He devoted little attention to the suffering of his people. Nonetheless, Zylla builds upon the virtue theory of Edwards, drawing out its implications for “a more dynamic conception of virtue for pastoral theology,” one that is “expanded to include the experience of suffering and the pastoral response of compassion” (p. 2). Emphasizing the significance of suffering with one’s people–much as Christ, the good shepherd, laid His life down for His sheep—and stressing the usefulness of story, parable, poetry, and lament in demonstrating vulnerability and, further, solidarity with the weaknesses of others, he develops an Edwardsean virtue ethics of pastoral care that will challenge even those who disagree with its details. “Moral vision,” he concludes, “is finally the capacity to enter into the suffering of others with the radical protest of hope. . . . Can there be any greater or deeper consent to being than this? . . . Somehow, in the mystery of God’s active presence in a broken world, a shepherd dares to embrace the suffering of another in a willed act of solidarity that witnesses to an unshakeable hope in God. This is consent to being, the very epitome—and depth—of virtue” (p. 128).

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Call for Papers: JESociety 2011, Oct 6-8

This announcement may be of interest to friends of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS …

The Jonathan Edwards Society is extending a call for papers for the Oct 6-8, 2011 conference on the theme of “Jonathan Edwards and World Chris­tian­ity: Ecu­menism, Inter­faith Dia­logue, and Reli­gious Awakening.”

The details below on paper submission are from the Jonathan Edwards Society website:


  • Abstracts: 200-​​word maximum
  • Papers: 3,000-word max­i­mum (designed for a read­ing time of 20 minutes)

Please include the fol­low­ing information:

  • Name
  • Aca­d­e­mic sta­tus and insti­tu­tional affil­i­a­tion (if any)
  • Mail­ing address, e-​​mail address, tele­phone number

Please e-​​mail your abstracts or papers (Microsoft-​​Word For­mat) by Sep­tem­ber 1st, 2011 to: rhall@​uncfsu.​edu.

You may also sub­mit your abstract, paper, and infor­ma­tion via our Sub­mis­sions page.

The con­fer­ence reg­is­tra­tion fee is $50.00 for adults, $25.00 for col­lege stu­dents, and $10.00 for high school stu­dents. Please make your check payable to The Jonathan Edwards Soci­ety and mail it to the address below.

Richard Hall
Dept. of Gov­ern­ment & His­tory
Fayet­teville State Uni­ver­sity
1200 Murchi­son Road
Fayet­teville, NC 28301