From the JEC Blog

Archive for July, 2011

JEC at TEDS Hosting a Colloquium on Jonathan Edwards’ Global Legacies (Jan 6, 2012)

“The New England theology remains the most significant and enduring Christian theological school of thought to have originated in the United States. Yet today little is known about it beyond the circle of those with a professional interest in the scholarship associated with this movement. Even in this select group, one seldom finds anything like a complete understanding of the different phases of its life or the works of its main proponents. There has been scholarly work on the movement post mortem, but for much of the twentieth century that interest amounted to little more than a trickle of scholarly articles and several (important) monographs. It is only in the last quarter century that significant scholarly interest in these theologians has been rekindled. A clutch of important studies, and a collection of some of the most important writings from the movement have seen the light of day in this period, signalling a renewal of serious intellectual interest in the theologians of this movement.”

These words are taken from the introduction of a forthcoming book edited by Oliver D. Crisp and Douglas A. Sweeney, After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). This volume offers a reassessment of the New England Theology in light of the work of Jonathan Edwards. In this volume scholars whose work has made important theological and philosophical contributions to our understanding of the thought and work of Edwards are brought together with scholars of New England theology and early American history to produce a cross-disciplinary symposium dealing with the ways in which New England Theology flourished, how themes in Edwards’ thought were taken up and changed by representatives of the school, and how it has had a lasting influence on the shape of American Christianity.

Based on this new book, the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS is presenting a panel discussion on “After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology.” This JEC event will be part of the New Directions in Edwards Studies series.

The colloquium will include:

1. Moderator: Douglas A. Sweeney, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

2. Introductions: Oliver D. Crisp, Fuller Theological Seminary

3. “Jonathan Edwards and His Educational Legacy” by Kenneth P. Minkema, Yale University

4. “Edwards in the Second Great Awakening: The New Divinity Contributions of Edward Dorr Griffin and Asahel Nettleton” by David W. Kling, University of Miami

5. “An Edwardsean Lost and Found: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards in Asia” by Anri Morimoto, International Christian University (Tokyo)

6. Initial response: Ava Chamberlain, Wright State University

7. Discussion with the audience

This event will be taking place on the campus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on Friday, Jan 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm (location TBA).

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Heaven

Gary Scott Smith, Heaven in the American Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Smith is a veteran historian at Grove City College, the author of The Seeds of Secularization: Calvinism, Culture, and Pluralism in America, 1870-1915 (1985), The Search for Social Salvation: Social Christianity and America, 1880-1925 (2000), and Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (2006). In this new book, he focuses mainly on Reformed and evangelical views of heaven, its inhabitants, and how they spend their time (if time is a word that even applies there). It is a most instructive read—crisply written, largely accurate, and far more narrowly focused than the more famous histories of heaven by Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang (co-authors of Heaven: A History, 1988) and Jeffrey Burton Russell (A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence, 1997).

Like most other cultural histories of particular Christian doctrines, this book is rather unsurprising–one might even say predictable. It shows that American views of heaven, though rooted in Scripture and tradition, have also shifted with the prevailing winds of American popular culture. Smith is fairer than most who have followed the well-worn formula for this genre (identify an allegedly timeless Christian doctrine; place it in multiple historical contexts; describe the macro-level cultural values regnant in those contexts; demonstrate the ways in which the allegedly timeless doctrine has actually morphed rather dramatically in keeping with those values; ignore most counter-examples, either of cultural trends or of those who march to the beat of a different drummer). He does not suggest that doctrine is always and only a social construct, or is absolutely relative. But the burden of his book is to show that while “most Americans have claimed to derive their images of heaven solely from the Bible, they also display their dreams, hopes, and visions of the good life. As a result, their depictions of celestial life shed substantial light on what Americans have most treasured and feared in various eras” (p. 7).

Those with a solid knowledge of American popular culture can guess what Smith says has characterized American views of heaven in each of the periods he describes. And in the main, what he says about his subjects is correct. However, adherence to formulaic views of American cultural history and its bearing on religion, seen as they must be with a bird’s eye, from 30,000 feet, leads him astray from time to time. When treating Edwards, for example, Smith claims that “[h]e delivered numerous sermons that focused on heaven and only a few that primarily dealt with hell,” and thus that “Heaven Is a World of Love” is “much more typical of his preaching” than “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (p. 29). This is largely wishful thinking in the service of his plotline. For though it is true that Edwards was not, pace his critics, obsessed with hell, he preached dozens of hellfire sermons over the course of his career, many of which survive today in Yale’s Beinecke Library (and some of which appear to have proven rather more effective in “awakening” his listeners than more pleasing, culturally sensitive sermons on heaven). When treating his legacy, moreover, Smith asserts that “only a few” who led the Second Great Awakening “defended the Calvinist view of salvation” that had prevailed in Edwards’ day (p. 56). However, as several scholars have demonstrated in numerous publications (Joseph Conforti, David Kling, Allen Guelzo, myself), this is simply not true. Edwards’ legacy endured during the Second Great Awakening. Few would parrot his phraseology, but most within New England adhered to one form or another of his evangelical Calvinism.

This popular genre also abounds with unsubstantiated claims, such as that Edwards’ “depiction of heaven has significantly affected the way countless American Christians, especially Reformed ones, have viewed heaven” (p. 45). I’d like to think that this is true, but Smith provides us with no evidence. Much of his narrative seems to suggest, in fact, that Edwards has enjoyed few theological heirs.

But again, such problems attend nearly every book in this genre. They can hardly be avoided. And such books are worth the trouble. They offer little that is original for academic specialists, but much that is informative, entertaining, and even preachable for many other readers.

This is a great general survey of American views of heaven. I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards, Race, and Redemption

Richard A. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, Religion in America Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

This fascinating monograph began as a dissertation at the University of Kentucky. In it, Bailey, an alumnus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary currently teaching history at Canisius College (Buffalo), highlights the contradictory and sometimes even hypocritical manner in which Puritans like Edwards sought the spiritual redemption of the African and Native American people they enslaved.

Most historians identify the rise of what we call “race,” racialized ways of viewing the world, and the practices of racism, at least in British America, with the late eighteenth century. Bailey shows that the Puritans used racialized categories and expressed racist views much earlier than that—indeed, soon after they rowed ashore.

His book explores what he refers to as “the intersections between the religious frontier that was colonial New England and the racial frontiers pioneered by white colonists as they ordered colonial society,” paying most of its attention “to the ways New England puritans socially, culturally, intellectually, legally, and theologically ordered and attempted to control their experiences with New Englanders of color” (pp. 6-7). Bailey’s thesis is rather vague and usually difficult to follow, perhaps because he is eager to foreground its poignant paradox: “race was created, at least in part, out of the spiritual freedoms offered by New England Puritanism” (p. 7); or, in other words, colonial Americans “constructed race from the spiritual freedoms found in the redemption being offered by puritans of all persuasions, tying race and redemption” close together (p. 14). But the real strength of the book is not its thesis anyway, but the evidence it offers of the racialized perceptions of New Englanders like Edwards.

Those who think that I was wrong, or simply too harsh, for criticizing Edwards as “something of a racist” (Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, p. 180) really need to read this book. I recommend it most highly to anyone interested in Edwards, Edwards’ world, and its socio-cultural legacies.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards Defending the Great Awakening

Robert Davis Smart, Jonathan Edwards’s Apologetic for the Great Awakening, with Particular Attention to Charles Chauncy’s Criticisms (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).

As I suggest in my endorsement on the back of this book, it offers the wisest, most extensive interpretation of the Edwards-Chauncy debate ever written.

Bob is a friend. He serves as the senior pastor of Christ Church (PCA) in Bloomington (IL) and he teaches and preaches widely as a pastor-theologian. His book began as a dissertation at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology (associated with the University of Wales, Lampeter; now the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David). It includes an insightful foreword written by Kenneth P. Minkema of Yale University (who will be teaching another J-term course at Trinity this year). And as Ken confirms therein, it offers “the first sustained effort devoted to considering the points of debate between Chauncy and Edwards”–the well-known leaders of the “Old Light” and “New Light” parties (respectively) at the height of the Great Awakening–“and to understanding them contextually, hermeneutically, and constructively” (p. ix).

The sum and substance of this book is a treatment of the controversy that swirled around the question whether New England’s great revivals were a work of the Holy Spirit. As a work of reception history, it is unparalleled in scope and attention to detail. Employing tools from social science, social history, and theology, Smart explains the terms of debate, shows how Edwards and his critics disagreed with one another, and offers an even-handed assessment of the legacies of their conflict from the 1740s and 50s to the present.

I recommend this learned work to anyone interested in the history of revivals in America—but especially to those with an interest in the pneumatological questions most important to Edwards himself, and to his heirs.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS