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Archive for October, 2011

Dissertation Notes: “The Relationship of the Old and New Testaments in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards”

Stephen R. C. Nichols, “The Relationship of the Old and New Testaments in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (1703–58)” (PhD diss., University of Bristol, 2011).

In his famous letter to the Trustees of the College of New Jersey, Jonathan Edwards baited the imagination of Edwards scholars for years to come with his description of a “great work,” which he planned to call “The Harmony of the Old and New Testament,” but did not live to write. Stephen R. C. Nichols (not to be confused with fellow Edwards scholar Stephen J. Nichols of Lancaster Bible College) explores the notes for this work and its import in Edwards’ theology in his recent dissertation.

Nichols’ work aims to redress the lack of attention to Edwards’ interest in the Bible by studying his well-developed notes on the “Harmony,” and he structures his dissertation to mirror the three major sections of the work: prophecy, typology, and doctrine and precept. In each chapter, he looks first at Edwards’ full corpus as it bears on these three issues and only then turns to discuss the “Harmony.” He wraps up his dissertation with a case study of the soteriological harmony Edwards saw between the two testaments.

In his first chapter Nichols shows how Edwards sought to reveal the deists’ unreasonableness and offer a more reasonable way of reading biblical prophecy, namely by demonstrating that the Messiah brings harmony to the Old and New Testaments. For the representative deist foil to Edwards, Nichols uses Anthony Collins, author of A Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (1724), in which he argued that the apostles ripped Old Testament texts out of their context to establish a connection between the Old Testament prophecies and the New Testament Christ, a connection he believed failed the test of reason. In his broad approach to prophecy, Edwards argued that the divine author can intend an ultimate meaning beyond that of the human author, that Scripture must be its own interpreter, and that the Holy Spirit gives the regenerate a new spiritual sense for recognizing these connections. Specifically in his notes on the “Harmony,” he presented a discussion of Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, apart from New Testament citations of such passages, on a large scale and in minute detail to make a formidable argument that “a Messianic interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures is a thoroughly reasonable and coherent interpretation of those Scriptures” (23).

Nichols moves on in his second chapter to consider Edwards’ view of typology. He shows that Edwards’ expansive typology was consistent with his philosophical commitments to an “idealism that saw creation as inherently communicative, and being as inherently harmonious” (102). God upholds the creation by his being and communicates himself for the purpose of his glory through the creation, particularly in types. Scripture models the use of such types, but also constrains the interpreter in typology. Thus, in his notes on the “Harmony,” taken from his “Miscellanies” entry no. 1069, “Types of the Messiah,” Edwards made a robust argument using minute intra-Scriptural details that the Old Testament, standing alone, is by nature typological and that Jesus is the Messiah that it typifies. Nichols concludes that Edwards’ typological innovations, compared to his Puritan forebears, made it possible for him “to bind the Testaments more tightly together with his typology than his predecessors had been able to with theirs” (120).

In his third chapter on doctrine and precept, Nichols argues that the history of redemption and the covenant of grace provide the framework for Edwards’ understanding of the doctrinal harmony in the Old and New Testaments. Christ’s redemptive work in the incarnation is “the crux of history,” and all history, prior to and after Christ, is “a grand scheme divinely directed to God’s own glory through the redemption of Christ” (129). In discussing the covenant of grace, Edwards held that it is identical in substance in both the Old and New Testaments, but different in administration, which demonstrates the continuity between the two testaments. Nichols argues that Edwards’ notebook titled, “The Harmony of the Genius, Spirit, Doctrines and Rules of the Old Testament and the New,” represents his notes for the final third section of his “Harmony of the Old and New Testament,” and it shows, in its sketchy form, this same doctrinal harmony between the two testaments.

In his case study of Edwards’ soteriology in the fourth chapter, Nichols engages at length with Anri Morimoto’s notion of Edwards’ so-called “dispositional soteriology,” by which Morimoto argues that God creates grace in the elect, giving them a “new disposition” without them necessarily expressing faith explicitly in Christ (see Morimoto’s Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Vision of Salvation). Also, Nichols challenges Gerald McDermott’s thesis, building on Morimoto’s, that Edwards laid the foundation for believing that people can be saved without the hearing of the Word (see McDermott’s Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods). Nichols particularly focuses on their arguments as they relate to the question of how the Old Testament elect were saved. The essence of what he argues is that for Edwards, the “new disposition” refers to the immediate indwelling of the Holy Spirit; justification is a declaration of righteousness, not a reward for righteousness; the Mediator, not obedience to the Law, is the grounds of salvation in the Old Testament just as in the New; and though God is free to save without means, he usually uses the means of the Word preached to call people to salvation. Ultimately, Edwards is squarely in the Reformed tradition of soteriology, except that through his expanded typology and prophecy he argued that the Old Testament elect actually had a greater understanding of Christ than his forebears believed possible. His approach to soteriology is uniquely framed by his understanding of the harmony of the Old and New Testaments.

As is evident from this note, Nichols seeks to accomplish quite a lot in this dissertation. His work is well-researched with thick notes, demonstrating a thorough understanding of the wider literature, and he adeptly engages the historiography on Edwards. He presents a robust argument that calls into question any wholesale acceptance of Morimoto’s dispositional soteriology and McDermott’s thesis that Edwards anticipated the possibility of salvation in non-Christian religions. This case study is a big argument packed into a small space, but it is one that should be given due consideration as these discussions are bound to continue in Edwards studies.

Nichols also makes a number of historiographical contributions related to Edwards and the Bible. He argues convincingly, contra Mason I. Lowance Jr., that Edwards did not arbitrarily use different models of typology—one conservative, one allegorical—but rather employed a single unitary approach to typology that encompassed all his typological endeavors, whether in biblically identified types or types in human history. Most significantly, Nichols makes a persuasive argument, contra Stephen Stein, that Edwards was not unrestrained in his use of the spiritual sense to interpret the Bible, but rather was guided by the analogy of Scripture and the analogy of faith. He also argues strenuously that the charges saying Edwards’ typology was arbitrary do not take into account his “sophisticated biblical literacy” (100). In fact a closer look shows that his types often allude to various passages throughout Scripture, which is why Edwards argued that one must become fluent in the language of the Bible to be fluent in the language of typology. Nichols lays to rest Stephen Stein’s claim that Edwards was unbounded in his biblical exegesis and typology.

In the end, Nichols shows how the Messiah, his kingdom, and his redemption draw together the whole Bible in harmony for Edwards, ably furthering the discussion of Edwards and the Bible, the area in Edwards studies that perhaps needs the greatest attention at this point in time. He makes several bold arguments that he supports with thick descriptions of Edwards’ notes for the “Harmony” and of Edwards’ broader corpus. His dissertation deserves a wide reading as Edwards scholars continue to flesh out the place of the Bible in Edwards’ thought.

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

Sweeney Booknotes: John Gerstner’s Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards

W. Gary Crampton, Interpreting Edwards: An Overview and Analysis of John H. Gerstner’s The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Lakeland, FL: Whitefield Theological Seminary, 2010).

Fans of the late John Gerstner (1914-1996) will want to know about this book. It offers a summary of Gerstner’s massive, three-volume set, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (1991-1993), updated with helpful references to more recent Edwards scholarship.

Younger readers may need to know that Gerstner played a major role in fueling the Edwards renaissance and making its scholarly fruit accessible to evangelical Christians. He promoted Edwards’ writings with hundreds of pastors, seminarians, and evangelical laity, devoted his summers to poring over Edwards’ manuscripts at Yale, and published several widely influential books on Edwards’ thought. He also made disciples (of both Edwards and himself), most importantly R. C. Sproul (b. 1939), who founded Ligonier Ministries in the early 1970s near Gerstner’s home in western Pennsylvania.

Like Gerstner and Sproul, Gary Crampton and Whitefield Theological Seminary are cut from Edwardsean cloth. Theirs is a “truly Reformed” Edwards, tailored for evangelical Calvinists. They have not paid much attention to Edwards’ non-Reformed influences and non-Reformed legacies. But they have done more than anyone (except perhaps Iain Murray) to create a demand for Edwards among the people who are most eager to pattern their lives after his.

This is clearly a labor of love. Recommended for all who follow, or would simply like to know about, Gerstner’s Edwards.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards, the Red Brethren, and the Race Problem

David J. Silverman, Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010).

This book contains only a few, brief references to Edwards. Nevertheless, Edwards scholars will want to give it careful attention for the ways in which it fleshes out the roles of several friends, disciples, and devotees of Edwards in the Christianization of Native American Indians in what became the northeastern United States.

Readers of this blog already know the Stockbridge Indians, a network of tribes including Mohicans, Housatonics and others tied to the Stockbridge mission. The Brothertown, however, have not received as much attention. Comprised of Narragansetts, Mohegans, Pequots, Miantics, Tunxis, and Montauketts from both the Connecticut and New York shores of Long Island Sound, they migrated to upstate New York in the 1780s, joined forces with the Stockbridge, were forced to pick up stakes and move again with the Stockbridge to Wisconsin, then in the late 1830s became the first group of Indians to obtain full United States citizenship.

Silverman’s study seeks to explain “why and how Indians came to interpret their struggles with colonialism racially. More specifically, it is interested in the ways in which Indian people understood, employed, and constantly redefined the categories of Indian, white, and black” (p. 32). Its focus on racialization and racism yields a typically jaundiced view of Christian Indian missions. But it also yields new insights into the history of what we might well call the Indian Great Awakening. During the 1730s and 40s, northeastern Indians converted in large numbers to Christianity, more than ever before in history, joining white churches at first and often separating later due to prejudicial treatment, forming their own Native American congregations. Their shared experience of revival brought thousands of Indians together across their various tribal boundaries. The vast network that resulted “linked Indian communities from Long Island Sound more firmly to each other and to the Delawares of New Jersey, the Mohicans of the Housatonic River Valley, and the Oneidas of Iroquoia. Historically, these groups were divided by space, politics, and, to a lesser degree, language. Yet the Indians’ shared struggles with colonialism followed by their common Christianity led them to identify with each other as a race of people and to express that solidarity in the language of Protestantism” (p. 32).

This learned study joins a growing list of books on Indian Christians in the age of the Great Awakening whose piety was shaped by Edwards’ evangelical ministry. It is better on people like Samson Occom and Eleazar Wheelock than it is on Edwards himself. But when read together with studies such as the ones listed below, it goes a long way toward helping us appreciate the complicated legacies of Edwards in the world of Native American Christianity. Highly recommended.

A select bibliography on Edwards, the Edwardseans, New England’s Great Awakening, and the emergence of Native American Christianity:

John A. Andrew III, From Revivals to Removal: Jeremiah Evarts, the Cherokee Nation, and the Search for the Soul of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991)

Denise T. Askin, “‘Strange Providence’: Indigenist Calvinism in the Writings of Mohegan Minister Samson Occom (1723-1792),” in John Calvin’s American Legacy, ed. Thomas J. Davis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

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

Althea Bass, Cherokee Messenger (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1936)

Linford Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

John A. Grigg, The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon, Religion in America Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Joel W. Martin and Mark A. Nicholas, eds., Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010)

Gerald R. McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Gerald R. McDermott, “Missions and Native Americans,” in The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards, ed. Sang Hyun Lee (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)

William G. McLoughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789-1839 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984)

William G. McLoughlin, “Two Bostonian Missions to the Frontier Indians, 1810-1860,” in Massachusetts and the New Nation, ed. Conrad Edick Wright, Studies in American History and Culture (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1992)

Samson Occom, The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Leadership and Literature in Eighteenth-Century Native America, ed. Joanna Brooks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Rachel M. Wheeler, “Edwards as Missionary,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards, ed. Stephen J. Stein (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Rachel Wheeler, “Lessons from Stockbridge: Jonathan Edwards and the Stockbridge Indians,” in Jonathan Edwards at 300: Essays on the Tercentenary of His Birth, ed. Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Caleb J. D. Maskell (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005)

Rachel Wheeler, To Live upon Hope: Mohicans and Missionaries in the Eighteenth-Century Northeast (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008)

See also the articles written against U.S. treatment of the Indians in the heavily Edwardsean The Spirit of the Pilgrims (SP): “Review of an Article in the North American Review,” SP 3 (March 1830): 141-61; “Speeches on the Indian Bill,” SP 3 (September 1830): 492-500, and (October 1830): 517-32; “Review of the Case of the Cherokees against Georgia,” SP 4 (September 1831): 492-513; “Review of Pamphlets on the Death of Jeremiah Evarts, Esq.,” SP 4 (November 1831): 599-613; and “Review of Thatcher’s Lives of the Indians,” SP 6 (January 1833): 41-47.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS