From the JEC Blog

Archive for December, 2011

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Theology of Jonathan Edwards

Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

This is a monumental achievement. In 45 chapters (757 pages), McClymond and McDermott present a comprehensive survey of the thought of Jonathan Edwards, introducing us to both Edwards’ theological writings and the leading interpretations of those writings by other scholars.

Part One, “Introduction: Historical, Cultural, and Social Contexts,” includes 5 helpful chapters on Edwards’ spiritual life and times. Part Two, “Topics in Edwards’s Theology,” weighs in at 31 chapters on nearly everything under the sun of Edwards’ brilliant Christian mind, from aesthetics to revelation, God himself, the will, the church, and eschatology—organized, as Edwards seemed to prefer when he planned his own magnum opus, in redemptive-historical order. Part Three, “Legacies and Affinities: Edwards’s Disciples and Interpreters,” adds 9 important chapters on appropriations of Edwards from his own day to ours.

The authors tie the book together with an emphasis on what they call the five major sections of Edwards’ theological symphony: Trinitarian communication (“the violins”), creaturely participation (“the violas, cellos, and basses”), necessitarian dispositionalism (“the horn section”), theocentric voluntarism (“the woodwinds”), and harmonious constitutionalism (“the percussion section”). One must hear all the sections together, they say, to appreciate the performance. Further, “[a] caveat regarding many existing interpretations of Edwards’s theology is that they capture one or another part of the symphony, yet fail to construe the sound and flow of the whole” (p. 8). McClymond and McDermott do convey the sound of the whole.

This weighty work is a doorstopper that will surely function for most as an unusually heavy handbook to Edwards’ major writings. However, its authors also want it to have an overall effect on us. Throughout their varied chapters, and especially in the conclusion, they present Edwards as a major “global theologian for twenty-first-century Christianity” (pp. 725-28), much more useful than the more frequently studied Karl Barth as a resource for contemporary theology. Edwards bridges East and West, they argue, Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and even Roman Catholicism, conservatism and liberalism, charismatic and non-charismatic Christian churches. Indeed, “[h]is thought,” they suggest, “may have more linkages and more points of reference to various constituencies within world Christianity than any other modern Christian theologian” (p. 727). So if our authors “had to choose one modern thinker—and only one—to function as a point of reference for theological interchange and dialogue” today, they would clearly choose Edwards, a catholic evangelical Calvinist who is read and used by tens of thousands all around the world (p. 728).

Whether or not they think that Edwards is this pliable and useful as a resource for ecumenical dialogue today (I am not as optimistic as our authors on this score), all will agree that this is one of the most important books on Edwards to be published in recent years. It offers the most comprehensive treatment of Edwards’ thought available. Teachers, students, clergy, and general readers will be reaching for it frequently for many years to come.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality

Brandon G. Withrow, Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality within the Christian Tradition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011).

Those who read the acknowledgments or endorsements of this book will see that Withrow and I are friends. In fact, Brandon did a master’s degree with me some time ago, writing an excellent thesis on Edwards and justification. Now he teaches at Winebrenner Theological Seminary. This, his latest, book offers a much more catholic, ecumenically useful reading of Edwards than one usually gets from historians or evangelical Calvinists. (Withrow is a historian with a doctorate from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.) It renders Edwards a supernaturalistic biblicist, but one with a far more incarnational spirituality than most, indeed a piety shaped profoundly by the Spirit’s role in binding God and man in Jesus Christ and thus enabling the saints’ participation in the divine (II Peter 1:4).

The book has three parts. Part One treats “The Judeo-Christian Tradition of Jonathan Edwards,” charting aspects of the tradition that would find expression in Edwards’ own incarnational thought. Part Two narrows the focus, exploring “Jonathan Edwards’s Spirituality in His New England World.” Part Three then assesses “Jonathan Edwards’s Spiritual Reading of the Sacred Text” in light of both the ancient Christian tradition and his post-Puritan world. It is the third part of the book in which the author makes his real contribution.

Like many so-called “pre-critical” readers of the Bible, Edwards experienced and talked about a life-changing connection between spiritual awakening, regeneration, or conversion; participation in God through Jesus Christ by the Spirit; and a spiritual understanding of the sacred texts of Scripture. This connection and the effects it had in Edwards’ life and teaching are the focal point of the volume. According to Withrow, in sum, Edwards’ spiritual, multilayered understanding of the Bible, enabled by conversion, drew him into the life of God by the power of the Spirit—and this is what has made his life and writings so compelling to so many since his death.

No matter what one thinks of Edwards’ ecumenical promise, he does remain, in Withrow’s hands, a deep well of refreshment and renewal for evangelicalism, which is all too often shriveled in a post-catholic manner into a desiccated, moralistic form of modern Western popular culture.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards and the Science of the Soul

Sarah Rivett, The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

This thought-provoking book traces the multiple intersections of early modern natural science (known then as “natural philosophy”) and Puritan spirituality, especially those located close to Locke’s epistemology. Rivett, a junior professor in the English department at Princeton, shows that Puritans did not oppose the rise of modern science, or every form of the Enlightenment. Rather, they took empirical study of the sensory world quite seriously, contributing to an evangelical form of the Enlightenment, primarily through their science of spiritual testimony.

The Puritans, that is, studied the human soul and the saints’ varied experiences of grace using the same methods scientists used to study the natural world. In chapters recounting the public testimonies of conversion in New England, both by Anglos and by Indians, deathbed professions, public statements made by those who claimed to be haunted by witches in Salem, as well as testimonies of grace made in New England’s Great Awakening, Rivett claims that “the science of the soul” in early New England played a major part in the flourishing of modern empiricism. Modern science, then, for her, is not a product of secularization, but was fueled in part by Protestant religion.

Readers of this blog will want to know that Rivett’s final chapter deals at length with Edwards, whom Rivett interprets as a part of the evangelical Enlightenment who helped to effect an important shift in the science of the soul to more immediate and individual testimonies of grace. “It is through [a] combined nexus of influences from Enlightenment philosophy to New Light theology to the knowledge supplied by lay testimonies,” she avers, “that Edwards produced a New England version of the evangelical Enlightenment that would constitute the last phase of the science of the soul: an empirically discernible sign of regeneration, more certain than the evidentiary criteria to come before” (p. 281).

Rivett does make a number of mistakes when dealing with Edwards. She says his sermon series devoted to the History of the Redemption was comprised of 39 sermons (p. 282, though on p. 310 she notes correctly that the series was actually 30 sermons long). She bases much of the Edwards chapter on the mistaken understanding that Edwards sought to return Northampton to the early Puritan practice of requiring public testimony of all who would be members. (Edwards never said any such thing.) She interprets the Stockbridge period, like so many others have done, as one of “philosophical and ministerial exile.” The Stockbridge Edwards “still continues to write, preach, and convert,” she says, “but he does so without the ambitions of the historical and geographical specificities of the colonial endeavor or the conviction that philosophy might learn from the larger cosmic meaning behind the Puritan project” (p. 284, a sample quotation that indicates the rather abstract nature of much of Rivett’s narrative). She identifies Sarah Edwards’ famous spiritual ecstasies, experienced in the revival, as her “conversion experience” (repeatedly). She dates the “initial phase of Sarah’s conversion experience” to 1758 (p. 309, clearly a typographical error). She exaggerates what she labels Edwards’ “attempt to attain religious certainty through testimony” (p. 321). She also misleads readers by saying that “Edwards fails in his empirical quest to transform Northampton into a laboratory of grace” (p. 322—I dare say Edwards would not have owned this “quest”).

But though its author proves unstable on the field of Edwards studies (and with theological history), this monograph is helpful on the scientific study of the soul incited by testimonies of grace–and on the rise of Christian empiricism generally. Rivett offers a thoughtful reading of the broader implications–for modern science and religion–of the practice of public testimony in early modern New England.

Recommended for graduate students and other scholars working on early American culture.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS