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Archive for October, 2012

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards, Theologian of Love?

Ronald Story, Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

Ronald Story, Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of LoveThis is a wonderful introduction to Edwards for people reared to assume that he was mainly a Calvinist scold who majored in hellfire and brimstone. Ronald Story, an emeritus professor of modern history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, used to assume the same thing. Raised in a strict Southern Baptist home, he long thought of Edwards only as the fearful preacher of—yes, that’s right, you guessed it—“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But in the late 1990s, Story stumbled into Edwards’ congregation in Northampton, soon became a member, and discovered the Edwards of love, the Edwards of Charity and Its Fruits who spoke of “Heaven as a World of Love” much more than he spoke of hell.

This book serves as an apology from Story for the many years he spent misconstruing Edwards’ life and significance (in places such as his best-selling text, A More Perfect Union: Documents in U.S. History). It overcompensates a little bit for Story’s earlier sins, portraying Edwards as a progressive social prophet of reform whose social teachings paved a way for Theodore Parker, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Martin Luther King. In the main, though, it portrays Edwards accurately, fairly, and with honest sympathy.

Here is Story’s main thesis: “Love pervades Jonathan Edwards’s ministry and writings, a point often overlooked given his lingering reputation as a preacher of damnation. In fact, Edwards, though understanding, as we have seen, that fear had its utility in the pulpit, was overwhelmingly a minister of the gospel of love rather than of fear. . . . Though a Calvinist, Edwards was not chiefly a preacher of damnation. Though damnation was ever at hand, Edwards the Calvinist was chiefly a preacher within the tradition of Christian love. Considering Edwards in this context will locate him at the epicenter of his faith and increase our understanding of what he was about” (98).

Story stresses what he calls “Edwards’s preoccupation with the poor” (60), his opposition to “materialism and avaricious scheming” (73), and his “notion of togetherness—social peace, amiableness, unity, harmony, collective worship, conversation, friendship, neighborliness, holy community, the oneness of mankind” (75). His work will likely evoke for specialists fond memories of older books by Roland Delattre and Gerald McDermott.

I recommend this book to everyone whose journey is like Story’s, and to students everywhere who know of Edwards only as the “fiery Puritan” of yesteryear.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards’ Sermons on the Parables of Matthew

Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables, Volume II, Divine Husbandmen (on the Parable of the Sower and the Seed), ed. Kenneth P. Minkema and Adriaan C. Neele (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables, Volume III, Fish Out of Their Element (on the Parable of the Net), ed. Kenneth P. Minkema and Adriaan C. Neele (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

The second and third volumes of Edwards’ sermons on the parables in Matthew are a treasure. Formatted in keeping with the conventions of this series (see my earlier comments on volume one), they begin with a preface and a note on Edwards’ text, contain a helpful introduction to the series by Wilson Kimnach (entitled “Edwards the Preacher,” reprinted in every volume), offer historical introductions to the sermons in each book (new material every time, usually by Minkema and Neele), and then provide the sermons themselves (edited in accordance with the rest of the Yale Edition).

In volume two, on the parable of the sower and the seed, we have one of the most important series of sermons Edwards preached. George Whitefield visited Edwards’ church in October 1740, preaching five sermons in town over the course of three days (October 17-19), stirring the hearts of Edwards’ people and fanning the sparks of the Great Awakening. Edwards reported to a friend that the “congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon; almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of sermon time.” He was thrilled but also concerned that people not be star-struck by Whitefield’s preternatural speaking gifts, but live as the kind of soil in which the Word can bear fruit. So he preached right away on the parable of the sower, telling his congregation to examine themselves “whether your religious affections are only superficial, or whether they reach the bottom of the heart (62), to “count the cost, or fully . . . consider the difficulties of being thoroughly and steadfastly religious” (87). Significantly, Whitefield preached on similar themes himself (a little-known fact), as is evident in his own sermon on Luke 8:18, “Directions How to Hear Sermons” (1739), which is printed as an appendix to this volume. (For more historical context on this sermon series and Edwards’ important friendship with Whitefield, see Ava Chamberlain, “The Grand Sower of the Seed: Jonathan Edwards’s Critique of George Whitefield,” New England Quarterly 70 (September 1997): 368-85.)

In volume three, on Jesus’ parable of the net, we get a fascinating glimpse of Edwards’ preaching as he completed Religious Affections (1746). Concerned more than ever with how to distinguish true Christians from his culture’s Christian hypocrites—who fooled themselves and others about the real state of their souls but would be found out at the judgment, when the good fish will be kept and the bad thrown away—Edwards used this sermon series to encourage his congregation to examine themselves honestly and openly. “That there are so many {resemblances between hypocrites and true converts}, thence the great danger there is of men’s being deceived. And what has been observed of the great and manifold resemblances {between them}, shows the straitness of the gate; and does yet more fully show how liable men are to be deceived, and what great need there is of care, and the utmost strictness and diligence, of watchfulness and inquiry, lest we be deceived” (40). These sermons are much more sketchy than the ones in volume two, but even their sketchiness is important, as it reminds us that Whitefield showed Edwards the raw power of extemporaneous preaching—and that, after 1740 (when Whitefield first visited Edwards), Edwards rarely wrote his sermons out in full before he preached them.

These volumes are essential for all serious Edwards scholars, and are highly recommended for fans and general readers as well.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards on Justification

Jonathan EdwardsMichael McClenahan, Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2012).

Reformed pastor Michael McClenahan is Minister of Lislooney and Knappagh Presbyterian Churches, which are both in Northern Ireland. He offers here an updated version of his dissertation at Oxford University (defended in 2006).

Focusing largely on Edwards’ sermon, Justification by Faith Alone (preached in 1734, published in 1738), McClenahan contends that Edwards was not quasi-Catholic, as many have suggested, but defended a traditionally Calvinist view of justification against the Arminian views of Archbishop Tillotson. McClenahan seeks to “demonstrate that this misreading of Edwards [as nearly Catholic on justification] is based on a failure to appreciate the polemical nature of Edwards’ Justification by Faith Alone. It is ironic that many scholars unwittingly describe Tillotson’s view yet ascribe it to Edwards. I argue that the neglect of the historical and theological context of Edwards’ work has resulted in an inability to discern the precise nature of his doctrine” (p. 18).

McClenahan’s “basic conclusion” is “that Edwards’ discourse on justification follows in broad continuity with previous Reformed explanations of the doctrine.” He admits to “novel elements” in Edwards’ explanations (“for example, the use of the distinction between moral and natural fitness”), but insists that “these aspects do not constitute any significant realignment of thought” (p. 193).

Edwards had more in mind when speaking of justification by faith than a refutation of Tillotson, whom he did not engage frequently. And Edwards wrote much more on justification than is treated in the pages of this book, which is focused rather narrowly. Nonetheless, McClenahan’s thesis is largely correct: Edwards did seek to defend a Reformed view of justification. Though at times he sounds Catholic to people raised in modern churches, he was an anti-Catholic man with firm, though never overly simplified, Protestant convictions.

This book comports well with Jonathan Edwards and Justification, edited by another Reformed pastor, Josh Moody, and reviewed in an earlier post.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Beyond the Half-Way Covenant

David McDowell, Beyond the Half-Way CovenantDavid Paul McDowell, Beyond the Half-Way Covenant: Solomon Stoddard’s Understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a Converting Ordinance (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).

The Rev. Dave McDowell, former pastor of the College Church in Northampton, Massachusetts, offers here a streamlined version of his doctoral dissertation, “Beyond the Half-Way Covenant: Solomon Stoddard’s Understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a Converting Ordinance; Its Origins, Development, and Influence in the Connecticut Valley of Western Massachusetts” (Ph.D. diss., Trinity Theological Seminary, Newburgh, IN, 2011).

Most readers of this blog will know that Stoddard further liberalized the Half-Way Covenant (1662), which had allowed professing believers not yet ready to offer testimony of saving grace in their lives to present their children for baptism (but not yet take the Lord’s Supper, which is why they were known as “half-way” members of the church, a status impossible under the earlier and stricter Cambridge Platform of 1648). According to Stoddard, “half-way” membership discouraged people spiritually. An inveterate evangelist, he argued  that all “visible saints” (righteous, church-going people) who believed in Jesus Christ and lived a morally decent life should be full church members, enjoying all the rights and privileges that membership provided even before they testified to regeneration. This more generous stance, he said, would aid in congregants’ conversions and encourage them to further their relationship with God. “The Lords [sic] Supper is Instituted to be a means of Regeneration,” a converting ordinance:

 [I]t is not appointed for the Converting of Men to the Christian Religion [i.e. to nominal Christianity], for only such as are Converted [again, to nominal Christianity] may partake of it; but it is not only for the Strengthening of [twice-born] Saints, but a means also to work Saving Regeneration. This Ordinance hath a proper tendency to draw sinners to Christ; in this Ordinance there is a particular invitation to sinners, to come to Christ for Pardon, here is an affecting Representation of the Virtue of Christ’s sufferings, here is a Seal whereby the Truth of the Gospel is confirmed, all which are very proper to draw sinners to Christ. (Quoted on p. 57 from Stoddard’s The Doctrine of Instituted Churches, p. 22.)

Most readers of this blog will also know that Jonathan Edwards, one of Stoddard’s own grandsons, succeeded him in ministry in Northampton, Massachusetts in the late 1720s and eventually came to reverse Stoddard’s change in membership policy. His congregation fired him in 1750 for this.

But few people have studied this from Stoddard’s point of view. Most have Stoddard’s views  interpreted through lenses ground by Edwards, whom McDowell says exaggerated the problems of Stoddardeanism. (Stoddard, for example, did not “encourage” people lacking in Christian “piety” to join his church and take the Lord’s Supper [p. 73], as Edwards at times suggested.)

So McDowell gives us Stoddard here from Stoddard’s own perspective. He makes three main points: “First, Stoddard’s views can only be understood within the wider context of the decline of Puritanism and the liberalizing force of the Half-Way Covenant. Second, Stoddard’s view of Communion grew out of his own study of English Puritanism and Scottish Presbyterianism, as well as his own conversion experience at the Lord’s Table, and far from being a corrupting influence on the church in Northampton, became the very context for evangelical revival . . . . Third, while Stoddard’s view of Communion had an immediate impact on the Northampton church and the future ministry of Jonathan Edwards, it also had a wider influence on a significant number of churches in the Connecticut Valley” (p. xxv).

As McDowell demonstrates, “Stoddard believed that no human could tell who was a real (invisible) saint . . . . And since no one was able to tell who was truly redeemed, the invitation was made that all should come and ‘feel safe’ before God because they were invited to come according to God’s Word. Stoddard’s main concern was not to preserve a pure church but to convert sinners to Christ, and his entire ecclesiology flowed from this” (p. 73).

Stoddard emerges in these pages as an evangelical pastor who loved his people deeply, understood what made them tick, and knew how to manage their anxieties. It will prove the most helpful to other evangelical pastors, those who sympathize with Edwards but need help understanding Stoddard’s doctrine of the church. I heartily commend it to such people.