Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards’s Bible

Stephen R. C. Nichols, Jonathan Edwards’s Bible: The Relationship of the Old and New Testaments (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013)

When explaining to the trustees of the College of New Jersey why he was loathe to take their presidency, Edwards expressed concern about some unfinished writing projects, telling friends in New Jersey that the running of a college “will not well consist, with those views, and that course of employ in my study, which have long engaged, and swallowed up my mind, and been the chief entertainment and delight of my life.”

One of those unfinished projects was what Edwards called The Harmony of the Old and New Testament:

The first [part] considering the prophecies of the Messiah, his redemption and kingdom; the evidences of their references to the Messiah, etc. comparing them all one with another, demonstrating their agreement and true scope and sense; also considering all the various particulars wherein these prophecies have their exact fulfillment; showing the universal, precise, and admirable correspondence between predictions and events. The second part: considering the types of the Old Testament, showing the evidence of their being intended as representations of the great things of the gospel of Christ: and the agreement of the type with the antitype. The third and great [largest] part, considering the harmony of the Old and New Testament, as to doctrine and precept.

Edwards hoped that this work would offer “occasion for an explanation of a very great part of the holy Scripture . . . in a method, which to me seems the most entertaining and profitable, best tending to lead the mind to a view of the true spirit, design, life and soul of the Scriptures, as well as to their proper use and improvement.”

He drafted hundreds of manuscript pages for inclusion in this book. For part one, on biblical prophecy, he penned four entries in his “Miscellanies” notebooks, all treating what he labeled either “Prophecies of the Messiah” (mainly in the Old Testament) or “Fulfillment of the Prophecies of the Messiah” (in the New). Two of these entries proved so large that they consumed a whole book. For part two, on the wealth of biblical types of the Messiah, Edwards drafted another entry in a “Miscellanies” notebook: “That the Things of the Old Testament Are Types of Things Appertaining to the Messiah and His Kingdom and Salvation, Made Manifest from the Old Testament Itself.” In published form, this entry exceeds a hundred pages in length. Edwards wrote it in addition to his “Images of Divine Things” and “Types” manuscripts. For part three, on the theological harmony of Scripture, Edwards kept a separate notebook on “The Harmony of the Genius, Spirit, Doctrines, & Rules of the Old Testament & the New.” Most of this book is ordered canonically (he made it through the Psalms). Several entries appear topically. All attest to his interest in the doctrinal integrity, or “harmony,” of Scripture.

Back in 1996, Ken Minkema of Yale published the first critical history of this project in chapter four of Stephen J. Stein, ed., Jonathan Edwards’s Writings: Text, Context, Interpretation (Indiana University Press). But not until now has anyone written a book-length treatment of Edwards’ Harmony of the Old and New Testament.

Nichols’ volume entered the world as a doctoral dissertation written with Oliver Crisp at the University of Bristol. (Crisp has written a foreword to this slightly revised, published version of Nichols’ dissertation. N.B. The present Stephen Nichols is ordained in the Church of England and is not to be confused with the Stephen J. Nichols who writes on Edwards from his perch at Lancaster Bible College.) Shortly after Nichols defended it in dissertation form, Trinity’s own David Barshinger reviewed it on this blog.

It is a fine piece of scholarship on Edwards’ exegesis and canonical manner of featuring the harmonies of Scripture. In four short chapters, ordered according to Edwards’ three-part outline for the project, Nichols walks us through the notes Edwards drafted for the Harmony.  Chapter one treats Edwards’ view of biblical prophecy and fulfillment. Chapter two explores his typology in canonical perspective. Chapter three explains Edwards’ view of Scripture’s doctrinal harmony. Chapter four offers a “Case Study: A Harmony in Soteriology,” which “challenges the current ‘dispositional’ account of Edwards’s soteriology and argues instead that Edwards holds there to be one object of saving faith in Old and New Testaments, namely Christ” (p. xiii).

Nichols sees difficulties in Edwards’ “pre-critical” exegesis, but concludes that “there is value in its very strangeness.” Referring to John Webster’s view that “theologies of retrieval are valuable precisely because they ‘de-centre’ the accepted norms of critical judgment by trying to stand with the Christian past,” Nichols asserts that Edwards’ canonical way of handling the Bible can teach us a thing or two today (p. 195).

I am thrilled that Edwards’ biblical work is getting due attention. This book is must reading for serious Edwards scholars.