Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and the Church

Rhys S. Bezzant, Jonathan Edwards and the Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Jonathan Edwards and the Church

This groundbreaking book began as a doctoral dissertation in the Australian College of Theology. Its author, Rhys Bezzant, is a friend and fellow director of a Jonathan Edwards Center, his at Ridley College, Melbourne, where he has worked for nearly a decade. It offers a diachronic treatment of Edwards’ ecclesiological work as well as synchronic summaries and analysis of the nature and significance of Edwards’ doctrine of the church. As I note on the dust jacket, “It’s sad but true: among the hundreds of books on Edwards, nary a one has been published on his view of the Christian church, a doctrine Edwards preached and wrote about throughout his pastoral ministry (despite what you may have heard from other leading scholars). We have needed Rhys Bezzant’s book for a very long time. It is far and away the best, most systematic and comprehensive work on the subject ever written.”

Most previous Edwards scholars, such as Harvard’s David Hall, have suggested that Edwards never had a real ecclesiology, but that his ecclesiastical ministries and battles were shaped primarily by other theological and especially social forces. Bezzant demonstrates that Edwards did maintain a comprehensive ecclesiological vision. Bezzant does not deny that social and interpersonal forces contributed to the contours of Edwards’ ecclesiology. Yet he insists that scholars not reduce Edwards’ churchly writings by describing them as little more than functions of New England’s social history.

This monograph makes several contributions to Edwards studies. The most visible one is found in Bezzant’s manner of balancing Edwards’ high ecclesiology with his ecclesiological reflection “from below.” He argues correctly that Schafer’s classic treatment of Edwards’ ecclesiology (in an article published in Church History in 1955) proves too narrowly ontological, and insufficiently evangelical. It pays short shrift to the ways in which Edwards’ pastoral labors and leadership of revivals also played a role in shaping his view of the church. As a result, Schafer left us with an Edwards who is not as evangelical or pastoral as the real Edwards of history. Bezzant, by way of contrast, offers an Edwards much closer to the minister of Northampton. He finds a golden mean, that is, between Schafer’s purely metaphysical view of Edwards’ doctrine and Hall’s social-historical reduction. In Bezzant’s able treatment, Edwards appears as a genuine theologian after all, but one whose work was forged in the fires of revival and a long life of ministry to people in the church. Bezzant’s Edwards is a man of his time who thought very deeply about the nature of the church, a man who developed an “evangelical ecclesiology” with “revivalist emphases at its core” (256-57).

Another important contribution is Bezzant’s argument that Edwards was evangelical without being a separatist. Edwards moved beyond the Christendom model of ecclesial identity without becoming sectarian. “Edwards was suspicious of the pride generated by separatist certainties growing out of their claimed clarity of personal experience. . . . Purity was secured in the separatists’ model at the expense of social stability, a position Edwards rejected” (176). I hope this argument will exert a salutary effect on the field of Edwards studies, which too often is divided between those emphasizing Edwards’ socio-cultural power and those who nearly turn Edwards into an eighteenth-century Baptist.

Finally, Bezzant corrects the tendency among Edwards scholars to account for his ejection from the pulpit in Northampton by suggesting that he was too old-fashioned, hierarchical, insensitive to the family needs of traditional New Englanders to manage their concerns about church order. Bezzant demonstrates that Edwards was not ejected for his allegedly reactionary attempt to re-impose an antiquated social order on his people. Rather, he held a biblically progressive view of the church and society transformed by the gospel—and was ejected primarily as a result of ecclesiological conviction.

“Edwards’s representation of the church is an exemplary model, not of traditional mechanistic ecclesiology, nor of revivalist and separatist ecclesiology, but of evangelical ecclesiology, which harnesses creative innovative missiological forms to received and systematically constructed Biblical truth” (260). Indeed. This book is highly recommended. It is one of those rare finds useful to scholars, pastors, and church leaders alike.