Booknote by Kenneth Minkema: Edwards the Exegete

The TEDS Jonathan Edwards Center  does its best to provide thoughtful reviews of every new book pertinent to Jonathan Edwards studies. Reviews at the TEDS Jonathan Edwards Center are usually written by Professor Sweeney and entitled “Sweeney’s Booknotes.” As it would be odd for Professor Sweeney to review his own book and undesirable to overlook this contribution, Professor Minkema, the current General Editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards and Director of Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Center, gladly accepted an invitation to review Sweeney’s book here.

Douglas A Sweeney. Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-American Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Edwards the Exegete“The book you hold in your hands,” the author’s preface ingenuously begins, “has been a long time in the making.” Indeed, this reviewer remembers when our humble author began this project, just after the turn of the millennium, around the time of the tercentennial of Jonathan Edwards’s birth, when there was much hoopla, many gatherings and publications, assessing his significance for both American and for Christian history. But to envision a study at that time that treated Edwards as a biblical expositor, and, more centrally, his biblicism, was to anticipate, even define, a turn in Edwards Studies.

For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, scholars of Edwards had focused on him as a philosopher or as a literary figure––and rightly so, for he was important to both genres. These interpretive loci owed their origins very much to—everybody say it with me—Perry Miller, whose sway over the field it seems will never end. Miller’s leadership of the Yale edition of The Works of Edwards imposed these priorities as well, with precedence given to treatises and the philosophical and natural typology notebooks, relegating genres such as sermons and biblical commentary to lesser rungs.

But the gradual mining and publication of Edwards’ sermons, thematic theological notebooks and essays, and, yes, biblical commentary was revealing “another” Edwards, or what many thought of as an unfamiliar, alternative Edwards. And there was a lot of it, equaling or even surpassing in sheer volume the famous Stockbridge treatises. These sources—“Notes on the Apocalypse,” “Notes on Scripture,” the “Blank Bible,” and others—taken together, suggested that the center of Edwards’ mental world was the Scriptures, that he was a biblical theologian at heart, and that his varied writings sprang from, or had as a major component, his engagement with the sacred texts.

This is what Professor Sweeney intuited, but first he had to wade through the sea not of blood but of printed material by Edwards and the ocean of material about him, all the while going against the tide of scholarly interpretation. One reviewer, upon considering the shifting paradigm away from the philosophical Edwards, lamented the loss of “our” Edwards, declaring the Sage of Stockbridge would never be as relevant again. Of course, this fear that the philosophical, or the literary, or the typological Edwards would be lost has not come to pass; rather, there is a more encompassing way (not a “key”––I can’t stand “key” people) to approach those “different” Edwardses.

Scholars such as Thomas A. Schafer and Wilson H. Kimnach had done some initial trail-clearing in this area, identifying and ordering Edwards’s manuscripts, many of whose contents had not been appraised since Edwards or his immediate disciples had used them. Particularly suggestive was the discovery that the “Blank Bible” functioned not only as a main repository of scripture commentary but as a hub, an index of indexes and a clearinghouse of cross-referencing, for Edwards’s entire corpus. These pioneers were followed by Stephen J. Stein and Robert Brown, who generally located Edwards within a pre-critical commentarial tradition in which he engaged the beginnings of the modern historical-critical method. And later, even as he labored on Edwards the Exegete, Professor Sweeney sicced a number of his graduate students on Edwards’ interpretation of specific biblical books or passages, an initiative that has produced some very helpful, targeted studies indeed.

From these labors, and from previous articles and essays that Professor Sweeney published as updates of sorts from the research trenches, we had a picture, though an incomplete one, of Edwards’ exegetical world. Now, thanks to this overarching study, that picture is much clearer, or, to switch similes, the puzzle has many pieces in place.

The opening section of Edwards the Exegete provides the first sustained exploration of the topic, including his understanding of (and love for) the Bible. The first sets the context: it considers the training that exegetes in Edwards’ time and place would have undergone; the languages and hermeneutics employed; particular manuscripts by Edwards in which he pursued the discipline; his interlocutors or sources (among his favorites were early modern English scholars such as Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, and Philip Doddridge, though he was surprisingly eclectic); and his notion of “spiritual understanding,” that is, that the regenerate have access to a fuller appreciation of the meanings of the biblical texts than “natural” persons.

Edwards’ notion of “spiritual understanding,” which so informed his reading of the sacred texts, sets up the remainder of the study. From previous scholarship we had an inkling that Edwards did not limit himself to the “literal” or historical sense. While he did not subscribe to the traditional medieval four senses––literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical––he did employ his own four “senses,” as the author identifies them, all some form of a “spiritual sense.” These four exegetical approaches are the canonical, the christological, the redemptive-historical, and the pedagogical, and for each Sweeney summons an example from Edwards’ writings. The canonical shows how, in opposition to contemporary challenges, the Bible for Edwards “cohered,” or how the testaments harmonized, the narratives complemented each other, and the language (allowing for different inspired authors living at different times) showed a remarkable consistency, as instanced in the figure of Melchizedek, king of Salem and “king of righteousness.” A christological exegesis identified how for Edwards the incarnation of the Logos was the hinge of all Scripture promises, prophecies, history, and types; here, Edwards’ (and the Puritans’) love of the Song of Solomon, with its erotic imagery, exemplifies the possibilities of considering Christ’s beauty and “excellence.” The redemptive-historical points to Edwards’ unifying structure of sacred time in his projected magnum opus, A History of the Work of Redemption; under this rubric falls Edwards’ interpretation of the end times, which reveals him to be an “extremely eschatological exegete.” And the pedagogical included practical religion, piety, spiritual disciplines, and the like, as seen in his view of the doctrine of justification.

By emphasizing Edwards as a “both/and” exegete who cannot be made to fit someone’s ready-made model of orthodoxy, but rather challenges historical and presentist preconceptions and even surprises us with the richness of his engagement with the Bible, Sweeney hopefully has set a wide but nonetheless firm starting point for further exploration. Knowing he could not get all of the complexities of Edwards’ biblicism in one volume, our author establishes the basic GPS bearings while beckoning down many routes for others to take. He also provides no less than a hundred and fifty pages of life-giving annotations for the journey—a distinguishing sign of a former Mark Noll student! Scholars both of Edwards and of the study of the Bible in the early modern period: you have a new guide.

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