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Archive for February, 2017

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Darkness Falls on the Land of Light

Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

WiniarskiThis finely researched project is a gold mine for students of New England church history. Its author, a professor at the University of Richmond, has provided us a volume of nearly 600 pages, which cites over 200 manuscript collections and builds upon a database of more than 1,200 church admission relations (i.e. spiritual narratives) from dozens of different towns throughout the region.

Winiarski details what he describes as a catastrophic “breakdown” of New England Congregationalism under the stress of nascent evangelicalism during the Great Awakening. His is “a tale of insurgent religious radicalism” during and after the 1740s, “an avalanche of innovative and incendiary religious beliefs and practices” inspired by George Whitefield (pp. 8-9 and passim). “The middle decades of the . . . century were the dark night of the collective New England soul,” the author claims, “as ordinary people groped toward a radically restructured religious order. The outcome of that struggle—the travail of New England Congregationalism—transformed the once-puritan churches from inclusive communities of interlocking parishes and families into exclusive networks of gifted spiritual seekers” (pp. 19-20), and transformed their homeland from a “gospel land of light” (p. 115 and passim) to a land of spiritual stridency, belligerency, and schism.

The book has five parts. Part One, “Godly Walkers” (pp. 23-130), “examines the widely shared religious vocabulary through which church membership candidates during the period between 1680 and 1740 pledged to ‘walk answerably’ to their doctrinal professions.” This was the region’s golden age, by Winiarski’s telling, one that “was tolerant, inclusive, steady, and comforting” (pp. 17-18). Part Two, “In a Flame” (pp. 131-206), describes the strategies through which evangelicals like Whitefield called the region’s Congregationalists to swap the kindly faith of New England’s “godly walkers” for a born-again fissiparousness. Part Three, “Exercised Bodies, Impulsive Bibles” (pp. 207-284), interprets the ecstatic Spirit possession purportedly promoted by Whitefield and his followers by zooming in on efforts of a Hartford magistrate, Joseph Pitkin, to discern it in a young revival convert, Martha Robinson of Boston. Part Four, “Pentecost and Protest” (pp. 285-364), shines a light on the ministries of flame-throwing evangelical preachers like James Davenport, who burned the books and vanities of less divisive Christians, dubbed their neighbors hypocrites, and split the region’s congregations. Part Five, “Travels” (pp. 365-506), narrates the demise of the old church order that resulted as schismatics put an end once-and-for-all to the golden age of Congregationalism.

The protagonists in Winiarski’s tale are not usually intellectuals like Edwards, but layfolk empowered by their preachers to act up. Still, Edwards does play an important role in the story, throwing fuel on the fires that were burning down New England (perhaps unintentionally—it’s hard to tell) by insisting in the late 1740s that his people give him testimony about the work of the Spirit in their lives before joining the Northampton church officially. Not only did this move get him sacked, the author says, by inclusive church members. It encouraged the region’s radicals to become separatists, a trend that even an evangelical like Edwards had opposed. As Winiarski avers, “the Northampton qualifications controversy signaled the beginning of the end for the churches of the Congregational standing order. . . . Edwards’s dismissal from Northampton laid bare the gaping fissures that had emerged in the gospel land of light, as ministers and lay people struggled to distinguish traditional relations and professions of doctrine from the inspired narratives of conversion” required by evangelicals (pp. 459-60).

Winiarski’s story is a bit overdramatic. There had been schismatic Protestants as long as there had been Protestants, even in New England. Further, Edwards’ closest allies stayed within the standing order (just as Edwards had commended), transforming it with Edwards’ own evangelical principles, healing most of the rifts caused by more schismatic Christians, and fighting against their churches’ disestablishment to the end (in the 1830s). Winiarski projects a far-too-unitary image of New England church history on the eve of the Awakening, and a too-chaotic view of the same religious landscape in the wake of the revivals. The land of light did change over the long eighteenth century—in part as a result of New England’s Great Awakening–but not quite as darkly and explosively as Winiarski claims.

Just when many started to worry that colonial New England had been mined for too long–and had little left to offer serious scholars of religion–Winiarski’s research has proved them wrong. This is one of the best compendia of New England social history to appear in many years. Despite my reservations regarding the book’s thesis, I recommend it highly. Students of the region will be building on its findings for decades to come.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: A Collection of Essays on Jonathan Edwards

Matthew V. Everhard and Robert L. Boss, eds., A Collection of Essays on Jonathan Edwards (Charleston, SC: JESociety Press, 2016).

Boss_EssaysThis privately published set of essays is “an experiment,” writes the Rev. Matthew Everhard at the outset of the volume. “Each of the contributors to this collection of essays has provided a unique, thoroughly researched, article pertaining to the life, times, or thought” of the sage of Northampton. And “as each writer comes from a different background and perspective—some of us are pastors, others are still students, still others professional theologians—we each have something unique to say about Edwards” (p. 1). Indeed. This project is a delight. All of its essays are well written. All are penned by ecclesially-oriented Reformed Christians (Presbyterians and Baptists). And all find something important to commend, albeit critically, regarding Edwards’ work.

A product of the innovative Jonathan Edwards Society, a brainchild of this volume’s co-editor, Robert Boss (http://www.jesociety.org/), the book is beautifully designed, replete with 19 different figures (i.e. illustrations), and features a wide range of topics in Edwards studies.

My favorites were the essays by Sarah Boss, Rob’s daughter and a recent college graduate, who contributed a lovely piece on “Edwards and Thoreau: Typologies of Lakes”; and Chris Woznicki, the son of immigrants from Poland and Guatemala, who asks a question based on the work of Robert Jenson (a well-known Lutheran theologian), “Jonathan Edwards: America’s Theologian? A Latino Evaluation of Jonathan Edwards’s Harmartiology.” Other readers will surely find different chapters to love.

Here’s the volume’s table of contents:

  1. “Introduction,” by Matthew Everhard (Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, FL)
  1. “Jonathan Edwards: A Biographical Sketch,” by J. T. Holderman (Senior Pastor of Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Gap, PA)
  1. “Edwards and Thoreau: Typologies of Lakes,” by Sarah Boss (a recent Wheaton College graduate)
  1. “Jonathan Edwards: Calvinistic Homeboy or Reformed Eccentric?,” by Matthew Everhard (see identification above)
  1. “Did Jonathan Edwards Help Inspire the Modern Missionary Movement?,” by Obbie Tyler Todd (Associate Pastor of Students at Zoar Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, LA)
  1. “Jonathan Edwards and the Silkworm: Preaching and Typology,” by Matthew Everhard (see identification above)
  1. “Jonathan Edwards and the Relationship between Habit and Practice in Christian Experience,” by David Luke (Director of Postgraduate Studies at the Irish Baptist College, County Down, Northern Ireland)
  1. “Jonathan Edwards and Ratiocination: An Eternal Journey into the Discovery of God and Truth,” by Toby K. Easley (itinerant preacher, author, and theologian)
  1. “Jonathan Edwards: America’s Theologian? A Latino Evaluation of Jonathan Edwards’s Harmartiology,” by Chris Woznicki (PhD student in systematic theology, Fuller Theological Seminary)
  1. “A Glimpse of the Brave New World of Discordant Voices into Which Jonathan Edwards Was Born,” by Jonathan S. Marko (Assistant Professor of Philosophical and Systematic Theology, Cornerstone University)
  1. “Jonathan Edwards and Caring for the Book of Nature,” by Robert Boss (sometime pastor, author, and theologian)
  1. “Jonathan Edwards through the Eyes of His Children,” by Zachary Hopkins (Pastor/Teaching Elder, Edgington Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Taylor Ridge, IL)

I share the editors’ hope “that this volume will not be alone, but will be followed by other publishing ventures that focus on Edwards, while simultaneously providing a voice to the rising generation of Edwards scholars” (p. 1). If these first fruits of their labors are a reliable indicator, such future publishing ventures will offer an edifying showcase for original work on Edwards by ecclesial theologians.

Many thanks to the members of the Jonathan Edwards Society for this promising publication.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Renewing Spiritual Perception with Jonathan Edwards

Ray S. Yeo, Renewing Spiritual Perception with Jonathan Edwards: Contemporary Philosophy and the Theological Psychology of Transforming Grace, Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology (London: Routledge, 2016).

RoutledgeYeoThis revised version of Yeo’s King’s College London thesis makes a fine contribution to our understanding of spiritual and emotional perception. Yeo, who now teaches at Prairie College in Alberta, mines Edwards on the affections and spiritual understanding, puts him in dialogue with the contemporary philosophical theologian, Robert C. Roberts (among others who have worked in the philosophy of emotions and related sub-disciplines, most importantly Nicholas Wolterstorff and William P. Alson), and develops a revision of Edwards’ thinking on these issues that is suited for the twenty-first century. Or as Yeo summarizes his agenda for the volume: “The eventual aspiration of the book is to articulate a contemporary theological psychology of spiritual perception that could help us better understand the philosophical, psychological and theological nature of transforming grace” (p. 2). His is the first full-length book to aspire to such a goal.

Yeo examines three features of Edwards’ thought on these issues: his doctrine of the infusion of grace in the regenerate; his theology of Scripture and its spiritual understanding; and his long-cherished concept of spiritual delight. Yeo assesses these features in relation to late modern conceptualizations of perception, especially through the emotions, updating Edwards’ doctrine with the help of Roberts and others in the service of his own, constructive theory of perception.

In the end, Yeo makes five revisions to Edwards’ thought: the first to Edwards’ view of converting/sanctifying grace (chapter two); the second to his notion of the infusion of grace (chapter three); the third to Edwards’ notion of the content of the Bible (chapters four and five); the fourth to his concept of spiritual delight (chapter six); and the fifth to Edwards’ view of “the nature of the underlying psychological disposition or capacity for spiritual perception and delight,” which Yeo develops into a “wisdom-like disposition . . . formed by one’s understanding of Scripture,” a virtue he calls “Christocentric wisdom” (chapter seven, but quotation taken from p. 206, in chapter eight).

Yeo’s book will not help readers of this blog gain a better understanding of Edwards’ thought, which it sometimes misconstrues in the service of Yeo’s project (as when it asserts that Edwards failed to distinguish between converting and sanctifying grace [chapter two], or taught a direct and unmediated union between divinity and humanity in the redeemed [chapter three]). But it will help them gain an appreciation for the ways in which Edwards might be used as a resource for writers on spiritual perception and emotion. It is a fascinating example of what John Webster, Oliver Crisp and many others are now calling the “theology of retrieval.”

Highly recommended for constructive, analytic, and systematic theologians and philosophers.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards’s Turn from the Classic-Reformed Tradition of Freedom of the Will

Philip John Fisk, Jonathan Edwards’s Turn from the Classic-Reformed Tradition of Freedom of the Will, New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016).

V&RFiskThis second installment in V & R’s monograph series in Jonathan Edwards studies, which is edited by the staff of the Edwards Center at Yale, has been very well researched. Written by Philip J. Fisk, a Trinity graduate and long-time Free Church missionary, it began as Fisk’s doctoral dissertation for the Evangelical Theological Faculty (ETF) in Leuven, Belgium, where Fisk now teaches. Supervised by Anton Vos and Andreas J. Beck, it exhibits all the hallmarks of their neo-Calvinist rehabilitation of the Scotist line of Reformed thought on freedom, which is summarized well in a book by that name from the late Willem van Asselt and his colleagues in the Netherlands, whom the Leuven scholars follow (https://www.amazon.com/Reformed-Thought-Freedom-Reformation-Post-Reformation/dp/080103521X).

Put briefly, the Scotist line of Reformed thinkers on freedom held a less deterministic way of thinking about volition than that caricatured as “Calvinist” by Socinian, Arminian, and Roman Catholic foes. They allowed for what John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) and his heirs claimed was genuine contingency in human moral action. Using Latinate Aristotelian tools they inherited from medieval scholastic sources, they contended for a strong doctrine of predestination, a robust approach to the sovereignty of God over all of human history, and the freedom of the will via concepts like “concurrence” (of divine and human willing, the latter being truly free but depending on divine cooperation for existence) and what they called “synchronic contingency” (real power one has in the moment of volition to do other than what one chooses, even if/though one’s choice has been predestined by God). To their critics, these doctrines seemed logically inconsistent. But to Fisk’s scholastic Calvinists, they offered a way of eating one’s cake and having it too–of maintaining an apparently high view of God’s providence with a seemingly strong commitment to real freedom and contingency.

The burden of Fisk’s book is to show that Edwards abandoned such scholastic tools of art and thus turned from “the classic-Reformed tradition” on freedom. Or in Fisk’s own words, “our conclusion is that Edwards totally transformed the Reformed tradition from within the tradition, and as such, deviates from it” (p. 418). Edwards claimed to argue for the freedom of the will. But he actually undermined it by denying any contingency in human moral action, and became a rank determinist.

Fisk develops this claim in a two-fold manner. Part One of his book treats “The Harvard and Yale Curricula on Freedom of Will” (pp. 67-231), in which Fisk sketches the history of commencement theses at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as well on the freedom of the will up to the time when Edwards published his own Freedom of the Will (1754); the work of the Dutch scholastic thinker, Adriaan Heereboord, on the freedom of the will, which was studied at the colleges; and the work of the Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard Presbyterian, Charles Morton, on the will, which was based on Heereboord and Fisk suggests Edwards may have studied in college. Part Two treats “The Position of Jonathan Edwards on Freedom of Will” (pp. 233-408), in which Fisk measures Edwards and his work with other scholars on the freedom of the will (especially Daniel Whitby, an Anglican Arminian) against the gold standard of Reformed Scotists like Heereboord—and finds Edwards wanting.

Inasmuch as Fisk’s Scotist interpretation of what he calls “the main Christian line of thought” as well as “the classic-Reformed line” of thought on the will (pp. 108, 231 and passim) has sparked a bit of controversy, his interpretation of Edwards will prove controversial too. All should grant that Fisk’s scholastics avoided sheer determinism, but many (like me) will argue that Edwards did so too and, in the end, proved no more deterministic than most of his Reformed predecessors. He did leave behind much of the Aristotelian framework for interpreting volition, and thus defended human freedom in a rather different manner than scholastics such as Heereboord. But he did so in order to defend traditional Calvinism from critics who deemed it too deterministic. By Edwards’ day, critics saw through what they claimed was the verbal smoke and mirrors of the Scotists on freedom, and thus Edwards felt obliged to adopt a new approach–one that was more transparent about Calvinist views of God’s sovereign rule over history, and more forthright in its argument for human natural freedom (freedom to do whatever one pleases) in the midst of moral necessity (one always/necessarily wills to choose that to which one is most inclined when choosing). He ended up teaching something very much like the older Calvinistic doctrine, in spite of his modern framework for interpreting the issues: that God has predestined all the things that matter most in the history of the world, but that humans also choose freely everything they do (except in cases of natural/physical compulsion, in which we are not morally culpable for our actions). No matter which philosophical frame of reference he employed, none of the early modern Calvinists taught a view of human freedom that passed muster with their much more libertarian critics.

In the preface to the first edition of Edwards’ Original Sin (1758), the Rev. Samuel Finley (who became Princeton’s president three years after Edwards died) referred to Edwards’ earlier book on the Freedom of the Will (1754) as a volume “that has procured him the Elogy of eminent Divines abroad. Several Professors of Divinity in the Dutch Universities,” Finley specified, “very lately sent him their Thanks, for the Assistance he had given them in their Inquiry into some controverted Points; having carried his own further than any Author they had ever seen” (p. ix). The reception of Edwards’ writings on the freedom of the will has clearly changed since then in the Low Countries!

This book is highly recommended. Careful readers have now seen that it will prove most useful to philosophical theologians, and most interesting to Calvinists seeking the best ways to defend their faith from charges of determinism. But all serious students of early modern Western thought need to come to terms with its contents. And students of Edwards’ thought will want to noodle on its argument regarding Edwards’ place in the history of Calvinism.

For more on the issues handled masterfully by Fisk, consult the debate conducted through the following lectures from Richard Muller and Paul Helm hosted here at the Center.