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Booknote by Chris Chun: Jonathan Edwards and Scripture

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 Chun, the current Director of Gateway Seminary’s Jonathan Edwards Center, gladly accepted an invitation to review Sweeney’s book here.

David P. Barshinger and Douglas A. Sweeney eds., Jonathan Edwards and Scripture: Biblical Exegesis in British North America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Featured ResourceIt seems as if almost every conceivable topic has been studied, analyzed, and written about in Jonathan Edwards studies; the sheer number of titles is far-reaching, as there are more than can be read in a lifetime. Simply perusing M. X. Lesser’s annotated bibliography, Reading Jonathan Edwards (Eerdmans, 2008), might be a discouraging experience for research students. Attempting to make an original contribution in the field of Edwardsean scholarship is an intimidating task. This is why Jonathan Edwards and Scripture: Biblical Exegesis in British North America, coedited by David Bashinger and Douglas Sweeney, is such a landmark endeavor exposing a glaring lacuna. The prominence of the Bible in Edwards’s thought is a secret to no one. Yet as Barshinger, the author of the monograph Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms (OUP, 2014), correctly points out, it has “rarely received the attention it deserves” (1). Likewise, Sweeney, who recently released Edwards the Exegete (OUP, 2016), notes that the collected essays in this volume “represent the tip of an iceberg” (250), which could be encouraging news for research students. This new release answers “resounding calls for more attention to Edwards’s work on the Bible by offering a sustained reflection on his exegesis” (8).

The coeditors of this collected work accomplished this task by assembling one of the most impressive groups of academicians in recent memory. I commend Oxford University Press for publishing this excellent compilation. Most of its 16 contributors are either already published authors with Oxford University Press or Yale University Press, if not both, and in some cases have produced numerous titles with these distinguished academic publishers. The coeditors of this volume have been successful in enlisting a group of first-tier scholars with impeccable credentials that bring authority to this volume. If the aura of authority was what was meant to be established, the coeditors were enormously successful. Although appropriate academic credentials alone do not necessarily guarantee high quality, in this case every chapter makes a stellar contribution – an exceptional achievement in a multi-authored volume. This work, therefore, succeeds in presenting the current scholarly interests of Jonathan Edwards as an exegete.

Kenneth Minkema portrays Edwards as an “energetic self-organizer” who meticulously categorized his reading lists, the subjects of inquiry notebooks, and a biblical index (15). Minkema brings out a fascinating and novel account of Edwards poring over “the sacred texts to find new ways to coax answers out of the familiar narratives” (18).  Minkema shows how Edwards over his lifetime shifted his methods of studying and applying scripture both in his published as well as unpublished writings. Similarly, Stephen R. C. Nichols, not to be confused with Stephen J. Nichols, contributes a chapter on the theological hermeneutics of America’s premier theologian. If a research student wishes to get a glimpse of what academic documentation ought to be, Adriaan Neele’s essay on biblical commentary offers a commendable model, especially in its footnotes. Neele’s comparison of early modern commentators such as Matthew Poole and Mathew Henry and Edwards is telling. Thanks in part to the recent publication of Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana –  Mather, of course, being chief among the early-modern American biblical commentators – insights abound throughout many of these essays into biblical exegesis in early America in general.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Jan Stievermann, and Ryan Hoselton highlight the spiritual and affective theology of Edwards. They underscore how experiential piety impacted Edwards’s exegesis. Edwards expressed what Hambrick-Stowe calls “kindred spirituality,” akin to Moravian leaders such as Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (80) and in the line of the American pietistic tradition of Cotton Mather (96). Stievermann and Hoselton argue that while Edwards was traditional in his defense of the “absolute authority” of scripture, he, much like Mather, displayed a strong awareness of historical dimensions of the text and wrestled with a historical-critical paradigm. Edwards’s experiential model verified that the Spirit was active, thereby enlightening minds and hearts about the Word of God (104).

This naturally leads one to wonder whether Edwards was an evangelical. Gerald McDermott’s answer is that “it depends on what the word means.” If “evangelical” implies that “one’s private interpretation of Scripture [is] final,” then McDermott says Edwards was not an evangelical. He was evangelical, though, in the sense that his theology was grounded in a “traditional way” of interpreting Scripture (248). Be that as it may, according to Stephen Stein, editor of three volumes of Yale’s critical edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards that deal with Edwards and scripture (Apocalyptic Writings, volume 5, Notes on Scripture, volume 15, and The “Blank Bible, volume 24), while Edwards espoused a critical view of the Roman Catholic understanding of the Virgin Mary, he yet articulated a “high regard for her role in the life of Christ and salvation history” (185).

This collected work also carries a couple of graphic representations of data. David Kling’s chapter offers a helpful table charting Edwards’s “conversion usage” in the pulpit by correlating the years when Edwards preached with the corresponding number of sermons treating the theme of conversion (224). Kling compares Edwards’s sermons with John the Baptist’s ministry, “preparing the way of the Lord.” Kling sees Edwards’s preaching during the Great Awakening as preparing the way for the coming of the great itinerant evangelist, George Whitefield, and the spiritual harvest that followed, as hundreds were converted in the Connecticut River Valley (231). Similarly, James Byrd, who has previously contributed a substantial amount of work on the use of scripture in the American revolutionary war, also provides a table that illustrates “Most-Cited Biblical Chapters on War” (209). He uses this evidence to assert that Edwards was indeed in line with many other New England ministers who were connecting “spiritual and military warfare” (210).

One of the unique features of Jonathan Edwards and Scripture is the interaction between the disciplines of biblical studies and the history of Christian thought, which is unconventional in Edwards studies today. This publication, therefore, turns fresh ground and is poised to set a new trend. For instance, Mark Noll tackles the scriptural passages regarding Jacob’s Wrestling in Genesis 32:22-32, and compares and contrasts Edwards with other well-known commentators and hymn writers of his day, such as Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, Cotton Mather, August Hermann Francke, and Charles Wesley. Moreover, Ava Chamberlain grabs attention at the beginning of her chapter on Jonah’s whale with reference to Moby Dick. How often do you see these words together: Jonah’s whale, Moby Dick, and Jonathan Edwards? Chamberlain’s comparison of Mather’s and Edwards’s treatments of the sign of Jonah, as well as its implications for “critical historical methodology” in defense of their traditional faith, is a fascinating account (155-161). She asserts that “whereas Mather deftly employed his scientific learning to support the historicity of the Bible, Edwards was less preoccupied with demonstrating the literal truth of the text” (162). Robert Brown, whom Mark Noll calls “path-breaking” (108) in this significant but neglected field, also opens uncharted terrain by exploring Edwards’s interaction with the French Catholic clerical establishment, including Richard Simon and Louis Ellie Du Pin (136). Brown argues that as Edwards wrestled with problems often associated with Mosaic authorship in the Pentateuch, he shared the “early modern assumption” of Du Pin, yet was more than just a “consumer of European ideas.” Brown observes that Edwards’s commentary reveals the “complex and nuanced nature of early American biblical interpretation” (143). Michael McClymond’s interdisciplinary essay deals with Johannine themes in Edwards. McClymond’s engagements with contemporary Johannine scholars like the late Leon Morris, Craig Keener, and most notably Richard Bauckham, points to a posthumous legacy of Edwards on the gospel of John, making it a unique contribution.

Should there be any criticism of this splendid new release, at the risk of sounding overly politically correct, I notice that all contributors are either from the United States or Europe. I think this volume could have benefited from having at least one contributor from the majority world. However, there have been important recent discussions concerning Jonathan Edwards and the future of global or world Christianity. I am not advocating for racial diversity in this review (as valuable as that may be) as much as attesting to the fact that because the non-western world did not experience the Protestant Reformation and the enlightenment in a way that the West did, scholarly insights from Africa, Asia, and Latin America perhaps could yield a different take (not right or wrong per se) on early-modern, western hermeneutics in general and Edwards’s exegesis in particular. That said, I understand that as the subtitle indicates, this book is primarily about Europe and America, thus selecting scholars from those regions makes sense.

Kudos to Barshinger and Sweeney. As coeditors, they have done a tremendous service in advancing Edwards studies by showcasing the need for this important but mostly neglected scholarly topic. Furthermore, these essays collectively have successfully demonstrated the cutting edge and growing interests of leading Edwards scholars. This publication is the amalgam of the history of Christian thought, history of biblical interpretation, and biblical studies – all pleasing occurrences at a very reasonable price! In the final analysis, I believe this groundbreaking collection of essays will benefit researchers, graduate students, and anyone who might be interested in the role biblical interpretation played in the early-modern evangelical movement.

 

Chris Chun

Director of Jonathan Edwards Center at Gateway Seminary

Ontario, California

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards on Prayer

bookBrian G. Najapfour, Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of & Devotion to Prayer (Caledonia, MI: Biblical Spirituality Press, 2013).

This booklet featuring Edwards’ best-known statements on Christian prayer will surely be cherished by many Reformed evangelicals. It is published by the author’s own ministry in Michigan. A Philippino native, Najapfour came to the United States in 2006 for graduate work at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is currently the pastor of United Reformed Church in Caledonia, MI, an avid blogger (biblicalspirituality.wordpress.com) and spiritual writer.

This work has five brief chapters on Edwards’ view and practice of prayer; an annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources on Edwards and prayer; an appendix of excerpts from Edwards’ correspondence on prayer (which also includes a snippet on prayer from Edwards’ eulogy for the short-lived missionary, David Brainerd); another appendix on the prayerful friendship of Edwards’ daughter Esther Edwards Burr and Sarah Prince; and a concluding prayer by Trevin Wax (another avid blogger and spiritual writer) adapted from many of Edwards’ famous “Resolutions.”

Those who want a comprehensive treatment of Edwards’ approach to prayer should consult Peter Beck, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards’s Theology of Prayer (Joshua Press, 2010). But Christians looking for a brief, inspiring booklet on the subject can do no better than this work by Pastor Najapfour.

Sweeney’s BookNotes: Grigg on Brainerd

John A. Grigg, The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon, Religion in America Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

We all know something of the legend of David Brainerd, but few of us know much about the man. This new book by John Grigg is better than anything before it on the life and work of Brainerd, and on the real history of his legendary influence on evangelicalism and modern missions.

It begins with two complaints: “First, Brainerd’s life is often irrevocably bifurcated between events that precede [his] expulsion [from Yale College] and those that follow it, and second, he is understood only within the context either of the Great Awakening or of Indian missions. Because of this, the bulk of his life, the first twenty years or so, is erased, effectively cutting Brainerd loose from the culture in which he grew up. Any sense of continuity, of heritage, disappears and Brainerd becomes a fragmented abstraction, an example of discrete aspects of colonial America.”

Grigg succeeds at situating Brainerd back in his own culture, reintegrating our view of his person and work. For anyone interested in understanding Brainerd and his world, the lives of Brainerd by Edwards and Wesley, or the uses to which those lives have been put by modern evangelicals, this book is a must read.

–Composed by Douglas Sweeney, Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School