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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Bright Shadows of Divine Things

Robert L. Boss, Bright Shadows of Divine Things: The Devotional World of Jonathan Edwards (n.p.: JESociety Press, 2017).

Boss_coverRob Boss, Director of the JESociety, is the most thoughtful and creative independent Edwards scholar at work today. All of his books are privately published and usually fall below the radar screens of mainstream academics. Nonetheless, Boss has built a large network of followers with his passion for Edwards’ writings and his knack for social media.

This most recent, little book, nicely illustrated throughout, offers extended rumination on Edwards’ natural typology (i.e. his investigation of the natural world for emblems of the divine). It is pitched as a devotional aimed at other serious Christians as well as seekers who are lovers of the beauty of the world. It uses Edwards’ famous notebook, “Images of Divine Things,” as a deep well of insight into the “nature” of reality, a nature that was made by God, Boss contends with Edwards, to reflect God’s glory and point sensitive souls to Scripture, which interprets its worldly sights and sounds in comprehensible ways.

As Boss explains his book’s message in a brief epilogue, “The Book of Nature is full of correspondences and similitudes that echo and illustrate the Book of Scripture. . . . Behind every bush and under every rock and within every tree, creature, and event is a voice of Wisdom crying out to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.” He then quotes from Edwards’ “Images of Divine Things” accordingly:

If we look on these shadows of divine things [in nature] as the voice of God, purposely, by them, teaching us these and those spiritual and divine things, . . . how agreeably and clearly it will tend to convey instruction to our minds, and to impress things on the mind, and to affect the mind. By that we may as it were hear God speaking to us. Wherever we are and whatever we are about, we may see divine things excellently represented and held forth, and it will abundantly tend to confirm the Scriptures, for there is an excellent agreement between these things and the Holy Scriptures. (p. 116)

This foretaste of the meal Boss has readied for hungry readers is enough to give you the flavor of the feast on offer. Spiritually-minded nature lovers will eat it up.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Theologies of the American Revivalists

Robert W. Caldwell III, Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

Caldwell booknoteI need to be careful here. Caldwell is one of my former doctoral students. I refereed this book in manuscript for the press, and then wrote an endorsement for it. I am one of the author’s biggest fans. But notwithstanding my bias, I can say in all honestly that this is a marvelous survey of American revival thinking from 1740 to 1840, or the time of the Great Awakening through that of the Second Great Awakening. It handles its controversial subject matter accurately, fairly, and with keen historical insight, even challenging contemporary views of conversion based on the story that it tells.

Noting that conversion experiences and narratives have long been central to evangelical identity, Caldwell contends that the theologies undergirding these phenomena are often overlooked, to the detriment of historical understanding of evangelicals and the practice of evangelism by Christians in the present. We have several good books on parts of the story Caldwell tells. But not until now have we had an expert overview of the whole–let alone one that avoids theological partisanship and contemporary denominational wrangling.

As the author of a first-rate monograph on Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of communion in the Spirit, co-author of a sourcebook on Edwards and the Trinity, and professor of church history at a Southern Baptist seminary, Caldwell is well-placed to guide readers reliably through the often-dense thickets of early American revival thought.

Here is the book’s table of contents:

Introduction
Chapter 1. Moderate Evangelical Revival Theology in the First Great Awakening
Chapter 2. First Great Awakening Alternatives: The Revival Theologies of Andrew Croswell and Jonathan Edwards
Chapter 3. Revival Theology in the New Divinity Movement
Chapter 4. Congregationalist and New School Presbyterian Revival Theology in the Second Great Awakening
Chapter 5. Methodist Revival Theology in the Second Great Awakening
Chapter 6. Revival Theologies among Early American Baptists
Chapter 7. The New Measures Revival Theology of Charles Finney
Chapter 8. Two Responses to Modern Revival Theology: Princeton Seminary and theRestoration Movement
Conclusion
Bibliography
General Index
Scripture Index

Highly recommended for historians of American evangelical religion, college and seminary classes in American church history, and readers with an interest in the doctrine of conversion.

 

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.