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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.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture

Jonathan M. Yeager. Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 256 pp. $74/£47.99.

YeagerJE&TransatlanticPrintCultureHundreds of books and articles have been published on Jonathan Edwards since the birth of the Yale Edition of his Works. Yet we still know very little about how Edwards’ varied publications actually came to print. We know little of Samuel Kneeland, Edwards’ go-to printer in Boston. We know little of Daniel Henchman, Edwards’ bookseller there (and, thus, his publisher as well). We know little of the shift to British publishers of Edwards’ works shortly after he died, the roles of Jonathan Edwards, Jr., John Erskine, and John Ryland in facilitating this shift, and thus the mechanisms by which Edwards’ writings played a major role in undergirding the rise of British evangelicalism.

In Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture, Yeager (an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who has appeared here before) addresses this deficit in a manner that will fascinate everyone interested in American social history, the history of the book, or the book trade in the eighteenth-century transatlantic world. Inspired by Richard Sher’s The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America (2006), but convinced “that much more work needed to be done on early evangelical authors” and the publishers who moved their work from manuscript to market, Yeager undertook a study of “how Edwards’s works came to print, the various people who were involved, and the role that the formation of these texts had on early evangelicalism” (pp. ix-x).

The book has five chapters: an introduction on the reception of Edwards’ writings through the end of the eighteenth century; a chapter on Samuel Kneeland and the business of printing in Boston; a chapter on Edwards’ publishers; a chapter on Edwards’ editors; and a chapter on the people who assumed these roles between the time of Edwards’ death and the end of the eighteenth century.

Yeager’s two main arguments are that “evangelicals like Edwards cared how their books appeared in print, even if they seemed more concerned about disseminating their particular beliefs than profiting from publications” (p. xv), and that “Edwards’s printers, publishers, and editors shaped the public perception of him in the way that they packaged and marketed his publications” (p. xi). This will sound like common sense to all who publish books themselves, those who work in the book trade, and those who pay as much attention to the production and the buzz surrounding books as to their contents. But, strangely, no one has made a case like this before regarding the work of Edwards himself.

This is an outstanding monograph, the best so far this year to treat the mundane realities that shaped Edwards’ life and historical significance. The author overreaches when he claims in conclusion that “the favorable reception of [Edwards’] books had just as much to do with the way that they were packaged and marketed as with the content that they represented” (p. 149). But I am glad that he has made a strong case for the importance of this packaging and marketing, and I hope that this is just the first of many more studies of the people and the businesses that shaped public perception of Edwards’ work and its legacies.

N.B. Yeager gave a public lecture at our Jonathan Edwards Center on this topic last year. Click here for the recording.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: George Whitefield: Life, Context, and Legacy

Geordan Hammond and David Ceri Jones, eds. George Whitefield: Life, Context, and Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 352 pp. $105/£65.

Whitefield300OUPThis is the most important scholarly book ever published on Whitefield (1714-1770). It derives from a major conference at Pembroke College, Oxford (Whitefield’s alma mater), “George Whitefield at 300,” held in June 2014, which featured presentations from more than 40 scholars from several different countries (the U.K., Germany, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand). The sixteen here (see the table of contents, below) are among the best of the bunch. Well-researched and up-to-date, they represent well the state of Whitefield studies, a field plowed often since the publication of Harry Stout’s book, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, in 1991.

This is certainly not an effort in hagiography. Apparently embarrassed by the largely uncritical assessments of Whitefield by Protestants before the 1990s, rather, Boyd Stanley Schlenther, in the book’s opening chapter (“Whitefield’s Personal Life and Character,” pp. 12-28), mainly catalogues Whitefield’s numerous shortcomings—a rather striking compensation for his predecessors’ sins, some would say an overreaction.

Chapter 7, entitled “Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Revival” (pp. 115-31), is the only one that treats this blog’s subject in detail. Written by Kenneth P. Minkema, it is premised on the fact that most scholarship on Whitefield and Edwards in the past “centred on Whitefield’s first visit to Edwards’s home and church in Northampton, Massachusetts, in late 1740, a visit that, while dramatic in terms of impact, left the pair at an emotional and theological distance from one another.” Minkema reviews this remarkable encounter but also covers the rest of the story of this pair, “showing that there were initial points of friction between the two—points over which Edwards, true to character, confronted his visitor. However, Whitefield’s subsequent moderation, combined with Edwards’s evolving views of the revivals, resolved the friction to a large extent. In the end,” Minkema summarizes, “Edwards’s public support of Whitefield as an instrument of God and as a fellow labourer in the revival vineyard reflected a consensus they had reached about the nature of the subjectivity of spiritual experience” (p. 115).

My other favorite chapters include the one by Beebe and Jones, “Whitefield and the ‘Celtic’ Revivals” (pp. 132-49), a subject about which I knew precious little; Boren, “Whitefield’s Voice” (pp. 167-89), which employs acoustical models to estimate the size of Whitefield’s largest outdoor crowds (concluding that he could have reached 50,000 people amid ideal conditions, and thus that contemporary estimates of 20,000-30,000 “seem acoustically reasonable,” p. 188); and Berry, “Whitefield and the Atlantic” (pp. 207-23), which focuses on Whitefield’s life and ministry at sea. (“George Whitefield spent over two of his fifty-six years of life on board ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. If one adds the days and weeks spent coasting along the British and American shores, he passed nearly three full years of his life on water, or roughly 8 per cent of his adult ministerial career.” Impressive numbers indeed. Why had no one thought to investigate this subject matter before?)

Here is the book’s table of contents:

“Introduction,” Geordan Hammond and David Ceri Jones

1. “Whitefield’s Personal Life and Character,” Boyd Stanley Schlenther
2. “Whitefield’s Conversion and Early Theological Formation,” Mark K. Olson
3. “Whitefield and the Church of England,” William Gibson
4. “Whitefield and the Enlightenment,” Frank Lambert
5. “Whitefield and Empire,” Carla Gardina Pestana
6. “Whitefield, John Wesley, and Revival Leadership,” Geordan Hammond
7. “Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Revival,” Kenneth P. Minkema
8. “Whitefield and the ‘Celtic’ Revivals,” Keith Edward Beebe and David Ceri Jones
9. “Whitefield and His Critics,” Brett C. McInelly
10. “Whitefield’s Voice,” Braxton Boren
11. “Whitefield and Literary Affect,” Emma Salgard Cunha
12. “Whitefield and the Atlantic,” Stephen R. Berry
13. “Whitefield, Georgia, and the Quest for Bethesda College,” Peter Choi
14. “Whitefield, Hymnody, and Evangelical Spirituality,” Mark A. Noll
15. “Whitefield’s Reception in England, 1770-1839,” Isabel Rivers
16. “Commemorating Whitefield in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Andrew Atherstone

Bibliography

This is must reading for students/scholars interested in Whitefield and the rise of transatlantic evangelicalism.