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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Children Before God

John McNeill, Children before God: Biblical Themes in the Works of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017).

ChildrenBeforeGod_McNeillThough he serves now as the Superintendent Methodist Minister in Aberdeen, McNeill devoted more than three years to full-time children’s work in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, where he encountered what he describes as “the ripple effects” of Calvinist fundamentalism on children (p. 2). As the author tells this story, Sam Doherty and others with Child Evangelism Fellowship had persuaded many families of “a wooden, literalist, absolutist, substantialist and essentialist reading of the customary Calvinist rhetoric of total depravity, collapsing it into one whereby original sin has corrupted human nature both to the maximal extent and intent of its reach so that the heart is understood to be utterly depraved, ‘black’ in an unqualified sense” (p. 6). And according to McNeill, this left all-too-many children feeling worthless, utterly sinful, and in need of a complete divine makeover experience, in which God provided everything and they contributed nothing.

By the time he made it to Cambridge for his doctoral research, McNeill decided to reflect upon this problem theologically. Using imagery from Scripture and a short list of writings by John Calvin, Thomas Boston, and Jonathan Edwards, especially, he attempted to develop a more nurturing approach to early childhood development and growth in Christian grace.

He concluded that while Calvin himself was often misconstrued by his “fundamentalist” heirs, even sympathetic readings of his thought include the notion that children are born morally vicious, hopelessly disfigured by the ravages of sin. Edwards, on the other hand, provided a way forward. Although just as Calvinistic as most other Reformed Christians, his aesthetics, in particular, featured a “sliding-scale” of being, goodness, beauty, and integrity on which even those at the bottom have a certain amount of value (p. 153). Fallen sinners are depraved on Edwards’ sliding-scale of beauty, but their lives apart from grace are not as “black” as they can be. They are characterized, rather, by 50 shades of grey (my phrase, not McNeill’s).

McNeill’s conclusion leaves the reader with the clearest view of his struggle against Calvinist “fundamentalism” applied to the lives of children. It will remind many readers of Horace Bushnell’s approach to the issues, published in 1847 against the conversionistic Calvinism of Edwards’ own heirs—an irony worth noting in a book that uses Edwards to correct such Calvinism. “The development of children,” according to our author, “is achieved by maintaining the delicate fabric of human life and should not be disrupted any more than necessary. The divine purpose for children occurs within this life sequence, not simply in a moment when a child ‘knows’ it, but rather when it lives within it. If life is an extensity or a sequence, then the ‘gate’ for the intensity of the divine presence is in the sequence not in the instantaneous. Grace is the condition by which the child grows and moves forward, rather than something that kick-starts it instantaneously. The child experiences this grace; indeed to grow is to experience this. The goal is a security in the grace of God that the child will not be knocked off no matter the difficulty. Grace is thus intertwined with the child in who they are in a way that does not inhibit them but is conducive to their development and growth to a mature form of human flourishing” (p. 178).

I think McNeill has been unfair to Child Evangelism Fellowship, and that Edwards is not the answer to what bothers him the most. But everyone who loves and cares for children will appreciate his efforts to help them sense their worth, beauty, and potential in the providence of God.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America

Paul C. Gutjahr, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Gutjahr_OUP_Bible in AmericaThe Oxford Handbook series is a goldmine of state-of-the-art reflection on a wide array of themes studied by scholars, which will soon include a volume on the life and thought of Edwards co-edited by Oliver Crisp, Jan Stievermann, and myself.

Paul Gutjahr is the Ruth N. Halls Professor of English at Indiana University and a specialist in the history of sacred texts in America.

And Gutjahr’s Oxford Handbook treats a wide range of topics that will interest Edwards scholars. Those of special interest to readers of this blog are tackled in chapters five and six, written by Robert E. Brown and Jan Stievermann. Brown covers “The Bible in the Seventeenth Century,” laying out the background to Edwards’ exegesis. Stievermann summarizes “Biblical Interpretation in Eighteenth-Century America,” discussing Edwards in two sections—on “The Enlightenment Bible” and “The Evangelical Bible”—and reinforcing the claim made by several recent scholars (including Stievermann himself and his student, Ryan Hoselton) that Edwards’ exegesis “stands out for its theological originality and philosophical sophistication” (p. 101).

The rest of this volume treats what Gutjahr depicts “as a . . . centuries-long interpretative rope of biblical examination. Like any rope,” he writes, “this one is made of individual cords that are woven together.” The six cords he features in the book’s introduction are 1) “textual interpretation” of the Bible in America, 2) “works concerning biblical translation,” 3) “bibliographic and textual work on the Bible,” 4) “historical work on the Bible,” 5) “cultural examinations of the Bible,” and 6) “reception studies of the Bible” (pp. xix-xxx).

Many thanks to Gutjahr and company for this fascinating handbook on the study of the Bible and the power of such study in shaping United States history and religion.

Here is the book’s table of contents:

Paul C. Gutjahr

Part I: Bible Production

1. Protestant English-Language Bible Publishing and Translation
Paul C. Gutjahr

2. American Children’s Bibles
Russell W. Dalton

3. Native American Bible Translations
Linford D. Fisher

4. Bible Bindings and Formats
Seth Perry

Part II: Biblical Interpretation and Usage

5. Seventeenth-Century Biblical Interpretation
Robert E. Brown

6. Eighteenth-Century Biblical Interpretation
Jan Stievermann

7. Nineteenth-Century Biblical Interpretation
Mark Noll

8. Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Biblical Interpretation
Daniel J. Treier and Craig Hefner

9. The Bible in the Electronic Age
John B. Weaver

10. The Bible and Feminist Interpretation
Claudia Setzer

11. The Bible and American LGBT Interpretation
Teresa J. Hornsby

12. The Bible and African American Culture
Abraham Smith

13. The Bible and Creationism
Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr.

14. The King James Only Movement
Jason A. Hentschel

15. The Bible and the Sermonic Tradition
Dawn Coleman

Part III: The Bible in American History and Culture

16. The Bible and American Education
Suzanne Rosenblith and Patrick Womac

17. The Bible in American Law
Daniel L. Dreisbach

18. The Bible in American Politics
Daniel A. Morris

19. The Bible and Slavery
Emerson Powery

20. The Bible and Sports
Jeffrey Scholes

21. The Bible and the Military
Ed Waggoner

22. The Bible and the Founding of the Nation
Eran Shalev

23. The Bible in the Civil War
Paul Harvey

24. The Bible and the Religious Right
Rebecca Barrett-Fox

25. The Bible and Environmentalism
Calvin B. DeWitt

Part IV: The Bible and the Arts

26. The Bible and Art
Kristin Schwain

27. English Cinema and tThe Bible and Cinema
William D. Romanowski

28. The Bible and Literature
Shira Wolosky

29. The Bible and Graphic Novels and Comic Books
Andrew T. Coates

30. The Bible and Music
Jason C. Bivins

31. Performing the Bible
James S. Bielo

Part V: The Bible and Religious Traditions

32. The Bible and Judaism
Jonathan D. Sarna

33. The Bible and Catholicism
Donald Senior

34. The Bible and Orthodox Christians
A. G. Roeber

35. The Bible and the Mainline Denominations
Elesha Coffman

36. The Bible and Evangelicalism
John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

37. The Bible and Fundamentalism
Randall J. Stephens

38. The Bible and Pentecostalism
Michael J. McClymond

39. The Bible and Mormonism
David Holland

40. The Bible and Seventh-Day Adventists
Nicholas Miller

41. The Bible and Jehovah’s Witnesses
Michael J. Gilmour

42. The Bible and Christian Scientists
Michael W. Hamilton


Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism

Bruce Hindmarsh, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

HindmarshThis lovely new book on evangelical spirituality treats Edwards among his cohort of early evangelical leaders in the middle third of the eighteenth century. Penned by the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, it interprets evangelicalism “as a distinctive form of traditional Christian spirituality that emerged in the eighteenth century highly responsive to the conditions of the modern world” (p. 276).

What were those conditions? “Modernity, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution” as these developed side-by-side with the so-called Great Awakening in and through the fields of natural science, ethics, the arts, and, of course, religion as well (p. 270).

And what was the spirit of evangelicalism, on Hindmarsh’s account? His subjects said the Holy Spirit. They yearned deeply to experience what one of their favorite Scottish writers, Henry Scougal, liked to call “the life of God in the soul of man.” But put more generally and historically, the “spirit” of eighteenth-century evangelical religion was its subjects’ “aspiration to know the immediate presence of God” in a modernizing, naturalizing European culture “that was sharply separating nature (including human nature) and spirit” (p. 268).

The author deals with Edwards’ life and thought in several different ways, but mainly through Edwards’ stories of the work of the Holy Spirit in New England’s Great Awakening, his engagement with Newtonian thought, and his evangelical ethics (on pp. 57-68, 127-35, 226-33, respectively). Along the way, Hindmarsh paints him as an emblem of his movement, whose “entire intellectual project could, at one level, be described as an account of divine intimacy,” or the presence of the Spirit in the life and soul—indeed, in the universe–of man. In every sphere of his activity, Hindmarsh explains, “Edwards pushed against the tendency to view God as the remote, impersonal cause of things natural” (p. 132).

This assessment is spot on, and highly recommended.

Sweeney’s Booknotes—Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought

Oliver D. Crisp and Kyle C. Strobel, Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

Jonathan Edwards_Crisp&StrobelThis fine introduction to a selection of timely topics in Edwards’ philosophical theology represents the work of Crisp and Strobel well. Each of these systematic thinkers has engaged Edwards extensively in several well-known writings—Oliver Crisp most famously in Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation, which we reviewed here; Kyle Strobel most famously in Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation, which we reviewed here.

Their new, co-written book recapitulates the leading themes treated in their earlier works, engages them in relation to contemporary concerns, and offers guidance for theologians of retrieval who want to “become Edwardsean,” as they say in the book’s final chapter, improving upon Edwards in Edwards’ own critical spirit, carrying classical Calvinism into the future.

Here is the book’s table of contents:


  1. Intellectual Context
  2. God of Beauty and Glory
  3. God and Idealism
  4. God and Creation
  5. The Atonement
  6. Salvation as Participation
  7. Becoming Beautiful
  8. Becoming Edwardsean

This volume takes its place among several recent introductions to Edwards’ life and thought. McClymond and McDermott’s The Theology of Jonathan Edwards remains the most comprehensive introduction to Edwards’ thought. Finn and Kimble’s Reader’s Guide to the Major Writings of Jonathan Edwards treats Edwards for evangelicals. Stout, Minkema, and Neele’s Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia is, of course, the most encyclopedic treatment of Edwards’ work, and includes the most diverse array of scholarly contributors. But Crisp and Strobel’s book will find a ready, eager audience among constructive theologians in what McDermott calls the “British school” of Edwards scholarship (

Anglo-American, analytic, and constructive Reformed Protestants who wish to retain a classical doctrine of God and creation, retrieving concepts and arguments from the mainstream Christian tradition in the service of churchly theological work in the present, will find no better models for their work than Crisp and Strobel.