From the JEC Blog

Dissertation Notes: “Jonathan Edwards’s Application of Theological Method to His Doctrine of Assurance in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.”

Eric J. Lehner. “Jonathan Edwards’s Application of Theological Method to His Doctrine of Assurance in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections” Ph.D. diss., Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, PA, 2012.

Eric J. Lehner’s dissertation offers a discussion of Edwards’s theological method in conjunction with his doctrine of assurance in Religious Affections. Lehner is Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Virginia Beach Theological Seminary.

He writes to show how Scripture is the most important source and influence on Edwards generally, but more specifically, he labors to show that there is a matrix of sources involved in the execution of Edwards’s method including philosophy, history, and Scripture. He seeks to redress what he considers a problem in scholarship on Edwards which has under-emphasized the role of Scripture in Edwards’s thought and the lack of virtually any work on his theological method.

He argues that Edwards is best understood through a “matrix of informing sources, with Scripture as the primary and governing source” (14). This thesis challenges the idea that Edwards’s thought was mostly explained by the rise of Enlightenment thought. He also rejects the notion that Edwards’s thought can be explained by or reduced to a single central motif. He argues that we ought see a number of motifs coming together in Edwards’s thought. He concludes, “An examination of Edwards’s use of philosophical, historical, and biblical sources demonstrates conclusively that Edwards’s theology is not governed by metaphysical or epistemological categories, as some argue, but by biblical data” (iv).

In situating his study, he attempts to adopt the merits of both the “Yale school” approach to Edwards as well as the approach exemplified by Ian Murray. The former, founded by Perry Miller, took a strictly academic and secular approach to the study of Jonathan Edwards. Murray and other evangelical Christian historians and theologians have been willing to allow their theological convictions to color their assessment of Edwards.

Lehner’s study is a welcome contribution that makes substantial inroads into the study of Edward’s theological method and the use of the Bible. Scholars who specialize in Edwards ought to be interested in Lehner’s work as well theologians who have interests in theological method or the doctrine of assurance. He demonstrates a well informed awareness of the field of secondary literature though he may be a little too dependent upon Perry Miller at points. He could have made use of some more recent secondary literature on New England Puritanism. Overall, highly recommended for specialists.

Miscellanies: Jonathan Edwards, Father

Jonathan Edwards, the theologian, the philosopher, the pastor, the revivalist, have all been well covered ground in Edwards literature. What has been less frequently discussed has been Edwards as a father. As it turns out, despite Edwards’s nearly lifelong commitment to pastoral ministry and to a larger role as the defender of evangelical reformed orthodoxy in America, he was also a devoted father.

A perusal of the letters sent to his children offers evidence of a strong concern for the wellbeing of his children, especially their spiritual well being. For example, in a letter to his daughter Esther who was struggling with health challenges we read this sentence.

As to means for your health, we have procured one rattlesnake, which is all we could get.

In the very same letter, we also read his spiritual concern for her.

Labor while you live, to serve God and do what good you can, and endeavor to improve every dispensation to God’s glory and your own spiritual good, and be content to do and bear all that God calls you to in this wilderness, and never expect to find this world anything better than a wilderness.

One of the remarkable themes that emerges from this collection is death. Edwards, like the New England Puritans, was not shy of discussing the reality of death with his children, and even used the subject as a means of giving spiritual instruction to his children. In a letter to Jonathan Edwards Jr, he wrote the following.

The week before last, on Thursday, David died; whom you knew and used to play with, and who used to live at our house. His soul is gone into the eternal world. Whether he was prepared for death, we don’t know. This is a loud call of God to you to prepare for death. You see that they that are young die, as well as those that are old: David was not very much older than you. Remember what Christ has said, that you must be born again, or you never can see the kingdom of God. Never give yourself any rest, unless you have good evidence that you are converted and become a new creature. We hope that God will preserve your life and health, and return you to Stockbridge again in safety; but always remember that life is uncertain: you know not how soon you must die, and therefore had need to be always ready.

You can read them for yourself.

A3. Letter to Timothy Edwards, July 24, 1719 (Edwards’s father)

A6 .Letter to Timothy Edwards, March 1, 1721 Jonathan Edwards (Edwards’s father)

A137. Letter to Timothy Edwards, January 27, 1752 Jonathan Edwards (Edwards’s father)

174. TO TIMOTHY EDWARDS (Edwards’s son)

204. TO JONATHAN EDWARDS, JR.

A220. Letter to Timothy Edwards (Son), November 4, 1756 Jonathan Edwards

A166. Letter to Timothy Edwards (Son), April 1, 1753 Jonathan Edwards

220. TO TIMOTHY EDWARDS (Edwards’s son)

165. TO ESTHER EDWARDS BURR

99. TO MARY EDWARDS

33. TO SARAH EDWARDS (Edwards’s daughter)

A71. Letter to Esther Edwards, November 3, 1746 Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan and Sarah Edwards’s Children: Sarah, Jerusha, Esther, Mary, Lucy, Timothy, Sussanah, Eunice, Jonathan, Elizabeth, Pierrepont, (12th died in infancy)

Miscellanies: New England Theology of Grace

The dilemma is this:—eternal justice either requires that every penitent be pardoned in consequence of his repentance merely, or it does not. If it do require this, it follows, that pardon is an act of justice and not of grace: therefore let the Socinians be forever silent on this head.

Jonathan Edwards Jr., Necessity of Atonement

J Edwards JrJonathan Edwards Jr., pastor, college president, and New Divinity theologian was no mere metaphysical moralist. He labored to defend a gospel of grace against genuine threats such as the denials of the Trinity, Christ’s divinity, the necessity of Christ’s atoning work. He preached to subvert these attacks upon Christianity at the dawn of a new republic and in response to Arminianism (universalists, unitarians, and deists). He cites Joseph Priestley specifically and his Corruptions of Christianity in this 1785 sermon preached to the ministers gathered for an annual convention of ministers in New Haven. This sermon and two others he preached that week stand as a monument to the rise of the calvinistic moral government theory developed by the New Divinity, the followers of Jonathan Edwards. As indicated in the quotation above, Edwards was convinced that repentance had no effect upon God’s act of pardon toward the sinner. He argued that God’s pardon is pure grace, and yet he did not adopt penal substitution.

The followers of Jonathan Edwards Sr. have often fallen victim to Joseph Haroutunian’s thesis that they were a group of misfit theologians who failed to capture a picture of the God worth remembering. These theologians adapted their theology to the polemic needs of the day and in doing so ceded far too much territory to their opponents. Or at least that’s how theologians like Jonathan Edwards Jr. are often portrayed.

It’s easy to criticize when you are divorced temporally, culturally, and geographically from a situation. Too often evangelicals are ready to dismiss the New England theologians on the basis of historiography that does not possess any evangelical gospel concerns. For the most part, the historiography concerning the New Divinity and the New England theology has been shaped by scholars operating by secular methods. Some of these scholars have been Christians, even evangelicals, but they have arguably operated as historians who have little time for gospel concerns when assessing the New Divinity. To be sure, some of the same Christian historians in other contexts allow their Christian commitment to shine through. It is vital that we work together to hone our skills in integrating a Christian worldview with rigorous historical methods. It’s not enough for Christian scholars to love Christ and then write history as if their is no Christ. Should we cede our understandings of the significance of Augustine or Luther to purely secular scholarship? Of course, we will benefit a great deal from all streams of rigorous historical endeavor, but we cannot, in the end, hand over the authority to make a final assessment to those who deny our most cherished truths.

What does this say about the state of evangelicalism? Have we, in the case of the New Divinity, dismissed the labors of Christians who defended a gospel of grace against the challenge of the rationalistic critics of Christianity.Piety V. Moralism Cover Remember that many of these critics did not merely strike a blow at Calvinism, but at the whole of the Christian tradition, that is anyone who would agree with the Council of Nicaea. Edwards, like his more famous father, was not merely a polemicist who was defending his own version of Calvinism. He was speaking for all who believed in a divine Christ and a gospel of grace rather than works. Less like his father, Edwards spoke to citizens of a new nation who were not nearly as interested in listening to preachers as the colonists of the previous century. While few evangelicals today would agree with his moral government model of the atonement, all ought to benefit from the way he responded to a clear and present danger to gospel Christianity in America. While his response included erudite argumentation, at root, his argument defended a gospel of grace, which I hope every Christian can appreciate.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards’s Bible

Stephen R. C. Nichols, Jonathan Edwards’s Bible: The Relationship of the Old and New Testaments (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013)

When explaining to the trustees of the College of New Jersey why he was loathe to take their presidency, Edwards expressed concern about some unfinished writing projects, telling friends in New Jersey that the running of a college “will not well consist, with those views, and that course of employ in my study, which have long engaged, and swallowed up my mind, and been the chief entertainment and delight of my life.”

One of those unfinished projects was what Edwards called The Harmony of the Old and New Testament:

The first [part] considering the prophecies of the Messiah, his redemption and kingdom; the evidences of their references to the Messiah, etc. comparing them all one with another, demonstrating their agreement and true scope and sense; also considering all the various particulars wherein these prophecies have their exact fulfillment; showing the universal, precise, and admirable correspondence between predictions and events. The second part: considering the types of the Old Testament, showing the evidence of their being intended as representations of the great things of the gospel of Christ: and the agreement of the type with the antitype. The third and great [largest] part, considering the harmony of the Old and New Testament, as to doctrine and precept.

Edwards hoped that this work would offer “occasion for an explanation of a very great part of the holy Scripture . . . in a method, which to me seems the most entertaining and profitable, best tending to lead the mind to a view of the true spirit, design, life and soul of the Scriptures, as well as to their proper use and improvement.”

He drafted hundreds of manuscript pages for inclusion in this book. For part one, on biblical prophecy, he penned four entries in his “Miscellanies” notebooks, all treating what he labeled either “Prophecies of the Messiah” (mainly in the Old Testament) or “Fulfillment of the Prophecies of the Messiah” (in the New). Two of these entries proved so large that they consumed a whole book. For part two, on the wealth of biblical types of the Messiah, Edwards drafted another entry in a “Miscellanies” notebook: “That the Things of the Old Testament Are Types of Things Appertaining to the Messiah and His Kingdom and Salvation, Made Manifest from the Old Testament Itself.” In published form, this entry exceeds a hundred pages in length. Edwards wrote it in addition to his “Images of Divine Things” and “Types” manuscripts. For part three, on the theological harmony of Scripture, Edwards kept a separate notebook on “The Harmony of the Genius, Spirit, Doctrines, & Rules of the Old Testament & the New.” Most of this book is ordered canonically (he made it through the Psalms). Several entries appear topically. All attest to his interest in the doctrinal integrity, or “harmony,” of Scripture.

Back in 1996, Ken Minkema of Yale published the first critical history of this project in chapter four of Stephen J. Stein, ed., Jonathan Edwards’s Writings: Text, Context, Interpretation (Indiana University Press). But not until now has anyone written a book-length treatment of Edwards’ Harmony of the Old and New Testament.

Nichols’ volume entered the world as a doctoral dissertation written with Oliver Crisp at the University of Bristol. (Crisp has written a foreword to this slightly revised, published version of Nichols’ dissertation. N.B. The present Stephen Nichols is ordained in the Church of England and is not to be confused with the Stephen J. Nichols who writes on Edwards from his perch at Lancaster Bible College.) Shortly after Nichols defended it in dissertation form, Trinity’s own David Barshinger reviewed it on this blog.

It is a fine piece of scholarship on Edwards’ exegesis and canonical manner of featuring the harmonies of Scripture. In four short chapters, ordered according to Edwards’ three-part outline for the project, Nichols walks us through the notes Edwards drafted for the Harmony.  Chapter one treats Edwards’ view of biblical prophecy and fulfillment. Chapter two explores his typology in canonical perspective. Chapter three explains Edwards’ view of Scripture’s doctrinal harmony. Chapter four offers a “Case Study: A Harmony in Soteriology,” which “challenges the current ‘dispositional’ account of Edwards’s soteriology and argues instead that Edwards holds there to be one object of saving faith in Old and New Testaments, namely Christ” (p. xiii).

Nichols sees difficulties in Edwards’ “pre-critical” exegesis, but concludes that “there is value in its very strangeness.” Referring to John Webster’s view that “theologies of retrieval are valuable precisely because they ‘de-centre’ the accepted norms of critical judgment by trying to stand with the Christian past,” Nichols asserts that Edwards’ canonical way of handling the Bible can teach us a thing or two today (p. 195).

I am thrilled that Edwards’ biblical work is getting due attention. This book is must reading for serious Edwards scholars.