From the JEC Blog

Sweeney’s Booknotes: In the Beginning Was the Word

Mark A. Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) 

IntheBeginningThis book does not deal with Edwards’ use of the Bible in detail. It gives a few pages to Edwards in the context of the revivals, and refers to Edwards briefly in several other places. Nevertheless, its grand narrative regarding the role of Scripture in the public life of Christians in colonial America builds a solid frame of reference within which to make sense of the cultural significance of Edwards’ exegesis.

Board member Peter Thuesen has written an excellent review of Noll’s tome in Books & Culture.

Here, we note simply that this is the first of two volumes on the Bible in America, the second of which will take the story through the nineteenth century. Noll concentrates throughout on the life and hard times of European Christendom in the Western hemisphere–the way the Bible both supported it and, eventually, undermined it, and the role of Protestant “biblicism” in animating criticism of status quo assumptions on the part of those in power even as it undergirded some of those very same assumptions. The Bible seemed to be everywhere in American public life. It was used by the oppressed to speak divine truth to power. It was used by the powerful to keep others down. And it was used by the rank and file–sometimes naively and at other times wisely–as a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their paths.

As Noll lays out clearly near the beginning of the book, there are three “connected realities” that “propel” his metanarrative. First, “if Roman Catholics introduced the Christian Scriptures to the Americas, including areas now in the United States, Protestants, professing to follow the Bible above all other authorities, dominated this early history and dominated it overwhelmingly. . . . A primary goal of this study is to show what it meant—positively, negatively, ironically, often inadvertently—for Protestants to claim that they followed the Scripture above all other human authorities.” Second, “Protestants always differed considerably among themselves concerning how Scripture served as a guide. Was it the primary guide? The one essential guide? The crucial guide? Or the only guide? Protestants in colonial America held all of these positions, and more. Yet attempts to live by ‘the Bible alone’ . . . enjoyed greater currency in the colonies than in any part of Europe.” (Noll devotes much of his energy to highlighting the nature and implications of this biblicism.) Third, and most complexly, Western Christendom arrived with most settlers in America. “Yet because of the diversity of colonial settlements as well as the space that America opened for innovation, assumptions about Christendom eventually changed and, in some cases, drastically so. Because the Bible had always functioned as a crucial factor in those assumptions, the new-world history of Scripture and the new-world history of Christendom moved in lockstep together” (pp. 2-3).

Over the course of more than 300 wide-ranging pages, Noll demonstrates that Scripture had a rich and varied history in colonial America. It guided the daily lives of individuals, groups, and governments. “It also functioned as a rich treasury of tropes, models, types, examples, and precepts in service to principles that did not rise from its pages” (p. 339).

Indeed, Edwards was not alone in grounding his daily life in Scripture. Most others did the same. As Noll and Nathan O. Hatch chided long before today’s best graduate students were born (in The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History), “Scripture has been nearly omnipresent in the nation’s past.” Unfortunately, however, we still know little about this presence. We have acknowledged it for years. But too many have been lulled by its deceptive familiarity.

It is high time that scholars pay due heed to this real presence.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians

Oliver D. Crisp, Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015)

9780802871725Hot on the heels of The Ecumenical Edwards, noted here for its sampling of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox engagement with Edwards by constructive theologians, comes a sample of such engagement by the single most influential writer in the world using Edwards for contemporary purposes.

Most of the chapters in this volume have been published elsewhere, one in The Ecumenical Edwards. Two began as talks given here at T.E.D.S. in 2013.

But all have been refurbished for inclusion in this book. They cover a wide range of topics over the course of nine chapters:

  1. Edwards and Reformed Theology
  2. Anselm and Edwards on the Doctrine of God
  3. Edwards on the Excellence of the Trinity
  4. Arminius and Edwards on Creation
  5. Girardeau and Edwards on Free Will
  6. Edwards on Original Sin: Another Look
  7. Bellamy and Edwards on the Atonement
  8. Edwards on Preaching
  9. On the Orthodoxy of Jonathan Edwards

All nine share in common Crisp’s classically Edwardsean aim to update Edwards for our own, constructive purposes.

Crisp justifies this goal at the end of the book’s preface, using Edwards’ own theological method as a model:

There may be aspects of his project that seem to be problematic, even mistaken. But there are deep themes in his work that may provide the basis for further theological reflection today. That is the mark of a great thinker: not that he always had it right, but that he saw the important issues clearly, . . . refusing easy answers while attempting to elevate the discussion to a new level of clarity and sophistication. . . . As Edwards attempted to use the tools of early Enlightenment philosophy for a theological end, so contemporary Christian thinkers today may borrow ideas, concepts, tools, and methods from modern intellectual disciplines in order to place theology on a firmer footing in today’s intellectual climate. This need not mean the rejection of tradition in favor of theological construction. However, those wanting to imitate Edwards’s example may find themselves driven to more theological revision than they had anticipated, as new light is shed upon old truths. It may even be that in reading Edwards we will be furnished with ways of tackling longstanding theological conundrums and uncovering fresh aspects of the truth once delivered to the saints. It seems Edwards still has things to teach us today, in matters of theological method as well as doctrinal substance (pp. xviii-xx).

This is much the same posture taken by Edwards’ early followers at Andover and Yale in relation to his work. In the words of one of their essays, aired in 1838 in Yale’s Quarterly Christian Spectator, “he who will not tolerate new inquiries . . . cannot be a conservative, or one who desires to keep alive the old New England spirit.” For as explained three months later in the same scholarly journal, “the True Conservative . . ., though he often retires into the past, does not there make his dwelling-place, but lives and acts in the present. From the past, he derives instructions that are most important, and catches nobler and brighter views of the truths which never die; but these permanent principles are made each to read its appropriate lesson under the varying circumstances of present scenes, to strengthen and guide him the more efficiently to act his part in his own generation.”

More confessional theologians, then and since, have usually balked at such free-wheeling uses of the history of Christianity, preferring strict adherence to the language and the teachings of their favorite standard bearers. But Edwards’ closest kin have usually taken Crisp’s approach.

Just as few Edwardsean thinkers want to mimic Edwards’ language or repristinate his doctrine, so few will want to affirm all of Crisp’s uses of Edwards. Nonetheless, as I note on the book’s back cover,

Crisp is leading the way among constructive theologians who are engaging Jonathan Edwards as a serious interlocutor. This book showcases Crisp at his finest, never parroting Edwards’s teaching but, rather, following his model of occasional, contextual, and critical adaptation of the insights of the past in relation to the challenges we face in the present. Edwards still has much to offer even the most contemporary theologians.

This is the best place to start for readers looking for an introduction to Crisp’s view of Edwards.

Inaugural Issue of Edwardseana

The Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has posted the inaugural issue of Edwardseana. This is the first of what we hope will be an annual newsletter that will highlight important events and publications that relate to the Center’s mission and work.

Edwards the Exegete – 30% Discount

The Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is pleased to announce a discount on Edwards the Exegete, Doug Sweeney’s recent monograph on the biblical interpretation of Jonathan Edwards from Oxford University Press. Oxford has permitted the Center to offer their 30% discount to the readers of the Center’s blog. You may order here using the promotion code AAFLYG6 to save 30% at check out.