From the JEC Blog

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary, Volume 4: Ezra – Psalms

Cotton Mather, Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary, a Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, Volume 4: Ezra – Psalms, ed. Harry Clark Maddux (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014)

Mather-Vol4Clark Maddux’s volume of Cotton Mather’s exegetical magnum opus has now made it into print.

Those who have not yet heard of this project should be brought up to speed. This is the third volume published–though the fourth in the series–of a ten-volume edition of Mather’s most extensive work. Compiled over a span of nearly 35 years (1693-1728) on 4,583 sheets (double-columned, folio), eventually bound in six volumes, Mather’s “Biblia Americana” proved too large, until now, to attract a publisher. Nonetheless, it represents the oldest commentary on the entire Protestant canon in America.

Reiner Smolinski, who teaches at Georgia State University, has given much of his life to poring over this hidden treasure at the Massachusetts Historical Society. He leads a team of scholar-editors in Germany and the U.S. committed to realizing Mather’s dream of publishing this summa. Volume one, on Genesis, was published in 2010. Volume three, on Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, appeared in 2013. Now this, the fourth volume, on Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, and Psalms moves us further into Mather’s erudition, showing that biblical higher criticism began in North America long before the well-known inroads made by modern German scholars.

This is not a book on Edwards, but is part of the most important scholarly project on early American biblical exegesis ever attempted. Arriving as it does at a time of renewed scholarly interest in the Bible in America, this edition will spark new insights into American religious, cultural, and intellectual history. It has already led to three learned scholarly monographs by those on its editorial team: Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, Library of Religious Biography (Eerdmans, 2015); Jan Stievermann, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana, Beiträge zur historischen Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming); and Reiner Smolinski, Cotton Mather and His World: An Intellectual Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming). It has also yielded a volume of learned essays on its subject: Reiner Smolinski and Jan Stievermann, eds., Cotton Mather and Biblia Americana–America’s First Bible Commentary: Essays in Reappraisal (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

This edition is essential to those interested in Edwards’ place in American exegesis. It has enhanced and revised my own perspective on the subject.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Beauty of the Triune God

Kin Yip Louie, The Beauty of the Triune God: The Theological Aesthetics of Jonathan Edwards, Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013)


This late arrival from 2013 was conceived as a dissertation written under the supervision of David Fergusson at the University of Edinburgh. Its author now teaches at the China Graduate School of Theology in Hong Kong.

Several works on Edwards’ aesthetics have been published heretofore, most notably those by Miller, Delattre, Lee, Austin, Sherry, Mitchell, Navone, Gibson, Farley, Lane, McClymond and McDermott. However, Louie’s book provides the most careful examination of Edwards’ doctrinally Reformed understanding of beauty to date.

After a helpful introduction in which Louie explores the state of the conversation on Edwards’ aesthetics, he offers five further chapters–on Edwards’ place in the history of Western understandings of beauty (chapter two), on his metaphysics of beauty (chapter three), on his view of the beauty of God, especially within the immanent Trinity (chapter four), on his view of the beauty of Christ in the economy of redemption (chapter five), and on his eschatological vision of the beauty of heaven and hell (chapter six)–before concluding with a discussion of the historical significance of Edwards on these subjects, paying heed in particular to the American and Dutch Reformed traditions (chapter seven).

Louie’s thesis is that Edwards’ theory of beauty will not be understood properly apart from his Reformed dogmatics. Pace what many in the line of Perry Miller have suggested, “theological concern,” especially Calvinist concern, “is central to the Edwards’ aesthetics [sic]. Edwards is not constructing metaphysics for its own sake, but he is laying out aesthetics as a channel for the perception of and communion with a personal God” (p. 15).

As this thesis statement indicates, Louie’s book is full of minor typographical errors, errors of spelling, grammar, and fact, the most egregious being the misspelling of Sang Lee’s name (as “Sung Hyun Lee,” p. 10) and the description of Edwards himself as a “seventeenth-century Puritan” (on the book’s back cover–Edwards lived in the eighteenth century, after Puritanism had died). The book is also rather breezy, sailing vast and deep oceans at a fairly quick clip. Its interpretations are helpful, but most are not detailed enough to transform the way we think about their complex subjects. Louie’s main contribution is his thesis statement itself, which should lead future scholars to assess Edwards’ aesthetics in the context of his Calvinist theology.

Those looking for a survey of Edwards’ understanding of beauty in relation to the long, Western history of aesthetics will find this volume to be helpful. But those searching for a masterwork on Edwards’ theological aesthetics must keep looking or, better yet, write it themselves.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Finding God in Solitude

Donald S. Whitney, Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Its Influence on His Pastoral Ministry, American University Studies (New York: Peter Lang, 2014)

Whitney_cpi_cb_AUS dd.qxdThis first-ever survey of the whole of Edwards’ devotional life and its role in his pastoral ministry is a wonderful point of departure for those interested in studying Edwards’ spiritual pilgrimage. Its author, Donald Whitney, is Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Associate Dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His central question in this volume: “What were the private devotional practices of this internationally known religious figure from the American colonial period, and to what degree did these private practices impact the public aspects of his pastoral ministry?” (p. 1). The “aim” of his research was “to show that Jonathan Edwards was a man of sincere and intense personal piety and that there was a highly contributory relationship between his piety and the implementation of his pastoral ministry” (p. 131).

By “personal piety,” Whitney means “the habits of devotion in which Edwards’ engaged privately or with his family in the seclusion of their home, and not . . . his participation in public or congregational expressions of religion” (p. 2). Further, “piety represents devotional piety” here, “that is, the acts and habits of Christian devotion practiced in the pursuit of a deeper knowledge of an experience with God, as well as greater conformity to the internal and external example of Christ. Thus piety is not used here as a comprehensive term referring to the aggregate of a person’s beliefs and actions that are distinctly Christian, but more narrowly of [sic] those non-public practices intended to draw the heart and mind of the individual believer nearer to God and to develop authentic Christian beliefs and actions” (pp. 3-4).

This is a book, simply put, about Edwards’ private devotions and their bearing on his ministry. Those involving the Bible and prayer proved the most important to Edwards, but he engaged in many other pious practices as well.

The book includes an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction defines Whitney’s own approach to Edwards’ piety and places it in relation to both the piety of the Puritans and the history of Edwards scholarship. Chapter one, “The Life and Work of Jonathan Edwards, with Emphasis on His Piety and Pastoral Ministry,” scans Edwards’ devotional writings and behavior biographically. Chapter two, “The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards,” peers more deeply into Edwards’ theo-centric sensibility, prayer life, journaling, fasting, solitude, family worship, and so-called mystical spirituality. Chapter three, “The Pastoral Ministry of Jonathan Edwards,” discusses the ways in which Edwards’ devotional life funded his ministry. The conclusion sums things up and assesses their historical significance.

There is not much here that will be new to Edwards specialists, and Whitney might have made better use of the work of others who have written on this subject (such as Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Clark Gilpin, Richard Lovelace, Glenn Kreider, and Peter Beck). But there is a great deal here that will be helpful to those seeking an introduction to Edwards’ devotional life, or seeking inspiration to deepen their own walk with God.

In our age of rampant excess, Whitney’s treatment of Edwards and fasting might prove to be the most convicting feature of this book. Edwards’ disciple, Samuel Hopkins, said that Edwards “often kept days of fasting and prayer in secret.” And, as Whitney has reminded us, “Edwards believed that ministers, as they were to be examples to the flock, should especially feel responsible to discipline themselves to fast. He said as much in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival, when he observed, ‘I should think ministers, above all persons, ought to be much in secret prayer and fasting, and also much in praying and fasting with one another.’ In his ‘Blank Bible’ notes on Matthew 17:21, Edwards summarized succinctly, ‘fasting is a part of Christian worship’” (pp. 94-95).

How many Edwards fans today are making good on this advice?

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Fullness Received and Returned

Seng-Kong Tan, Fullness Received and Returned: Trinity and Participation in Jonathan Edwards (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014) 

9781451469325hThis excellent new book on Edwards’ Trinitarian doctrine is now the place to begin for systematic theologians interested in making sense of Edwards’ doctrines of God, the Trinity, Christology, and participation in the nature of God (2 Peter 1:4).

It began as a dissertation written under the supervision of George Hunsinger at Princeton Theological Seminary. Revised for publication in the Emerging Scholars series underwritten by Fortress Press, it has launched Tan into a most important conversation about the significance of Edwards’ doctrine of God and God’s relation to humanity and the world.

The book has seven main chapters on the doctrines it address, as well as seven appendices on related, technical issues in the history of theology (from the “Doctrine of Appropriations as Modified by the Reformed-Puritan Tradition” to “Divine Energeia in the Eastern and Western Traditions”). The chapters themselves offer well-researched and exceptionally reliable portrayals of Edwards’ doctrine and its place in the history of Christian dogmatics. The appendices are too short to do justice to the complicated issues they address. (They tend to misconstrue scholastic Lutheran doctrine, in particular.)

When read in tandem with Steven M. Studebaker and Robert W. Caldwell III, The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards: Text, Context, and Application (Ashgate, 2012), which provides much more careful textual work on the topic, Tan’s book will furnish theologians and intellectual historians a solid understanding of the doctrines it examines.

Tan now teaches at Singapore’s Biblical Graduate School of Theology. One hopes that he remains an active member of the international community of Edwards scholars.