From the JEC Blog

Booknote by Kenneth Minkema: Edwards the Exegete

The TEDS Jonathan Edwards Center  does its best to provide thoughtful reviews of every new book pertinent to Jonathan Edwards studies. Reviews at the TEDS Jonathan Edwards Center are usually written by Professor Sweeney and entitled “Sweeney’s Booknotes.” As it would be odd for Professor Sweeney to review his own book and undesirable to overlook this contribution, Professor Minkema, the current General Editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards and Director of Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Center, gladly accepted an invitation to review Sweeney’s book here.

Douglas A Sweeney. Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-American Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Edwards the Exegete“The book you hold in your hands,” the author’s preface ingenuously begins, “has been a long time in the making.” Indeed, this reviewer remembers when our humble author began this project, just after the turn of the millennium, around the time of the tercentennial of Jonathan Edwards’s birth, when there was much hoopla, many gatherings and publications, assessing his significance for both American and for Christian history. But to envision a study at that time that treated Edwards as a biblical expositor, and, more centrally, his biblicism, was to anticipate, even define, a turn in Edwards Studies.

For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, scholars of Edwards had focused on him as a philosopher or as a literary figure––and rightly so, for he was important to both genres. These interpretive loci owed their origins very much to—everybody say it with me—Perry Miller, whose sway over the field it seems will never end. Miller’s leadership of the Yale edition of The Works of Edwards imposed these priorities as well, with precedence given to treatises and the philosophical and natural typology notebooks, relegating genres such as sermons and biblical commentary to lesser rungs.

But the gradual mining and publication of Edwards’ sermons, thematic theological notebooks and essays, and, yes, biblical commentary was revealing “another” Edwards, or what many thought of as an unfamiliar, alternative Edwards. And there was a lot of it, equaling or even surpassing in sheer volume the famous Stockbridge treatises. These sources—“Notes on the Apocalypse,” “Notes on Scripture,” the “Blank Bible,” and others—taken together, suggested that the center of Edwards’ mental world was the Scriptures, that he was a biblical theologian at heart, and that his varied writings sprang from, or had as a major component, his engagement with the sacred texts.

This is what Professor Sweeney intuited, but first he had to wade through the sea not of blood but of printed material by Edwards and the ocean of material about him, all the while going against the tide of scholarly interpretation. One reviewer, upon considering the shifting paradigm away from the philosophical Edwards, lamented the loss of “our” Edwards, declaring the Sage of Stockbridge would never be as relevant again. Of course, this fear that the philosophical, or the literary, or the typological Edwards would be lost has not come to pass; rather, there is a more encompassing way (not a “key”––I can’t stand “key” people) to approach those “different” Edwardses.

Scholars such as Thomas A. Schafer and Wilson H. Kimnach had done some initial trail-clearing in this area, identifying and ordering Edwards’s manuscripts, many of whose contents had not been appraised since Edwards or his immediate disciples had used them. Particularly suggestive was the discovery that the “Blank Bible” functioned not only as a main repository of scripture commentary but as a hub, an index of indexes and a clearinghouse of cross-referencing, for Edwards’s entire corpus. These pioneers were followed by Stephen J. Stein and Robert Brown, who generally located Edwards within a pre-critical commentarial tradition in which he engaged the beginnings of the modern historical-critical method. And later, even as he labored on Edwards the Exegete, Professor Sweeney sicced a number of his graduate students on Edwards’ interpretation of specific biblical books or passages, an initiative that has produced some very helpful, targeted studies indeed.

From these labors, and from previous articles and essays that Professor Sweeney published as updates of sorts from the research trenches, we had a picture, though an incomplete one, of Edwards’ exegetical world. Now, thanks to this overarching study, that picture is much clearer, or, to switch similes, the puzzle has many pieces in place.

The opening section of Edwards the Exegete provides the first sustained exploration of the topic, including his understanding of (and love for) the Bible. The first sets the context: it considers the training that exegetes in Edwards’ time and place would have undergone; the languages and hermeneutics employed; particular manuscripts by Edwards in which he pursued the discipline; his interlocutors or sources (among his favorites were early modern English scholars such as Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, and Philip Doddridge, though he was surprisingly eclectic); and his notion of “spiritual understanding,” that is, that the regenerate have access to a fuller appreciation of the meanings of the biblical texts than “natural” persons.

Edwards’ notion of “spiritual understanding,” which so informed his reading of the sacred texts, sets up the remainder of the study. From previous scholarship we had an inkling that Edwards did not limit himself to the “literal” or historical sense. While he did not subscribe to the traditional medieval four senses––literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical––he did employ his own four “senses,” as the author identifies them, all some form of a “spiritual sense.” These four exegetical approaches are the canonical, the christological, the redemptive-historical, and the pedagogical, and for each Sweeney summons an example from Edwards’ writings. The canonical shows how, in opposition to contemporary challenges, the Bible for Edwards “cohered,” or how the testaments harmonized, the narratives complemented each other, and the language (allowing for different inspired authors living at different times) showed a remarkable consistency, as instanced in the figure of Melchizedek, king of Salem and “king of righteousness.” A christological exegesis identified how for Edwards the incarnation of the Logos was the hinge of all Scripture promises, prophecies, history, and types; here, Edwards’ (and the Puritans’) love of the Song of Solomon, with its erotic imagery, exemplifies the possibilities of considering Christ’s beauty and “excellence.” The redemptive-historical points to Edwards’ unifying structure of sacred time in his projected magnum opus, A History of the Work of Redemption; under this rubric falls Edwards’ interpretation of the end times, which reveals him to be an “extremely eschatological exegete.” And the pedagogical included practical religion, piety, spiritual disciplines, and the like, as seen in his view of the doctrine of justification.

By emphasizing Edwards as a “both/and” exegete who cannot be made to fit someone’s ready-made model of orthodoxy, but rather challenges historical and presentist preconceptions and even surprises us with the richness of his engagement with the Bible, Sweeney hopefully has set a wide but nonetheless firm starting point for further exploration. Knowing he could not get all of the complexities of Edwards’ biblicism in one volume, our author establishes the basic GPS bearings while beckoning down many routes for others to take. He also provides no less than a hundred and fifty pages of life-giving annotations for the journey—a distinguishing sign of a former Mark Noll student! Scholars both of Edwards and of the study of the Bible in the early modern period: you have a new guide.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Pentecostal Outpourings

Robert Davis Smart, Michael A. G. Haykin, and Ian Hugh Clary, eds. Pentecostal Outpourings: Revival and the Reformed Tradition. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016.

pentecostal outpouringThis is a fine collection of essays by an exceptionally learned group of conservative Calvinist churchmen, working in several different countries, who are concerned to use the past to promote revival today.

The essays treat revivals in the British Isles, British North America, and the U.S.—primarily in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mostly among the Reformed (Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists more than others).

The authors seem to presume that their readers will either share or gladly tolerate an overt and rather strong Reformed interpretation of history. In the introductory words of my friend Robert Smart, the main editor of the volume, “the Reformed perspective on these extraordinary outpourings of God’s Spirit is helpful. Whereas revival has often been associated with a humanly engineered series of meetings to convert the unsaved and with a fanatical experience that has little to do with the gospel and biblical theology,” this volume “demonstrates that revival is a sovereign gift from God,” a gift that “cannot be merited” by anything we do (p. ix). Those who share this point of view will find this volume inspirational. Those who don’t will nevertheless find it full of information on the history of revival and edifying counsel on the practice of Christianity.

This snapshot of the book’s table of contents offers a glimpse of its historiographical riches:

Foreword: Steven J. Lawson

Introduction: Robert Davis Smart

Part 1: Revival in the British Isles

  1. “The Power of Heaven in the Word of Life”: Welsh Calvinistic Methodism and Revival, Eifion Evans
  1. “Melting the Ice of a Long Winter”: Revival and Irish Dissent, Ian Hugh Clary
  1. “The Lord Is Doing Great Things, and Answering Prayer Everywhere”: The Revival of the Calvinistic Baptists in the Long Eighteenth Century, Michael A. G. Haykin
  1. Revival: A Scottish Presbyterian Perspective, Iain D. Campbell

Part 2: Revival in America

  1. Edwards’s Revival Instinct and Apologetic in American Presbyterianism: Planted, Grown, and Faded, Robert Davis Smart
  1. “The Glorious Work of God”: Revival among Congregationalists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Peter Beck
  1. Baptist Revivals in America in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Tom J. Nettles
  1. Revival and the Dutch Reformed Church in Eighteenth-Century America, Joel R. Beene

A Concluding Word—A Call to Seek God for Revival Today, Robert Davis Smart

There is something here for everyone. Even experts on revivals will gain new information on the history of gospel work in parts of the Anglo-Welsh-Scottish-Celtic-American Protestant world that remain foreign to them.

But the primary audience of the book is thoughtful Calvinists for whom its subject matter is now distant, unfamiliar, even distasteful and embarrassing. The authors of its essays want to promote a greater eagerness for revival among such people. In the words, again, of Smart:

We not only confess [our] absolute dependence upon the Lord for continual outpourings of the Spirit, but we also ask you to join us in seeking God for revival today. Whether writing from the perspective of Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, Scottish or American Presbyterians, or Irish or American Reformed Particular Baptists, all the contributors of this volume would say ‘Amen!’ to English Baptist Andrew Fuller’s sermon delivered to the Northamptonshire Association of Baptists at Nottingham, England: “O brethren, let us pray much for an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon our ministers and churches, and not upon those only of our own connection and denomination, but upon ‘all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours’ (1 Cor. 1:2)” (pp. 256-57).

Though not a Calvinist, I say “Amen,” too.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: American Colonial History

Thomas S. Kidd, American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Kidd-Colonial-HistoryThis new college-level textbook by our friend, Tommy Kidd, will surely be used as a staple text for many years to come—especially, though not exclusively, in church-related schools. In roughly 300 pages, it introduces us to the leading ethnic groups, regional cultures, institutions, social practices, and events in North America (and parts of South and Mesoamerica), from the pre-conquest period (i.e. the period before Europeans conquered Native America) through the Seven Years’ War. After each of its thirteen chapters, Kidd appends 3-4 representative primary sources from the chapter’s main subjects, knitting clearly-written surveys of the worlds of those subjects to documents that transport students to those worlds.

As Kidd explains in the introduction, “two major themes organize American Colonial History: religion and conflict.” We know that often violent conflict attended the clash of disparate cultures in colonial America. But what we don’t know as well is that for most of Kidd’s subjects—Native, European, and African—“religion was not only the path of salvation in the next life, it was a primary way of making sense of what was happening to them in the present life.” So Kidd’s “hope is that readers of American Colonial History will come away with a distinct sense of how pervasive religion was in colonial America, and of the varied functions that religion served in the era, functions that were variously inspiring and appalling” (pp. xi-xii).

Edwards makes several appearances in American Colonial History, most very brief. But Kidd devotes his tenth chapter to “The Great Awakening” (pp. 206-29), in which Edwards, not surprisingly, receives more attention, especially for his roles in the revival of the churches of the Connecticut River Valley (1734-35), his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737, in which Edwards both described and interpreted that revival), and his roles in Indian missions. Most readers of this blog will not learn anything new about Edwards in this book, but they will come away with a more secure sense of Edwards’ place in colonial American history.

Many thanks to Tommy Kidd for yet another fine text.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity

Jan Stievermann, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana, Beiträge zur historischen Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016).

Stieverman-MatherThis erudite exposition of Mather’s exegesis arrives hot on the heels of Stievermann’s volume of Mather’s commentary on Proverbs-Jeremiah (i.e. hot on the heels of volume 5 of Mather’s Biblia Americana, a massive commentary on all of Protestant Scripture). In fact, “in many respects,” Stievermann writes, “this monograph . . . serves as a kind of companion piece to volume five of the [Biblia] edition. It examines in detail Mather’s annotations on the biblical books covered in volume five and discusses specific subjects and hermeneutical problems that figure prominently there. At the same time,” however, this new monograph functions as “the first interpretative synthesis and overall appraisal of Mather’s engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures” (p. 3). It pays the most attention to Mather’s commentary on the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. But it also introduces us to Mather’s life-long struggle to interpret the Old Testament in light of new learning in the field of biblical criticism—the “rocket science” of Mather’s day, in Stievermann’s estimation (p. 99).

This book makes several important scholarly contributions, overturning old canards about Mather and his work. It demonstrates, for instance, that “New England” and “America” play “a very minor role” in Mather’s biblical exegesis. “Where American contexts come into play,” Stievermann contends, “they usually do so in ways that defy stereotypical views of Mather and the Puritans.” Most other “early Americanists” have usually studied Mather in relation to later trends in American cultural history. But from Stievermann’s perspective, it is “unmistakably clear that Mather, despite his long history as a quintessentially American figure, has to be studied as a figure whose thinking was not so much inward-looking as intensely transatlantic in orientation” (pp. 91, 97).

Stievermann also demonstrates that “experiential piety” shaped Mather’s exegesis, especially Mather’s efforts to hold “erudition” and “piety” together in his work (pp. 381-411, a theme that Stievermann’s student, Ryan Hoselton, is treating in his doctoral dissertation). And he claims throughout the monograph that Mather deserves far more attention than he gets from those who study biblical scholarship in early modern Europe and its North American colonies. “Measured by the attention that is bestowed on [Jonathan] Edwards, Mather the theologian still stands as a relatively minor figure and Mather the biblical exegete remains largely unknown.” Stievermann’s scholarship, he says, “seeks to make a contribution to remedying this situation, throwing into relief Mather’s profile as a representative of a moderate Christian Enlightenment, an early evangelical intellectual in America, and a pioneer of biblical criticism in America” (p. 106).

“The title of this book, ‘Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity,’” indicates what Stievermann deems “the most important overarching themes” of his investigation of Mather and the Bible. As Mather came of age, “traditional Christian understandings of the prophetic and, more broadly the prefigurative, character of the Hebrew Bible had come under critical interrogation in unprecedented ways.” Historicism spread, eroding trust in the integrity and doctrinal coherence of the Old and New Testaments. “Biblical exegetes—and especially scholars of the Hebrew Bible—who began to debate questions such as the Jewish particularity of the Christian Old Testament, the textual history of the Pentateuch, and its scientific value as an account of the world’s beginning played no small role” in these historical developments. “In the simplest terms,” then, Stievermann seeks in this work to help us understand Mather’s method of handling these changes. Or as he puts the matter himself, “this book is about Cotton Mather’s struggle to read the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture in ways that he thought were intellectually justifiable as a highly-educated scholar and which also felt satisfying and nurturing as a devout believer” (pp. 4-6).

This is the most important book ever written on biblical scholarship in early American history. It is simply must reading for all who work on early modern Christianity.