From the JEC Blog

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Biblia Americana, Volume 5: Proverbs – Jeremiah

Cotton Mather, Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary, a Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, Volume 5: Proverbs – Jeremiah, ed. Jan Stievermann (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015)

Mather Vol 5This is the most important volume of Mather’s Biblia to appear since Reiner Smolinski’s volume on Genesis. Its editor, Jan Stievermann, serves as Executive Editor of this groundbreaking project, and has published a major monograph on Mather’s exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures as well, which is hot off the press: Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity.

Those who have not yet heard of this project should be brought up to speed. This is the fourth volume published—though the fifth 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 all of the 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. With Stievermann, he leads a team of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic 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. Volume four, on Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, and the Psalms, appeared in 2014. Now this, the fifth volume, on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, moves us much further still into Mather’s erudition, demonstrating 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. As noted earlier on this website, it has already led to three important monographs by members of its editorial team: Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, Library of Religious Biography (Eerdmans, 2015); Stievermann’s monograph noted above, 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); 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).

Stievermann’s “Editor’s Introduction” (pp. 1-136) to the volume under review is remarkably erudite and exceptionally informative regarding Mather’s place in the history of early modern biblical criticism. “On the most fundamental level,” Stievermann summarizes helpfully, “the commentaries contained in this volume show 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. In Mather’s period, the traditional Christian understandings of the Hebrew Bible, including its prophetic and more broadly prefigurative character, had come under growing pressure from new forms of biblical criticism. These forms were simultaneously informed by and contributing to a rising awareness of what we today would call the historicity of the Scriptures” (p. 9).

Mather engaged these forms carefully, resisted the ones that did the most harm to Christian faith, but also revised his understanding of biblical passages in light of them to an appreciable degree. In another summative statement, Stievermann explains that “Mather belonged to a generation of scholarly theologians who were already confronted with deep-reaching historical challenges to the authority of the Bible, and the Old Testament especially. Some of the uneasy questions about authorship, genre, provenance, or the factual realism of the scriptural narratives that would later be rigorously brought to bear on the Bible as a whole, were already being formulated with regard to the Hebrew Scriptures. Mather did not shy away from these questions but engaged them as fully as his orthodox commitments allowed. Moreover, the basic legitimacy of time-honored modes of interpreting the Old Testament as prophetically, typologically or mystically prefiguring Christ and the gospel could no longer be taken for granted. Although Mather himself had not the slightest doubt about this status, he, like many other theologian-scholars of his generation, felt the need to make new apologetical arguments in support of the traditional view, and to practice the traditional modes of prefigurative interpretation with a new self-conscious attention to the historical dimension of the original texts” (pp. 12-13). Stievermann tracks Mather’s work with these developments like a native, introducing us to a long-lost world of Christian scholarship.

Here is the notice of this volume on the website of Stievermann’s Jonathan Edwards Center in Heidelberg, which includes a (handsome!) picture of the editor.

This is now essential reading for anyone interested in Mather and/or the study of the Bible in the early modern West.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Unified Operations of the Human Soul

Jeffrey C. Waddington, The Unified Operations of the Human Soul: Jonathan Edwards’s Theological Anthropology and Apologetic (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2015)

RESOURCE_TemplateThis is the published version of Waddington’s dissertation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. An
Orthodox Presbyterian minister near Philly, Waddington also serves as Secretary of the Reformed Forum, an organization that has done good work on Edwards over the years. His book concerns itself with Edwards’ theological anth
ropology and its bearing on Edwards’ work in the field of apologetics.

Waddington’s thesis is that the late John Gerstner (1914-1996) was wrong to classify Edwards as a “classical” apologist. Gerstner should have seen that Edwards’ doctrine of humanity was too Augustinian, indeed Calvinistic, to yield a “classical” defense of Christian faith.

Gerstner spoke at times about three kinds of apologists in early church history, distinguished from one another by their views of the relation between philosophy and theology. “There is the rejection of any interaction,” Waddington explains, “arguably exemplified in Tertullian. Then there is Augustine’s perspective in which philosophy serves as the handmaid of theology providing conceptual tools. Finally there is the view of Thomas Aquinas in which philosophy has its own legitimacy apart from its role as handmaiden to theology. In fact, philosophy provides the foundation upon which theology is built” (pp. 23-24). This last, Thomistic view is the so-called “classical” view.

In Waddington’s estimation, “classical” apologists are too rationalistic, too dependent on a “hierarchical faculty psychology,” too soft on the noetic consequences of the fall, and too Catholic on the relationship between nature and grace to include the likes of Edwards. The author stops short of calling Edwards a “presuppositionalist,” for eighteenth-century scholars never wore that modern label, designed as it was by Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) and his followers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Westminster Seminary, and related institutions—but he clearly thinks that Edwards would have chosen this label over “classical” if pressed.

“Edwards was not a presuppositionalist apologist born out of season,” Waddington admits in a paragraph that gives the reader a sense of his overall argument and delivery. “However, there are areas of overlap that seem to have escaped the notice of John Gerstner. It is this writer’s view that major advances have occurred in the field of apologetics since the time of Edwards. One such advance is the self-conscious nature of the discipline. It is not as if apologists from the different schools do things absolutely differently. That is surely not the case. But we are better off being sensitive to epistemological issues and how the Scriptures bear on these. Edwards may have used some classical arguments in his apologetic endeavors, but he lacks the zeal for the classical method that Gerstner himself evidenced. What’s more, Edwards does in fact show some leanings in a presuppositional direction. But that is not surprising. Inasmuch as he was a Reformed theologian he would manifest such things” (p. 227).

In his effort to create distance between Edwards and less Calvinistic “classical” apologists, Waddington paints a rather unflattering portrait of Aquinas and his ilk on philosophy and theology, reason and revelation, and, indeed, nature and grace–one in which very few late-modern Thomists would see themselves. (In a section on the history of the donum superadditum, he claims that the goal of human fellowship with God is “an optional extra” for them, and that for Edwards, by contrast, “there is no sense that fallen man can function adequately” without the gift of the Spirit [p. 75–both claims are false.]) But in the main, this is a helpful look at Christian anthropology, Christian apologetics, and Edwards’ place within them.

I highly recommend this book for Reformed Protestants and others interested in Reformed apologetics.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775

John Howard Smith, The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775 (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015)

9781611477146_bigThis important new history of the eighteenth-century revivals offers what Smith calls “a secular interpretation” of the phenomena (p. x). Or as this history teacher at Texas A&M University-Commerce claims throughout the book, this is a reinterpretation of the first Great Awakening and its role in charging American national culture with a lively current of fractious, supernaturalistic, and even mystical piety—a current that helped to catalyze the War of Independence and then characterized much of the new nation’s Christianity.

Smith contends that previous books on the eighteenth-century revivals take for granted an all-too-narrow Anglo-Protestant frame of reference. However, in Smith’s retelling, both African and Native religions contribute to their outcomes, as do a longer and more diverse cast of characters (German, Dutch, and female characters, especially).

Smith features Jonathan Edwards most clearly in chapter four, “‘A Glorious Work of God’s Infinite Power’: Jonathan Edwards and Revivalism in New England, 1734-1741.” But Edwards appears in other places in the narrative as well, looking rather more conflicted over the work of radical New Lights than traditional interpreters have made him out to be. In spite of Edwards’ “reputation for being a moderate,” says Smith, he “nevertheless endorsed some of the more radical expressions of evangelicalism. Recent reexaminations of his own written works paint a slightly different picture of him—one that does not exactly conform to the consistently even-tempered New Light found in the pages of most accounts of the Awakening” (p. 152).

Smith sensationalizes evangelical faith and fervor frequently, majoring in the most exotic tales told by Old Light opponents of the Awakening. He notes “a subsequent rash of suicides” in the wake of Joseph Hawley’s death in 1735, though we have no actual evidence of any more suicides in Edwards’ neck of the woods during that devastating year (p. 99: suicidal thoughts, yes, and one earlier attempt; suicidal deaths, no). He features Old Light claims regarding New Light eroticism, claiming that “many New Side and New Light ministers” were accused of “having fornicated with enamored female adherents and even to have fathered bastard children” (p. 163: a few accusations, yes; many accusations, no). He asserts matter-of-factly that “women in the Old Testament are little more than servants and instruments of Satan—irrational, undeserving of honor or respect, and responsible for the Fall” (p. 167: where to begin?). And he refers to the era’s evangelical Calvinism as a form of “fundamentalism” (pp. 57, 265, 296, and elsewhere: a twentieth-century label from a very different world). Maneuvers like this may attract undergraduates, but they leave such students misinformed about the past.

Though not as accurate or helpful theologically as Noll or Kidd, Smith does incorporate a broader array of contextual material than anyone. His book is not as new as he says (as attested by his excellent use of the best recent scholarship on eighteenth-century America). But it is the most comprehensive single-volume interpretation of the first Great Awakening to date.

Ron Story on Jonathan Edwards and Climate Change

Dr. Ronald Story of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (emeritus) is becoming a leading light in the field of Edwards studies. In the past few years alone, he has published two books on what he calls the “other” Edwards, the Edwards of love, social justice, and concern for those in need. (See our booknotes on these volumes: Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love and The Other Jonathan Edwards). Now, Story is using Edwards, along with Pope Francis I, to promote creation care in our twenty-first century world. Here is a recent lecture Story gave in Amherst on the subject–rather timely in the wake of the climate summit held in Paris.

Filmed at the Amherst Historical Society on September 25, 2015. Video and editing by George Naughton. Click here for the manuscript.