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Dissertation Note: “Typology as Rhetoric: Reading Jonathan Edwards”

Světlíková, Anna. “Typology as Rhetoric: Reading Jonathan Edwards.” PhD diss., Charles University (Prague, Czech Republic), 2012.

Jonathan Edwards’ typology has often attracted attention because it constitutes one of the unique aspects of his thought. Typology enjoyed a signal position in much of the history of Christian exegesis, but Edwards innovatively extended it beyond the interpretation of the Bible to apply it to both history and nature.

While scholars have debated the theological merits of Edwards’ typology, Anna Světlíková seeks to shake up the discussion by approaching it not from a theological or historical standpoint, but from a literary theory perspective. She claims that the current Edwards field is confined by “methodological limitations” (7), and one of the major overarching claims she posits is that the study of Edwards needs to benefit from the insight of literary theory. She offers her dissertation as a model of this literary approach. (Světlíková gave a lecture related to this topic at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on April 30, 2012, which is available on the “Media” page of our website.)

In her project Světlíková offers a rhetorical assessment of Edwards’ typology. She models her methodology on the deconstructive criticism of Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Jacques Derrida. To balance this literary method, she seeks to conduct “close readings” of the text and to contextualize Edwards’ typology in the history of typology (35).

The four chapters that form the bulk of her dissertation address the problem of language in Edwards’ typology and compare Edwards’ typology to the emblematic tradition, to the “performative” aspect of speech-act theory, and to allegory—always with a focus on the literary nature of these devices.

Central to Světlíková’s arguments are the notions of complexity, indefiniteness, and process. For example, she declines to offer a definition of Edwards’ typology, noting instead that typology exists as a range between two extremes and that she provides a treatment with “greater complexity than a simple definition could accomplish” (80). In fact, throughout her dissertation she compounds qualification upon qualification to develop a web of tension for understanding Edwards’ thought. And in some ways, the process is more important than the conclusion, as Světlíková states in her acknowledgements: “I do not think I have found some particular thing, indeed if there is something to be found it might not be a thing at all. This work, then, is not about what I have found; rather, it is a record of a part of that search” (iv).

This complexity is visible in her discussion of language. In essence, Světlíková rejects Edwards’ defense of his typology as inadequate, raising more questions than it answers. She notes that Edwards’ theory of types is grounded in his understanding of language, not just theology. But she finds Edwards’ idea of language troublingly complex and filled with tensions: she says that he thought language was referentially reliable, yet also complex; that he said typology communicated spiritual knowledge while such knowledge is incomprehensible; and that for Edwards, language has an arbitrary value to it, while at the same time it has a certainty about it when God reveals spiritual things through figures of speech. Světlíková concludes that the problem with Edwards’ typology is that instead of defining it in distinction to metaphors, he uses a metaphor to describe it. This complexity, she suggests, detracts from his typology.

In her discussion of the emblem, Světlíková argues that while Edwards may have anticipated the Romantic tradition in some points, he differed from it in several other literary ways. Particularly, while the Romantics situated the meaning of nature in the individual’s experience, Edwards situated the spiritual meaning of nature in its divinely endowed ontology. Thus, he seems to have had more in common with emblem and meditation traditions, even if they did not directly influence him.

In exploring the “performative” nature of Edwards’ typology, Světlíková claims that Edwards’ typology inevitably falls into subjectivism because the authoritative judgment of what constitutes a type lies ultimately in the individual self who “performs” the act of identifying a type. Edwards’ appeals to Scripture as the authoritative guide fail, she says, because while such appeals point to the “constative” nature of his typology, the “performative” nature cannot be denied. Still, Světlíková complicates her own analysis by saying that, in some ways, Edwards’ occasionalism and idealism imply that the self is wholly dependent on God. With the performative act of typology thus itself a type, authority may in some sense shift from self to God.

As she turns to a discussion of allegory, heavily informed by the literary theory of Michael Murrin and Paul de Man, Světlíková throws doubt on whether the discussion of Edwards’ typology as constative and performative is even the right question. In her comparisons, she argues that in one way Edwards connects more with Renaissance allegory because his types assume a divine presence, as does Renaissance allegory, while Romantic poetry assumes a divine absence. At the same time, she suggests that Edwards’ typology fails to establish a divine presence because he opens the possibility of misinterpretation or error in typology, which has more in common with the Romantic rejection of a reliable foundation.

In the end, Světlíková’s deconstructive literary approach points to the failure of Edwards’ theory of typology. She suggests that “an uncritical theological appropriation of Edwards might admire the gist of his natural typology,” but her study “points out that the typological project is inherently conflicted not because Edwards is wrong but because it cannot be otherwise, because such conflict is not even a failure of his theory but part of language itself” (206).

As a historian—and not a literary theorist—I approach this dissertation from one outside of Světlíková’s literary discipline while sharing her interest in Edwards. I appreciate that she seeks, at times, to contextualize Edwards historically. Her discussion also helpfully shows the limitations of language, which complicates Edwards’ understanding and practice of typology and raises fair questions about what it would actually look like for someone to adopt Edwards’ typology. And her comparisons of his typology with Renaissance allegory and Romantic poetry show how his theological commitments connect him more closely to the ideas of the former, while his expanded view of typology in nature foreshadows elements of Romanticism.

At the same time, a number of considerations from a historian’s viewpoint should be raised. Methodologically speaking, Světlíková does not explain how she chooses which Edwards texts to include in her study. And the lack of definition at times leaves the reader grasping for a concrete conclusion. In addition, the literary approach often sidelines the theological priorities in Edwards’ thought. For example, while Světlíková argues that Edwards’ typology falls into subjectivism, Edwards himself held theological constraints and guides for his typology, specifically reading types through the lens of God’s work of redemption. She also describes the subjectivity of Edwards’ typology by saying that while Scripture is the standard of interpretation, it is, in Edwards’ view, filled with figures and types, which undermines its authority since “typological judgment … can only be verified against more typology or figurative expressions which in turn are liable to the same problems of interpretation” (145). But this description of the Bible does not accurately reflect Edwards’ broader understanding of Scripture, his confidence that it communicates much with “the amiable simplicity of truth” (WJE 13:203), and his practice of using clear passages in Scripture to shed light on passages that were less clear (e.g., see WJE 22:101). When constrained by the analogy of Scripture and the analogy of faith, as we see from a historical and theological viewpoint, Edwards’ typology sheds much of its subjectivity.

From another angle, Světlíková takes a skeptical view of language and the ability to communicate through it. By saying that Edwards’ typology is bound to fail simply because of the nature of language, one wonders whether all communicative efforts are thus bound to fail. At best, we can recognize in such an argument the necessity of humility in discourse. But retaining a realistic optimism about the sufficiency of language gives Edwards’ typology a chance to float on its own merits.

To the larger question we must ask: how useful is literary theory for Edwards studies? In this study Světlíková raises some interesting questions about Edwards’ typology and tackles it from the unique standpoint of deconstructive literary theory. She ultimately argues that Edwards scholars need to open up their methodological approach to embrace literary theory as a way forward for interpreting Edwards. From this historian’s standpoint, though, while literary theory may have something to add to Edwards studies, it proves less helpful when it disconnects Edwards from his theology and historical setting.

~ David Barshinger, PhD