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Sweeney’s Booknotes—Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology

Adriaan C. Neele, Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

BeforeJonathanEdwardsThe title of this book is a riff on the title of a book that Oliver Crisp and I published with the same press seven years ago, After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology. Its author, Adriaan Neele, is a long-time friend and colleague, one whose labors for the Edwards Center at Yale gave birth to the Edwards Center here (and the rest of the Edwards Centers outside New Haven).

Neele’s premise is a good one: we cannot understand the historical significance of the “courses” of Edwardsean theology after Edwards—at least not sufficiently—without understanding their “sources” in the “trajectories” of Reformed scholastic thought. Neele’s work, then, examines these Calvinist “trajectories,” their roots in older forms of scholastic theology, and their bearing on the work of the sage of Northampton.

Inasmuch as Edwards never wrote a comprehensive synthesis, Neele notes further, reading him “is like listening to an unfinished symphony.” But by reading him together “with the complete ‘symphonies’ of post-Reformation systematic theology . . . one may hear a more extended composition of European continental thought resonating in Edwards’ work” (pp. viii-ix).

The Edwards who emerges from this study of his forebears in Reformed Orthodoxy is, not surprisingly, more traditional and theological than the one usually featured by American historians. He is also more invested in early modern European intellectual endeavors—especially those performed in ecclesiastical Latin—in relation to which Edwards shows both strong continuities and largely underappreciated discontinuities.

Here is the book’s table of contents:

Preface

Introduction: Early New England and the Early Modern Era

Chapter 1: Jonathan Edwards and the Protestant Scholastics

Chapter 2: Sources of Christian Homiletics

Chapter 3: Sources of Biblical Exegesis: An Ecumenical Enterprise

Chapter 4: Sources for the Formulation of Doctrine: Continuity and Discontinuity?

Chapter 5: Sources of History as Theology

Conclusion and Prospects

And here is my endorsement on the book’s back cover:

“Neele’s encyclopedic treatment of one of the most important sources of Jonathan Edwards’ New England Theology is must reading for specialists in early modern Protestant thought. Building upon his earlier work on the Dutchman Peter van Mastricht, Neele has laid out and summarized the Latinate Reformed bibliography in Edwards’ world, demonstrated continuities and discontinuities between Edwards and the work of his Reformed antecedents, and thus underscored Edwards’ place in early modern Western Christian intellectual history. This will be an essential handbook for scholars like me for years to come.”

This book is not so much a demonstration of which sources we know that Edwards used and how he used them (though Neele offers some discussion of individual texts—by van Mastricht, William Perkins, Matthew Poole, and others—and their roles in Edwards’ work) as a portrait of its subject among the leading practitioners of Reformed scholasticism, a portrait that situates Edwards in a world more European, classical, and biblical-theological than the one taken for granted by most of his interpreters.

Neele’s prose will prove difficult for some readers to follow, but the gains are worth the effort. Highly recommended.