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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: Edwards’ Sermons on the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

Kenneth P. Minkema, Adriaan C. Neele, and Bryan McCarthy, eds., Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables, Volume I, True and False Christians (on the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins) (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

This previously unprinted sermon series on Jesus’ frightening parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25) is a gold mine for Edwards scholars and lay Christians alike. Preached in 1737-38, between the Connecticut Valley revival (1734-35) and New England’s Great Awakening (1740-42), it focused Northampton’s attention for a period of several weeks on the differences between true Christians and “hypocrites” (those who fooled others, and often themselves, about their standing before God)—a theme that would occupy Edwards for many years into the future, when he used this sermon series in writing his better-known spiritual treatises on the Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), Some Thoughts concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1743), and Religious Affections (1746).

Edited by the standards of the letterpress edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (26 volumes, Yale University Press, 1957-2008), these sermons are prefaced with a rudimentary chapter by Wilson Kimnach (general editor of Edwards’ sermons at Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Center) on the homiletical Edwards, “Edwards the Preacher” (13 pgs.), and a slightly longer chapter by Bryan McCarthy (formerly an editorial assistant at the Jonathan Edwards Center, now a doctoral student at Oxford) on the sermons’ “Historical Context” (19 pgs.).

Smartly presented, helpfully indexed, and priced to sell ($25), this volume should make it into the library of every serious Edwards scholar and many fans as well.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

News Alert: On July 11, 2012, Jonathan Edwards Arrives in Heidelberg, Germany

These are very exciting times in Heidelberg, Germany; Jonathan Edwards now has a German accent …

The official inauguration of the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany is on July 11, 2012. See the announcement here.

A few of the highlights:

1. Kenneth P. Minkema (Yale Divinity School) and Jan Stievermann (Universität Heidelberg)

Presentation: “What is the Jonathan Edwards Center?”

When: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 6:45-7:15pm

Location: Heidelberg Center for American Studies (Atrium)

2. Peter J. Thuesen, Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Keynote address: “Jonathan Edwards and the Transatlantic World of Books”

When: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 7:15-8:15pm

Location: Heidelberg Center for American Studies (Atrium)

3. Symposium: “New Avenues in Jonathan Edwards Studies and Eighteenth-Century Religious History”

When: Thursday, July 12, 2012

Location: Heidelberg Center for American Studies (Stucco)

— Hermann Wellenreuther (Universität Göttingen): Keynote lecture — “Is Religion Affected by Atlantic Transfers in the Early Modern Period?” (9:30-10:30am)

— Andreas Beck (Evangelische Theologische Fakulteit, Leuven): “Jonathan Edwards and Reformed Orthodoxy on Free Will and Determinism” (11:00-12:00pm)

— *Lunch Break* (12:00-14:00pm)

— Sarah Rivett (Princeton University): “Savage Sounds: Indigenous Words and Missionary Linguistics in New Light Theology” (14:00-15:00pm)

— Reiner Smolinski (Georgia State University): “Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards and the Challenge of Philosophical Materialism” (15:30-16:30pm)

— Round Table: “New Projects and Archives in Eighteenth-Century Religious History” (17:00-18:00pm)

For more information on these exciting developments, please visit  Jonathan Edwards Center Germany.

Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale Launches New Online Journal

After publication of more than two dozen print volumes of writings by 18th century theologian, preacher, and philosopher Jonathan Edwards, followed by a massive digitization project that has made some 100,000 pages of Edwards’s writings accessible via the Internet, the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale has turned the page with the launch of a new online journal, Jonathan Edwards Studies.

Creation of the online journal, freely accessible to the public, continues the Center’s efforts to make the writings of eighteenth century theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards more accessible, not only in the U.S. but internationally as well.

The Center’s expansion internationally has gained significant momentum in the past several years, in large measure through partnerships and affiliated centers established in a number of overseas locations, including Australia, Benelux, Brazil, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and South Africa.

The new publication is interdisciplinary and professionally refereed by an international editorial board, and editors welcome submissions from graduate students, young scholars, clergy, seminarians and other Edwards enthusiasts. The editors are Kenneth P. Minkema, executive editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards and director of the Jonathan Edwards Center, and Adriaan C. Neele, associate editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards and director of the Jonathan Edwards Center.

In a message of welcome in the inaugural issue, released Sept. 6, editors of the journal said, “This is the first modern professional periodical of its kind, devoted to considerations of the background, influences, life, times, thought, and legacy of one of the most significant thinkers in Christian history, arguably America’s most important protestant theologian, and one of the most significant figures in modern religious history—Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).”

The journal, to be published in the spring and fall, will enhance the Center’s ability to fulfill its goal of supporting and encouraging “all facets of Edwards’s fascinating body of work, including historic trajectories, early modern context, his life and thought, and global legacies.”

The journal will consider submissions in four categories: articles (6,000-8,000 words), features (up to 2,000 words), historical documents (primary source materials, up to 50 pages), and book reviews (350-1,000 words).

Submissions will be sent for review to scholars and authors who are specialists in the field of Edwards Studies or generalists in their disciplines. If a manuscript is accepted for publication, the editorial staff will then edit it to conform to JES’s house style.

“I am particularly excited by this new online journal,” said Minkema, “because it is the first of its kind devoted to all things Edwards, and it is the desire of the JEC to make this journal a venue for all sorts of new and exciting work on his life, times, and legacy.”

The Journal is being published at minimal cost, by using the freely available open-source journal publishing software “Open Journal Systems,” developed through a partnership including several Canadian universities and the Stanford University School of Education.

According to Neele, the entire publishing process can be done online with OJS. Said Neele, “Open Journal Systems (OJS) is a journal management and publishing software that assists with every stage of the refereed publishing process, from online submissions of articles through to online publication, and comprehensive indexing of content.”

The inaugural issue features articles on Jonathan Edwards and the absence of free choice and on sexual politics in Eighteenth-Century Pelham, MA; an historical document entitled “A Quaker Response to Distinguishing Marks”; and a feature on Jonathan Edwards and the tithe.

The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale, based at Yale Divinity School, was established in 2003 in anticipation of the completion of the 26-volume Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. With Yale University Press’s completion of those volumes in 2008, the Jonathan Edwards Center carried the work of the Edwards project forward with creation of a 73-volume, comprehensive, fully searchable, critical, annotated online edition, WJE Online, including some 100,000 pages of Edwards sermons, notebooks, letters, and treatises. An ongoing project is the transcription of original Edwards manuscripts at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.

In addition to housing the editorial and administrative components of the letterpress and digital projects—and, now, the online journal—the Center offices also serve as a resource center for research, education, and publication.

For more information about this new journal, see here.