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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards Defending the Great Awakening

Robert Davis Smart, Jonathan Edwards’s Apologetic for the Great Awakening, with Particular Attention to Charles Chauncy’s Criticisms (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).

As I suggest in my endorsement on the back of this book, it offers the wisest, most extensive interpretation of the Edwards-Chauncy debate ever written.

Bob is a friend. He serves as the senior pastor of Christ Church (PCA) in Bloomington (IL) and he teaches and preaches widely as a pastor-theologian. His book began as a dissertation at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology (associated with the University of Wales, Lampeter; now the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David). It includes an insightful foreword written by Kenneth P. Minkema of Yale University (who will be teaching another J-term course at Trinity this year). And as Ken confirms therein, it offers “the first sustained effort devoted to considering the points of debate between Chauncy and Edwards”–the well-known leaders of the “Old Light” and “New Light” parties (respectively) at the height of the Great Awakening–“and to understanding them contextually, hermeneutically, and constructively” (p. ix).

The sum and substance of this book is a treatment of the controversy that swirled around the question whether New England’s great revivals were a work of the Holy Spirit. As a work of reception history, it is unparalleled in scope and attention to detail. Employing tools from social science, social history, and theology, Smart explains the terms of debate, shows how Edwards and his critics disagreed with one another, and offers an even-handed assessment of the legacies of their conflict from the 1740s and 50s to the present.

I recommend this learned work to anyone interested in the history of revivals in America—but especially to those with an interest in the pneumatological questions most important to Edwards himself, and to his heirs.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS