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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.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Vanity Fair and the Celestial City

Isabel Rivers, Vanity Fair and the Celestial City: Dissenting, Methodist, and Evangelical Literary Culture in England, 1720-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Isabel_RiversThose who judge books by their titles may have failed to appreciate that this one deals extensively with Edwards and his world. It explores the publications written, edited, abridged, and promoted by evangelicals in eighteenth-century England. And Edwards was an eighteenth-century Englishman, remember, a colonist who read and even wrote many publications treated in these pages.

A Professor of Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture at Queen Mary University of London, Isabel Rivers also directs the Dissenting Academies Project hosted by the Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English. She is one of the leading authorities on the literary culture that shaped the life and work of Edwards.

The title of her book is taken from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, whose pilgrims have to pass through Vanity Fair, a tourist trap full of commercial temptations, to reach their final destination, Celestial City, the heavenly New Jerusalem. Rivers uses Bunyan’s allegory to indicate a paradox that saturates her book. “On one hand, Pilgrim’s Progress, like so many books of its kind, advocates rejection of this world for the sake of the next, using the metaphor of trade. On the other hand, the phenomenal success of such books in the eighteenth century depended on a number of worldly factors, clearly interrelated, including the expansion of the book trade, the growth of the population, the increase of literacy, and better conditions for travel and commerce, both within the British Isles and Europe and also between Europe and North America” (p. 2). She is interested, of course, in her subjects’ spirituality, but focuses her story on the “worldly factors” instead, asking questions about their bearing on evangelical religion and the literary lives of early English evangelicals.

Her book has three parts. Part I, “Books and Their Readers” (pp. 9-117), treats the publishing, marketing, and reception of religious books in eighteenth-century England. Part II, “Sources” (pp. 121-209), deals with the re-publication of older works in this period. And Part III, “Literary Kinds” (pp. 213-389), catalogues the different genres most important to its book trade (Bibles, commentaries, sermons, devotional guides, exemplary lives, journals, hymns, poems, etc.). Rivers mentions over 200 writers altogether, offering detailed discussions of her subjects’ favorite books. Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, John Wesley, and John Newton were the most popular authors in eighteenth-century England. But Edwards and his mentee David Brainerd also proved to be consistent best sellers.

Edwards appears throughout the book, but mainly in chapter 7, “North American Connexions” (pp. 183-209), particularly in the section of that chapter devoted to him (pp. 186-93). Rivers writes of Edwards and Brainerd, “they were the source of considerable disagreement among their British readers, but they were of crucial importance in different ways to the religious and literary heritage of Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, Scottish Presbyterians, and Church of England evangelicals” (pp. 185-86). They were even more important in the North American colonies.

Rivers does not interpret Edwards in relation to church history, English intellectual culture, or Protestant theology. But she does better than anyone at placing him in the context of the history of the book trade and the reading lives of Christians in eighteenth-century England. Vanity Fair and the Celestial City offers a masterful, England-centered complement to Jonathan Yeager’s Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism

Bruce Hindmarsh, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

HindmarshThis lovely new book on evangelical spirituality treats Edwards among his cohort of early evangelical leaders in the middle third of the eighteenth century. Penned by the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, it interprets evangelicalism “as a distinctive form of traditional Christian spirituality that emerged in the eighteenth century highly responsive to the conditions of the modern world” (p. 276).

What were those conditions? “Modernity, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution” as these developed side-by-side with the so-called Great Awakening in and through the fields of natural science, ethics, the arts, and, of course, religion as well (p. 270).

And what was the spirit of evangelicalism, on Hindmarsh’s account? His subjects said the Holy Spirit. They yearned deeply to experience what one of their favorite Scottish writers, Henry Scougal, liked to call “the life of God in the soul of man.” But put more generally and historically, the “spirit” of eighteenth-century evangelical religion was its subjects’ “aspiration to know the immediate presence of God” in a modernizing, naturalizing European culture “that was sharply separating nature (including human nature) and spirit” (p. 268).

The author deals with Edwards’ life and thought in several different ways, but mainly through Edwards’ stories of the work of the Holy Spirit in New England’s Great Awakening, his engagement with Newtonian thought, and his evangelical ethics (on pp. 57-68, 127-35, 226-33, respectively). Along the way, Hindmarsh paints him as an emblem of his movement, whose “entire intellectual project could, at one level, be described as an account of divine intimacy,” or the presence of the Spirit in the life and soul—indeed, in the universe–of man. In every sphere of his activity, Hindmarsh explains, “Edwards pushed against the tendency to view God as the remote, impersonal cause of things natural” (p. 132).

This assessment is spot on, and highly recommended.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Bible in American Life

Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen, eds., The Bible in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

BibleinAmericanLifeThis is a gold mine for anyone who wants to know more about the uses of the Bible in the lives of average Americans outside their houses of worship. Its editors, all based at IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis), added questions on this topic to a couple national surveys: the General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study III. Then they wrote up their results and invited a diverse group of social scientists and intellectual historians to interpret them in view of larger trends in American culture. The group met in 2014 to share their work. This tightly packed volume bears their meeting’s ripest fruit.

The results of the survey are worth the price of the book ($35 in paperback): Americans continue to hold high views of the Bible (91% of those who read the Bible at all called its contents the inspired Word of God and/or inerrant); but only half of them had read it in the past 12 months; more than half of Bible readers still preferred the King James (almost three times as many as preferred the NIV, the next most popular version); black Americans read the Bible most (far more frequently than any other group); and similar results, some surprising, some predictable.

None of the book’s chapters says much about Edwards. But those by Jan Stievermann and Robert E. Brown (titles below) deal at length with Cotton Mather as a bellwether of early evangelical attempts to interpret sacred scripture “between faith and criticism” (to steal a phrase from Mark Noll, who penned the volume’s conclusion).

Here’s a peek at the table of contents:

Introduction

Part One: Overview
1. “The Bible in American Life Today,” by Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsley, and Peter Thuesen

Part Two: Past
2. “America’s First Bible: Native Uses, Abuses, and Re-uses of the Indian Bible of 1663,” by Linford D. Fisher
3. “The Debate over Prophetic Evidence for the Authority of the Bible in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana,” by Jan Stievermann
4. “Navigating the Loss of Interpretive Innocence: Reading the ‘Enlightenment’ Bible in Early Modern America,” by Robert E. Brown
5. “Reading the Bible in a Romantic Era,” by Beth Schweiger
6. “The Origins of Whiteness and the Black (Biblical) Imagination: The Bible in the ‘Slave Narrative’ Tradition,” by Emerson B. Powery
7. “Biblical Women in the Woman’s Exponent: The Bible in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism,” by Amy Easton-Flake
8. “Scriptualizing Religion and Ethnicity: The Circle Seven Koran,” by Sylvester Johnson
9. “Reading the Bible in War and Crisis to Know the Future,” by Matthew Avery Sutton
10. “Reference Bibles and Interpretive Authority,” by B.M. Pietsch
11. “The Soul’s Train: The Bible and Southern Folk and Popular Music,” by Paul Harvey
12. “Where Two or Three are Gathered: The Adult Bible Class Movement and the Social Life of Scripture,” by Christopher D. Cantwell
13. “The Word is True: King James Onlyism and the Quest for Certainty in American Evangelical Life,” by Jason A. Hentschel
14. “Selling Trust: The Living Bible and the Business of Biblicism,” by Daniel Vaca
15. “The Bible and the Legacy of First Wave Feminism,” by Claudia Setzer
16. “Let Us Be Attentive: The Orthodox Study Bible, Converts, and the Debate on Orthodox Lay Uses of Scripture,” by Garrett Spivey

Part Three: Present
17. “The Continuing Distinctive Role of the Bible in American Lives: A Comparative Analysis,” by Corwin Smidt
18. “Emerging Trends in American Children’s Bibles, 1990-2015,” by Russell W. Dalton
19. “The Curious Case of the Christian Bible and the U.S. Constitution: Challenges for Educators Teaching the Bible in a Multi-Religious Context,” by John F. Kutsko
20. “Transforming Practice: American Bible Reading in Digital Culture,” by John B. Weaver
21. “Readers and their E-Bibles: The Shape and Authority of the Hypertext Canon,” by Bryan Bibb
22. “How American Women and Men Read the Bible,” by Amanda Friesen
23. “Feels Right Exegesis: Qualitative Research on How Millennials Read the Bible,” by J. Derrick Lemons
24. “Crowning the King: The Use of Production and Reception Studies to Determine the Most Popular English-Language Bible Translation in Contemporary America,” by Paul Gutjahr
25. “Literalism as Creativity: Intertextuality in Making a Biblical Theme Park,” by James S. Bielo
26. “The Bible in the Evangelical Imagination,” by Daniel Silliman
27. “Feeling the Word: Sensing Scripture at Salvation Mountain,” by Sara M. Patterson

Part Four: Retrospective
28. “The Bible: Then and Now,” by Mark Noll

These essays offer perspective on the long-range significance of uses of the Bible in Edwards’ life and world, suggesting, ironically, that most of those today who share Edwards’ biblical worldview and sacred reading practices are probably not Edwards fans at all. Hmm.