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Dissertation Notes: “The Relationship of the Old and New Testaments in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards”

Stephen R. C. Nichols, “The Relationship of the Old and New Testaments in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (1703–58)” (PhD diss., University of Bristol, 2011).

In his famous letter to the Trustees of the College of New Jersey, Jonathan Edwards baited the imagination of Edwards scholars for years to come with his description of a “great work,” which he planned to call “The Harmony of the Old and New Testament,” but did not live to write. Stephen R. C. Nichols (not to be confused with fellow Edwards scholar Stephen J. Nichols of Lancaster Bible College) explores the notes for this work and its import in Edwards’ theology in his recent dissertation.

Nichols’ work aims to redress the lack of attention to Edwards’ interest in the Bible by studying his well-developed notes on the “Harmony,” and he structures his dissertation to mirror the three major sections of the work: prophecy, typology, and doctrine and precept. In each chapter, he looks first at Edwards’ full corpus as it bears on these three issues and only then turns to discuss the “Harmony.” He wraps up his dissertation with a case study of the soteriological harmony Edwards saw between the two testaments.

In his first chapter Nichols shows how Edwards sought to reveal the deists’ unreasonableness and offer a more reasonable way of reading biblical prophecy, namely by demonstrating that the Messiah brings harmony to the Old and New Testaments. For the representative deist foil to Edwards, Nichols uses Anthony Collins, author of A Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (1724), in which he argued that the apostles ripped Old Testament texts out of their context to establish a connection between the Old Testament prophecies and the New Testament Christ, a connection he believed failed the test of reason. In his broad approach to prophecy, Edwards argued that the divine author can intend an ultimate meaning beyond that of the human author, that Scripture must be its own interpreter, and that the Holy Spirit gives the regenerate a new spiritual sense for recognizing these connections. Specifically in his notes on the “Harmony,” he presented a discussion of Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, apart from New Testament citations of such passages, on a large scale and in minute detail to make a formidable argument that “a Messianic interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures is a thoroughly reasonable and coherent interpretation of those Scriptures” (23).

Nichols moves on in his second chapter to consider Edwards’ view of typology. He shows that Edwards’ expansive typology was consistent with his philosophical commitments to an “idealism that saw creation as inherently communicative, and being as inherently harmonious” (102). God upholds the creation by his being and communicates himself for the purpose of his glory through the creation, particularly in types. Scripture models the use of such types, but also constrains the interpreter in typology. Thus, in his notes on the “Harmony,” taken from his “Miscellanies” entry no. 1069, “Types of the Messiah,” Edwards made a robust argument using minute intra-Scriptural details that the Old Testament, standing alone, is by nature typological and that Jesus is the Messiah that it typifies. Nichols concludes that Edwards’ typological innovations, compared to his Puritan forebears, made it possible for him “to bind the Testaments more tightly together with his typology than his predecessors had been able to with theirs” (120).

In his third chapter on doctrine and precept, Nichols argues that the history of redemption and the covenant of grace provide the framework for Edwards’ understanding of the doctrinal harmony in the Old and New Testaments. Christ’s redemptive work in the incarnation is “the crux of history,” and all history, prior to and after Christ, is “a grand scheme divinely directed to God’s own glory through the redemption of Christ” (129). In discussing the covenant of grace, Edwards held that it is identical in substance in both the Old and New Testaments, but different in administration, which demonstrates the continuity between the two testaments. Nichols argues that Edwards’ notebook titled, “The Harmony of the Genius, Spirit, Doctrines and Rules of the Old Testament and the New,” represents his notes for the final third section of his “Harmony of the Old and New Testament,” and it shows, in its sketchy form, this same doctrinal harmony between the two testaments.

In his case study of Edwards’ soteriology in the fourth chapter, Nichols engages at length with Anri Morimoto’s notion of Edwards’ so-called “dispositional soteriology,” by which Morimoto argues that God creates grace in the elect, giving them a “new disposition” without them necessarily expressing faith explicitly in Christ (see Morimoto’s Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Vision of Salvation). Also, Nichols challenges Gerald McDermott’s thesis, building on Morimoto’s, that Edwards laid the foundation for believing that people can be saved without the hearing of the Word (see McDermott’s Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods). Nichols particularly focuses on their arguments as they relate to the question of how the Old Testament elect were saved. The essence of what he argues is that for Edwards, the “new disposition” refers to the immediate indwelling of the Holy Spirit; justification is a declaration of righteousness, not a reward for righteousness; the Mediator, not obedience to the Law, is the grounds of salvation in the Old Testament just as in the New; and though God is free to save without means, he usually uses the means of the Word preached to call people to salvation. Ultimately, Edwards is squarely in the Reformed tradition of soteriology, except that through his expanded typology and prophecy he argued that the Old Testament elect actually had a greater understanding of Christ than his forebears believed possible. His approach to soteriology is uniquely framed by his understanding of the harmony of the Old and New Testaments.

As is evident from this note, Nichols seeks to accomplish quite a lot in this dissertation. His work is well-researched with thick notes, demonstrating a thorough understanding of the wider literature, and he adeptly engages the historiography on Edwards. He presents a robust argument that calls into question any wholesale acceptance of Morimoto’s dispositional soteriology and McDermott’s thesis that Edwards anticipated the possibility of salvation in non-Christian religions. This case study is a big argument packed into a small space, but it is one that should be given due consideration as these discussions are bound to continue in Edwards studies.

Nichols also makes a number of historiographical contributions related to Edwards and the Bible. He argues convincingly, contra Mason I. Lowance Jr., that Edwards did not arbitrarily use different models of typology—one conservative, one allegorical—but rather employed a single unitary approach to typology that encompassed all his typological endeavors, whether in biblically identified types or types in human history. Most significantly, Nichols makes a persuasive argument, contra Stephen Stein, that Edwards was not unrestrained in his use of the spiritual sense to interpret the Bible, but rather was guided by the analogy of Scripture and the analogy of faith. He also argues strenuously that the charges saying Edwards’ typology was arbitrary do not take into account his “sophisticated biblical literacy” (100). In fact a closer look shows that his types often allude to various passages throughout Scripture, which is why Edwards argued that one must become fluent in the language of the Bible to be fluent in the language of typology. Nichols lays to rest Stephen Stein’s claim that Edwards was unbounded in his biblical exegesis and typology.

In the end, Nichols shows how the Messiah, his kingdom, and his redemption draw together the whole Bible in harmony for Edwards, ably furthering the discussion of Edwards and the Bible, the area in Edwards studies that perhaps needs the greatest attention at this point in time. He makes several bold arguments that he supports with thick descriptions of Edwards’ notes for the “Harmony” and of Edwards’ broader corpus. His dissertation deserves a wide reading as Edwards scholars continue to flesh out the place of the Bible in Edwards’ thought.

— David Barshinger, Senior Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS