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Posts Tagged ‘typology’

Dissertation Note: “Typology as Rhetoric: Reading Jonathan Edwards”

Světlíková, Anna. “Typology as Rhetoric: Reading Jonathan Edwards.” PhD diss., Charles University (Prague, Czech Republic), 2012.

Jonathan Edwards’ typology has often attracted attention because it constitutes one of the unique aspects of his thought. Typology enjoyed a signal position in much of the history of Christian exegesis, but Edwards innovatively extended it beyond the interpretation of the Bible to apply it to both history and nature.

While scholars have debated the theological merits of Edwards’ typology, Anna Světlíková seeks to shake up the discussion by approaching it not from a theological or historical standpoint, but from a literary theory perspective. She claims that the current Edwards field is confined by “methodological limitations” (7), and one of the major overarching claims she posits is that the study of Edwards needs to benefit from the insight of literary theory. She offers her dissertation as a model of this literary approach. (Světlíková gave a lecture related to this topic at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on April 30, 2012, which is available on the “Media” page of our website.)

In her project Světlíková offers a rhetorical assessment of Edwards’ typology. She models her methodology on the deconstructive criticism of Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Jacques Derrida. To balance this literary method, she seeks to conduct “close readings” of the text and to contextualize Edwards’ typology in the history of typology (35).

The four chapters that form the bulk of her dissertation address the problem of language in Edwards’ typology and compare Edwards’ typology to the emblematic tradition, to the “performative” aspect of speech-act theory, and to allegory—always with a focus on the literary nature of these devices.

Central to Světlíková’s arguments are the notions of complexity, indefiniteness, and process. For example, she declines to offer a definition of Edwards’ typology, noting instead that typology exists as a range between two extremes and that she provides a treatment with “greater complexity than a simple definition could accomplish” (80). In fact, throughout her dissertation she compounds qualification upon qualification to develop a web of tension for understanding Edwards’ thought. And in some ways, the process is more important than the conclusion, as Světlíková states in her acknowledgements: “I do not think I have found some particular thing, indeed if there is something to be found it might not be a thing at all. This work, then, is not about what I have found; rather, it is a record of a part of that search” (iv).

This complexity is visible in her discussion of language. In essence, Světlíková rejects Edwards’ defense of his typology as inadequate, raising more questions than it answers. She notes that Edwards’ theory of types is grounded in his understanding of language, not just theology. But she finds Edwards’ idea of language troublingly complex and filled with tensions: she says that he thought language was referentially reliable, yet also complex; that he said typology communicated spiritual knowledge while such knowledge is incomprehensible; and that for Edwards, language has an arbitrary value to it, while at the same time it has a certainty about it when God reveals spiritual things through figures of speech. Světlíková concludes that the problem with Edwards’ typology is that instead of defining it in distinction to metaphors, he uses a metaphor to describe it. This complexity, she suggests, detracts from his typology.

In her discussion of the emblem, Světlíková argues that while Edwards may have anticipated the Romantic tradition in some points, he differed from it in several other literary ways. Particularly, while the Romantics situated the meaning of nature in the individual’s experience, Edwards situated the spiritual meaning of nature in its divinely endowed ontology. Thus, he seems to have had more in common with emblem and meditation traditions, even if they did not directly influence him.

In exploring the “performative” nature of Edwards’ typology, Světlíková claims that Edwards’ typology inevitably falls into subjectivism because the authoritative judgment of what constitutes a type lies ultimately in the individual self who “performs” the act of identifying a type. Edwards’ appeals to Scripture as the authoritative guide fail, she says, because while such appeals point to the “constative” nature of his typology, the “performative” nature cannot be denied. Still, Světlíková complicates her own analysis by saying that, in some ways, Edwards’ occasionalism and idealism imply that the self is wholly dependent on God. With the performative act of typology thus itself a type, authority may in some sense shift from self to God.

As she turns to a discussion of allegory, heavily informed by the literary theory of Michael Murrin and Paul de Man, Světlíková throws doubt on whether the discussion of Edwards’ typology as constative and performative is even the right question. In her comparisons, she argues that in one way Edwards connects more with Renaissance allegory because his types assume a divine presence, as does Renaissance allegory, while Romantic poetry assumes a divine absence. At the same time, she suggests that Edwards’ typology fails to establish a divine presence because he opens the possibility of misinterpretation or error in typology, which has more in common with the Romantic rejection of a reliable foundation.

In the end, Světlíková’s deconstructive literary approach points to the failure of Edwards’ theory of typology. She suggests that “an uncritical theological appropriation of Edwards might admire the gist of his natural typology,” but her study “points out that the typological project is inherently conflicted not because Edwards is wrong but because it cannot be otherwise, because such conflict is not even a failure of his theory but part of language itself” (206).

As a historian—and not a literary theorist—I approach this dissertation from one outside of Světlíková’s literary discipline while sharing her interest in Edwards. I appreciate that she seeks, at times, to contextualize Edwards historically. Her discussion also helpfully shows the limitations of language, which complicates Edwards’ understanding and practice of typology and raises fair questions about what it would actually look like for someone to adopt Edwards’ typology. And her comparisons of his typology with Renaissance allegory and Romantic poetry show how his theological commitments connect him more closely to the ideas of the former, while his expanded view of typology in nature foreshadows elements of Romanticism.

At the same time, a number of considerations from a historian’s viewpoint should be raised. Methodologically speaking, Světlíková does not explain how she chooses which Edwards texts to include in her study. And the lack of definition at times leaves the reader grasping for a concrete conclusion. In addition, the literary approach often sidelines the theological priorities in Edwards’ thought. For example, while Světlíková argues that Edwards’ typology falls into subjectivism, Edwards himself held theological constraints and guides for his typology, specifically reading types through the lens of God’s work of redemption. She also describes the subjectivity of Edwards’ typology by saying that while Scripture is the standard of interpretation, it is, in Edwards’ view, filled with figures and types, which undermines its authority since “typological judgment … can only be verified against more typology or figurative expressions which in turn are liable to the same problems of interpretation” (145). But this description of the Bible does not accurately reflect Edwards’ broader understanding of Scripture, his confidence that it communicates much with “the amiable simplicity of truth” (WJE 13:203), and his practice of using clear passages in Scripture to shed light on passages that were less clear (e.g., see WJE 22:101). When constrained by the analogy of Scripture and the analogy of faith, as we see from a historical and theological viewpoint, Edwards’ typology sheds much of its subjectivity.

From another angle, Světlíková takes a skeptical view of language and the ability to communicate through it. By saying that Edwards’ typology is bound to fail simply because of the nature of language, one wonders whether all communicative efforts are thus bound to fail. At best, we can recognize in such an argument the necessity of humility in discourse. But retaining a realistic optimism about the sufficiency of language gives Edwards’ typology a chance to float on its own merits.

To the larger question we must ask: how useful is literary theory for Edwards studies? In this study Světlíková raises some interesting questions about Edwards’ typology and tackles it from the unique standpoint of deconstructive literary theory. She ultimately argues that Edwards scholars need to open up their methodological approach to embrace literary theory as a way forward for interpreting Edwards. From this historian’s standpoint, though, while literary theory may have something to add to Edwards studies, it proves less helpful when it disconnects Edwards from his theology and historical setting.

~ David Barshinger, PhD

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