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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality

Brandon G. Withrow, Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality within the Christian Tradition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011).

Those who read the acknowledgments or endorsements of this book will see that Withrow and I are friends. In fact, Brandon did a master’s degree with me some time ago, writing an excellent thesis on Edwards and justification. Now he teaches at Winebrenner Theological Seminary. This, his latest, book offers a much more catholic, ecumenically useful reading of Edwards than one usually gets from historians or evangelical Calvinists. (Withrow is a historian with a doctorate from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.) It renders Edwards a supernaturalistic biblicist, but one with a far more incarnational spirituality than most, indeed a piety shaped profoundly by the Spirit’s role in binding God and man in Jesus Christ and thus enabling the saints’ participation in the divine (II Peter 1:4).

The book has three parts. Part One treats “The Judeo-Christian Tradition of Jonathan Edwards,” charting aspects of the tradition that would find expression in Edwards’ own incarnational thought. Part Two narrows the focus, exploring “Jonathan Edwards’s Spirituality in His New England World.” Part Three then assesses “Jonathan Edwards’s Spiritual Reading of the Sacred Text” in light of both the ancient Christian tradition and his post-Puritan world. It is the third part of the book in which the author makes his real contribution.

Like many so-called “pre-critical” readers of the Bible, Edwards experienced and talked about a life-changing connection between spiritual awakening, regeneration, or conversion; participation in God through Jesus Christ by the Spirit; and a spiritual understanding of the sacred texts of Scripture. This connection and the effects it had in Edwards’ life and teaching are the focal point of the volume. According to Withrow, in sum, Edwards’ spiritual, multilayered understanding of the Bible, enabled by conversion, drew him into the life of God by the power of the Spirit—and this is what has made his life and writings so compelling to so many since his death.

No matter what one thinks of Edwards’ ecumenical promise, he does remain, in Withrow’s hands, a deep well of refreshment and renewal for evangelicalism, which is all too often shriveled in a post-catholic manner into a desiccated, moralistic form of modern Western popular culture.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS