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Jonathan Edwards and the Bible
Jonathan Edwards and the Bible
Robert E. Brown
Indiana University Press, 2002
320 pp., 98.99

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Douglas Sweeney


Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley and 300-A Plentiful Harvest

At the beginning of Austin Flint's play, The Flaming Spider: Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Edwards hallucinates in a cold sweat on his deathbed in Princeton, New Jersey. The third president of Princeton's fledgling College of New Jersey, and soon to be the third in a row to die an untimely death, Edwards can't help but rue what could have been but never came to pass. Far removed from the family and friends he had loved and served in Massachusetts, he shouts in an eerie apostrophe to Sarah, his wife of 30 years, who had not yet made the journey to Princeton but comforts her husband nonetheless. "I never built a New Jerusalem in Northampton," he cries in despair, "never built the great city on a hill. But the building blocks were in place, Lord. It was within our grasp." Edwards continues in reverie, as he muses over the fleeting joys of New England's Great Awakening. "What a dream it was. What a blessed dream. What a special light hung, still hangs over that [Connecticut River] valley. Look closely. There! Can you see the glow? Can you see it now, Sarah? Northampton, our beloved hills, white steeple of the meeting house. Truly we are blessed by God."1

The Flaming Spider exaggerates Edwards' feelings of failure as a minister, and misrepresents him when it suggests that he tried to build the New Jerusalem. But it offers a vivid portrayal of Edwards' spiritual restlessness and seemingly boundless aspirations-sustained in spite of intense frustration by an unparalleled and irrepressible theological idealism—and illuminates the irony of his phenomenal, though overwhelmingly posthumous, success. Indeed, on this tercentennial anniversary of Edwards' birth in East Windsor, Connecticut (on October 5, 1703), thousands have gathered to remember one whom many would call an unlikely man—dismissed by his own parishioners from the First Church of Northampton, then opposed by family relations at the Stockbridge Indian mission, and finally succumbing in a bout with smallpox two months after moving to Princeton. Despite such bitter disappointments, millions around the world continue to celebrate Edwards' life—compelled by his singular capacity to depict the glory of God. Some still struggle for control of his weighty mantle.

Though inhibited during his lifetime by many who sought to thwart his ministry, Edwards now enjoys an enormous international reputation. He died in 1758 with only a handful of disciples (and a larger number of admirers away from New England's halls of power). But by the end of the 18th century, his followers had founded a spiritual movement, promoting Edwardsian doctrine and practice throughout the Anglo-American world. During the early 19th century, Edwardsians dominated New England and began to circle the globe with the growth of the modern missionary movement. Today, the name of Edwards is known on every major continent. And people have read his writings not only in English, Gaelic, and Welsh editions but also in German, French, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Arabic, Choctaw, Chinese, and Korean. Edwards never would have guessed it. And he would surely not have been pleased with all of the purposes he has served. But the long-term investments he made as preacher, teacher, and theological writer continue to yield a plentiful harvest after three centuries.

In the United States alone, dozens of groups—made up of secular scholars and Christian patrons alike—have gathered to take advantage of Edwards' tercentennial. In towns from Princeton to Pittsburgh, as well as from Wheaton to Washington—not to mention Edwards' haunts in Northampton, Stockbridge, and Wethersfield—a wide assortment of people have met to come to terms with Edwards' legacy. The most prestigious group of scholars met at the Library of Congress for a multidisciplinary colloquy, "Jonathan Edwards at 300." But the largest group, and the one most committed to Edwards' religious agenda, converged in droves on the Minneapolis Convention Center. Hosted by Desiring God Ministries and led by the Rev. John Piper, senior pastor of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, their meeting was held, in the Edwardsian words of Piper's conference website, "for all who desire to see and savor the glory of God." It featured talks by Piper himself, J. I. Packer, and Iain Murray. And it sought to extend Edwards' "passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples."2

Perhaps the most permanent monument to Edwards' tercentennial year is the stack of publications—piled like bibliographical stones of remembrance—released in honor of the occasion. They are too many to note even in passing, roughly a dozen books and scores of essays in sundry periodicals. Scholarly quarterlies and more popular magazines have feted Edwards.3 Christian publishers like Baker and Presbyterian & Reformed have issued paperbacks for lay readers.4 And academic presses, as well, have published major scholarly tomes.5 Many thousands of pages on Edwards appeared in 2003 alone.

One book that stands out from the crowd is Jonathan Edwards and the Bible, Robert Brown's study of Edwards' engagement with biblical higher criticism. Ignored for decades by secular scholars, Edwards' vast biblical writings are finally receiving due attention. And scholars like Brown (and Stephen J. Stein of Indiana University) are leading the way.

Brown's book reveals that higher criticism emerged in North America long before the second half of the 19th century (where scholars usually place it). In fact, he contends that "the problem of the relationship of critical thought to the Bible is almost as old as the American experience itself." Brown demonstrates that Edwards tackled this problem head-on. Indeed, Brown argues, "the problem of biblical criticism is a ubiquitous feature of Edwards's work, an aspect absent of which the nature and genesis of his entire theological career cannot be adequately understood, or can hardly be made intelligible at all." He uses Edwards to devalue misnomers like "pre-" and "post-critical" that have pervaded the modern study of the history of biblical scholarship. And he transcends the false dichotomy in stock questions about whether Edwards was a "medieval" or "modern" thinker.

In Brown's account, Edwards was a "modestly critical" theological conservative whose thorough engagement with biblical criticism opened the door to more radical views. As an apologist for historic Protestant claims about the Bible, its formation and authority, Edwards answered more skeptical critics along evidentiary lines. He defended the historicity of biblical narratives, supported traditional views of the provenance of disputed biblical books and, according to Brown, responded diligently to the "infallibilist critique" (the argument that historical/traditionary forms of religious knowledge are incapable of yielding infallible certainty). Such argumentation involved him inevitably in a "program of modernization … that carried within it inherent tensions and a momentum toward increasingly naturalistic and untraditional interpretations of the sacred texts." Despite his conservatism, then, Edwards' work, according to Brown, "is the product of, and not an exception to, the forces producing the eclipse of biblical narrative in western culture." Specialists will wrangle over the finer points of Brown's interpretation. But most will agree that he has written a masterful treatment of his subject.

Avihu Zakai is a Jewish scholar who teaches history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But in Jonathan Edwards's Philosophy of History, he provides a more thorough, even sympathetic, synthesis of his subject than any American—or Christian—ever has. Based on extensive research in Edwards' manuscripts and treatises, and culminating in an assessment of Edwards' best-selling sermon series, "A History of the Work of Redemption" (1739), Zakai elucidates the significance of what he terms Edwards' "redemptive mode of historical thought." His argument, in sum, is that

[i]t was Edwards's reaction to the metaphysical and theological implications of Enlightenment historical narratives, which increasingly tended to set aside theistic considerations in the realms of morals and history, which led in part to the development of his redemptive mode of historical thought—the doctrine that the process of history depends entirely and exclusively on God's redemptive activity as manifested in a series of revivals throughout time, and not on autonomous human power.

A lot was at stake, in other words, in Edwards' defense of the Great Awakening (and its alleged enthusiasm) against its cool, cultured despisers, a lot that pertained to the doctrine of providence and a Christian view of history. Edwards "fully understood the serious challenges" of the Enlightenment. And "he was alarmed" by its increasingly naturalistic view of history. Indeed, "[w]ith great dismay he observed that Enlightenment historical narratives not only deprived the realm of history of teleological ends and theological purposes, but stipulated that history did not manifest the presence of God's redemptive activity." In response to what he saw, then, as "the de-Christianization of history and the de-divinization of the historical process," Edwards sought "the reenthronement of God as the author and Lord of history," as well as "the reenchantment of the historical world." In the midst of his struggle, moreover, he constructed what would become a uniquely "evangelical historiography according to which revivals and awakenings constitute the heart" of history.

This is not an easy read for those who are new to Enlightenment history. But Zakai's analysis of Edwards' historiography is superb, as is his presentation of what was at stake in the transatlantic debates about the new science and its bearing on a Christian view of the world.

Amy Pauw's book on Edwards' trinitarian theology is—surprisingly enough—the first of its kind. Despite the thousands of books and articles devoted to Edwards since his death, no one has ever published a major work on his doctrine of the Trinity. Pauw is a theologian herself at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary who deals with Edwards as an important interlocutor. She confesses that Edwards was an occasional, not a systematic, thinker. Nonetheless, she uses him to mediate the current debate among (mainly) systematic theologians over the merits of the "social" and "psychological" views of the Trinity.6 According to Pauw, Edwards employed the language of both trinitarian models. He "alternated or modulated between them depending on the immediate theological and cultural context of his writing, but never repudiated either one." Consequently, his writings are rich with raw materials useful to those who wish to bridge the gap between these models today.

Pauw has plenty of problems with Edwards. She disapproves of Edwards' use of the Puritans' "covenant of redemption" (for its anthropomorphic subordinationism and implicit support of patriarchy); of his (alleged) supralapsarianism (and its denigration of the creation); of his epistemological idealism (for its negative affect on his presentation of the integrity and value of the material world); of his (allegedly) crabbed exclusivism in the realms of soteriology and eucharistic doctrine; and of the severity of his notion of eternal divine punishment. She presents a constructive theologian's view of Edwards, to be sure, a view that Edwards would likely have blasted as an omen of declension. But her work is a treasure trove—and not only for systematists. It contains the most detailed treatment of Edwards' trinitarianism to date.

The crowning achievement of Edwards studies during this tercentennial year is George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Most of the leading Edwards biographies picture him as a tragic figure, a genius trapped in the cage of his Calvinistic worldview. But Marsden resists this common temptation, refusing to render Edwards' life in terms of his failure to transcend his social and cultural location and anticipate the advances of more enlightened intellectuals. "In writing this life of Edwards," he announces early on, "one of my goals has been to understand him as a real person in his own time." The result is now the definitive life-and-times of Edwards himself, a nearly exhaustive work that will not soon be replaced.

Better than anyone else before, Marsden enters Edwards' world—physically, mentally, and spiritually—and helps us understand his significance as an 18th-century leader. He covers all the usual ground but explores some new terrain as well, bringing to life a cast of characters usually slighted by other scholars. He makes good on a wealth of Edwards' understudied manuscripts, working most closely with correspondence and filling out our understanding of Edwards' everyday affairs. Especially impressive is Marsden's handling of the military context of Edwards' work in Northampton and Stockbridge, and of the history of Edwards' work with Native Americans. He describes the billeting of soldiers in Edwards' parsonage in Northampton, the outfitting of Edwards' Stockbridge home as a British garrison, as well as Edwards' understandable obsession with the significance (apocalyptic and otherwise) of British fighting against the Roman Catholic French. He thereby highlights Edwards' remarkable composure as a scholar. And he stresses the worldly importance of Edwards' work with the Indians.

"The first goal of a biographer," Marsden writes in his introduction, "should be to tell a good story that illuminates not only the subject, but also the landscapes surrounding that person and the horizons of the readers." Marsden tells a wonderful story, enriching his narrative with a wealth of little-known gems from Edwards' world. He also succeeds in shedding new light on the varied landscapes of Edwards' life, inviting his readers to enter this territory imaginatively.7

As Marsden acknowledges in his preface, his ability to do this has been facilitated by the Yale Edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, a publishing project nearing completion during this tercentennial year that has supported all of the books discussed above.8 For half a century, a team of scholars associated with "the

Edition" (as its supporters usually revere it) has been transcribing, annotating, and introducing Edwards' writings, working in recent years primarily with unpublished manuscripts. Read in the past only by those who could decipher Edwards' hand (an extremely difficult task that has left many in despair) and could afford an extended stay at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, these manuscripts—as presented in the Yale Edition—have begun to revolutionize the study of Edwards.

The most visible sign of this revolution, a sign apparent in virtually all of the tercentennial publications, is that we now know Edwards, in Marsden's words, "as a person, a public figure, and a thinker in his own time and place." For much of the 20th century Edwards was known as a contradiction, a medieval Calvinist on the outside and modern scientist on the inside, one whose most important thoughts transcended their time and were hidden from view. In the well-known words of Perry Miller (who founded The Works of Jonathan Edwards), "Edwards' writing is an immense cryptogram … not to be read but to be seen through." Moreover, his life was "an enigma," for "he speaks from a primitive religious conception which often seems hopelessly out of touch with even his own day, yet at the same time he speaks from an insight into science and psychology so much ahead of his time that our own can hardly be said to have caught up with him."9 Miller's Edwards was an anachronism, an isolated intellectual thinking way ahead of his time but forced by circumstance to express himself in an outworn Christian idiom. His life had little to do with what Marsden calls "his own time and place."

But the more that Miller's Edition has filled out our picture of Edwards' world, the more Edwards' life appears coherent, his thought more timely, less enigmatic, shaped not by an urge to transcend his age but by an abiding passion to serve it—as a preacher, biblical scholar, and trinitarian theologian. Today's Edwards is not an anachronism. He comes across, rather, as an engaged intellectual rooted in the Christian tradition, thinking along with the trends of his times and doing so mainly in the service of the souls of his parishioners. He was a genius, to be sure, but not a proto-naturalist chafing at his 18th-century context. Rather, his genius is best understood in relation to that very context.

Not all are pleased with the new Edwards. In the words of historian Bruce Kuklick, Edwards proved far more attractive and serviceable to secular intellectuals when portrayed by Perry Miller as "one of us—close to being an atheist for Niebuhr." But now that Edwards has been unmasked as an evangelical supernaturalist and committed parish pastor (ironically—and regrettably, for Kuklick—by Miller's Edition), his thought "is not likely to compel the attention of intellectuals ever again. Indeed," argues Kuklick, "it is more likely to repel their attention."10

To most disinterested observers Kuklick's claim will appear hyperbolic. Nonetheless, it does represent a real problem. The Edwards of history appeals far more to evangelicals like Marsden than he does to atheists like Miller and Kuklick. But it took the likes of Miller to pull Edwards into the limelight and, more important, to provide concrete support for Edwards scholarship. Sadly, Edwards' spiritual heirs have never worked hard at promoting painstaking and costly historical research. Consequently, Edwards' fate within the academic world has always depended in the main on the interests and funding of those who prefer to muffle his evangelical passion.

If the new Edwards—the Edwards of history, the Calvinist pastor and theologian mainly concerned with the cure of souls—keeps scholars from studying Edwards' significance for the lives of non-Christians, and if evangelicals do not increase their support for Edwards scholarship, we had all better beware. Our harvest will not prove nearly so plentiful at 400.

Douglas A. Sweeney is associate professor of church history and the history of Christian thought and director of the Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of Nathaniel Taylor, New Haven Theology, and the Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford Univ. Press).

1. Flint teaches creative writing, primarily playwriting, at Columbia University's School of the Arts, where he runs the undergraduate major in Literature/Writing. Though The Flaming Spider remains unpublished, it has been performed in numerous places since its World Premiere at Yale in January of 1999. I have quoted from a videotape recording of the World Premiere performance.

2. Quotations taken from the conference website, www.desiringgod.org, on June 27, 2003.

3. Examples include the Journal of Religious Ethics, the Journal of Presbyterian History, Christian History magazine and the Italian evangelical journal, Studi di Teologia (published by the Instituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione).

4. See especially D. G. Hart, Sean Michael Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols, eds., The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: American Religion and the Evangelical Tradition (Baker, 2003); and Stephen J. Nichols, The Spirit of Truth: The Holy Spirit and the Apologetics of Jonathan Edwards (P & R, 2003).

5. For a broad sampling of the latest technical scholarship on Edwards, see especially David W. Kling and Douglas A. Sweeney, eds., Jonathan Edwards at Home and Abroad: Historical Memories, Cultural Movements, Global Horizons (University of South Carolina Press, 2003); and Paul Helm and Oliver D. Crisp, eds., Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian (Ashgate, 2003).

6. The "psychological" (or Augustinian) model, according to Pauw, compares the Trinity to "a human mind and its internal operations of knowledge and love." It portrays "the Son and Spirit as the Wisdom and Love of the one God, thus emphasizing divine unity." The "social" model, on the other hand ("initiated by Richard of St. Victor in the twelfth century"), emphasizes "relationality within God by depicting the Godhead as a society or family of persons" (pp. 11-15).

7. I have published more extensive and critical reviews of the books by Brown, Pauw and Marsden in this year's volumes of Theology Today, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, and the Evangelical Studies Bulletin (respectively).

8. At press time, 23 of the Yale Edition's 27 letterpress volumes have been published. The remaining four volumes are slated for release in 2004.

9. Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards, The American Men of Letters Series (William Sloane, 1949), pp. xi, xiii, 51.

10. Bruce Kuklick, "Review Essay: An Edwards for the Millennium," Religion and American Culture, Vol. 11 (2001), pp. 116-17.

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