New Light on Jonathan Edwards
Douglas A. Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought (InterVarsity, 2009)
Douglas Sweeney, who teaches church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has written a most helpful book on the life, theology, and impact of Jonathan Edwards—as well as on the encouragement that Edwards can be for Christian believers today. Everyone who remained even semi-alert in high school knows about Edwards for his famous (and hair-raising) sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Those who have been paying a little more attention know that Edwards was a major figure in the colonial American revivals that are called "the Great Awakening" and also that he was a major thinker who forcefully defended traditional Christianity against secularizing forces associated with the Enlightenment. An increasing number also know of Jonathan Edwards as an extraordinary theologian and Christian philosopher because of landmark scholarly books like George Marsden's prize-winning biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003); the great edition of Jonathan Edwards' writing overseen by Harry Stout and Kenneth Minkema that for many years has been issuing from Yale University Press; or popular presentations in many books by John Piper, such as God's Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 2006).
Sweeney, who worked for several years at Yale on the Edwards edition, offers a distinctive perspective on Edwards with this study. It combines two approaches that, at first, might seem disharmonious. The book's extensive notes and other scholarly apparatus offer learned commentary on very detailed aspects of Edwards's career, particular questions involving Edwards's published works, and high-level engagement with other scholars' opinions. But the body of the book is quite different in its series of straightforward chapters aimed at those with little prior knowledge. In this part of his effort, Sweeney goes out of his way to highlight those aspects of Edwards's life and thought that make him a particularly useful object lesson or guide for modern believers.
What might seem like a strategy pulling readers in two directions at once turns out to work very well. For those wanting a reliable and edifying introduction, simply stick to the material above the footnote line. But for those who are intrigued enough to delve deeper into what Edwards wrote or into further commentary by others, pursue the roadmap that Sweeney provides in the full scholarship of his notes.
As an introductory study, Sweeney offers reliable treatment of the basics: Edwards's spiritual development as the son of a New England minister; his early education at a very new Yale College; his call to the ministry in Northampton, Massachusetts, as an assistant (and then successor) to his grandfather Solomon Stoddard; his marriage and lifelong partnership with Sarah Pierpont (which just before he died Edwards called "an uncommon union"); his report on the revival in his Northampton church that became an important spark for the Great Awakening; his own revival preaching (including "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"); his much more extensive preaching on the grandeur, mercy, and beauty of God in Christ; his relationships with other leading awakeners like George Whitefield; the difficulties with his Northampton congregation that led to his dismissal in 1750; his years as a preacher to Indians at a frontier mission settlement; his acceptance of a call to become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University); and his death from a smallpox inoculation shortly after his arrival in Princeton. All of this basic history is handled economically, but Sweeney adds quite a bit more—for example, by chastising Edwards for owning slaves, but also by showing the significant impact that Edwards's theology had on English Baptists who sparked the modern Anglo-American missionary movement and also on at least four generations of later American pastors and theologians.
Just as important as this biographical material are Sweeney's consistently helpful suggestions for how modern believers can benefit from this 18th-century life. That aspect of the book is brought to a close with seven theses summarizing what Sweeney hopes contemporary Christians can learn. Those theses include: "(1) Edwards shows us the importance of working to help people gain a vivid sense, an urgent impression, of God's activity in the world"; "(3) Edwards shows us how God uses those who lose their lives for Christ"; and "(7) Edwards shows us the necessity of remaining in God's word." This last thesis focuses discussion on what is doubtless the strongest part of the book: Sweeney's detailed exploration of how Edwards used the Bible.
Even veteran scholars will learn much as Sweeney details the lifelong intensity with which Edwards studied Scripture, the central role that biblical themes played in all phases of Edwards's thought (even the most apparently abstract), and the special emphases that Edwards developed. For example, it is remarkable that Edwards wrote four very long notes to himself on Old Testament prophecies of Christ and their New Testament fulfillment. These notes, amounting to hundreds of pages, are the only four of Edwards's "Miscellanies" (jottings to himself as a permanent record of insights and for future reference) not published in Yale Press's multi-volume edition of the Miscellanies. Yet these notes are critical for the whole of Edwards's theology. They show that principles of divine beauty, harmony, and coherence that marked his philosophical theology grew out of his conclusions about the divine beauty, harmony, and coherence that bound the Scriptures together in their revelation of Christ as God's ultimate communication of himself.
In his discussion of Edwards on the Bible, Sweeney challenges modern readers to rethink what has become conventional wisdom. Edwards was very intentionally a student of the "types" and Christological prophecies of Scripture—that is, of the objects, symbols, actions, and prophecies of the Old Testament that foreshadowed the life, death, resurrection, and saving work of Christ. Typology has gone out of favor in most Christian circles, and with considerable good reason—since typology has been so often used wildly to discover the anti-Christ here, there, and everywhere, or more generally to substitute mere fancy for serious engagement with the Scriptural texts. Sweeney's careful attention to Edwards's intensive work in biblical types will not necessarily convince all readers that he escaped the dangers that have beset so many others. But Sweeney uses that discussion profitably to drive home the importance of Scripture in providing the foundation, horizon, and guidance for all of life for all believers.
That lesson, and many others from this most useful book, make it a treasure for heart as well as mind.
Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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