Edwards the Exegete

Edwards the Exegete

Jonathan Edwards, the great pastor-theologian of Northampton, Massachusetts, is best known for his writings on revival and religious experience, and his defense of orthodox Calvinism in the face of "Enlightenment" critics. But at the end of the day, Edwards was mostly a preacher of the Word of God.

This fact is what makes Douglas Sweeney's Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment* so valuable. Sweeney freshly explains how Edwards preached the Bible, the intellectual toolbox he brought to the explication of the Word, and the operative assumptions he made about what he found there.

For those of us (like me) who admire Edwards, his writings like Religious Affections and Freedom of the Will are almost blindingly brilliant. They are the reason why the great historian Perry Miller depicted Edwards as a solitary frontier genius who instantly sized up the implications of the English Enlightenment, as led by Isaac Newton and John Locke, and girded his loins to defend Christianity in that new Enlightened era.

More recent scholars, led by my doctoral advisor and Edwards biographer George Marsden, have hardly denied Edwards' brilliance, but have shown him to be a man of his time. Edwards shared in his era's seriousness about theology, but also in its blind spots such as slavery.

In Edwards the Exegete, Sweeney depicts Edwards as a Congregationalist preacher who was earnest, imaginative, and, in many ways, typical of other Calvinist pastors of his era. In explaining the content and methods of Edwards' Bible teaching, Sweeney introduces to a mental and oratorical world that was broadly shared among Reformed pastors in eighteenth-century Britain and America.

Sweeney emphasizes how different that exegetical world was from that of critical Bible scholarship, which has no patience, for instance, for prophetic or Christological readings of the Old Testament. But in reading Sweeney I am heartened by how the best preachers of today understand the Bible in ways that Edwards would recognize. This is especially the case in Edwards' view of the Old Testament as teeming with references to Christ, references which those with regenerate vision are able to see.

Skeptical outsiders often speak about how Christian conservatives take a 'literal' reading of Scripture. If by 'literal' they mean that traditionalists assume that the Bible is true and infallible, then yes, we take the Bible literally. But Sweeney's analysis of Edwards shows just how deficient that term 'literal' is, when you get down to actual exegesis.

I don't actually think that anyone reads all of the Bible 'literally.' How many traditional Bible readers "literally" interpret the beast of Revelation 13 only as a beast? The Bible doesn't always speak literally itself: sometimes it speaks poetically, sometimes in a visionary mode, and in other genres. When you add the fact that the Bible is 'living and active,' believers can expect to find that it is complex and multi-layered, speaking at various levels to various readers at various times. The Bible is simultaneously 'true' in what it says, and there are many possible readings of Scripture that are wrong.

Sweeney helped me to understand these matters better, as he described the ways that Edwards might have interpreted any given Bible passage. There was often much more there than a cursory literal reading would reveal about a text. Edwards used four overlapping exegetical methods most often: canonical, Christological, redemptive-historical, and pedagogical. In the canonical mode, Edwards assumed that the Bible had a coherent body of ideas and doctrines, because the writers were all inspired by the Holy Spirit for coherent purposes. Thus, Edwards believed that we should interpret Scripture partly by reference to other parts of Scripture.

The canonical mode fed into the Christological mode, as "Christ, the Messiah, was the Bible's main subject. The canon was Christocentric. It cradled a comprehensive Christ," Sweeney says. Many Old Testament scholars since the rise of higher criticism (which was already beginning to emerge in Edwards' day), even if they attribute divine inspiration to the Hebrew Bible, refuse to see Christ in the pages of the Old Testament. They only want to know that the text meant to the author in his time and place. Edwards preferred the method of many of the New Testament authors, who regarded the Old Testament writers as often speaking prophetically and typologically about Jesus.

Similarly, in the redemptive-historical mode, Edwards saw the parts of Scripture fitting together into a glorious timeline of God's work from creation, through the fall, to Christ's work of redemption, and Christ's final establishment of the Kingdom on earth. For Edwards, all sections of Scripture fit into that complex yet unitary history.

Finally, in his preaching Edwards was no mere abstract philosopher. He brought pedagogical goals into the pulpit. Following his Puritan predecessors, he always wanted to connect doctrinal truth to Christian living. For example, Edwards insisted that a proper understanding of the doctrine of justification should produce enduring holiness in a believer. Indeed, the truly justified believer must make steady progress in sanctification, because at root, justification depends on God's power and not our effort.

As Sweeney explains, Edwards taught that "in conversion God infuses saving grace into the souls of the regenerate in the person of His Spirit, Who binds sinners to Christ, redirects their affections (attuning them to God), and begins to bear divine fruit in their lives." Anyone who has truly experienced that conversion must surely persevere to the end, Edwards told his congregants.

For all of the warranted attention scholars have given to Edwards's grand treatises, Sweeney makes a convincing case that Edwards' core vocation was not as a polemicist but as a preacher and teacher. Poring over scattered notes Edwards made on scraps of paper and in his "Blank Bible," Sweeney paints a compelling portrait of how Edwards approached the preaching task. I suspect that many Bible teachers will find this Edwards even more edifying than the Everest-like intellect that we knew before. Edwards the week-to-week preacher stewarded his vocation with deep attention to the text at hand, to the whole of Scripture, to God's plan for redemption, and to the sermon's practical consequences in the lives of his hearers.

[*Some readers will find the $74 list price of the book disheartening, but such prices are common for academic monographs these days. Given the stresses in the publishing industry, this is probably a choice between a high price (selling primarily to institutional libraries) or not having a book in print at all. Thus, unless Edwards the Exegete comes out in paperback, I might suggest finding ways to borrow it through inter-library loan if your library does not own it.]