Jonathan Edwards and Scripture: Biblical Exegesis in British North America

Written by David P. Barshinger and Douglas A. Sweeney, eds. Reviewed By Joseph T. Cochran

As the Edwards Renaissance continues, a happy trend is interest in studying Edwards’s approach to the Bible. This interest is pursued by Edwards scholars from various backgrounds and disciplines, as participation in the recent Jonathan Edwards and Scripture compendium demonstrates. The editors, Douglas A. Sweeney and David P. Barshinger, have each written authoritative, pioneering works on the topic (see Sweeney’s Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015] and Barshinger’s Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015]). They have assembled an anthology of essays attending to Edwards’s engagement with the Holy Writ—the aim of which is to observe Edwards’s devotion to scripture, assess him as a biblical interpreter in comparison to his Reformed heritage and enlightened context, and to appreciate the uniqueness of Edwards’s constructive biblical theology and theological interpretation of scripture. Since a comprehensive summary is impractical, this review focuses on how the contributions, though valuable independently, ought to be read in tandem. Their arguments corroborate one another and display a consensus on Edwards’s scriptural interpretation. Apologies to readers who anticipate a linear account; this review is thematically produced.

Kenneth Minkema (chapter 1) depicts Edwards’s scriptural practices. Edwards kept canonical reviews of scripture and had favorite texts and textual “clusters,” which are found in Edwards’s “Miscellanies,” “Blank Bible,” “Notes on Scripture,” other thematic notebooks, and the scripture texts he habitually re-preached. Minkema’s introduction to these less known parts of Edwards’s corpus is helpful because all later contributors amply use these texts. Adriaan Neele’s study (chapter 3) explores Edwards’s secondary interlocutor, Matthew Poole, who introduced to Edwards much more secondary literature. As Neele summarizes, Poole’s Synopsis “is a composition of a vast number and variety of authors of various faith traditions” (p. 56). Robert Brown’s case-study of Edwards and the Pentateuch furthers these arguments (chapter 7). Edwards gave generous time to studying the historical narratives of Genesis and Exodus in order to defend Mosaic authorship (cf. entry No. 416 in “Notes on Scripture”). Edwards also resourced English translations of French-Catholic scholars, Richard Simon and Louis Ellies Du Pin, for his research. Brown’s article is preceded by a Pentateuchal case-study from luminary of American historical studies, Mark Noll, who provides an account of Edwards’s interpretation of Genesis 32:22–32, Jacob’s wrestling with “a Man” (chapter 6).

piritual sense of the text.

Chamberlain’s essay demonstrates how fruitful research comes from matters even Edwards gave scant attention. Three other essays reveal this. Remarkably, each one surfaces theological and cultural tensions Edwards managed in respect to Catholicism. Stephen Stein’s essay on Edwards and the Virgin Mary exhibits that Edwards staunchly opposed the Catholic doctrine of Mariology, but he did not marginalize Mary (chapter 10). Her role in redemptive history as the pre-natal vessel for the two-natured Son of God becomes, for Edwards, a typological picture of those who “foster the life of Christ in the world” (p. 190). James Byrd’s blend of intellectual, social, and military history discusses Edwards’s function as a civil figure, who supported a just war interpretation of scripture to enlist support for England’s conflicts with Catholic Spain and France (chapter 11). Gerald McDermott’s inquiry into evangelical Edwards’s theological commitments suggests that Edwards was quite Thomistic on a handful of positions (chapter 13). Furthermore, Edwards appears to subscribe to a Prima Scriptura rather than Sola Scriptura position. Before readers rise up against McDermott’s assessment, it is vital to observe that Protestantism’s catholicity has always featured marks of Thomism; Edwards is no outlier.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe’s contribution on the Bible in Edwards’s personal life and spiritual practice illumines his fundamental preaching aim to elicit revival and stir affections (chapter 4). Edwards’s writing practices were exercises of biblical spiritual reflection to foster personal revival and ongoing conversion, which Kling alludes to in chapter 12 (p. 229–31). Jan Stievermann’s and Ryan Hoselton’s contribution compares Cotton Mather’s experimental piety to Edwards’s (chapter five). For Edwards, experimental piety is denoted by “spiritual notions in Scripture lively to the mind by stirring the saint’s internal senses and perceptions to feel and see their beauty, concinnity, and goodness” (p. 102). Michael McClymond neatly pulls together these conclusions about Edwards’s spiritual understanding of Scripture as he unfolds his “logic of fullness” in John’s writings (chapter nine). Edwards believed that the spiritual life involved an ever-increasing experience of God’s grace as one perpetually comes into deeper intimacy and union with the triune God. McClymond asserts that Edwards’s “logic of fullness” anticipates the inaugurated eschatology of Richard Bauckham and the “dynamic relation” of C. H. Dodd.

These essays will engender further critical engagement by scholars preoccupied by Jonathan Edwards. Furthermore, by acquainting readers with ongoing projects, like Cotton Mather’s Biblia America, this study alerts readers to the value of exploring Edwards’s and Mather’s Atlantic World frontier. Pastors and interested lay-readership will find comfort and encouragement from Edwards’s traditional yet innovative interpretive work; Edwards preserved his Reformed heritage, while creatively protecting sound doctrine from sceptics’ and liberals’ assault upon the church.

Joseph T. Cochran

Joseph T. Cochran
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA

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