The Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards

Written by Douglas A. Sweeney and Jan Stievermann, eds Reviewed By James C. McGlothlin

The Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards is one of the newest additions to Oxford University Press’s fine handbook series. For those unfamiliar with this line, their stated goal is to collect some of the best “state of the art” scholarly essays on a subject. The Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards fits this description well. This being the case, Edwards enthusiasts should understand what this book is not, namely a general introduction or overview of Edwards’s thought and work. There are many other fine books that do this: The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards, edited by Stephen J. Stein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); or Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought, edited by Oliver D. Crisp and Kyle C. Strobel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018); or A Reader’s Guide to the Major Writings of Jonathan Edwards, edited by Nathan A. Finn and Jeremy M. Kimble (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017). In contrast, The Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards is more academic in nature. Yet, it is not overly technical. Thus non-academic, Edwards aficionados could enjoy and benefit from this work as well.

Editors Douglas Sweeney, founding director of the Jonathan Edwards Center (formerly) at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Jan Stievermann, current director of a same-named center at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, are both well-established scholars in Edwards and early American Christianity. Sweeney and Stievermann have assembled an excellent array of well-known and up-and-coming Edwards academics for this volume.

It is difficult for a book review to do justice to any large, edited collection of essays. In such books, there are often too many different essays to cover well, and it is rarely the case that someone will read such a book from cover to cover. Therefore, I briefly review this volume in broad sections, while highlighting a couple of individual essays.

The Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards categorizes its various essays into helpfully themed sections. Part 1 is on Edwards’s backgrounds, sources, and contexts. Part 2 is by far the largest section—over 250 pages, twice the length of any other section in the book—and is entitled “Edwards’s Intellectual Labors,” a collection of essays on Edwards’s understanding of various theological and philosophical topics. Part 3 is on Edwards’s religious and social practices. Part 4 is a collection of essays on Edwards’s global reception.

Part 1 contains primarily historical content. Essays in this section treat Edwards’s family life, his pastoral ministry, and also various historical and ecclesiastical contexts that help to make sense of Edwards’s life and ministry. A couple of essays also address the history of the revivals and the First Great Awakening in relation to Edwards, as well as the intellectual history of Edwards’s life.

As already stated, Part 2 makes up the lion’s share of the book. This is unsurprising since Edwards’s sermons and treatises have long been a central focus in studying Edwards. His Calvinist orthodoxy and theological originality, as well as his philosophical precision, are well-known, and there is still much to be gleaned from Edwards’s insightful works. Most of the essays here are topically categorized by standard theological divisions, like Edwards’s understanding of the Trinity, the person of Christ, the Holy Spirit, revelation, creation, etc. But there are also essays on other more philosophically oriented topics. (Though, as Mark Noll famously coined, these are still “God-entranced” topics for Edwards.) Some included topics are Edwards’s ethics, his aesthetics, and his understanding of the sciences.

Essays in part 3 focus on Edwards’s personal devotional life, his understanding of biblical exegesis, and his approach to writing and preaching sermons. But this section also includes broader social topics, including essays on Edwards’s understanding of education, missions, politics, and economics. One essay worth noting is historian John Saillant’s “Edwards’s Ministry to the Bound and Enslaved” (ch. 28). It is usually emphasized in our day and age (often resoundingly) that Edwards was a slave owner—a very sad historical fact. But Saillant’s essay argues that Edwards’s experience among the Stockbridge Indians, though later in his life, probably led him to typological interpretations of certain sections of the Bible that would eventually be used by others to inform North American abolitionism. Saillant’s argument does not attempt to excuse Edwards’s complicity in slavery or in perpetuating racial inequality, but it does convincingly show that Edwards’s Christian convictions show some growing inner struggles with these particular injustices in his day.

Part 4 is a very interesting section with essays about Edwards’s reception in various places across the globe, including his American literary reception. Adriaan Neele’s essay on the African reception of Edwards also reveals some of the complicated subtleties of Edwards on slavery and racial inequality (ch. 35). The last essay is by Douglas Sweeney, addressing the topic of contemporary Edwards studies (ch. 37). Sweeney gives a clear overview of recent history on the topic and suggests future avenues of study.

The Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards is a superb addition to the ongoing academic research on Edwards, with various sections that will appeal to non-academics as well. As someone with a Reformed Christian perspective, I also am one of those who “revel(s) in the current resurgence of Edwards studies” (p. 493). But, as should be expected, this volume is more of an even-handed and critical scholarly volume. As an academic philosopher, I found several articles of great interest and use for my own studies in Edwards, though I was less interested in the essays more focused on historical concerns. In sum, I think The Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards is an excellent academic volume with a diverse array of high-level articles for various interests. It is a worthy contribution to Edwards studies.

James C. McGlothlin

James C. McGlothlin
Bethlehem College & Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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