Understanding Jonathan Edwards

As many of you know, my dissertation research focuses on Jonathan Edwards’ theology. understanding-jeIn light of this, I am always keeping an eye out for new material on Edwards. I was particularly excited to hear about a new project by Gerald R. McDermott, one of the more prolific Edwards scholars of our day. Beyond his interests in biblical typology, Deism and world religions, McDermott has shown he has an interest in helping a lay audience grasp Edwards – a task many try and few succeed.

The new volume is entitled: Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America’s Theologian by Oxford University Press, who was nice enough to send me a copy hot off the presses! There are several distinctive features of this volume making it stand alone among the many secondary volumes of Edwards literature (which I will highlight below). What I want to note up front is my favorite aspect – it was written for those who may have little to no knowledge of Edwards or the field of Edwards studies. What excites me about this is that it accomplishes what few (if any) have: an introduction to major themes in Edwards thought that is usable for the classroom.

For those of you who don’t know Edwards studies very well, let me explain. Never having written a systematic theology, Edwards’ works are occasional, mostly unpublished and arcane. Grasping onto themes is next to impossible for anyone other than scholars because you have to trace through his 1400 or so Miscellanies notes to see the progression of his thought, not to mention traipsing through his 1200 extant sermons, his notes on/in the Bible, as well as deal with the chronological / genre issues which arise because of these sources. Therefore, for the beginning student, Edwards can seem impenetrable, if not just odd. Other volumes which seek to offer introductions are usually of specific works, which is fine, but are still usually read in a vacuum and abstracted from Edwards’ thought world.

Beyond the obvious necessity for this volume, McDermott added several interesting features. First, instead of offering a volume of themes by all the classic Edwards scholars, he broke the book down into eight themes and had an Edwards scholar write the first, and a European scholar (not previously familiar with Edwards) respond. This not only provides for divergent viewpoints, but could very well help students understand the nature and issues inherent to Edwards studies. The topics are: Jonathan Edwards’ Life and Career, Edwards and Revival, Edwards and the Bible, Edwards and Biblical Typology, Edwards and Beauty, The Literary Life of Jonathan Edwards, Edwards and Philosophy, and Edwards and the World Religions. McDermott chose a great lineup of Edwards scholars for the volume, many of them the most prolific commentators in the field, and the European counterparts offer distinctive and erudite engagement of the material. Those of us who think Edwards has some good things to say will hope that this can open the door for “America’s theologian” to be considered in a broader global context.

While all of these themes are interesting in Edwards studies, I was particularly excited to read the chapters on Edwards and the Bible and Edwards and Biblical Typology. There isn’t nearly enough work done on these topics, and with the revived interest in hermeneutics, typology and differing aspects of theological exegesis, there needs to be more work done. Doug Sweeney, the Edwards scholar (and Edwards reception scholar) at TEDS wrote the first essay on the Bible, with Wolter H. Rose as a respondant, and Tibor Fabiny wrote the first essay on Biblical Typology with McDermott responding (this being the only theme with a European writing the initial essay and an American offering the response). Fabiny’s essay was fascinating, as a scholar focusing in the area of typology and addressing Edwards only after he had written on typology in general. I found this section enlightening and McDermott’s response a helpful counterpart.

While there are many issues one could take with a volume like this (why these topics and not others, why not engage more of the major debates, etc.), those issues tend to be raised for any book written on Edwards. I think McDermott did an excellent job setting out to create what he thought necessary – a volume for beginners which maps out various themes and issues so that people can take a first step into Edwards studies. Those teaching classes on Edwards will no doubt be grateful, and those looking for an introduction to Edwards’ ideas will find a helpful roadmap.

Out of curiosity, how many of you were introduced to Edwards in any real way in seminary (By “real” I mean beyond the Religious Affections)? How many have since taken up “America’s Theologian” to hear what this pastor-theologian has to say?

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6 thoughts on “Understanding Jonathan Edwards

  1. I am studying with Phil Ziegler. I came here to do something very different than I am doing now with Edwards, but Phil was gracious enough to stick with it. Fortunately for me, Phil is interested in virtually everything! His focus these days is on Bonhoeffer though.

  2. I would start by looking at Miscellanies 18, and 125a. I’m sure there is a discussion about it in the editorial introduction to the philosophical and scientific writings (Yale V.6), and would imagine that there is more in there as well. As I recall, there is some debate as to whether he held this view throughout his life, but I think that he pretty clearly did. A sermon to look into is “God is infinitely strong” preached in 1753 at Stockbridge. I’m pretty sure that is in Yale Vol. 25. After that, I would look at monographs dealing with Edwards philosophy, as well as looking into Edwards idealism which functions as a companion doctrine to his occasionalism.

  3. I should also say that there is some debate on whether Edwards “occasionalism” can be truly be called “occasionalism”. I know Crisp suggests that logically there is a distinction to be drawn between occasionalism and continuous creation by invoking a Humean second order causality, but it has been a couple of years since I have read that and I’m not 100% sure I understood it then. Lee wants to claim that Edwards occasionalism leans closer to a general upholding rather than newly creating, but I haven’t looked into how much that is integrated into Lee’s account as a whole which I think if suspect on several counts.

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