Book Review: Edwards the Exegete:
by Dr. Toby K. Easley, March 7, 2017
Douglas A. Sweeney, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-0199793228, 408).
In his book, Edwards The Exegete, Doug Sweeney does not assume that everyone reading his book will have a historical grasp of the eighteenth-century context in which Edwards lived. Wisely, he gives a reminder that Edwards lived in a time and age much removed from our twenty-first century world. On the other hand, Sweeney does not hesitate to give his own twenty-first century historical perspective on several hot button issues. For a moment, he seems to lay aside his own reminder of Edwards’s far removed eighteenth-century world, and proceeds to fast forward Edwards into a twenty-first century cultural context, describing his “sin” in relation to slavery. Sweeney expresses a brief polemic without throwing the “baby out with the bathwater,” wisely realizing that erasing historical data is not the answer either. However, he leaves no doubt from his own perspective, that the eighteenth-century Jonathan Edwards had his own flaws and shortcomings like any man. Consequently, the reader is left with no uncertainty where Sweeney presently stands on past misdeeds to humanity, while also perceiving his progressive snippet regarding the authorship of the Biblical book of Hebrews.
As Sweeney analyzes Edwards’s view of Scripture he claims, “he weighed the historicity of much of Sacred Scripture and held traditional opinions on the provenance of its books.” He also made very clear that Edwards believed in the veracity of Scripture and the Holy Spirit deliberately harmonized the truths of Scripture for our understanding. In other words, in Sweeney’s estimation, “He rarely worked as a splitter when it came to sacred Scripture, almost always as a joiner.” In the first chapter on the Canon, Sweeney summed it up quite accurately. “For Edwards…every single text of Scripture was to be read first and foremost in relation to the Canon.” Those who have read Edwards extensively over a span of years will more than likely agree with his conclusion on Edwards and the Canon.
Transitioning to how Edwards saw the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, Sweeney acknowledges that Edwards wrote, preached, and did things with the Bible that only a person with his knowledge and scholarly ability could explain. Nevertheless, he also points out that few Old Testament scholars in our day have patience for what “Edwards did with Genesis 14 and the Levites.” On an important note however, he pointed out two very important items. First, the “Bible is the epistle of Christ that he has written to us.” Second, one of the beauties of the Bible is the spiritual harmony and how the Scriptures point to Jesus Christ “from every part of Sacred Scripture.” This central idea according to Sweeney goes back to the Protestant Reformers who also viewed Christ as the “scopus der zweek, or the bulls eye of the Bible, a belief that turned problematic only with the decline of Protestant orthodoxy.”
The chapter on Edwards and the Canticles (Song of Solomon) is also very informative and interesting. Sweeney points out that Edwards was in agreement with many of his commentaries explaining that he “read Canticles as an emblem, or the spirit; of the love between the Lord and His elect.” Due to the sexual imagery in Song of Solomon, Sweeney points to a quote from Murray who wrote about Edwards’s willingness to dive into the sexually explicit expressions of the book. “Regarding Canticles – Murray said, ‘Despite the caricature of Edwards as an otherworldly recluse, his senses were attuned to both bodily and spiritual enjoyments.’” However, at the end of the day for Edwards, all of these relational human images were simply types of the antitype, which is Christ.
In this writer’s opinion, the chapter on Edwards’s eschatology is at the top of the list among favorites. As with any academic work, there are a few places in Sweeney’s book the reader must trudge through. Nevertheless, the rewards of knowledge attained, is worth trudging beyond those points throughout the entire book. Edwards’s eschatological perspectives can be fascinating and at times seemingly contradictory. Once again the reader must make a mental note of the eighteenth-century context in which Edwards lived. News travelled at the pace of a horse and a ship. Furthermore, Israel as a nation was still dispersed among the nations and many were far removed from their homeland. The American Revolution was several decades in the future and visions of a unified protestant America brought on images of the peaceful Millennium. This explains why at times Edwards’s eschatology takes off in numerous directions, trying to find meaning in the events of his time.
Sweeney also identifies the positive hope and reflection of Edwards’s words, “I think if we consider the circumstances of the settlement of New England, it must needs appear the most likely of all American colonies, to be the place whence this work shall principally take its rise.” Edwards did as Sweeney claims; think, “A golden age would come before the Lord returned.” However, he is also correct in saying that some of Edwards’s ideas seems to be like “pre-millennialists” and is difficult to “pigeon hole in late modern terms.” Sweeney however points to the genuineness of Edwards’s tenacity to mine Biblical truth, with a great span of the testimony of time behind him and much more remaining before him.
Sweeney’s ultimate summation of Edwards’s eschatological framework is excellent. “Edwards did hold it together. His Bible absorbed the world, to borrow a phrase from George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and their students. ‘The world of the text gave meaning to the world outside the text’ quoting Frances Young again. Secular knowledge really never was his basic frame of reference. The Bible and its teachings were, for him, the most basic.”
Naturally, those who have read the many sermons of Jonathan Edwards, usually come to realize that many books could be written on Edwards’s exegetical approaches. Sweeney tackles several of the key areas of Edwards’s exegesis and competently explains to readers from primary sources, the reasons for his arguments and explanations. Sweeney’s purpose in the book is not to dive into the precise rhetorical methods of Edwards. Nevertheless, he does wrap up the material eloquently in the end where one may discover some of his most exhilarating sentences. “This simple Missionary herald was the real Jonathan Edwards, the heart of whose theology was biblical exegesis. Though a literary artist, meta-physical theologian, moral prophet, college teacher, nature lover, and civic leader, he was primarily a minister of the Word.”~TKE~