Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought

Douglas A. Sweeney IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL June 1, 2009
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Sweeney is professor of church history and the history of Christian thought and director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has edited several works by Edwards as well as written several books on Edwards and on the history of American evangelicalism. In this book he introduces the nonspecialist to the thought and impact of this great man. “I have written it with Christians at the forefront of my mind: pastors, students, and everyone else who wants a brief, accessible book, full of essential information and explicitly Christian comment on this most important founder of the evangelical movement” (p. 17).

The author begins with a brief introduction to the small-town world of Puritan New England. He paints a vivid picture of Edwards’s world, which is helpful both to understand the context of his life and ministry and to contrast his world with the present world. Then in a series of chapters Sweeney tells the story of Edwards’s life. In each stage he connects the events in Edwards’s life to his ministry of the Word, focusing particularly on the role the Bible played in his life and service. Using many of Edwards’s own words and by engaging the secondary literature, Sweeney brings to life this pastor’s passion for God and the Scriptures, as well as compassion for his family, his congregation, and the non-Christians in his town and around the world.

Sweeney writes with great respect for Edwards, and it is through this lens that he addresses aspects of his story that are troubling. For example it is well known that the Edwards family owned several slaves. Sweeney writes, “This needs to be confessed with utter clarity. He was complicit in his country’s most notorious national sin. Christians today should not excuse this. Nor should we gloss over it glibly. Edwards’ slave owning stands as a stark reminder of the sinfulness of our greatest Christian heroes” (p. 67). His intention, however, is not simply to expose Edwards’s sin or to criticize his moral failure. Instead Sweeney adopts a pastoral tone. This “should keep us from thinking too highly of them. It should also keep us humble. For if Edwards proved this sinful, woe is me, and woe are most of us whose piety frankly pales in comparison to his. We can only hope and pray that our humility will make us able to learn from other sinners. If we cannot, we are the losers” (ibid.).

Much of Edwards’s impact on evangelical theology is well known. His sermons and theological writings are widely read and examined. Sweeney also calls attention to Edwards’s impact on the modern missions movement. After he was fired by the church in Northampton, he entertained several pastoral opportunities, but rejected all of them and instead “chose to move to the sticks of frontier Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and assume the life of a crosscultural missionary” (p. 170). Of Edwards’s influence on missions, Sweeney concludes, “He did whatever he could to inculcate a global consciousness among his Protestant readers, to support the cause of revival and evangelism abroad, and to lead by bold example in the mission field” (p. 173).

Sweeney’s concluding assessment of Edwards’s legacy is succinct and clear: “Edwards did ennoble and strengthen those he served throughout his life. His many writings—and his followers—have done so since his death, on every continent in the world. Perhaps we can learn about the challenges of Christian faith, life and even ministry from him. To be sure, he preached in a wig. He got himself fired by the people whom he led for most of his ministry. He seems old-fashioned today. Yet his love for God and his Word has never gone without a witness. He continues to inspire and instruct” (pp. 196–97).

Sweeney writes with a genuine awareness of Edwards’s thought and times, with a clear understanding of his published and unpublished writings, with a profound appreciation for his contributions and insights, and yet with a discerning awareness of his foibles and failures. Scholars of Edwards will be challenged anew by Sweeney’s work. Pastors and students will be encouraged to pursue the ministry of the Word of God through Edwards’s example. Everyone who shares Edwards’s love for the Bible will find their affections stirred anew by reading Sweeney’s book.

—Glenn R. Kreider

April 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2011 vol. 168 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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