The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards

John Carrick Banner of Truth, Edinburgh August 1, 2008
Purchase

This work by Carrick, of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Taylor, South Carolina, analyzes the homiletic style and approach of the famed Northampton Puritan pastor. The book consists of a rehearsal of many facets that scholars have generally observed in Edwards’s approach to presenting Scriptures to audiences, as well as a fine introduction to the man himself. What lifts the book to even greater heights of insight and usefulness is the author’s interaction with the work of “the Yale-project scholars,” principally Wilson Kimnach, Kenneth Minkema, Harry Stout, and Mark Valeri. A further contribution is the author’s interaction with Edwardsean scholarship. Though he is not always sympathetic with the views of Edwards’s contemporaries such as Samuel Hopkins, nor the voices of recent scholars, Carrick does possess insight, born out of detailed and painstaking interaction with Edwards.

The book includes more than Edwards’s sermonic and literary approach to the preaching task. The initial chapter on historiography is a helpful introduction to the ever-changing lenses used to approach Edwards, which are often, if not always, obscured by cultural blinders and personal prejudices. Following that are several chapters on the mental and spiritual assumptions that Edwards brought to the task of preaching. It would be difficult to refute the notion that Edwards approached the task of preaching from a relentless God-centeredness, a perspective that did not exclude the responsibility of his parishioners; in fact, this was the goal of his preaching. The chapter on Puritan “preparations” or “seeking” is particularly insightful; contrary to the conclusions of John Gerstner, Edwards was not a preparationist. Carrick correctly argues that Gerstner confused Edwards’s description of the conversion experience with what he perceived as a prescription of it (pp. 93–94). It is difficult to read Edwards and come to Gerstner’s conclusion.

Most of the following chapters (chaps. 8–26) deal with the art of preaching. To Edwards, the sermon was a literary device, delivered orally, designed to reveal the teachings of God, to draw hearers into a divine-parishioner dialogue with the ideas presented, and to bring the hearer to decide whether the content was attractive or adversative. Several facts make Edwards’s endeavor impressive. First, though all his auditors, those of yesterday and today, may not imbibe his perspective, he had a univocal approach to his task. The sermon was a God-centered act. Second, Edwards was extremely parishioner-focused. He thought deeply about how the hearer receives knowledge and what literary vehicles best promote it. In this sense Edwards was unique among preachers and teachers. Third, he was willing to attempt new ways that might more effectively promote the reception of his messages. Edwards was a master psychologist of the mind and a caretaker of the soul.

These chapters include descriptions of the parts of his sermon, how each part functioned uniquely, and the various literary devices he employed to make his points clear to his hearers. The chapters on the use of reiteration, repetition, imagery, and the use of supporting biblical texts, rhetorical questions, and illustrations are helpful in understanding tools that can be employed to arrest and assist the mind in conceptualizing and personalizing information that requires a decision. These chapters also discuss the use of exhortation, the employment of motives, and the interaction with various groups in preaching. To make his points Carrick quotes extensively from Edwards’s sermons.

The chapter on Edwards’s delivery style is particularly helpful (chap. 26). Carrick interacts with Hopkins and Gerstner, who perpetuated the idea that Edwards’s preaching style was colorless and rather bland, and that he was slavishly committed to the manuscripted text and the bell rope at the back of the meeting room. Carrick and the Edwards Yale-project scholars, demonstrate that Edwards was not tied to the text, as is often supposed, that his manuscripts demonstrate that sometimes he adopted an extemporaneous style. However, Carrick does not conclude with Kimnach that stylistic changes represent a deterioration in homiletic skill or preaching interests (pp. 421–22, 429), but that Edwards often varied the manner of his preaching throughout his ministry. A subtheme in regard to delivery style, which Carrick rejects, is the idea that Whitefield influenced Edwards to alter his preaching style, having witnessed Whitefield’s effectiveness in his own pulpit.

Chapter 27 is a rather insightful chapter. At one level it deals with the place of the Holy Spirit in Edwards’s pulpit ministry. While some scholars have suggested that natural skill, diligence in the task, and understanding the art of communication account for Edwards’s success (pp. 444–47), Carrick points out that this approach is a serious misreading of Edwards. Edwards can be analyzed in a mechanical fashion, but much is lost if the role of the Spirit of God in ministry is not recognized.

The final chapter (chap. 28) views Edwards critically. Here Carrick agrees with the Yale-project scholars that Edwards’s foibles, mainly his relentless habit of study to the neglect of other pastoral duties, were more than spiritual piety; their roots can be found, at least in part, in his psychological makeup (p. 454), that the reason for Edwards’s rejection by his flock was not so much about his pulpit ministry as it was his personality that spilled over into the relationship he sustained with his parishioners (pp. 452–53). While Edwards has much to teach about the art of preaching, according to Carrick, he has little to tell about the importance of pastoral ministry (pp. 457–58). In Carrick’s judgment Edwards would have served the cause of Christ better had he studied ten hours a day instead of thirteen! This is a lesson for all who idealize historic figures.

Two points of criticism of Carrick’s work may be mentioned. First, the voluminous quotations from various sermons to document his assertions make the work, at times, look more like a grinding classroom lecture than an academic resource (perhaps the proper rejoinder is what Carrick explains in chap. 27). Second, there seems to be a lack of cohesiveness between the various chapters, something like a string of pearls randomly arranged to become a necklace. However, the book is helpful in understanding Edwards, it demolishes some Edwardsean hagiography, and it reinforces the idea that readers should more actively interconnect with Edwards’s homiletical approach.

—John D. Hannah

January 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2010 vol. 167 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

Subscribe Today