Jonathan Edwards and the Bible

Robert E. Brown Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN May 24, 2002
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Although rightly acknowledged as a preeminent philosopher and theologian, Edwards was first and foremost a pastor, and a pastor who was committed to the Word of God as the source of divine revelation. Thus it is surprising that so little Edwardsean scholarship has dealt with his use and interpretation of the Bible.

In this important book Brown shows how Edwards interacted with the rise of historical criticism and how his view of the Bible was impacted by the shifting philosophy of history in the eighteenth century. As is generally acknowledged, Edwards and the rest of the Puritans read the Bible realistically or literally, believing that the narratives referred to actual events and that the meaning was imbedded in the events themselves as described by the inspired texts. In the eighteenth century those understandings were widely questioned and replaced by an increasing skepticism about the reliability of biblical history and the literal meaning of the texts. In short, traditional biblical interpreters were compelled to argue on rational and empirical grounds for the historicity of the narratives. Many have understood Edwards to have been relatively untouched by these historical critical questions.

Brown shows that Edwards, although maintaining a literal or realistic reading of biblical history, was aware of and interacted with the historiographical disputes of his day. “While it is certainly true that he occupied a position at the conservative end of the critical spectrum, he was in no way ignorant of or unaffected by critical historical thought” (p. 128). His conservatism was not a separatist or isolationist approach to the intellectual discussion of his day. Rather, he was thoroughly engaged with the philosophical, theological, scientific, literary, and historiographic conversations, always from the perspective of a Christian worldview.

Brown’s book does not provide the final statement on Jonathan Edwards and the Bible. He does not deal with Edwards’s hermeneutical or exegetical method. He does not discuss Edwards’s treatment of the various genres of Scripture, nor his commentary on biblical passages. He does not answer all the questions about Edwards’s reading of history, neither biblical or secular, nor the relationship between the two. He does not resolve the tensions of Edwards’s typological methodology nor his similarities and differences with his Reformed forefathers and his contemporaries. As Brown concludes, “The present study has really done little more than touch upon the impact of critical thought on areas beyond the central question of his historical thought, and it will no doubt take the work of several careers to sort out its full significance. But it is clear that critical biblical interpretation offers an important window on nearly every aspect of his thought, whether doctrine, epistemology, typology, natural and comparative religions, true religion, natural science, or public discourse. These are simply unintelligible without taking into consideration his biblical commentary and its critical orientation” (p. 199). As an initial step in encouraging students of Edwards to devote more attention to his use and interpretation of the Scriptures, Brown’s work is extremely helpful.

Another significant contribution of Brown’s book is that he provides an example of Edwards’s value for contemporary evangelical theology. For Edwards, the Bible was central. Any evangelical theological method worthy of the name must begin there. Edwards further understood the significance of history for his theological method. For him, history is the unfolding of the plan and purpose of the Creator. Thus both biblical and secular history bear His fingerprints. Edwards recognized the importance of understanding the intellectual and social climate of his time. He read widely, in order to learn from the great minds of his day and the past and in order to speak as a Christian to the questions and issues raised in other disciplines. He was committed to speaking the truth into his culture, to call people to faith in Christ and to obedience in discipleship. For those who share his commitment to the Scriptures and its call to make disciples, it would be difficult to find a better model to emulate.

Brown’s book thus accomplishes two significant ends. It shows how Edwards the theologian interacted with the thinkers of his day in order to understand contemporary thought and thereby become a better theologian. It further shows that his commitment to the authority of Scripture and its integrity as a historical source was unwavering. In one sense Edwards was a man of his age. Yet his view of Scripture was traditional and probably viewed as anachronistic by many scholars of his day. The challenge he faced remains today for those who share Edwards’s loyalty to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures. It is hoped that Edwards’s theological descendants will foster this same posture. Further it is hoped that other Edwardsean scholars would pick up the topic and invest their careers into sorting out the full significance of his hermeneutical and theological method.

—Glenn R. Kreider

July 1, 2004
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2004 vol. 161 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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