Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Category: History of Biblical Interpretation

“Jonathan Edwards and Scripture” Book Notice

Jonathan Edwards and Scripture Book CoverOver the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with Doug Sweeney in putting together a new multicontributor volume on Edwards and the Bible, and I’m pleased to say that the book is now available. The volume is titled Jonathan Edwards and Scripture: Biblical Exegesis in British North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), and it includes contributions from a number of Edwards scholars who have helped further the conversation on this important topic.

The book builds on the work that Sweeney, especially, has done over many years in the form of lectures, articles, and books, culminating in his Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015)—see my review of it here. It also furthers some of my research on Edwards, particularly in my book Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms (Oxford University Press, 2014).

To give you a taste of this new volume, here’s an excerpt from my introduction to the book:

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John Chrysostom on Love and Marriage

As Valentine’s Day rolls around, advice on love can be found not only in the seasonal aisle of the grocery store but also in the writings of the ancient past. One notable pastor from early Christianity to treat the topic of love and marriage is John Chrysostom (ca. 347–409), the “golden mouth” preacher of Asia Minor. Chrysostom’s best preaching on marriage is captured in his On Marriage and Family Life (St. Vladimir’s Press, 1986), from the Popular Patristics Series (see also my discussion of Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching from the same series). This volume by Chrysostom includes six of his sermons on the topic of marriage—aimed toward both those seeking marriage and those already married.

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Irenaeus on Biblical Interpretation

Irenaeus - On the Apostolic PreachingHow did the early Christians interpret the Bible? Should their mode of biblical interpretation say anything to us about how to interpret Scripture today? We have much to learn from studying the history of biblical interpretation, a field that speaks to both the unity and diversity of exegesis among Christians. One of the earliest discussions of biblical interpretation that we have comes from Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 140–ca. 200), in On the Apostolic Preaching, also known as The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.

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Grammatical-Historical Exegesis in Historical Perspective

In his book Edwards the Exegete (see my review here), Doug Sweeney gives the following brief but illuminating description of the shift that took place with the rise of “grammatical-historical exegesis,” which holds sway in liberal-theological and many evangelical circles today:

As a host of theologians have bemoaned in recent years, Christians lost something crucial in the triumph of grammatical-historical exegesis and its rather new conception of the literal sense of Scripture. They lost their old conviction that the Bible hangs together by the power of the Spirit. Thus they lost their old facility for interpreting the scope and larger meanings of the canon. . . . Ancient history, not the knowledge and love of God has now become the holy grail of exegesis.[1]

In contrast, Sweeney suggests that Edwards, who was interpreting Scripture “on the edge of the Enlightenment,” can offer something that responds to this shift: “a learned and creative model of biblical exposition that is critical and edifying, historical and spiritual.”[2] Edwards is certainly not the only exegete to offer something. One could look to several biblical interpreters in church history and find examples of exegesis aimed at both the knowledge and the love of God. Edwards, however, is a particularly interesting example because he lived during a transition into more critical methods of reading the Bible, and yet while he found the new learning fascinating, he still read Scripture in ways that resonated with exegesis for centuries preceding him.

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Recasting Sola Scriptura: Allen and Swain’s Reformed Catholicity

Allen and Swain - Reformed CatholicityIn my review of Mark Noll’s book, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, I described Noll’s discussion of how American colonists transformed the sola scriptura principle of “the Bible supreme” into “the Bible only.” That story recounts some negative consequences of such a shift and also raises certain theological questions beyond the purview of Noll’s book. In Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2015), Michael Allen and Scott Swain make a similar observation about Protestants, but they look at it from the viewpoint of theologians, pointing to dangers with sola scripture from a Reformed point of view and addressing some of the very theological issues raised in Noll’s book (though not interacting with his work directly).

What exactly do they mean by the term catholicity? They explain that they understand catholicity not in the narrower sense of Roman Catholic but in the early-church sense of the church catholic, or the church universal. As J. Todd Billings describes in his afterword to the book, this approach to theology is catholic in the sense that “it gives a Trinitarian (Nicene) account that holds to the cosmic centrality of Jesus Christ as the mediator between Creator and creation (Chalcedonian)” (152). Those who appreciate the discipline of church history can likewise appreciate their desire to root their modern theological program in the theology of the ancient church councils.

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A Review of Mark Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life

Mark Noll - In the Beginning Was the WordLiving in what some call a post-Christian society, one might expect the Bible to have receded from public life by this time. While it might still have some influence in small enclaves of believers, it would rarely be seen in the public discourse. And to some degree this is true. Yet even in recent presidential campaigns and inaugural addresses, the Bible still shows up. Its lingering influence points to a long, complex history of the Bible’s place in American public life.

Eminent religious historian Mark Noll traces the early part of this history in his book In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (Oxford University Press, 2016; source: publisher). So much could be said about the Bible in America, and Noll seeks to narrow his discussion by focusing on how the Bible influenced public life—that is, “to show how such influences shaped the history of Scripture for political, imperial, and national purposes” (5).

As one expects from Noll, he provides a very readable account of how Americans used the Bible in public discourse. Inevitably, he must be selective, and many aspects of the history of biblical interpretation stand beyond the scope of the volume (e.g., exploring debates over principles of exegesis, examining shifts in the commentarial tradition). But his selections form a coherent tale that illuminates the shifts within the increasingly sticky relationship between the Bible and politics. Noll gives us an overarching view of the story of the Bible in American public life and provides insightful historical analysis along the way.

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Sweeney’s “Edwards the Exegete” and “the Real Jonathan Edwards”

Edwards the ExegeteDouglas Sweeney - Edwards the Exegete represents a crowning achievement of a dozen years of studying Jonathan Edwards. Doug Sweeney, who was my doctoral advisor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and who runs a helpful blog on Edwards, has done Edwards scholars and followers a tremendous service in this volume, pulling back the curtain on a foundational aspect of Edwards’ life and thought that has generally been ignored. As Sweeney puts it succinctly, “We fail to comprehend Edwards’ life, thought, and ministry when viewing them apart from his biblical exegesis” (ix).

This monograph offers readers the first synthesis of Edwards’ exegesis across his entire corpus. Other volumes have explored aspects of Edwards’ corpus—particularly Stephen Stein’s fine introductions to Edwards’ biblical manuscripts printed in Yale University Press’s Works of Jonathan Edwards—or examined Edwards’ approach to particular parts of the canon. But Sweeney offers a truly groundbreaking study in analyzing the whole, based on a remarkable mastery of the primary and secondary literature on Edwards and his world, visible in the length and detail of the book’s notes.

As indicated by the volume title, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015; source: publisher), Sweeney aims to present Edwards in his broader exegetical and cultural context without outright commending or denigrating Edwards as a biblical exegete. He admits, “I am not an Edwardsean,” and he instead seeks to approach the topic “as a historian, . . . transport[ing] thoughtful readers into Edwards’ biblical world, helping them understand and sympathize with Edwards’ exegesis, from the inside out, before resuming critical distance and evaluating his work from a late-modern perspective” (ix). He accomplishes this goal well.

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Peace on Earth: Reflections from Jonathan Edwards

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
~ Luke 2:14

In a sermon on this text, Jonathan Edwards reflected on how Christ brings peace on earth. As the following excerpts from his sermon (available in this volume) show, Edwards celebrated the incarnation of God in Jesus and the peaceful effects of his coming to earth, which brought peace between man and God, peace within man, and peace between men:[1]

 

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Gerald McDermott’s Review of “Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms”

JEC@TEDS LogoProfessor Gerald McDermott, a leading Edwards scholar and co-author with Michael McClymond of the monumental The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2011), has posted a gracious guest review of my book, Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms, at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School website.

Check it out at this link: http://jecteds.org/blog/2014/09/23/jonathan-edwards-the-psalms-and-the-history-of-redemption/.

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“Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms” Now Available

Jonathan Edwards and the PsalmsIt’s a pleasure to announce that my book, Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2014), is now available from major online retailers. I’m grateful to the many people who have helped bring this book to publication.

To give you a sense of what I discuss in the book, here’s a brief description from the jacket cover:

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Lessons in Biblical Interpretation from the Early Church

Michael Graves - Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture in the Early ChurchFor evangelical Christians, reading the Bible represents one of the most basic aspects of the Christian life. As heirs of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, evangelicals elevate Scripture above all other authorities.

Yet even Martin Luther never intended that Christians should read the Bible alone. Luther owed much in his biblical interpretation to Augustine, and he cast the Reformation movement as standing in continuity with the early church.

Michael Graves, Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, echoes Luther’s sentiment that Christians can gain much by interpreting Scripture in the light of earlier biblical interpreters in The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Eerdmans, 2014). In this volume, Graves guides readers into the ancient world of early Christianity by exploring the intersection of biblical inspiration and biblical interpretation. For the early church fathers, what are the “entailments” of affirming the doctrine of inspiration, as they all did?

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History Rising, Scripture Falling: A Review of The Erosion of Biblical Certainty

Lee - Erosion of Biblical Certainty ImageAs the common story goes, the Bible lost its place of authority in the American mind when Darwinism and German theological liberalism cracked its foundations in the last half of the nineteenth century. In The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Michael J. Lee pushes back that timetable, arguing that the Bible began to lose authority in the early eighteenth century when, ironically, orthodox Christian interpreters unwittingly contributed to its demise.

In this well-documented account of Americans’ engagement with the rise of biblical criticism, Lee, assistant professor of history at Eastern University, explores interpreters from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth century and shows how they relied increasingly on historical evidence in their defense of the Bible’s authority. Influenced by European interpreters from Benedict de Spinoza, Jean Le Clerc, and John Locke to Johann Jakob Griesbach and J. G. Eichhorn, Americans increasingly employed historically based arguments in their biblical interpretation.

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Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms Book Cover Released

Jonathan Edwards and the PsalmsI’m pleased to see that Amazon has recently posted the cover for my book, Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture, which is being published by Oxford University Press (OUP). It is currently slated for an October 3, 2014 release date.

Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms is the first book to explore Edwards’ treatment of a full book of the Bible. In the volume I examine Edwards’ engagement with the Psalms in the context of the history of interpreting, preaching, and worshipping with the Psalter. Edwards was a devoted student of the Bible, and in this book I hope to further the conversation about Edwards as a biblical interpreter—an area that deserves much more attention.

In my volume, I explore Edwards’ engagement with the Psalms throughout his corpus, including understudied manuscripts such as his “Blank Bible,” “Notes on Scripture,” and dozens of unpublished sermons. In his reading of the Psalms, Edwards treated various theological themes, including God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, revelation, humanity, sin, the gospel, Christian piety, the church corporate, and the eternal dwellings of all people. I argue that Edwards connected all of these themes through a redemptive-historical framework that guided his engagement with the Psalms.

Check out the OUP page for more details about Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms.

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