The Biblical World of Jonathan Edwards

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The Biblical World of Jonathan Edwards

“Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Psalm 119:111

“Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” Jeremiah 23:29
“From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” 2 Timothy 3:14-17
“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12

Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) lived in a world strangely different from our own, a world imbued, often enchanted, by the contents of the Bible. Most of his family members, friends, congregants, and correspondents, both at home and back in Britain, would have identified the Bible as their most important book, the one they knew and loved the best, indeed their favorite source of information, inspiration, and insight into the nature of reality. Frequently it frightened them. They took its stories and warnings about the jealousy, wrath, and judgment of God as awesome matters of fact. However, it usually also succored them. They staked their very lives upon its promise of salvation, grace, and mercy to the penitent, its words of consolation to the anxious and oppressed, and its guidance for those who sought to live in a way that pleased the Lord.

“The Bible is full of wonderful things,” Edwards attested to his people. It has stood the test of time as the world’s “most comprehensive book.” It is “divine.” It is “unerring.” The splendid light it sheds on our world “is ten thousand times better than [that] of the sun.” The Scripture’s sacred texts, Edwards contended, are “the most excellent things in the world.” In fact, they tower “as much above those things” we study “in other sciences, as heaven is above . . . earth.” Further, the knowledge held in these heavenly texts “is infinitely more useful and important” than the knowledge attained in “all other sciences.” Edwards lauded Scripture as a “great” and “precious treasure.” He pleaded with his congregations to “search for” biblical treasure, “and that with the same diligence . . . with which men . . . dig in mines” for “gold.” He assured them that the Bible “contains enough” within its covers so “to employ us to the end.” Even at death, he said, we “shall leave enough” of the Scriptures “uninvestigated to employ . . . the ablest divines to the end of the world,” or better, “to employ the . . . saints and angels to all eternity.” He found what he called a “greater delight” in exegetical exertion “than in anything else” he did. He confessed on many occasions that those who have ever “tasted the sweetness” of God’s Scriptural divinity will live out their days in “longing for more and more of it.”2

Despite his reputation as a backward-leaning Calvinist (which has likely been confirmed for some by the statements just quoted), Edwards surely would have jumped at the chance to live with us today. He would have given almost anything for access to the historical and scientific knowledge that has burgeoned so dramatically since the early nineteenth century. His eighteenth-century world seems far away, a distant land. And Edwards was a man of his times. But he was also keenly curious and usually open-minded. He was a forward-looking thinker with an insatiable appetite for information about the Bible, its ancient Near Eastern contexts, and the structure of the natural world in which its events, stories, songs, poems, prophecies, morals and other teachings were--and continued to be--realized.3 Edwards echoed the well-known adage of the Pilgrim John Robinson: “the Lord had more truth and light yet to breake forth out of his holy Word.”4 He thought that God would use the future advance of pious scholarship to inundate the church with light as the end of world drew near. As he wrote in his “Miscellanies” during the late 1720s,

‘Tis an argument with me that the world is not yet very near its end, that the church has made no greater progress in understanding the Scriptures. The Scripture and all parts of it were made for the use of the church here on earth, and it seems reasonable to suppose that God will by degrees unveil the meaning of it to his church. It was made obscure and mysterious, and in many places having great difficulties, that his people might have exercise for their pious wisdom and study, and that his church might make progress in the understanding of it; as the philosophical world makes progress in the understanding of the book of nature, and unfolding the mysteries of it. And there is a divine wisdom appears in ordering of it thus: how much better is it to have divine truth and light break forth in this way, than it would have been, to have had it shine at once to everyone without any labor or industry of the understanding. It would be less delightful, and less prized and valued and admired, and would have vastly less influence on men’s hearts, and would be less to the glory of God. 5

He seldom studied extra-biblical things for secular significance. He nearly always focused on their theological meaning. But as we will see more fully below, this was because he thought the Word of God was that by which the secular world began, was sustained, and cohered ontologically. Its record in the Bible was divine speech in writing, given by God as our most basic, proper, and helpful frame of reference for interpreting all else.

Edwards devoted most of his waking life to studying the Bible, its extra-biblical contexts, its theological meanings, and its import for everyday religion. His student and friend, Samuel Hopkins, once remarked of his priorities: “He studied the Bible more than all other Books, and more than most other Divines do. . . . He took his religious Principles from the Bible, and not from any human System or Body of Divinity.”6 Edwards vowed in his “Resolutions” while a boy in his late teens that he would “study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.” As he penned in the “Personal Narrative” of his early spiritual life, he took “the greatest delight in the holy Scriptures, of any book whatsoever.”

Oftentimes in reading it, every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt an harmony

between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seemed often to see so much light, exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing ravishing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading. Used oftentimes to dwell long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained in it; and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders.

Edwards’ wonderment and passion for the study of the Bible got him up before sunrise almost every day of the year (between four and five in the morning). Hopkins testified that Edwards had “a tender . . . Constitution, yet few Students are as capable of close Application more Hours in a Day than he. He commonly spent thirteen Hours every Day in his Study. . . . He had an uncommon thirst for Knowledge,” and “spared no . . . Pains” to get it. Edwards’ “Diary” suggests that when “engaged in reading the Scriptures” he would often skip his dinner “rather than be broke off” from study. His devotion to the Bible did waver on occasion. In the main, though, it flourished to an exceptional degree. For he felt that “at those times when I have read the Scripture most, I have evermore been most lively, and in the best of frames.”7

Edwards encouraged a like devotion in the laity he served. He assured his congregations that biblical learning was for all--not just clergy and “men of learning, but . . . persons of every character.” God calls everyone, he said, to hunt the treasure hid in Scripture, both the “learned and unlearned, young and old, men and women.” Not even the brightest Bible scholar will ever begin to find it all. In fact, the ones who “studied the longest, and have made the greatest attainments . . . know but little of what is to be known.” The Bible’s “subject is inexhaustible,” for God “is infinite, and there is no end to the glory of his perfections.” Consequently, all should apply their hearts and minds to Holy Scripture, making the study of its books “a great part of the business of our lives.” Edwards drove this point home by recommending that his people give as much of their time to seeking the things of God as seeking Mammon.

Content not yourselves with having so much knowledge as is thrown in your way, and as you receive in some sense unavoidably by the frequent . . . preaching of the word, of which you are obliged to be hearers, or as you accidentally gain in conversation; but let it be very much your business to search for it, and that with the same diligence and labor with which men are wont to dig in mines of . . . gold.

Or as he put this in a another sermon, preached the same year, “He that has a Bible, and don’t observe what is contained [in] it, is like a man that has a box full of silver and gold, and don’t know it, don’t observe that it is anything more than a vessel filled with common stones. As long as it is thus with him, he’ll be never the better for his treasure.”8
The Unsung Importance of the Exegetical Edwards
Modern scholars have yet to come close to understanding the ways in which Edwards’ life was animated by Scripture. Three hundred years after his birth, half a century into what some have called the Edwards renaissance, few have bothered to study Edwards’ massive exegetical corpus. While preoccupied with his place in America’s public life and letters--and failing to see the public significance of his biblical exegesis--we have ignored the scholarly work he took most seriously. The lion’s share of Edwards’ time during every week of his life was spent wrestling with the words of holy writ. But though we know a great deal now about his ethics, metaphysics, Calvinism, and aesthetics—not to mention his pastoral labors and his role in the Great Awakening—few know much at all about his exegetical work. Although we know quite a lot about his engagement with the leading philosophical men of his day, we know little of his work with Matthew Poole, Philip Doddridge, Matthew Henry, Arthur Bedford, John Owen, or Humphrey Prideaux—biblical scholars all. Yet they were steady, staple sources of his study day to day--more than Locke, Berkeley, and Newton. They rarely played as great a role in shaping his scholarly agenda. But they played a greater role in its execution. He spent decades, quite literally, poring over their biblical writings, doing his most important work with them at hand.9

Edwards scholars often treat this as an awkward family secret, one that would damage our reputations if widely known. And truth be told, this concern is not completely misdirected. Many scholars would prefer to do without the Edwards of history. In the words of Bruce Kuklick, Edwards was far more serviceable to secular intellectuals when portrayed by Perry Miller as “one of us—close to being an atheist for Niebuhr.” But now that Edwards has been outed as a biblical supernaturalist—ironically, by Miller’s Yale edition of his Works—his thought “is not likely to compel the attention of intellectuals ever again. Indeed,” claims Kuklick, “it is more likely to repel their attention.”10 To most disinterested observers this assertion is ridiculous. Plenty of intellectuals remain intrigued by Edwards. Nonetheless, Kuklick’s statement represents a common perception that the real, historical Edwards may not be fit for polite, academic company.

How peculiar this appears in light of Edwards’ hallowed place in American intellectual history, how perplexing given the cultural clout of Scripture in America (not to mention Christian history), a topic often neglected even by specialists in religion.11 As Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll chided long before today’s best graduate students were born, as if we needed a reminder, “Scripture has been nearly omnipresent in the nation’s past.”12 Unfortunately, however, we still know little about this presence. We have acknowledged it for years. But too many have been lulled by its deceptive familiarity.13

Of the thousands of publications devoted to Edwards since his death, only a few, a tiny fraction, deal at length with his biblical writings. A survey of M. X. Lesser’s massive Edwards bibliography confirms this point appreciably. Its subject index lacks a heading for “Bible,” “Revelation,” “Scripture,” or even “Word of God.” It has an entry for “Biblicism.” There are scattered entries on topics like “Hermeneutics” and “Typology.” To be sure, this enchiridion is not a foolproof indicator. It ends in 2005. Edwards’ engagement with the Bible is discussed from time to time in works devoted to other themes. Nevertheless, and overall, it does reflect the relative scarcity of scholarship on Edwards the exegete.14

This scarcity is rooted in the priorities of those who pioneered the Edwards renaissance, most of whom belittled their subject’s obvious biblicism in rather tragic, not to say histrionic, terms. Ola Winslow, for example, while ignoring his exegesis, denigrated Edwards’ doctrine, beholden as she knew it was to biblical authority. It was an “outworn, dogmatic system,” she concluded, one that “needed to be demolished.” Perry Miller admired the system but pretended it could be understood without resorting to Scripture. Stressing Edwards’ great achievements in the realm of Enlightenment science, Miller lamented that Edwards also wasted time rehearsing the Bible. “Part of the tragedy of Edwards,” Miller confessed to his chagrin, “is that he expended so much energy upon an [exegetical] effort that has subsequently fallen into contempt.” Alfred Owen Aldridge pulled no punches, rendering Edwards a fundamentalist for his view of the Bible’s supremacy. In contradiction to Miller, but while sharing Miller’s distaste for Edwards’ frequent appeals to Scripture, he complained in an ironic mode that “in vindicating revelation, nearly all of Edwards’ inferences tended to depreciate reason.” Peter Gay spoke for many when in 1966 he labeled Edwards “the greatest tragic hero . . . that American Calvinism produced.” According to Gay, Edwards’ biblicism was nothing short of “medieval” and “the results were, as they had to be, pathetic.” He “philosophized in a cage that his fathers had built and that he unwittingly reinforced.” He should have known that “revelation . . . can be nothing more than an extension of reason; nearly all religious doctrine is either redundant or superstitious.” But he “went right on accepting the testimony of Scriptures as literally true.”15

The cumulative effect of such presentist pronouncements proved similar to that described by Berkeley’s John Coolidge with respect to Puritan studies:

the one necessary presupposition for any attempt to defend [Puritanism], or even to make it interesting was that the Puritans really derived their convictions from some other source than the Bible. . . . In order to argue that Puritanism had a mind, it has seemed necessary to assume that Puritan writers regularly deluded themselves by a curious ritual, casting a dust of scriptural references over pages where, nevertheless, an ingenious modern investigator can discover traces of thought.16

Or by London’s David Daniell with respect to the Great Awakening:

Historians are prepared to allow in the story of the Great Awakening that it was a religious experience of some significance. Yet, even when the religious history is explained over hundreds of pages with many detailed references to sermons, journals, published books and letters, there is visible a curious reluctance even to mention the Bible. A student of the period needs only to turn a few pages of the original documents to see at once that they are full of quotations from and references to the Scriptures. To write American colonial-period history without mention of the Bible is to build a house on sand.17

Much as secularist gymnastics long distorted our view of these movements, so aspersions against, excuses for, and smokescreens erected to hide the biblicism of Edwards have prevented us from understanding his principal occupation.18

The priorities of the pioneers of the Edwards renaissance were also markedly postliberal during and after World War II, which yielded a tendency to employ Edwards to meet America’s need for what was commonly called an “American Augustine”: a theological founding father who understood original sin, respected the limits of human potential, and promoted social realism along with moral progress.19 But in nominating Edwards to this vaunted cultural role, they appeared but dimly aware of what it would mean to retrieve Edwards as a spiritual founding father in the wake of disestablishment. Augustine and Edwards worked within a Constantinian world, one at the dawn and one at the twilight of the age of Christendom. Their theological pronouncements carried the weight of legal authority and mainstream cultural privilege. Thus their calls for cultural submission to Bible and church were not unreasonable.

But things have clearly changed since the time of Edwards’ death. The age of Christendom has ended and the likes of Augustine and Edwards speak as dissenters now from mainstream Western culture. Ironically, Edwards expedited the dissolution of Christendom with his call for “true” religion and critique of Christian convention.20 But he feared what he foresaw as its corrosive cultural consequences, worrying that “many men of great temporal knowledge” were becoming self-sufficient. They were “puffed up” with pride regarding the progress of their epoch and could “hardly bear to submit . . . to . . . revelation.”21 Edwards’ premonition was realized during the early national period. The churches and their sacred texts were legally disestablished. The leading founding fathers felt little compulsion to submit their hearts and minds to revelation. Ever since, the biblical Edwards has actually militated against the spirit of mainstream America. He has contradicted its spirit of liberation from authority, its spirit of independence, self-culture, and self-sufficiency.22 America’s Augustine has had to be shorn of his biblicism in order to serve as a significant public symbol.

Not everyone has sought to relieve Edwards of his biblicism. Several conservative clergymen have championed his exegesis as a model for other pastors and seminarians.23 Several other, more critical scholars—now informed by the publication of exegetical writings in The Works of Jonathan Edwards--have begun to realize that, in the words of Harry Stout, Edwards’ Constantinian world was “suffused with the Word of God.”24 We have some good work now on Edwards’ doctrine of revelation.25 But only a few critical scholars have offered extensive interpretations of Edwards’ work on the biblical texts--most importantly Stephen Stein and Robert Brown, but more recently Glenn Kreider, Stephen Nichols, David Barshinger, and a handful of the editors of the The Works of Jonathan Edwards.26 In addition to numerous articles on Edwards’ use of Scripture, Stein has undertaken the yeoman’s work on Edwards’ biblical manuscripts.27 Brown has written on Edwards’ fascination with higher criticism--belying Gay’s claim that the biblical Edwards was benighted.28 Several others have written sporadically on Edwards’ study of Scripture,29 some in works of erudition on typology, eschatology, and philosophy of history as these relate to American literature and culture.30 But no one has written much on Edwards’ exegesis per se--on how he handled biblical doctrine in the texts of Scripture themselves, and on how his interpretations came to matter.

Although it lost its legal privileges soon after Edwards died, Edwards’ biblical theology reverberates today. In fact, in yet another irony, it has enjoyed far more adherents during the past 200 years than it ever had in America’s eighteenth century. It continues to attract tens of thousands of admirers, and to interest many others far removed from Edwards’ faith. 31 Indeed, if the rapid global spread of Edwards’ evangelical movement were not enough to demonstrate the might of his biblicism today, then surely the saga of 9/11 and its global aftermath have awakened us to the fact that much of the world persists in living by some kind of scriptural faith. Billions of people around the globe submit themselves to sacred texts, avoiding America’s ardent zeal for self-construction as they do. Perhaps the exegetical Edwards can illumine this behavior. This would seem a most propitious time to pay due attention to Edwards’ life-long love affair with Scripture.

An Ecology of Edwards’ Exegesis
Edwards’ exegetical world has disappeared from most maps of early modern cultural life. It is a lost world of preachers and their colleagues in the academy who worked in ancient history and philology. They fit poorly in standard narratives of modern Western thought, shaped as these have tended to be by teleologies of intellectual freedom and secularity, of progress by departure from traditionary, authoritarian modes of Christian thought to unencumbered work in natural and social sciences. But they were enormously important to the construal of reality in the early modern West, especially by believers—most Christians, Jews, and others--who wanted actionable intelligence about their sacred writings and the cultural and spiritual information they imparted. We need to reconstruct this long-lost exegetical world if we are to make good sense of Edwards, his biblical frame of reference, and the things he took for granted about the nature of reality. We need to know not only what he did when studying Scripture, but also how he did it, what tools he used in doing it, and why he chose to do it as he did.

The best place to start on such a reconstruction project is with Edwards’ own manuscripts, the most reliable portal to his exegetical world. His more than 1,200 sermons, of course, preserve a sizable record of his exegetical method, parts of which are treated below. He preached on almost every book within the Protestant biblical canon, nearly “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), for over 35 years.32 Most of his efforts in the pulpit are preserved in manuscript. But many of Edwards’ private notebooks also feature biblical commentary, revealing the vast extent of his exegetical portfolio.33

His best-known biblical manuscripts are called his “Notes on Scripture,” four volumes of miscellaneous remarks on Scripture texts. Begun in 1724, they were kept throughout his life and cross-referenced with his other private notebooks.34 His most bulky biblical manuscript is called the “Blank Bible,” technically known as “Miscellaneous Observations on the Holy Scriptures.” It is a large, blank book, given to Edwards by his brother-in-law, the Rev. Benjamin Pierpont, interleaved with the pages of a smaller King James Bible. Beginning late in 1730, Edwards filled the ample margins that surrounded its biblical leaves with a commentary, or gloss, on the whole of sacred Scripture (as defined, again, by Protestants). From Genesis to Malachi, Matthew to the Apocalypse, he left a lengthy record of his engagement with the Word.35 There are other manuscripts, too, in which he wrote about the Scriptures. Edwards’ “Notes on the Apocalypse” comprise a large volume on the book of Revelation.36 “Images of Divine Things” and “Types” contain remarks on much of the imagery--or types--of Christ, the church, and human redemption Edwards found in Scripture and nature.37 He kept a booklet of “Hebrew Idioms,”38 a notebook in “Defense of the Authenticity of the Pentateuch as a Work of Moses and the Historicity of the Old Testament Narratives,”39 a leaf of “Notes on Books of Moses,”40 a notebook of “Scripture Prophecies of the Old Testament,”41 and a reused letter cover full of “Notes on the Coming of Christ.”42 He drafted hundreds of other sheets on sundry doctrines of the Bible.43 Altogether, this material fills thousands of manuscript pages in the extant Edwards corpus. It is an understudied treasure trove of biblical exegesis.

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