I am here reviewing all three volumes of sermons in this new series on the Matthean Parables by Jonathan Edwards, published by Wipf and Stock, and edited by Kenneth P. Minkema, Adriaan C. Neele, and Bryan McCarthy.
I say “new” because these sermons have been essentially hidden from modern audiences since they were originally preached in the early to mid 1700’s. Thankfully, as of 2012, they have finally been transposed to printed form from their original manuscripts in Edwards’ own puzzling handwriting.
For decades and even centuries, these manuscripts have been stored away, deep in the vault of history, now currently resting in the caring hands of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University.
Today, these powerful sermons can again lift Edwards’ voice and be heard anew, in some cases more than 270 years after they originally thundered from the Northampton Church pulpit. Since then, almost no human eyes have viewed them since the Colonial Congregationalist penned them himself. For this reason, these three paperback volumes are a true treasure chest, replete with jewels and gems for advancing Jonathan Edwards studies.
The whole series, I think, will significantly move forward our understanding of Edward’s theology of regeneration and conversion, not to mention his theology of, and first-hand participation in Great Awakening-era revivalism.
Each of the three volumes is a compendium of multiple sermons on one particular parable. Often, Edwards’ sermons were preached over various occasions (called “preaching units”) and took on a life of their own, far beyond the typical hour-long sermonic format, so commonly known among the Puritans. Such is the case with these sermons: they are really each a greatly extended but cohesive literary whole, preached upon a particular pericope of Scripture.
Each sermon series (in one case, 19 preaching units!) treats of multiple theological doctrines, and contains various of Edwards “uses,” or applications. Of course, they were originally preached over the time-frame of multiple weeks and even months, often containing both morning and afternoon/evening oratories.
Volume One focuses on the “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” (Matthew 25:1-13). Here, Edwards intends to show the similarities and distinctions between those who virgins who have oil in their lamps and those who do not. In this way, Edwards draws some distinctions between the Church Visible, and the Church Invisible. His primary thrust is to show that there are many professing believers who would appear to be genuinely converted, and yet do not have the new principle of inner life, given only by the sovereign hand of God.
Volume Two treats of the “Parable of the Soils” (Matthew 13:1-23). Predictably Edwards discourses at some length the four general responses that hearers have to the Gospel as originally given and explained by Jesus. Interestingly, this sermon series was preached immediately after George Whitefield had come through Northhampton. The sermon series itself more than hints at Whitefield’s revivalistic power and affect, and the people of Edwards’ congregation’s reaction to the same. This volume contains an additional text by Whitefield, a brief treatise on how to “hear” a sermon.
Volume Three is in regard to the “Parable of the Net” (Matthew 13:47-50). Here Edwards powerfully describes the doctrines of grace as it relates to as-yet unregenerate men being forcibly pulled from their natural element (like fish from the sea) and prompted to die to self and live the new life of conversion in Christ. This third volume, although much more in outline form than the others, has the added distinction of being preached at the same time that Edwards was preparing The Religious Affections for publication. For this reason, the reader gets a unique look into what Edwards was stewing on during this great book’s final preparations.
What ties these three volumes together and makes them interesting historical and exegetical material is their relationship to the events of the Great Awakening. Each volume was preached at a unique time in early colonial revivalism history. Additionally, the series taken together gives the modern reader a view of Jonathan Edwards’ theology of the Kingdom, since Minkema and Neele have wisely chosen a set of sermons for publication that are moored to theological motifs held in common by each parable.
Readers will find these sermons to be a very helpful companion as they read other works of Jonathan Edwards such as The Religious Affections which deal with very similar topics and themes, if only in a more didactic form. For many, the sermons will actually be easier to read than his treatises.
One weakness should be mentioned. I am not sure why the editors chose to include the very same opening article on “Edwards the Preacher” by Wilson H. Kimnach in all three volumes, but alas, they did. Perhaps they thought that some readers would not buy the whole set and would need the same article printed separately in each volume. For my own part, I would have preferred that they included different prefatory materials in each book. Together they could have done more to prepare and educate the reader as to the historical context of the sermon series.
Moreover, this set of three books will be an incomparable treasure to all Edwards scholars, as it was to me. The very idea that I am reading today what was hidden for centuries was enchanting. Scholars, pastors, and students of revivalism alike will all greatly benefit from these faithful, historic proclamations of Gospel truth!
–Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida.