Editor’s Note: Recently, EdwardsStudies.com had the opportunity to speak to Don Whitney about his most academic work, Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards and Its Influence on His Pastoral Ministry (Peter Lang, 2014). While professor Whitney is known mostly for his interest in the spiritual disciplines and his successful popular level works, this book is a complete and thorough academic treatment on Jonathan Edwards.
I caught up with Don Whitney, professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently by phone call. Dr. Whitney happened to be house hunting at the time, so thankfully, he graciously took my call between padlocks and for sale signs. Our chat was warm and inviting, just like the tone of his many helpful books. Among other things, I learned that Dr. Whitney has an enthusiastic admiration for quality ink pens, and has even written birthday letters on nice stationary to most of his church’s congregants in an elegant handwriting which he relearned as an adult.
What I did not know about Professor Whitney until somewhat recently is that he is a second-to-none Jonathan Edwards scholar. My first introduction to his writing came through his extraordinarily helpful book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. I am sure that others who know him also encountered his writings the same way. Indeed, Whitney spent the better part of a few years combing through Jonathan Edwards writings, especially his personal writings in Volume 16 of the Yale Works.
My first clue that that Whitney had a fascination with Jonathan Edwards was when I heard his talk on the Northampton Divine at the Desiring God conference several years back. But I did not know he had studied Edwards formally. As we chatted on the phone, I could hear the tenor in his voice change when he described the experience of holding Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God in his own hands when he studied at the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale.
Whitney’s interest in JE began in earnest several years earlier when he was teaching a course on the lives of three great Christians. In that course, Whitney asked his students to read a biography of Edwards, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones as well as a taste of their own writings. And, as is the course for many of us, his fascination with the New England Puritan kicked into another gear.
He was hooked on Edwards.
Finding God in Solitude as you might guess, stays in Whitney’s primary traffic lane: that is to say, it does not depart far from his special interest in the spiritual disciplines. In this work, Whitney looks at the overall piety of Jonathan Edwards. By the way, when using the word “piety,” we should not think of religious show or artifice in any way. Sometimes the adjective “pious” has a bit of a negative overtone. On the contrary, we are talking about the very sincere desire of one’s heart to be given over in obedience and sanctification to the Lord. Truly, Edwards modeled this desire for personal holiness, as the book catalogs.
Edwards, of course, is well known for his devotional life: his prayers in the woods, his singing along to God by horseback, his Blank Bible, his Miscellanies, and voluminous notes on Scripture. All of that work was forged in the quiet of the study alone with God, largely uninterrupted by the distractions of the world (especially those we face in the modern world). But even among Colonial Puritans, Edwards’s desire for solitude alone with God was remarkable. Whitney sees in all of this a great example that modern believers can imitate in some limited ways, although we ought not to expect to have Edwards’s mental powers.
It is true that Jonathan Edwards’s desire for solitude got him into trouble, as all who have read a biography of the Puritan well know (the “Bad Book Case” and the Lord’s Supper controversy come to mind). Edwards’s preference for company with God alone probably prevented him from being a more sociable pastor in many ways. At the same time, as Whitney argues in his book, that same desire for the Lord’s presence also resulted in some of the most important and profound theological treatises, books, and personal jottings that Colonial America would ever produce.
The book itself is a doctoral dissertation made somewhat more readable. Since it is an academic publication, this is likely to be one of Whitney’s lesser read books. That’s probably a shame. Not only that, but the price-tag at nearly $80 will be a hindrance to some. But for others who want a full-length treatment of how Edwards’s personal spiritual life effected him as a pastor of the Northampton Church, the book may very well be worth the cost.
I also asked Whitney if any of his more academic study on Jonathan Edwards would seep through into his popular writings. He assured me that it would, if only to a less intense degree than is given in this academic treatise. As a matter of fact, his newest work, Family Worship, quotes Edwards and length, and provided a new venue for Whitney to allow Edwards to continue to speak through the written press. Although not technically about Jonathan Edwards, Family Worship will have a tinge of Edwards’s scent throughout.
When I asked Whitney what originally attracted him to Jonathan Edwards, the SBTS professor said it was his rare and attractive combination of “life and doctrine; heart and mind.” It would be hard to disagree with that sentiment. True enough, that same emphasis which can be found in Jonathan Edwards also comes through in Don Whitney’s works. Surely it is a great thing when passion for the Lord of Glory and deep and reflective theology come together.