Review: “Jonathan Edwards’s Bible” by Stephen R.C. Nichols

When I first saw the title of the book Jonathan Edwards’s Bible, I assumed it could only be about the Blank Bible, which has been an interest of mine for some time. As you may know, JE had a completely unique KJV stitched together into a larger blank notebook.

Then, having read the subtitle a bit closer, “The Relationship of the Old and New Testaments,” I realized that this was a book about  Edwards’s hermeneutics (interpretive theory of the Bible) and my interest in the book changed directions on a dime, without being diminished in any way. Yes, the book is about Jonathan Edwards’s understanding of the interrelationship between the two testaments – a very necessary discussion to be held indeed among Edwards scholars.

Thankfully, Pickwick, an imprint of Wifp and Stock, was kind enough to provide a review copy to EdwardsStudies.com, so what follows is a brief review of Nichols’s very helpful book on Edwards’s view of Scripture.

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Before going a step further into the contents of the book, I should make one more important clarification lest casual readers be confused. That clarification is that Stephen R.C. Nichols is to be distinguished from Stephen J. Nichols, another Jonathan Edwards scholar by the same name. Attentive readers will draw a connection between the latter writer and Ligonier Ministries and Reformation Bible College noting that he has several helpful introductory materials on Jonathan Edwards as well as other topics related to church history.

But that is not our Stephen Nichols here!

No, our author in this discussion is Stephen R.C. Nichols, an ordained minister in the Church of England, who studied under the highly reputed Oliver Crisp during his Ph.D. studies. Consequently, what we have here in Jonathan Edwards’s Bible is his dissertation, repackaged for public consumption. I wouldn’t necessarily say “popular” consumption, though, since this work is still very technical in some ways, and never fully sheds its obvious “dissertation” structure and feel.

Having said all that, this work is important for several reasons. First, Edwards studies has long lacked in substantive treatments of Edwards’s hermeneutical thought process. True enough, much work has been done on his philosophy, and Reformed theological bona fides, but not much has been done on the area of his understanding of how the two testaments relate to one another.

Overview

Let’s look at an overview of the book’s trajectory. Nichols (as with any dissertation) gives us a general overview of where this book will attempt to go. In the opening salvo, Nichols tells us that he will divide his study into four significant segments. First, Nichols will help us to understand how Jonathan Edwards views Old Testament messianic prophecy. Second, he will look at Edwards unique view of typology. Third, how Edwards sees consistency in doctrine between the testaments, and fourth Nichols gives an example of Edwardsian interpretation with the narrow focus of soteriology (especially how OT believers are saved). Of course, he concludes with summary and general observations.

Let’s break that down a bit more.

This first chapter will largely focus on what Edwards was hoping to accomplish in his “Harmony of the Old and New Testaments.” Unfortunately, this work was never finished before Edwards’s death, so Nichols will have to piece together Edwards’s unfinished work on the interrelationship of the testaments here, conjecturing at times what this work would have looked like if Edwards had lived to complete it. To do this, Nichols focuses in on Edwards’s understanding of how Messianic prophecy is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Although Edwards does not attack Anthony Collins specifically, clearly Collins’s challenge to traditional Christianity is on Edwards’s mind. Collins attempted to challenge Christianity’s assertion that Jesus is the Messiah by showing how it appears (to him) that fulfilled Messianic prophecy is arbitrary, and selectively applied by the church.

Nichols says,

In this chapter I argue that he is in fact guided by Scripture in his exploration to a degree hitherto unrecognized. While a conceptual impasse thus exists between Collins and Edwards, Edwards’s intention in the “Harmony” is not to offer proof from prophecy that Collins demanded, but to show the reasonableness and coherence of a Messianic reading of the ancient Hebrew prophecies (12).

Ultimately, Edwards would probably say (if I understand both him and Nichols correctly) that neither he nor anyone else would be able to offer incontrovertible proof of Jesus’s Messianic identity through prophecy alone, even when accurately interpreted, since these things are spiritually discerned and require the regeneration of the Holy Spirit to understand properly. Nevertheless, the voluminous amount of Scripture that Jesus – and only Jesus – fulfilled in Edwards’s view is insurmountably glorious and delightful to the believer.

Secondly, Nichols will tackle the wonderfully intriguing topic of Edwards’s view and usage of typology. Here, we are looking at the fact that Edwards saw a great many “types” or windows into the spiritual realm, not only in Scripture but in nature and history too. Of course, Nichols’s goal here is to consider how this informed Edwards’s overall understanding of Scripture. In short, it impacts his overall view considerably.

Understanding what Edwards is doing with types is critical to reading him correctly in many places, not the least of which is his Images of Divine Things and his History of the Work of Redemption. In fact, Edwards would likely argue that a person who does not see types almost everywhere in the OT (tabernacle, sacrifices, kings, priests, oil, blood) will miss the centrality of Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures. He will not see how all of the OT Scriptures point towards the absolute centrality of the coming Messiah in the person of Jesus Christ.

One of the idiosyncrasies related to Edwards’s view of types is that, because he finds them everywhere, he offers little consistent restraints in utilizing them. This has led to the charge that Edwards is somewhat wild and unrestrained in finding types in the Bible – and for that matter – everywhere else. For instance, as Nichols notes, Edwards ascribes at least three different typical meaning to stars (192). Edwards says that we should have a New Testament warrant to interpret types, but he does not pretend to abide by that rule himself at times. Ultimately, as Edwards himself probably would have us believe, the best restraint to interpreting types is Christian maturity (191).

Thirdly, Nichols attempts to look at what he calls, following Edwards, “doctrine and precept.” This refers to the vast agreement between the two testaments on doctrinal and theological matters. In this section, Nichols dials in most tightly on Edwards’s Reformed understanding of the covenants. Foundational to Edwards’s entire paradigm are the covenants by which most Reformed theologians view redemption history. First, the covenant of redemption. This is the concept that God, in an inter-Trinitarian way, entered into an agreement between Father and Son to redeem the world through the Gospel. Second, the covenant of works. This was the promise of life and the threat of death given to Adam in the Garden, which ultimately, Adam failed to uphold, bringing sin and death into the world. Third, is the covenant of grace which contains the promises of God to fulfill the covenant of works in and through Christ the redeemer. Nichols argues essentially that Edwards is faithful to his Reformed/Calvinistic heritage in seeing the great covenants as being the map that brings all of the acts of God in redemptive history into focus.

In this way, Edwards stresses continuity as over against discontinuity between the two testaments, although he grants that there are a multiplicity of administrative differences.Summarily, then, Nichols says,

So, he inevitably emphasizes the substantial similarity between Old and New Testament expressions of the covenant of grace. As with prophecies and types, Edwards is willing to find parallels in doctrine and precept that go beyond familiar categories employed by his tradition (14).

Finally, Nichols attempts to put all this together in a sort of “test case” in the last major section, focusing on soteriology, or how individuals are saved, especially in the Old Testament. This particular doctrine serves as a yardstick by which Nichols can measure his own assessments in the previous three sections. Nichols argues that “the soteriological harmony Edwards observes between the Old and New Testaments is ultimately expressed in a common object of saving faith, namely Christ, as was common to Edwards’s tradition” (190). After reading this section, Nichols will have done much to show the reader how similarly believers both before and after Christ were saved. Old Testament believers were saved, not by works, but by being born again into a living hope in the coming Messiah. Likewise, New Testament believers are saved by the Christ who was born, died, and raised again in redemptive history. Neither are saved through obedience to the Covenant of Works; both are saved through the Covenant of Grace.

Importance

This work by Nichols is incredibly important since understanding Edwards’s theology of Holy Scripture is critical to understanding his entire theological project. Nichols argues that Edwards’s view of the interrelationship between testaments is vast and cannot be easily dismissed. His system seems to be coherent, even if from time to time he seems to be a bit too “loose” with his discovery of types almost everywhere. Edwards does offer a defensible position regarding the messianic fulfillment of prophecies in the person of Jesus Christ (against Anthony Collins  who challenged this), although he admits that unbelieving minds will not be able to see these things adequately.

Significantly, “Edwards offers an example of a ‘grand unifying theory’ of the Bible, a comprehensive interpretation capable of embracing the minutea of Old and New Testaments” (195).  In his conclusion, Nichols provides compelling reason to believe that we must do more work in studying Edwards’s view of Scripture if we are to avoid misreading him in other areas such as his philosophy.

In the final analysis, Oliver Crisp is probably right to say of this book that “If we do not pay attention to this material (i.e. Edwards’s views on Scripture) we cannot hope to understand Jonathan Edwards…(Nichols) has shown how these things matter for some of the deep structures of the Sage of Northampton’s thought. In this respect, his study helps to flesh out one more of the parts that comprise Jonathan Edwards” (xi).

 

 

 

 

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