The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers, by Michal Choinski (Book Review)

Rhetoric is, in essence, the power of spoken or written words.

Considered in this way, rhetoric is the force of both oral and printed language to guide or compel one’s audience to think, feel, or respond in a certain way to a given message. Rhetoric is used in political speeches. It is used in court testimony. Yes, it is used in sales pitches too. And it is most certainly employed in preaching.

As preachers, the proponents of the Great Awakening in America (1739-1745) used rhetoric as a tool to better convey the power of the Gospel to the hearts of their hearers in their own time and setting. We ought not to fault them for that. Of course, they were hoping to lead their churches and open-air audiences towards faith in Jesus Christ and to “awaken” their lives to eternal realities.

In his new book The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers, young scholar Michal Choinski treats his readership to an outstanding and thorough evaluation of the rhetorical pulpit devices of such men as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennant among others. Although the whole history of rhetoric in preaching would certainly make for a very fine study (as would a study of rhetoric geared towards modern best practices in preaching), Choinski limits the parameters of this intensive work to those preachers centering around the time of the Great Awakening in the colonies in America.

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The fact that intentional uses of rhetorical strategies were employed in the especially fervent times of the Awakening should not come as a surprise to anyone. While the term “rhetoric” can sometimes have the distasteful flavor of purposeful manipulation, the practice itself is rooted in nothing less than the desire and intention of the preacher or speaker to give a message that is compelling and persuasive to his audience. In this way, there is nothing “wrong” with using rhetorical strategies. After all, if a Bible preacher believes the Gospel is true, he should deliver his message of hope as effectively and as forcefully (read: persuasively) as he is able. Certainly Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 as well as Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17 both bear marks of rhetorical strategy. Both witness to the biblical mandate to speak the truth of the Word of God with both winsomeness and power with the goal of persuasiveness in mind.

A few more words about this book will precede a general survey of its contents.

Michal Choinski

First of all, it is noteworthy that this book is the first in a new series of monographs published by the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. This new series, in cooperation with by Verlagsgruppe Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht is entitled “New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies” and Michal Choinski’s contribution constitutes Volume 1 of this exciting new line. Some readers of EdwardsStudies.com will recall that both Kenneth Minkema and Michal Choinski have already been interviewed on this page.  If this first edition is an indication of what is to come, Edwards devotees are sure to greatly benefit from this series as it unfolds. What we have here in Choinski’s work is a first-rate work of scholarship and technical expertise, without sacrificing readability. Choinski, by the way, teaches American Literature at the Institute of English Studies at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow, Poland.

The book opens with a standard evaluation of rhetoric, its history, key definitions, and development. Choinski here pays special attention to its Greek roots, marking observations by Aristotle, Cicero and others. In fact, Aristotle defined rhetoric as a “faculty of considering all the possible means of persuasion on every subject” (p. 15). Traditionally, Choinski tells us, rhetoric is considered under five headings as follows: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery (p. 18). Among these headings rhetorical speech can be further evaluated under such marks as clarity, grandeur, beauty, character, and sincerity, among others (p. 25).

In a subsequent section, Choinski makes the leap from rhetorical speech in general to preaching in particular. After all, giving a sermon is one of the most important forms of human-to-human oral communication. Here, Choinski considers contributing ideas from such men as St. Augustine and Erasmus, the noted humanist. Arriving closer to his historical period of choice, Choinski gives the reader an important reminder when he notes that “The core of Puritan preaching that emerged from medieval schemes after the tide of the Reformation is encompassed in the fundamental effort to understand God’s Word and to explicate it to the hearers” (p. 36, emphasis added).

From the Puritans, then, to the Colonial preachers, Choinski begins to focus the lens closer and closer to the revivalist preachers which stood upon the shoulders of their forefathers. These men advanced the rhetorical strategies of preaching to include such novelties as camp meetings and open-air gatherings. As religious services sometimes moved from the pulpits to the fields,  what constituted preaching methodology necessarily changed as well, especially when accommodating the poor and larger audiences, then previously possible in “meeting house” settings. This is not to say, however, that the Great Awakening was a purely out-of-doors social movement. But surely the power of awakening-style preaching intentionally modified to  utilize the maximal power of persuasion possible.

At this point, Choinski enumerates several factors that seem to be quintessential of revivalist preaching. It incorporated to various degrees (1) intensified emotions on the part of the speaker and the audience, (2) encouraged implicitly or explicitly bodily manifestations among hearers, (3) was attended by extraordinary occurrences such as perceived signs and wonders, (4) raised issues of necessary spiritual discernment (5) prompted tensions between clerical and lay authority, (6) and resulted in new associations, organizations, and institutions (p. 46-47).

Pages 52-54, though short, are key for understanding the rest of the text. Here Choinski discusses several hallmarks that will be discussed often throughout the rest of the work, notably the drive or push towards hearers experiencing the “new birth” as the ultimate goal of revival preaching; the unapologetic stirring of such emotions as fear, joy, enthusiasm, and disgust from the audience; and even the utilization of delivery techniques heretofore considered as “theatrical” (Whitefield will be a case in point on this matter, later; see his section in pages 117-146).

In a section that may feel like an unnecessary digression from the main topic (p. 55-56), Choinski then takes the reader through a brief history of three successive generations of Puritan colonialists in America, briefly recounting some key of the players, events, and the overall cultural mood. Here of course, he mentions the famous “Half-Way Covenant” so controversial to those who felt the force of its compromise firsthand.

Finally then – and I do admit that Choinski has taken us the long route to get here – we get to the meat and the heart of the book. From this point forward, we are settling in to discuss the six revivalist preachers that the writer will analyze for the rest of the book. In other words, we adjust from a wide-angle to close-up lens. Edwards scholars will breathe a sigh of relief that the Northampton Sage comes first in order (yes!), and gets a full treatment of three of his sermons; namely The Future Punishment of the Wicked (p. 82-92), Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (p. 93-105), and The Distinguishing Marks (p. 106-116).

Readers of this website will want to find the nearest hammock and a glass of cold ice-tea in order to settle in and enjoy this part. This is why we bought the book in the first place!

In my view, Choinski does his finest work combing through these three Edwardsian sermons. His section on Sinners is particularly riveting in my view. He analyzes Edwards’s choice of imagery, and metaphor, even his use of the tension-retaining present tense. All the while, he notes how Edwards carefully selected each verbal component of his sermon to strike the very heart of the reader with sheer terror. He discusses Edward’s structure and pace. He dissects Edwards’s use of “sensual tactility” (p. 94). Edwards’s goal here, he notes, is to induce a sense of “emotional despondency” (p. 99), and Edwards does that very well! Choinski notes, “for the moment of the delivery of this part of the discourse, the congregation gathered to listen to the preacher, in their minds actually becoming the sinners in the hands of an angry God” (p. 100, emphasis added).

Choinski calls these subtle twists and turns of language “inexplicit communicative stragegies hidden under the verbal layer and interwoven with it” (p. 93). Brilliant. Together, these rhetorical strategies build slowly, yet irrevocably  upon the shoulders of the congregation. As history has well recorded, the sermon landed in Enfield like a bolt of electricity from the sky. Edwards hardly finished the sermon due to the outbreak of fervent emotion from troubled listeners. His “rhetoric of revival” hit the mark perfectly.

I have one quibble with Choinski, despite the thoroughness and remarkably informative content of this work. I sincerely wish he had chosen Heaven is a World of Love rather than giving us two sermons from Edwards (back to back) on Hell. This would have been a wonderful way to dispel Edwards’s undue reputation as a merely “fire and brimstone” preacher. Back to back, Sinners and Heaven would have been a powerful tandem to show how Edwards was just as capable of driving his audience towards the ecstasies of joy as well as the throes of terror.

Attentive readers will greatly enjoy Choinski’s work in Whitefield and Tennent as well as Edwards. Studies of Dickinson, Parsons, and Croswell add texture to the overall analysis. Lesser known preachers, they are remarkable in their own right and worthy of consideration.

Overall, I found this book to be excellent. Choinski’s writing is lucid and clear. His pace is sometimes slower than I would like, but this is a doctoral dissertation converted to a book after all! It is informative, well-written and complete. Truly, this is a magnificent study on a completely engaging topic. His sources are well chosen, and his use of Edwards and Whitefield contribute to our beloved field of study remarkably.

Had he chosen Heaven is a World of Love to analyze rather than double-dip on the brimstone, it would have been even one notch better in my view.

 

 

 

 

 

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Don Whitney’s Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards and Its Influence on His Pastoral Ministry (Book Review)

Back in May, Edwards Studies had the opportunity to interview Dr. Don Whitney about his 2014 work, published by Peter Lang, entitled Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards and Its Influence on His Pastoral Ministry. In that brief interview, Dr. Whitney was able to share with our readers how he came to know and love Jonathan Edwards (read the interview here). As many of you probably already know, Dr. Whitney has a great fascination with the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life (prayer, fasting etc.) and has written about these themes extensively in his more popular books such as Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life and Praying the Bible among others.

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In this brief  book review, we will delve more fully into his published dissertation on Jonathan Edwards and explore some of its primary themes. As the title suggests, the book primarily centers around two questions: First, how did Jonathan Edwards practice the spiritual disciplines? And secondly, how did his practice of these acts of piety effect his pastoral leadership? This is an interesting question, because Whitney is attempting to examine the intersection (conflict even?) between the Northampton Sage’s personal spiritual quest and his public leadership in the local church.

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The book opens in the introduction with the primary task of the study in view stated clearly “The goal of this study is to evaluate the personal piety of Jonathan Edwards and the extent to which it influenced his pastoral ministry” (1).

As all dissertations do (this one reads very smoothly, like a well written book, but its academic genesis is not entirely concealed from the reader) he begins with definitions. Here, Whitney focuses on a few important definitions of terms such as “piety,” and “godliness.” In doing so, he is busy about the work of setting the parameters for an historical understanding of who the Puritans were, so crucial to his study. Whitney avers “There was no more characteristic ingredient of the English Puritan tradition than its emphasis on fervency in general and devotional piety as an expression of truly Biblical Christianity, and there was no more faithful heir to that tradition than Jonathan Edwards” (16).

Rounding out his introductory section, Whitney illuminates his readers on several important characteristics of Puritan ministers, namely their emphasis on catechizing (25), preaching (27-30), and the pastoral care of church members, including the controversial implementation of the Half-Way covenant (33). Concluding the first part of the book, Whitney notes the ascendance and increasing popularity of Edwards studies in general, and acknowledges hoping to contribute positively to the same by examining more fully how Edwards’s own personal practices of devotional piety helped (or in some ways even hindered) his ecclesiastical leadership.

In the first full chapter, Whitney gives his readers a very able summary of Edwards’s life and ministry. This is essentially a very compressed biography of the Awakening Preacher. And while this section does not necessarily break any new ground on the life of Jonathan Edwards, it does give the reader the benefit of a refresher course, or perhaps even an inauguration, into the basics of Edwards’s primary life events. Not surprisingly, Whitney tells of Edwards’s early life, conversion, education, marriage to Sarah, early ministry endeavors, revival encounters, and discusses his primary written sources. He also tells of his dismissal from the Northampton Church, foreshadowing his forthcoming assessments of Edwards possible failures as a pastor. Finally, concluding the chapter, he tells of Edwards’s time in Stockbridge (his most productive years from a written standpoint), as well as his short term as president of Princeton, and finally his death.

In chapter two, Whitney begins to focus in more closely on Edwards’s practices of piety, or to use his own preferred parlance, his “spiritual disciplines.” Here, the reader finds much encouraging material which sounds very much like some of the positive illustrations given in his more popular books, especially Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. In many ways, this chapter highlights Edwards very favorably. For instance, Whitney commenting on Edwards’s obvious love for the Lord, says “As Jesus was fully God, Edwards yearned for the closest possible relationship with Jesus. As Christ was the perfect man, Edwards wanted to harmonize every part of his life with the example of Christ” (77). Thus Edwards’s driving passion above all things was glorifying God in his life and emulating God’s Son in his sanctification.

Among the practices of Edwards’s piety discussed, it is clear that he favored and tended towards those which emphasized the structured consumption of the Bible. Thus, Bible reading, Bible memory, and copious notetaking on Scripture are predominant aspects of Edwards’s daily discipleship (78-81). Whitney says, “Care should be taken not to overlook the essential fact that prayerful study and prolonged meditation on the text of the Bible was the supreme means by which Edwards sought to know and experience God and to pursue conformity to the person and work of Jesus Christ” (81, emphasis added). Whitney believes that Edwards did not assign to all spiritual disciplines equal weight, at least in terms of his practice. Instead, he gave those practices which emphasize heavy doses of Bible consumption the most effort and time. For Edwards, his great joy was in reading and digesting the Bible. His copious Miscellanies and Notes on Scripture bear witness in this regard. It is hard to find much fault with a man so devoted to the Bible.

This is not to say, however that Edwards did not practice other spiritual disciplines. As Whitney catalogs, Edwards also practiced fasting (his rigorous monitoring of his diet is famous), journaling, and he led his family and children in regular gathered worship at the table and catechism in his study. More than that, there is no question that Edwards was also a man of prayer, as well as a man of the book. As for prayer, Edwards writes in one place that it “seemed natural for me, as the breath by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent” (85). Of course, the participation in the sacraments and public church attendance hardly need be mentioned since Edwards was a congregational minister for most of his professional life.

Yet at the same time, Whitney begins to notice a pattern in Edwards’s life that has been also observed by most others who examine the wigged Puritan’s life: Edwards by far preferred those spiritual disciplines that take place when one is completely alone in solitude as over against those practiced alongside other Christians. Hence, Whitney considers “solitude” as a separate but overlapping practice of its own (97-101). Along the way, Whitney drops hints that this preference for being alone will ultimately cause greater problems for Edwards in regards to his social and ecclesiastical relationships. This observation is not necessarily novel on Whitney’s part, but it does illustrate the practical truth that our personalities often bear impact on our public ministry (for better or for worse) in some ways.

In one interesting section (103-108), Whitney considers whether or not Edwards might have been a “mystic.” Though many definitions of this term have been offered, no particular category seems to fit Edwards neatly here. His great work The Religious Affections definitely show that Edwards preferred the revealed truth in Scripture as over against personal revelations of various kinds (dreams, visions, impressions on the mind, etc). Yet at the same time, there are instances in his Personal Narrative when he seems to describe ecstatic experiences, and at least one “vision” of Christ that defies tidy categorization. Eventually, Whitney admits that the definition of “mystic” is in the eye of the beholder, and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusion.

In chapter three, Whitney then turns his attention to the minister’s public life. Quoting Samuel Hopkins, Whitney mentions that Edwards “commonly spent thirteen hours every day in his study” (109). This is hardly a public aspect of ministry, of course. But this time alone would bear fruit from the pulpit. And while this might be considered extremely pious pious by some, other readers will begin to draw more and more attention to the fact that this habit of solitude was not necessarily helpful as regards his relationships with his parishioners or the people of Northampton in general.

For his part, Edwards believed that his best use of time – even for the sake of his people – was alone in writing. For this reason, Whitney uses this chapter to summarize some of Edwards’s attempts to use solitude for the sanctification of his church. Obviously he dutifully prepared sermons intended for public proclamation (119). The pulpit was the most obvious place where his personal piety and public duties met and overlapped. But Edwards also crafted scores of thoughtful, insightful letters for the edification of many people: family, friends, ministers, inquirers, and church members. In some ways, Edwards was probably a better counselor through these means than in person. Even in writing his longer treatises and books, Edwards usually had the good of the godly collective in mind: he wrote to address problems he perceived in his own local church and in the broader evangelical community.

At the concluding section of the book, Whitney makes clear what thoughtful readers have already begun to suspect all along: Edwards was an extraordinary gifted man, whose practices of piety and gifts for ministry saw their best use in personal (even private) hours in the study. At the same time, his withdrawn and unsocial temper probably cost him respect in the eyes of many people. There is no doubt Edwards was “pious” by the best definition, however. Whitney says, “The list of Edwards’s devotional practices is so evidently congruent with those set forth in the Bible that doubters of this assertion must accept the burden of proof to identify a recognized practice of piety that cannot also be found in Edwards’s life” (133). This is all very good.

Edwards’s ultimate goal, Whitney notes, is described best on pages 136-137. Here the author states clearly that Jonathan Edwards sought happiness above all, defined correctly as “glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.” I concur with this assessment wholeheartedly. This may come as a surprise to some who view Edwards as a staunch, dry, cold, doctrinally bent Puritan. But it does not come as a surprise to anyone who has read much of Edwards’s own works. His pursuit of joy, Whitney believes, is part and parcel of his pursuit of the spiritual disciplines. “Edwards was willing to sacrifice, if necessary, any happiness in this world-since it was temporary-in order to experience unending happiness in Heaven” (136). But it also must be observed that he found the most joy alone in Christ rather than with other believers.

So, did Edwards’s predilection for solitude hurt him as a pastor? Many think yes. Whitney does too, and admits that as far as his own congregation was concerned, Edwards’s impersonal temper probably caused him harm in the long run in terms of his congregant’s opinion of their minister. In many ways, he clearly had trouble relating to common folk, and their ability to relate to and understand their pastor suffered for it. The “Bad Book Case” and the Communion Controversy are a case in point. All the while, Whitney contends, Edwards sought to use his God-given gifts to the betterment of his people, even if what Edwards yearned to use most (his gifts of writing) were not duly appreciated in his own time.

Towards the end of the book, Whitney makes a most interesting comparison between Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan Richard Baxter (149). Baxter spent much time traveling from home to home in his parish personally catechizing his fellow churchmen. In this section, Whitney wonders on paper who had the greater impact. Edwards or Baxter? Whitney says that “In terms of example, nearly all pastors would probably find greater success in following something closer to Baxter’s methods than Edwards” (150). If pastors are looking for a role model, he thinks it better to emulate Baxter. And yet Whitney also seems to think that despite this, Edwards had the greater and longer impact in terms of church history due to the legacy of treasures Edwards left us in print. It would be hard to argue with that assessment.

Overall, I recommend this book wholeheartedly and enthusiastically.

 

 

 

Two New Academic Works

In this video, we look at two new academic works that have recently been published. They are:

  1. Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Its Influence on His Pastoral Ministry by Donald S. Whitney.
  2. The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers by Michal Choinski.

George M. Marsden: A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards

A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards (Eerdmans, 2008) is, as the title suggests, a much briefer telling of the story of the life of Jonathan Edwards than the encyclopedic behemoth that George M. Marsden also published in 2004 for Yale University Press. The latter work, entitled Jonathan Edwards: A Life,  stands at over 640 pages, and enjoys the privileged status of being the definitive scholarly treatment of Jonathan Edwards biographies.

So, if you have read the much longer work, complete with its voluminous and copious footnotes and references, you are probably asking yourself these questions: First, is this simply a 150-page synopsis of what Marsden already wrote? Secondly, what else could Marsden say about Jonathan Edwards that he hasn’t already written elsewhere?

I asked myself those same questions.

As to the first question, I can say definitively, “No,” this is not a mere abridgment of the larger book. It is a complete rewriting and retelling of the life of the Puritan divine. As to the second question, I have to admit that the answer lies not so much in the fact that the books are radically different in content, as much as in the fact that the approach the author takes in the tiny volume is so fresh.

Let me explain.

I recently dove into the shorter work having already owned and mined the treasure in the larger work for several years. I liked the bigger book exceedingly and thought, “This is probably going to sound familiar – a deja vu.” I was skeptical at first. But as I began the very first chapter, I found myself enchanted by Jonathan Edwards and the story of his life all over again. The pages turned quickly. They were less filled with footnotes and marginalia. In fact, those entrappings, so appreciated by scholars and historians, do have a way of interrupting the flow of the story.

Clearly, the shorter work does not read like an academic treatise. Actually, that is its greatest strength. Instead, it reads much more swiftly, and almost sounds to the ear like a story being told in a classroom setting, or perhaps even around a coffee table discussion, or a campfire. One could probably even read this book aloud and keep a group of friends largely attuned for blocks at a time.

When describing this work, I want to keep using words like “charming” and “fascinating” to describe the tale as Marsden presents it here, even as I must make it clear that A Short Life does not lack the refined historical research which has become the hallmark of Marsden’s writing. It’s just not weighed down by it.

This work, much more so than it’s bigger brother, makes a good beach read or vacation paperback. It would also make an incomparable first introduction to the life of Edwards for laypersons. My guess is that people who read A Short Life will feel just as well baptized into the historical period in which Edwards lived as those who read other helpful introductions. At the same time, they will feel more as if they have heard a story well told. They will see Edwards as more than just a two-dimensional research interest, but as a three-dimensional man who struggled to be faithful to God in his own day and time.

I particularly liked the way that Marsden compared Edwards to Benjamin Franklin throughout the book. This foil between two strikingly different men works through the storytelling as the thread which binds the whole narrative together.

So should an Edwardsian read A Short Life even if he or she has already read the larger work? My answer is, “Yes.” Read it for pleasure. Read it for a refresher or first-time introduction. Read it on the back porch with a cup of sweet tea and prepare to be enchanted by Edwards’s story of fidelity, piety, and mission all over again.

 

Works of Edwards Vol. 11 Typology: Images of Divine Things

In this episode of the Jonathan Edwards Studies Youtube channel, we have a brief review of the Eleventh Volume of the Works of JE. Specifically,  we are here reflecting upon Edwards’s understanding of “types” in Images of Divine Things.

Grab one up on Amazon here. Make sure to check the “used” sales for discounts.

 

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).

 

 

 

 

Don Whitney – Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards and Its Influence on His Pastoral Ministry

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.

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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.