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Jonathan Edwards the Exegete

Written by Kyle Strobel on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Kyle Strobel

Here’s a particularly difficult topic in Jonathan Edwards studies: Edwards’s exegetical method. For those who have read Edwards, they have probably been as equally captivated as concerned by some of his exegetical decisions, and are probably not sure how we should consider it today.

This is where Douglas Sweeney’s latest book, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment, is so helpful. 

Exploring Edwards’s Exegesis 

In any topic in Edwards, but particularly this topic, reductionism is always tempting. It’s easy to try and fit him into preconceived categories and then read those assumptions back into his thought—making Edwards my Edwards.

But Edwards (1703–1758) never seems to fully allow for that reductionism, no matter what categories we use. As a result, Sweeney decides not to provide an overarching “model” to describe Edwards’s exegesis, choosing instead to develop four approaches Edwards takes:

  1. Canonical exegesis, focusing on Edwards’s exegesis across the whole of Scripture, highlighting his understanding of the “spiritual harmony” of the entire biblical text;
  2. Christological exegesis, showing how Edwards interpreted Scripture in a decisively Christocentric way;
  3. Redemptive-historical exegesis, revealing how Edwards interpreted Scripture in light of the metanarrative of redemption; 
  4. Pedagogical exegesis, where Edwards’s doctrinal exposition of Scripture is coupled with a pedagogical ministry of the Word.

While Sweeney—professor of church history and history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School—hesitates to give an overarching model for these four, he does recognize they’re united and can be held together under the broad category of “doctrinal exegesis.”

Unlike interpreters today, who tend to fall into historical-critical, historical-grammatical, theological, or even spiritual interpretation, Edwards saw all of these as features of a distinctively doctrinal reading of the text. This approach could be considered theological, but it couldn’t be considered theological in contrast to the other foci of modern discourse.

Edwards held to a view of exegesis that was maximal in every way, and refused to reduce the task down to one of its more narrow exercises. In part, perhaps, Edwards’s more ancient view of theology provides the context for this kind of reading. In Edwards’s words,

Divinity is commonly defined as the doctrine of living to God; and by some who seem to be more accurate, the doctrine of living to God by Christ. It comprehends all Christian doctrines as they are in Jesus, and all Christian rules directing us in living to God by Christ. There is nothing in divinity, no one doctrine, no promise, no rule, but what some way or other relates to the Christian and divine life, or our living to God by Christ. They all relate to this, in two respects, viz. as they tend to promote our living to God here in this world, in a life of faith and holiness, and also as they tend to bring us to a life of perfect holiness and happiness, in the full enjoyment of God hereafter. (WJE 22:86; see Sweeney, 197)

Reading Scripture Spiritually 

Following the likes of Petrus van Mastricht, the task of the theologian like Edwards (and preacher no doubt) was always both theoretical and practical, and the two could not be divorced. When the theological task is understood in this kind of churchly manner, a specific reading of Scripture will inevitably follow. Therefore, whenever Edwards engages in historical and grammatical issues in the text, those tools were always caught up in a higher calling. This means we don’t necessary seek an interpretation of God’s Word that would’ve made sense to the human author of Scripture, but we seek the Word spoken by the Holy Spirit (66).

The worry here, which Sweeney points out well, is this: A literal exegesis that forgets the divine author of Scripture will inevitably fail to be a Christian reading of the text. This didn’t inhibit Edwards’s quest to do justice to the historical matters necessary for proper exegesis, but it pulled that task in a broader Christian framework. This means the exegetical task is tied to sanctification, because reading Christianly entails a sanctified reading of a sanctified text. It also means one of the roles of Scripture is to help make Christians proper interpreters of reality.

This is where Edwards’s typology becomes such a dominant feature of his thought. Edwards wasn’t open to restricting typology to explicit types of Christ mentioned in Scripture. Rather, Scripture provided a kind of reading of reality, and helped to train the reader in the typological language of creation so that the Christian could read reality well. In this sense, Edwards had a similar notion to John Calvin who talked about Scripture as spectacles we look through, not merely an artifact we look at.

Word and Spirit

As someone who preaches monthly as part of a preaching team at my church, I find Edwards’s exegetical method incredibly helpful for what I do. However one understands the preaching of the Word, it seems clear that if we leave aside any of Sweeney’s four approaches that Edwards takes, we are doing a disservice to our people.

Edwards understood he wasn’t simply training people to be historically knowledgeable, theologically accurate, or even practically responsible. He wanted people who could listen closely to the Word of God for them. The Bible isn’t simply an ancient text translated for our knowledge, but is “an emanation” of the glory of God; it’s “the epistle of Christ that he has written to us” (28). This means proper interpreters of Scripture recognize a spiritual reality inherent to the exegetical task.

This isn’t the desire for secret knowledge, but the recognition that divine revelation is always by Word and Spirit. Therefore, in the Edwardsian idiom, we need a notional and a spiritual knowledge of divine things. This is a reading of Scripture in light of the heart, and the necessity for a holistic understanding of sanctification. Religious affection entails the movement of the whole person to God—in knowledge and love—and therefore the methods we employ in our exegesis should conform to this goal.

Go-To Book

Edwards the Exegete is immensely helpful in grasping the core feature of Edwards’s intellectual life as an exegete of Scripture. He helpfully provides both theory and an application of that theory to show how it looks in practice, and he engages central emphases in Edwards’s thought along the way.

This is, and will be for some time to come, the go-to book on Edwards’s exegesis of Scripture.

Douglas A. Sweeney. Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 390 pp. $74.00. 

Kyle Strobel is the assistant professor of spiritual theology and formation at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and is the author of Formed for the Glory of God (IVP, 2013) and co-author of Beloved Dust (Thomas Nelson, 2014). Kyle can be found at KyleStrobel.com or on Twitter.

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