An Interview with Doug Sweeney on Jonathan Edwards the Exegete
Nov 05, 2015 | Justin Taylor

It’s not every day that one finds a groundbreaking scholarly contribution that is also readable and enjoyable. But that’s the case with Douglas Sweeney’s long-awaited Edwards the Exegete Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Dr. Sweeney is Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought, Chair of the Department, and Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has published widely on Edwards, early modern Protestant thought, and the history of evangelicalism.

He kindly answered some questions about his work, the world and methods of Edwards, and his hopes for what it will do both for Edwards scholarship and for the church today.

An immediate impression upon opening your new book is the sheer number of endnotes it contains. I couldn’t resist doing a calculation: 40% of the 382 pages are devoted to your bibliographic notes. Obviously this represents an enormous investment of reading and reflecting and writing. How long have you been working on this project?

I’ve been working on this book for 12 years. To readers who don’t like footnotes, I offer encouragement to skip them! Serious readers with an interest in Edwards’s thought and/or the Bible can read the text of this book without reference to the notes. I’ve worked hard to craft clear, crisp, fun-to-read sentences. Some contain Scripture quotations (and thus are a little long). But any good reader should be able to make it through the book and understand its contents.

Having said this, I hasten to add that this particular book is also an effort to change the way in which scholars think of Edwards and his historical significance. It develops and defends a major argument about the importance of Scripture to Edwards. And it seeks to pioneer a new subfield in Edwards studies, providing students with the bibliography and historiographical pointers needed to follow me into the study of Edwards’s biblical exegesis (and the biblical interpretation of many of Edwards’s peers as well). Whereas many books today largely rehash material one can find elsewhere, this one is different. In this one, I needed to offer thorough documentation and engagement with other scholars in the footnotes.

It seems that almost anything that can be written about Edwards has already been written about at this point, after the explosion of dissertations and monographs over the past few decades. But why has something so central to Edwards—his bibliology and biblical interpretation—been conspicuously absent in scholarship?

There are several reasons for this.

First, Edwards never wrote a standard commentary on Scripture. Nor did he publish a major treatise on the meaning of revelation, or the nature of the Bible, or his method of exegesis. He spoke at great length about interpreting the Bible. He understood his work in largely exegetical terms. But not once did he use the English word “hermeneutics” (it wasn’t common in his world), let alone offer a comprehensive theory of the task. In order to write this book I have had to glean from myriad leaves of manuscript material—mainly unpublished sermons and a variety of notebooks—making sense of Edwards’s manner of interpreting the Bible more coherently than he had time to do for himself. To accomplish this goal without misconstruing Edwards has required a lot of work.

Second, and relatedly, most of Edwards’ exegetical manuscripts have lain in the archives, untranscribed and unpublished, since his death. Only recently have they become part of the Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards.

Third, the renaissance of scholarship on Edwards in recent decades has been led by people working mainly in secular universities. Many of them have found Edwards fascinating. But in their day-to-day work, and especially in their effort to make Edwards more interesting to students in such settings, they have focused on Edwards’s ethical and philosophical works, works that trade more in what we call general revelation.

How would you describe the exegetical world in which Edwards was working?

It’s a lost world of preachers and their colleagues in the academy who worked in ancient history and philology. It also included a wide array of early modern theologians who engaged in detailed thinking about the Bible and its teachings. Edwards’s favorite exegetical conversation partners were commentators like Matthew Poole, Philip Doddridge, Matthew Henry, and John Owen; or ancient historians like Humphrey Prideaux, Samuel Shuckford, and Joseph Mede; or linguists like Johann Buxtorf, Erasmus Schmid, and the compilers of the early-modern polyglot Bibles (Benedictus Arias Montanus, most importantly); or theologians like Peter van Mastricht, Francis Turretin, and Johann Friedrich Stapfer.

It was also a world suffused with what historians now describe as an early-modern Protestant approach to the literal sense of Scripture. Whereas late-modern Protestants usually teach that the literal sense is found through careful study of the grammar of and history behind individual texts (asking how they would have been understood by those who first heard them), people in Edwards’s world more often taught that the literal sense is the one most plainly intended by the Spirit—and so their “literal” exegesis often included spiritual meanings that could only be defended by interpreting these texts with help from others parts of Scripture.

I want to ask you about Edwards’s actual methods of interpretation, but first I’d love to hear you talk about how Edwards viewed the Word itself. How important was the Bible in his theology and spirituality?

It was central to his life, pastoral ministry, and theology. It was the sun of his solar system—not the sole source of energy and light at his disposal but the one that helped him understand the rest in the right way. He devoted most of his waking life to thinking about the contents and teachings of the Bible. He was a minister of the Word, a fact that is all-too-easily lost on modern scholars.

Edwards held what will seem to even modern evangelicals an especially high view of the Bible’s inspiration and authority. He taught that God “indited” the Scriptures (i.e. proclaimed, pronounced, or composed them) through the Bible’s human authors and thus “dictated” to ministers the things they are to preach. He treated the prophets and apostles as the oracles of God. He taught that Scripture was “the Word of God,” “the epistle of Christ . . . to us,” an “emanation of [God’s] glory,” “a perfect rule” of faith and life, and a “guide to true happiness.”

Even though Edwards didn’t write a hermeneutics handbook, you argue that he primarily used four methods: (1) canonical exegesis, (2) Christological exegesis, (3) redemptive-historical exegesis, and (4) pedagogical exegesis. Could you explain what these are and how he used them in his quest to glorify God, understand divine revelation, and serve the church?

Sure, but, again, let me emphasize that Edwards did not write about this in a systematic way. This four-fold schema does not represent methods used intentionally by Edwards in an overall plan to interpret holy writ in a four-fold way. They simply organize and summarize the exegetical practices reflected in his writings.

Canonical exegesis (interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture in a pan-canonical way) showed him how the Bible cohered.

Christological exegesis (interpreting even the Old Testament in view of Jesus Christ and His work of redemption) showed him how it all centered on the love of God for the saints (the mystical bride of Christ).

Redemptive-historical exegesis provided a spiritual metanarrative that made sense of individual texts in light of the storyline that tied them all together.

Pedagogical exegesis gave him rules for faith and life, helping Christians play their parts in the story of redemption.

He thought that all four approaches should begin with a study of the text’s grammar and history (which he taught alongside them but did not often feature as an end in itself). He also thought they overlapped and even built upon each other to provide people of faith with a grand vision of God, His relation to the world, and the meaning of His Word. Taken together, these methods yielded a robust, thoroughgoing biblical theology that governed Edwards’ other, more occasional—and far more famous—publications.

For Edwards what was the role of tradition and theological system as he approached the text? Was he a “biblicist” in the sense we think of the term?

Edwards was a Calvinist who affirmed both the Westminster Standards and the Savoy Declaration. (The Savoy Declaration was the Congregationalist version of the Westminster Confession. Edwards was a Congregationalist pastor who waffled a bit on matters of church polity. He could have served well in a Presbyterian church, as he granted to a friend living in Scotland.) He interpreted the Bible with the help of these confessions. But he did not usually defend his exegesis by appealing to them, or even by appealing to other well-regarded doctors of the church. As he wrote in a private notebook, the Scriptures are sufficient to supply both our spiritual and exegetical needs. Careful students “have no need of joining unto them the writings of the fathers or church historians” to understand their meanings. “God would have our whole dependence be upon the Scriptures,” he wrote, “because the greater our dependence is on the Word of God, the more direct and immediate is our dependence on God himself.” So, yes, Edwards was a “biblicist.”

Most of us are tempted by “chronological snobbery,” assuming (as Packer once put it), that “the newer is the truer, only what is recent is decent, every shift of ground is a step forward, and every latest word must be hailed as the last word on its subject.” In what ways can Edwards the exegete—operating in a very different world than our own but with the same God and the same revelation and the same human needs and ends—serve as a positive role model for contemporary interpretation of the Bible?

Too often today preachers feel the need to side with either the proponents of “grammatical-historical” exegesis or the prophets of the “theological interpretation of Scripture.” And in the evangelical movement, the tension this produces is exacerbated by the fact most “theological” interpreters are Catholic, or Anglican, or Lutheran–not often evangelical. Edwards provides a good model of evangelical exegesis that is both grammatical-historical and robustly theological. He worked three centuries ago and got a lot of things wrong. But he shows us that Protestants can combine (and, in the olden days, usually did combine) careful work with Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient history and skill in interpreting the Bible theologically (with careful application to our faith and practice today). I’d love to see us find contemporary ways to rehabilitate this both-and approach to the interpretation of Scripture. The spiritual health of God’s people depends upon it.