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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 336-337
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Jonathan Edwards and the Bible. By Robert E. Brown. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2002. Pp. xxi, 292. $35.00.)
Jonathan Edwards's star has been rising among scholars. Recognized widely as America's greatest theologian, he is also cited as America's premier philosopher before the turn of the twentieth century. His Religious Affections (1746) is arguably the most discriminating treatise on spiritual discernment in Christian thought; Perry Miller called it the greatest work of religious psychology ever penned on American soil. Readers of this journal may be interested to know that a recent monograph by Anri Morimoto argues that Edwards's soteriology has more in common with Thomas Aquinas than with Martin Luther (Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Vision of Salvation, Penn State University Press). Not to mention his influence on such diverse fields as aesthetics, literary theory, history of religions, and of course homiletics.
Amazingly, among the scores of books and hundreds of articles that have appeared in the last century, next to nothing has been done on Edwards's use of the Bible—despite the fact that the Bible was as central to Edwards's vision and literary production as it was to Augustine's or Luther's. Robert Brown's book now helps fill this strange lacuna. But contrary to what the title suggests, this is not about the impact of the Bible on Edwards's thought or spiritual life; nor is it concerned with his use of Scripture in his sermons or even theology. Instead it focuses on Edwards's encounter with nascent biblical criticism, and the result of that encounter for Edwards's understanding of both Scripture and the history of salvation.
Brown explains that the deists sought to discredit the Bible by using early historical criticism to insist that true knowledge is a priori and infallible, as in mathematics. Edwards's response was twofold. First, he charged that the deist [End Page 336] definition of rationality was too narrow, excluding the experiential and the spiritual. He claimed that Scripture conveys to the mind not only information but also its beauty, which can be seen only by the spiritually enlightened. Second, he argued that the full truth of Christian faith is known only through historical accounts in the biblical drama of salvation. This understanding then becomes the key to discerning God's activity outside the Bible—hence an eighteenth-century version of what we have lately called narrative theology.
If Edwards combated deist use of early biblical criticism, he also was influenced by it. Brown traces a shift in Edwards's method from early typological treatment of difficult texts to later attempts to demonstrate historical authenticity. Brown shows how Edwards over time came to concede that the Bible's history is neither comprehensive nor pristine. Brown also shows, intriguingly, that America's foremost theologian of hell uses what could be called a liberal hermeneutic (language about judgment and hell is not to be interpreted literally) to support traditional understandings of those subjects. Therefore, Brown concludes, convincingly, that Perry Miller and Peter Gay inaccurately cast Edwards as isolated from and insensitive to the best historical thinking of his time. This was a period in which hard lines cannot be drawn between "pre-critical" and "critical" historical methods: Edwards may have been on the conservative end of the historiographical spectrum, but he used the same methods and shared most historiographical presuppositions with those on the other end.
Brown makes other new claims: Edwards and Locke were closer than we have thought, since the former came to accept the latter's understanding of historical religious knowledge as approximate and probabilistic; Edwards was a full participant in the early modern science of religion, believing both in the inspiration of some pagan philosophers and in the historically conditioned nature of biblical history.
This is first-rate intellectual history, demonstrating not only how America's foremost theologian engaged fully with radical Bible critics but also the sophisticated manner in which some early modern theologians used new critical methods when interpreting...