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  • Approaching Jonathan Edwards: The Evolution of a Persona by Carol Ball
  • Lucas Nossaman
Approaching Jonathan Edwards: The Evolution of a Persona. By Carol Ball. New York: Routledge, 2016. Hardback: ISBN 9781472447029. Pp. 212. $96.00. Paperback: ISBN 9781138053069. Pp. 212. $43.96. Ebook: ISBN 9781315567457. Pp. 212. $27.48.

For Christian teachers of American literature, the question remains of what to do with Jonathan Edwards. Recent theological studies and religious history scholarship have recovered Edwards’s profound trinitarianism—a rarity in the historical flow of Congregationalism in the USA; and yet, one wonders what then to make of Perry Miller’s infamous “Edwards to Emerson” thesis, the Edwards who fused his writings with the insights and methods of Locke and Berkeley and consequently seems to compromise on Christian rigor. At the same time, while we might hope to affirm Edwards as one of America’s first serious Christian theologians, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is usually all most readers of American literature (especially students) know or remember of him.

Carol Ball attempts to recover an Edwards somewhere between the intellectual theologian and the stylist of well-known sermons. In Approaching Jonathan Edwards: The Evolution of a Persona, Stephen Greenblatt plays a role at the level of theory: Ball contends that Greenblatt’s notion of “self-fashioning” in the Renaissance applies to Edwards’s crafting of self in response to the controversies of Connecticut Valley Congregationalism. This means that Ball looks beyond [End Page 694] Edwards’s writings to his life and context, relying heavily on George Marsden’s biography as well as the wealth of historical scholarship on Edwards. She argues that Edwards responded to controversy through his gift for writing, developing the “persona” of a writing theologian dedicated to the sovereignty of God amidst controversies. Over his career she senses a growing confidence, even a strengthening of his style, in becoming more declarative and definitive in his theology. The central irony of his life, Ball notes, is that, after he was forced out of his Northampton pulpit over the halfway covenant controversy, Edwards entered a period in which his vocation as a theological writer finally made sense. He was a transatlantic “man of letters,” and accepting the position as a missionary to the Native Americans in Stockbridge allowed him more time to compose some of his greatest theological treatises, namely Freedom of the Will, Two Dissertations, and the beginning of his History of the Work of Redemption.

I am perfectly willing to agree with Ball on this last point. The writings that most interest me (I was first exposed to them through John Gatta’s Making Nature Sacred) belong to this period, though it is difficult to date his miscellanies, which pieced together could make for a coherent theology of Scripture and creation. But as a literature scholar, I had hoped that Ball’s use of Greenblatt (whose theory of “self-fashioning” is somewhat dated) might possibly translate into fresh close readings of Edwards’s writings. How does this emerging “persona” of a theological writer committed to divine sovereignty play out in, or contrast from, what we encounter in the texts? In what way does the notion of an evolving persona change the way we read Edwards’s work? Often what this book requires are more exact distinctions between “persona” and what a literary critic would describe as the “style” of his texts. Ball refers frequently to his “Personal Narrative,” and on it she can be cogent: “There are no rhetorical questions to challenge the reader, no propositions to explore and justify, and no contentious issues to confront. There is simply a clear and consistent, even repetitive, expounding of what he is sure are the pivotal doctrines of the faith” (142). To make this statement, though, Ball pretty much has to ignore the scenes of nature in this personal narrative: Edwards’s rambling through the woods, the booths he made in the swamp as a child for prayer, his desire to lie in the dust to feel the lowliness of Christ. Indeed, Ball’s insistence on his commitment to divine sovereignty means she hardly touches on the memorable details of this narrative.

Thus, Approaching...