Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Review of Josh Moody's new book on Edwards and the Enlightenment

JONATHAN EDWARDS AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT Knowing the Presence of God By Josh Moody University Press of America, 2005 vii + 203 pages. £20.00/$29.95 ISBN 0 761830 55 3

In four short chapters Dr. Josh Moody, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in New Haven (USA), offers an interesting and informed introduction to four important themes in the thought of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758): True Salvation; True Experience; True Reality; and, True Light. Dr. Moody’s gift for communication, a lamentably rare commodity in the academy, makes this volume an enjoyable read.

The book is slightly oddly arranged with only 96 pages of text and 750 endnotes. The advantage of this arrangement is that the uninitiated reader need not follow the myriad debates in the secondary literature but can enjoy instead a relatively unbroken exposition of what Edwards taught. The strength of the book is the author’s ability to use both the published works of Edwards and the many unpublished manuscripts available at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Readers of this volume may ponder the fact that much of this material was last conveyed to Edwards’s own congregation in the first half of the 18th century.

Salvation applied

The first chapter concentrates on the application of salvation. Dr. Moody underlines the importance of revival to Edwards — both in his broader concept of history and in the response of faith in the individual. Various issues of real importance for the Christian church are developed, in particular, preaching, prayer, faith, and practice. In the discussion of prayer, for example, the old myth about ‘Calvinism’ and the importance of prayer is helpfully dispelled. The author puts it succinctly when he writes that ‘Edwards, and other Puritans before him, prayed not in spite of but because they believed in a sovereign God’ (p.27). The author’s own sympathy for Edwards’s particular brand of revival thought comes across clearly.

Salvation experienced

In the examination of ‘True Salvation’, attention turns to Edwards’s foundational treatise The Religious Affections (1746). Many enigmatic ideas in Edwards — such as ‘the sense of the heart’ — are clearly outlined and illustrated. This chapter provides a very useful introduction to what is arguably Edwards’s most significant work and highlights the profundity of Edwards’s lifelong reflection on the nature of grace in the soul and the outworking of that grace in Christian practice. The point that Dr. Moody seems to be making throughout this chapter is that evangelicals of many theological schools need to read deeply in Edwards to equip them to clarify the things that they say about Christian experience. It would be a welcome development.

Philosophical ideas

The third chapter is the most difficult because (to use the jargon) the issues under the microscope are ontology and epistemology. In other words, what it means to exist, and what it means to have knowledge. Edwards’s philosophical thought is set against a number of alternate theories of existence and knowledge that were prevalent in the 18th century. For those with an interest in the philosophical issues, this should prove a helpful introduction.


The final chapter, on true light, is the best in the book. Dr. Moody outlines three themes: the relationship between ‘Reason and Revelation’, the place of natural theology, and the role of special revelation. The argument is based on extensive labours in the manuscript collection at Yale and the results make for fascinating reading. The author contends that traditional descriptions of Edwards have failed to comprehend the purpose of Edwards’s preaching and writing, which was to engage his culture for the Lord Christ. In particular, Edwards sought to re-enlighten the ‘Enlightenment’ by underscoring the necessity and rationality of the biblical revelation. Dr. Moody is at his best where Edwards was at his most brilliant — playing the part of the philosopher-evangelist, rigorously applying biblical truth in the language and context of his own time.

This book is not for everyone. It is an accessible doctoral dissertation that deals with some very technical philosophy and some issues of more immediate importance for the Christian life. That Edwards responded to the Enlightenment on such a broad front is indicative of the seriousness of the threat he perceived and his own brilliance. Dr. Moody conveys each of these aspects in his book and leaves the reader with an appreciation of the abiding importance of Edwards for the contemporary church. For those readers of this journal who are not attracted to this sort of book, but who wish to grasp more of Edwards’s significance, a good place to begin reading in Edwards is his famous sermon A Divine and Supernatural Light (1734). The sermon is still widely published and available on the internet. A careful reading of it will provide an introduction to the important issues raised in this book.

originally published here
Like all the other posts on this blog the opinions expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the JEC.


Blogger Jonathan Moorhead said...

Thank you so much for starting this blog! I will definitely link you and try to get the word out.

1:05 pm  

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