Monday, October 09, 2006

"Jonathan Edward's"

I have a review of Josh Moody's Jonathan Edwards and the Enlightenment in the latest edition of the Journal of Religion. I've always found the folks there friendly and amenable. There are a number of editorial corrections to the review that brought a smile to my face. For example the correction of Edwards' to Edwards's throughout the review. Rather more amusing is the completely new opening sentence where my omission of a possessive in Edwards' becomes Edward's - another victory for the grammar gremlins. Anyway as the published review is edited from my submission I reprint below my original submission. The new opening line is 'Based on a detailed examination of unpublished manuscripts and a new emphasis on the historical context ...' If you want to the original please click below. The journal article may be accessible here.

Moody, Josh Jonathan Edwards and the Enlightenment: Knowing the Presence of God Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2005. 212pp. $59.95 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

Josh Moody’s Cambridge University doctoral thesis offers a rereading of key elements in Jonathan Edwards' (1703-1758) theology based on a detailed examination of unpublished manuscripts and a new emphasis on the historical context. Moody believes that Deism was an ‘archetypal Puritan foe’ (p.17) and argues that Edwards responded to the threat by reforming the Enlightenment along biblical Puritan lines.

The book consists of four short chapters which offer an interesting and well-documented introduction to important themes in Edwards’ thought: “True Salvation”; “True Experience”; “True Reality”; and, “True Light”. Dr Moody’s writes lucidly, making 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 The strength of the book is the author’s ability to use both the published works of Edwards and the many unpublished manuscripts available at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

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. Moody develops various issues of importance for understanding Edwards’ view of applied Christianity, in particular, preaching, prayer, faith, and practice.

In the examination of “True Salvation” attention turns to Edwards’ 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’ most significant work and highlights the profundity of Edwards’ lifelong reflection on the nature of grace in the soul and the outworking of that grace in Christian practice.

The third chapter is the most difficult because the issues under the microscope are ontology and epistemology – the practical emphasis in the first two chapters is replaced by the intensely theoretical. Edwards’ philosophical thought is set against a number of alternate theories of existence and knowledge that were prevalent in the eighteenth century. For those with an interest in the philosophical issues this should prove a helpful introduction and, again, the author attempts to apply his conclusions to contemporary discussions.

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 labors 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’ preaching and writing, which was to engage his culture for the glory of the Triune God. Essentially, Edwards sought to reform 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 analyzing early eighteenth century Reformed expositions of biblical theology in the language and context of the time.

All books have limitations but one cannot help conclude that this book is much too short. When Moody interacts with the extant texts of Edwards, particularly in use of unpublished manuscripts in chapter four, the readings offer cogent challenges to the received interpretations. Those familiar with the vast literature by and about Edwards may experience an unusual freshness throughout this book – this is not simply a recycling of long accepted opinions. Yet, most frustratingly, this republication of a 1998 doctoral thesis does not interact with the recent body of writing on Edwards and the Enlightenment. For those aware of the literature his conclusions lack the certainty that an ongoing interaction with the scholarly community could have produced.

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. The appropriation of Edwards by Alvin Plantinga and Paul Helm, amongst others, demonstrates that Edwards’ distinctive Reforming voice remains a part of the ongoing theological and philosophical conversation.

MICHAEL MCCLENAHAN, The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University

Maybe the original opening line was just too matey?


Blogger Michael McClenahan said...

Now I see more changes - it is turning into a game of spot the difference!

3:21 pm  

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