Thursday, August 07, 2008

Bill Schweitzer

Our warm congratulations to Bill Schweitzer, University of Edinburgh, who recently submitted his doctoral thesis. He writes

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share about ‘Interpreting the Harmony of Reality: Jonathan Edwards’ Theology of Revelation.’ I think my direction could be summed up by the questions ‘what did Edwards mean when he said that God “is a communicative Being,” and ‘what was the overarching project that unifies his work?’ It is most basically a treatment of JE’s thought on revelation, with Edwards’ characteristically radical counterpoint to the deistic critique of revelation functioning as something of an historical sub-plot. But I end up seeing all of Edwards’ theology from the perspective of revelation. My proposal is that Edwards’ unfinished ‘great works’ (all three of them) were all attempts to demonstrate the Trinitarian harmony that marks the several media of revelation. If God is ‘a communicative Being,’ if harmony is his signature attribute, and if all reality is a communication from God, then we should expect to find harmony in and between Scripture, nature, and history. I think that this is ultimately what JE was trying to show to us in all his work.
I have chapters on God’s Communicativeness, Nature and Science, the Necessity of Revelation (including a discussion of Edwards’ innovative relational/communicative argument), Scripture, History, and a concluding chapter that make my case for my theory on Edwards—something I think could be a useful tool, but I know there are other possibilities. One of my recurring themes is how Edwards has a multi-dimensional (having noetic, affectional and beatific elements) concept of revelation; something I think lots of commentators recognise implicitly. I really did not set out to pick fights with anyone, but given my topic I do interact with, for instance Bob Brown; I just think Edwards was more radically opposed to Enlightenment thought than his more nuanced interpretation might suggest. But my real foils are JE’s contemporary antagonists, not only the deists such as Toland, Tindal and Chubb, but also John Locke. One of the funnest things I got to do was to present evidence that Edwards was responding directly to Locke’s Essay in framing his arguments for the necessity of revelation.
As I think happens elsewhere, Edwards’ great fascination with heaven influences his thought on revelation in what I call the ‘redemptive-historical beatific vision’—a concept Ramsey picks up in the appendix to Vol. 8. God is communicating himself to us through the medium of redemptive history, and so even the saints in heaven study what transpires on earth. The advantage in heaven is that these things are interpreted to them by Jesus Christ (see the ‘True Saints’ funeral sermon for Brainerd in Vol. 25). It thus does not surprise me that Edwards carried on a sort of microcosmic approximation of this situation on earth, not only by the History of the Work of Redemption project but also by some little-known revival newsletters, and I think in some way by all his theology. I conclude with a challenge for the church today to take up Edwards’ unfinished project of interpreting all aspects of reality as God's communication of beautiful harmony.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Congratulations on finishing. I'm hoping to be done by February. I'm a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and have been working on my dissertation for the past five years - although its my ninth year in the program. I'll give you a brief summary of my dissertation, Divine Contrivance: The Typological Realism of Jonathan Edwards and the Nature of Doctrine. I begin by looking at Edwards on religious language, which I divide into two forms: the figurative language of types and the more abstract/universal language of doctrine. Although, I argue that all of religious language in to some extent figurative and typological for Edwards, because the language we used is limited to the representations of the common things and experiences of this world I then demonstrate how types (knowledge by analogy) and doctrines (knowledge by abstraction) are interdependent. I then apply this to the contemporary discussion on doctrine using George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine. I attempt to answer four questions that Lindbeck addresses: Where do doctrines come from? How do they function? How are doctrines true? How do they relate to the world?

In answering these questions I bring in the notion of God as a communicative being - his role as a social member in the meaningfulness of doctrines and types. I also discuss how types and doctrines are cognitive, regulative, and affective in Edwards's system and then how this impacts the truthfulness of doctrine. The final chapter is a defense of Edwards's metaphysics as a typological realism which governs how doctrines relate to the world.

Here are some of my thoughts and questions about your dissertation.

1. I agree with you that most of Edwards's criticism was directed at Deism and others such as Locke. I've got a paper I'm working on which reconfigures the traditional understanding of Edwards's typology around the debate over prophecy and typology, between deists, and literalists, such as Isaac Newton and William Whiston. Even his criticism of Arminianism seem directed more at Arminianism as a step toward deism.

2. I also agree that harmony is an important theme and that God's communicativeness is what unites history, Scripture, and nature. This is a point I argue in my defense of typological realism.

3. Do you deal at all with the claims of Edwards's panentheism? One of the Calvin profs. (John Cooper) recently wrote a history of panentheism and included a section on Edwards. This is a difficult question because it is difficult to define what panentheism - although I'm not convinced of some of the presuppositions that go into many of the definitions.

4. I like the three fold structure of revelation (noetic, affectional and beatific elements). Do these include a practical/moral element and is the beatific eschatological/typological?

5. I agree about the importance of heaven in his thought. One aspect that I particularly like is the we retain our finitude and so heaven is a progressive state where the finite moves toward the infinite and we continue to learn.

6. While I love Edwards he is difficult to work with because he didn't have a organized and written system of theology. Much of his thought is scattered among notebooks and sermons. Not to mention all the various theologies and philosophies that he was interacting with and transforming their language to his own purpose. How did you deal with these difficulties? Not to mention the overwhelming secondary materials. Did you interact with Stephen Daniel's "Divine Semiotics" at all? There seem to be mixed feelings about his work, some love it and some hate it. I think that there is a lot of value especially in terms of putting Edwards and semiotics together. For Edwards everything (signs) need to be understood in the discourse of revelation, without which they are meaningless.

7. Concerning the challenge at the end about continuing to interpret reality, I couldn't agree more. This is difficult though because we've been so secularized in our thinking about history, nature and many other disciplines. I think there are some parallels here between what Radical Orthodoxy is trying to do - not that I always agree with their interpretation - in there critique of secularism and restoration of theology. I did a conference paper comparing the metaphysics of Edwards and John Milbank - who share some of the same ideas about materialism.

I'm very excited about your work from what you've said so far. Thanks for taking the time to share some of your thoughts with me.

Jerry Stutzman

9:52 pm  
Blogger Bill Schweitzer said...

Great to hear what you are up to at Calvin. It sounds like we are operating from some of the same basic intuitions. I can only concur with your placement of typology as key to Edwards work. If God is communicating himself to intelligent beings through nature, history, and Scripture, then all aspects of reality have direct and/or typological spiritual significance.

1. Concur with your analysis, and I look forward to seeing that paper.

2. On the point of typological realism, I can only imagine that you have some use for Frei at some point. I take his Yale dissertation on Barth’s doctrine of revelation to be a very loose conceptual model for mine, and I also find myself agreeing with his basic understanding of the functioning of typology in Eclipse. Given Frei’s appreciation of Edwards (seeing him as the 18th C equivalent of Barth in Types), I am not sure why JE didn’t make a mention in Eclipse, but I would put him very much on the pre-critical side precisely because of his typology--I can’t see how typology could peacefully coexist with a critical hermeneutic.

3. I do not get into panentheism at all, for the reasons you mention. I really find it too slippery of a discussion to have much to say.

4. a) My/JE’s tri-dimensional model of revelation does not include a practical element per se. This is for a couple reasons. First, JE sees love—one of the three dimensions of God’s communication—as necessarily moving people towards good works (Religious Affections). In the larger picture, practical good works fall under the heading of communicativeness. JE thinks that goodness implies a disposition to communicate one’s good state to another. This is done eternally in the three persons sharing their knowledge, love, and joy; and in time through communicating these things to intelligent beings. Thus revelation is itself the practical outworking of God’s goodness, and we emulate him in re-emanating what we receive to one another.
b) Yes, the beatific is indeed eschatological.

5. Not only do we continue to learn in heaven, but our love (which is predicated on knowledge) also increases, and thus our joy.

6. I ended up dealing with such difficulties by unconsciously echoing at a lower level what I think was JE’s own approach: he had a few insights that permeated everything he did, he used his conversation partners to prompt development, and he pursued the interesting topics that he thought had been neglected. There were a couple of times where I had a trajectory in my mind, and I thought to myself ‘Edwards should say something along these lines somewhere’—and later I would find it. I ended up trolling through every part of the corpus to find it, but such instances confirmed to me the real unity of Edwards’ thought. On the secondary literature, I just had to take some good advice on what was most worthwhile. I do not actually interact with Daniel, but his basic premise connected with JE’s universe full of intricate meaning awaiting interpretation seems fairly helpful to me. I can see where it could be quite important for your topic.
7. I have a paper in SBET (‘Rage Against the Machine’) where I mention how Edwards was probably the last figure of his kind to live at a time where a real synthesis of all disciplines could seem like a live possible. Things have gone their separate ways since then, and evangelicals in particular have moved into ghettos. I think JE would appreciate at some level the project of Radical Orthodoxy. If anything, I think he might say that they are neither radical nor orthodox enough. Personally, I have never found Edwards equal in either of these areas.

I, too, am excited and about your work, and thankful for this level of interaction. I look forward to further contact.

2:30 pm  
Blogger Jerry Stutzman said...


1. I’ve read a number of things from Frei, including Eclipse but I’ve never seen him reference Edwards. Could you tell me where you found his Edwards reference? I agree that Edwards is largely pre-critical but he is also aware of the historical/biblical criticism and challenges some of their presuppositions.

2.To add to what you said about practice – throughout his works Edwards refers to practice as a language and one that communicates more clearly than words. As such practice is sort of a typological participation – in that we are communicating God’s goodness but also pointing to its greater fulfillment in the heavenly kingdom. So even the millennial kingdom is still just a type of the final eschatological heavenly kingdom.

3.What secondary materials did you find most helpful? Are there any unpublished Edwards sermons they you found revealing and important?


Jerry Stutzman

3:59 pm  
Blogger Bill Schweitzer said...

1. a) The primary reference is Types of Christian Theology (Yale, 1992) p. 4, where he says JE is an 18th C example of his favoured fourth type of theology. Mike Higton notes Frei's appreciation of Edwards in Christ, Providence and History: Hans W. Frei’s Public Theology (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2004), p. 171.
b) I agree completely with your description of JE. However, I think it is important to see that awareness or even neck-deep engagement with critical issues has no necessary correlation with any degree of adoption of a critical/Enlightenment approach to Scripture, which is about the location of authority. That is one of the points I want to make, in minor distintion to Brown et al. The issue has everything to do with evidence of adoption of critical presuppositions of ultimate authority residing in human reason, and almost nothing to do with being found in possession of its paraphenalia (as was the case with Owen.)
2. I would love to see a paper on that topic. Sounds plausible and attractive.
3. a) On the secondary materials, I hate to choose! What comes to mind as particualrly helpful for my particular project are Jensen, McDermott, Holmes, Ramsey's intro and appendices in Vol. 8, Andersons' intros, Brown, Lee, and McClymond. I think I ended up consulting 80% of the recent (last 20 years) monographs, but on articles stuck mainly the ones on relevant topics.
b) I found unpublished sermons 50, 72, 156, 196, 253, 449, 866, 883, 921, 928, 945, and 952 from the JEC useful. I also saw a couple nuggets in sources outwith the Yale Edition, such as The Salvation of Souls: Nine Previously Unpublished Sermons on the Call of Ministry and the Gospel by Jonathan Edwards. Edited by Richard A. Bailey and Gregory A. Wills. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002; and The Blessing of God: Previously Unpublished Sermons by Jonathan Edwards. Edited by Michael McMullen. Nashville: Broadman, 2003.

Thanks again for the great discussion.

1:58 pm  

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