Spiritual Interpretation of the Bible

Jonathan Edwards, says one scholar of Edwards, “devoted most of his waking life to meditating on Scripture… praying fervently for the Spirit’s help interpreting and applying the Bible” (169, from The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, ed. M.J. McClymond, G.R McDermott). I wonder, and perhaps you do, how much the current pastor reads the Bible — devoting “most” of one’s “waking life” to the Bible. There is no doubt that the pragmatics and professionalization of the modern pastorate makes that kind of life almost impossible.

And how good is that for the church?

The authors estimate that Edwards wrote more than 5000 pages of printed material as exposition of Scripture. This all goes back to a resolution he made as a young man to spend his life studying Scripture. This posture of his led to his Bible reading being a sensate experience — spirit laid on spirit. Some have said Edwards was pre-critical, but another scholar (Robert Brown) said Edwards’ approach should be called “hybrid traditionalism,” and the interesting thing is that he tended to use modernist methods to prove traditionalist conclusions.

He struggled to defeat Enlightenment deists, Roman Catholics, and hyper evangelicals who are more or less something like rhema word interpreters today.

Back to that sensate reading: he sought a harmony between text and heart. He believed in divine illumination leading beyond the literal reading; “Spirit-empowered interpretation” and there was an inexhaustibility to Scripture. The authors of this book seem not to want to say too much, but they say Edwards tilted toward the spiritual. I’d say he did more than tilt. His “spiritual interpretation” permits the reader to put the Bible together. Of course, this sounds like the so-called “theological interpretation of Scripture” today as well as the narrative/Story approaches and it can sound like confessional approaches, but Edwards searched for what I would call a deeper sensate reading: an intellectual interiority of communion with God (as he understood God and God’s redemptive history in this world).

He was a typological reader — and the authors pull out a quote that shows Edwards saw types in every dimension of Scripture, and not only in things like cities and people and events, but also in the events in the life of Jesus. All of Scripture was captured and swallowed into a larger sense.

As compared with those who fought for “perspicuity” (text is plain and clear in its fundamental message) Edwards pursued the “fecundity” of Scripture.

Here’s how they sum it up: “Spiritually interpreted, the Bible became a pulsating, dynamic field of interacting signs” (180).

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  • Really appreciate the series on Edwards. What a great example of meditation leading to changed affections and actions towards God.

    Suprised, though, to hear that the authors of this biography would say that Edwards would not fight for the perspicuity of Scripture, but, as you say, believed more in the fecundity of it. Did Edwards ever outright deny the clarity of Scripture, as traditionally defined?

    I’d be inclined to think that Edwards would have considered the “fecundity” quite dependent on the perspicuity.

  • scotmcknight

    Joey, they set the two as alternatives: the perspicuity people tend to deny fecundity, so if you are for fecundity you are not a perspicuity person. That’s how they set it up.

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    I actually like Edwards spiritual focus to hermeneutics. I will say the line about Edwards struggled to defeat enlightened deists (yes), Roman Catholics (theologically I understand but they too had a pneumatic empowered or understanding of scripture in their hermenutics), and hyper evangelicals (is this a reference to Pentecostals and charismaniacs?). I could see others who disagree with Edwards more pneumatic approach may put him in the same list here with those he combatted?

  • Hmmm. I wouldn’t think of them as alternatives. But then again, I do not use either word much in conversation, so my understanding of both (especially fecundity) may be incomplete.

    How would you define each? Would you consider them either / or?

  • Jeremy

    How does one reconcile the trajectory Edwards was on with the current push to accept the bible we have and not the bible we want? How does one follow that trajectory and not end up exactly where we are now where any given part of the bible means whatever the reader wants it to?

    I should note that I absolutely love Edwards. He is easily in my top 3 favorite theologians.

  • Joe Canner

    Joey #4, Now you got my curiosity up. In reproductive biology circles, fecundity refers to a woman’s ability to reproduce. A quick Google search for “fecundity of Scripture” did not reveal anything. I suspect it means that Scripture has many meanings (some of which may be hidden) as opposed to one plain meaning, but I’m interested to hear what Scot has to say, as well as to hear how that term came to be co-opted for this purpose. (Although I just noticed on wikipedia that fecundity also can be used in reference to scientific theories that are ripe with new lines of inquiry.)

  • AJ

    In his seminary class on Jonathan Edwards, Dr. Douglas Sweeney of TEDS said that Edwards was also commited to memorizing scripture. He said he often pinned scripture onto his clothes while riding from place to place for the purpose of memorizing or meditating. Edwards had a good portion of the Bible memorized.

  • AJ

    Edwards’ Knowledge of the Divine Truth and writings about the affections show that in his mind, knowledge of divine truth was not only head knowledge, but also an experiential knowledge that resonated in the heart, working its way out again through desires and pursuit of fulfillment of those desires. (the greatest desire being for God’s glory) If this is true, then spiritual knowledge or interpretation that applies to the broader story of the Bible and our lives is good for churches to pursue and recognize. It seems easier to focus on one aspect of the knowledge of the divine, as Edwards sees it. We either focus on head-knowledge or experiential knowledge that isn’t necessarily grounded in scripture. Edwards’ deep commitment to both is a challenge for anyone in ministry – to exemplify and encourage making it our “business to search for it, and that with the same diligence and labor with which men are wont to dig in mines of silver and gold.”

    If we are to recognize Christ as King, it must be not only in our heads and in what we do, but also in our hearts/desires.

    If we agree that hearts/desires are important, then it seems to me that one way of gospeling is to start by recognizing people’s desires and work our way back to the story of Isreal completed in Jesus. This includes addressing pain as an invitation to let go of our ties to worldly pleasures/fulfillment and embrace dependence on God.

  • Just Sayin’

    Hopefully you didn’t discard the beautiful dust jacket on this book?

  • scotmcknight

    Just Sayin’, it’s been recycled by now.

  • I am working under the following definition of fecundity:

    The quality or power of producing abundantly; fruitfulness or fertility. Productive or creative power: fecundity of the mind – from freedictionary.com

    I applied this to Scripture in that the Word has the power to produce abundantly, generate fruit and produce creative power. None of which I considered the opposite of the text having a clear meaning in the essentials.

    This may not be at all what the authors of this biography, or Scot, or certainly Edwards, meant. But I am very curious now also.

    I do not think I would agree that Edwards thought the essential truths of Scripture were still ripe with new lines of inquiry, or were not clear, if that is what is meant here. But I could be wrong.

  • Just Sayin’

    Scot, that is dust jacket sacrilege 🙂