Doug Sweeney is Distinguished Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He also serves as Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center.
The following interview revolves around Sweeney’s recent book, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and the Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment.
Moore: You are a well-known scholar of Jonathan Edwards. When did the initial impetus occur to study Edwards in a more serious and systematic manner?
Sweeney: Not until the end of my time in graduate school. I entered college as an economics major heading to law school. During my sophomore year, I began to think more critically about my aspirations and the motivations behind them. I also took a class with Mark Noll on the Protestant Reformation—and loved it. I became a history major and spent the rest of my time in college sinking roots in the past, especially the parts of the history of Christianity that had shaped me intellectually and spiritually. This continued into graduate school. I had a few different teachers who were keen on Jonathan Edwards. But my doctoral advisor, who was one of those teachers, coached me to choose a dissertation topic other than Edwards himself. He said another dissertation on Edwards might get lost in the crowd, and encouraged me to write on Yale’s Nathaniel William Taylor and the Edwardsean tradition in nineteenth-century America. This enabled me to keep a foot in the world of Edwards studies but to research and write about other people too. The manuscript work I did in service of that project set me up to land my first, full-time job at what is now called Yale’s Edwards Center. And the work I did at Yale transcribing, teaching, and publishing on Edwards made me “a more serious and systematic” Edwards scholar.
Moore: I made a few hundred marginal notes in your book. It is thorough without being pedantic, scholarly yet accessible. How have you been able to make scholarship more available to the broader public without dumbing down the content?
Sweeney: I have assumed the very best about non-academic readers and worked hard to write material they can use with genuine profit and delight. Even specialists, of course, prefer arguments and sentences that are clear and fun to read. Non-specialists require them. They don’t have to spend their leisure time dealing with the work of academics like me. Still, many of them are interested in the subjects I research. My assumption is that the ones who might actually lend their ears to a book by Oxford Press are just as bright as academics. They don’t need me to dumb things down or condescend to them with light and undocumented versions my work (work that seems to say “trust me, I’m the real expert here, and if I gave it to you straight you likely wouldn’t understand”). They don’t even mind endnotes, especially if they can ignore them without missing anything crucial. So I speak to them as equals, stating as clearly as I can, in prose I think they’ll want to read, what we know about my subjects and what I’m adding to the conversation about them. Truth be told, most specialists also like this kind of writing. We usually spend more time in the notes than non-specialists. But we like efficient prose, crisp, clear communication, more than opaque, jargon-driven writing.
Moore: The Enlightenment is not easily reducible to the sound bites that sometimes are used to describe it. You mention some well-known scholars (Peter Gay, et al.) who miss or don’t appreciate some important features of the Enlightenment. What are a few things you seek to correct regarding faulty, yet common notions of the Enlightenment?
Sweeney: Paul Hazard, Peter Gay, and a host of lesser lights once depicted “the Enlightenment” in unitary terms as an anti-Christian movement–or at least a movement meant to undermine traditional orthodoxies—and a secularizing scheme. Jonathan Israel and his devotees do much the same today, making Benedict Spinoza and his “radical Enlightenment” the leading, cutting edge of early modern Western thought. But as a host of careful scholars have revealed in recent years, such depictions are misleading. On the ground, few participants in eighteenth-century trends would have understood their purposes in anti-Christian terms. Most were Christian. None of them even used the English word “Enlightenment.” They disagreed constantly about the implications of their intellectual trends for the churches and their teachings. Most in Britain, in particular, preferred what we now call a rather moderate “Enlightenment,” a modernizing movement that was cautious, led by clergy (not exclusively, but largely), brimming with biblicism, ardent supernaturalism, and faith. Many shared Edwards’ combination of Christian orthodoxy, guarded optimism regarding moral and scientific progress, eagerness to apply human reason to current challenges, earnestness in pleading for genuine virtue in the world, and intercourse with kindred spirits near the north Atlantic. The “Enlightenment” was more diverse than many people think. The more we understand this, the better we’ll be able to interpret Edwards and other early modern evangelicals in relation to its trends.
Moore: Edwards is well respected among today’s “young, restless, and Reformed.” What are a few things about the exegetical approach of Edwards that would surprise them, and frankly most of the rest of us as well?
Sweeney: His exegesis and preaching were quite different than that of most Reformed Protestants today. In the tradition of the Puritans, he was a doctrinal preacher, not an expository preacher. He spent a little bit of time at the start of each sermon treating his Scripture text grammatically and historically. But he then moved quickly to the statement of a doctrine, abstracted from the text, before teaching and applying that doctrine with the aid of other, similar texts of Scripture. This makes him what we now call a canonical interpreter, a theological exegete. He bent over backwards to learn and teach whatever he could about the Bible’s Hebrew and Greek, historical backgrounds, etc. His congregations knew the Bible’s language and history much better than most people do today. But presuming on that knowledge, Edwards majored in the pulpit on the doctrines of the Bible, rendering them real, existentially significant, and applying them at length to people’s lives. He usually preached for more than an hour and devoted over 40% of his sermons to applying biblical doctrine, theology, and worldview to the personal and social lives of others.
Moore: You mention a common farm woman in the 1750s by the name of Hannah Heaton. She studied the Scriptures with great joy. How much did Edwards expect common folk like her to be reading the Bible outside of church?
Sweeney: Puritan New England may have been the most biblically-oriented and literate society the world had ever seen by Edwards’ day. Church attendance was mandatory, as were household worship, catechesis, and devotions. Most of its towns, or “Bible commonwealths,” had reading teachers who taught kids to read using the Bible. They had far fewer distractions than people have today–no televisions, internet, cell phones, or video games. Their skies were dark at night, pitch-dark on cloudy nights. Most would spend their evenings reading and/or socializing by candlelight, ruminating together on the things that mattered most. And even in the daytime, while working to make ends meet, they thought about the Bible and the challenges of faith. In the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of one of New England’s best-known nineteenth-century ministers, “it is impossible to write a story of New England life and manners for superficial thought or shallow feeling. They who would fully understand the springs which moved the characters [there] must go down with us to the very depths.” Or as she wrote in one of her best-known novels, The Minister’s Wooing (1859), New England sermons were “discussed by every farmer, in intervals of plough and hoe, by every woman and girl, at loom, spinning-wheel, or wash-tub. New England was one vast sea, surging from depths to heights with thought and discussion on the most insoluble of mysteries. And it is to be added, that no man or woman accepted any theory or speculation simply as theory or speculation; all was profoundly real and vital,–a foundation on which actual life was based with intensest earnestness.” Surely Stowe exaggerated for literary effect. Still, these comments are impressive. As she claimed in an article she wrote in Atlantic Monthly, “nowhere in the world, unless perhaps in Scotland, have merely speculative questions excited the strong and engrossing interest among the common people that they have in New England. Every man, woman, and child was more or less a theologian.”
Moore: There continues to be a debate about what the Holy Spirit helps us with when it comes to our own Bible reading. Did Edwards believe that the Holy Spirit helped individuals both to interpret and apply the Bible? Or did Edwards want to underscore that the Holy Spirit showed the beauty, and therefore the wisdom of living by the Bible?
Sweeney: Yes, Edwards taught all of the above, that the Spirit helps us understand, trust, and take delight in what the Spirit says in Scripture. Controversially, Edwards taught that while people without the Spirit often know the biblical languages and history better than Christians, those who have the Spirit have an existential acquaintance with the Bible’s main themes and thus a cognitive advantage in their knowledge of the Word. Personal knowledge of the main things taught about in Scripture also gives them deep joy in believing, Edwards said, and assistance as they try to “do the Word” in daily life.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers will take away from your terrific book?
Sweeney: I hope that scholars will acknowledge that we won’t understand and interpret Edwards well until we come to terms with the fact that he devoted most of his time, nearly every week of his life, to reading and wrestling with the Bible. (This may sound like an obvious point to your readers, but it has received little attention in the history of Edwards scholarship.) I hope that theologians and preachers will find in Edwards a helpful model of holistic exegesis. Interpreters all-too-often feel the need to side with either the proponents of “grammatical-historical” exegesis or the prophets of the “theological interpretation of Scripture.” Edwards had it both ways. He worked three centuries ago and got a lot of things wrong. But he shows us that divines can combine (and, in the olden days, usually did combine) careful work with Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient history and skill in interpreting the Bible theologically (with careful application to our faith and practice today). I hope that general readers will see in him a flawed but inspiring example of spiritual genius and literary artistry whose vision of reality still has much to offer today—and can make our hearts sing.