Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word,Douglas A Sweeney, IVP Academic 2009
The number of books produced on Jonathan Edwards in the last twenty years would fill a small library. New works on his writings, personal life, even the types of ink he used, are still coming into print, threatening to swamp bookstores and libraries. Yet this volume deserves to be purchased, read and passed along to those who are followers of Edwards and especially those yet unacquainted.
To those who know Edwards well, there is little new here. Nonetheless, the lively writing, Sweeney’s particular focus on Edwards’ ministry of the Word of God, and the overall affection of Sweeney’s treatment will warm the heart of any Edwards groupie. It is even possible that Sweeny may introduce a new slant to one’s thinking or present a heretofore undiscovered fact.
To those who have somehow entirely missed the Edwards Academic Onslaught and remain uninitiated into its hallowed halls this may well be the best general introduction to the man, his life, times and thought. Why so?
Dr. Sweeney presumes nothing and teaches much. The opening chapters are highly engaging, largely biographical and very accessible. The depth and difficulty increases as the books develops.
But herein lies the genius of the work. Sweeney tells his readers all they need to know in order to understand even the deepest of concepts (2/3 of the way through the book Sweeney spends six pages on Edwards’ Freedom of the Will – a most challenging work – made user-friendly by Sweeney’s deft analysis and explanation).
Throughout the work Sweeney presumes his reader will have no previous knowledge of Edwards, his day or his predecessors and therefore helps the Edwards newbie wade though theological terms (Arminian vs. Calvinist), colonial dating (Gregorian Calendar) and sermon preparation (intricacies of medieval exegesis), all without being tedious or pedantic. At times he does this in the text itself, in an engaging way, but more often than not, the help, and the scholarship, is in the footnotes.
For those wanting go deeper, Sweeny provides the links. The lengthy footnotes pack the pages leading the budding scholar to places unimaginable. Wanting to dig deeper into Edwards writings?, Sweeney cites not only the texts and the manuscripts for further study but even their location (folder 1211, box 16, JE collections, Beinecke Library, Yale). These detailed roads signs announce treasure troves yet to be explored. Wanting to know more about music in colonial churches, the books on Edwards’ shelves, Edwards and Biblical higher criticism – it’s all there in the footnotes. One example: Sweeney mentions that very little work has been done on Edwards and prayer then proceeds to cite five works specifically on Edwards and prayer and four general works on the Puritans and prayer. Very little indeed when compared to the amount of writing on Edwards and other topics, but a rich collection nonetheless!
It appears Sweeney wants to write an introduction to Edwards but does not want to forget his academic friends. Sweeney is one of the top Edwards scholars in the world. He obviously enjoys Edwards, but this is not hagiography. He deals honestly with Edwards’s failures, his ownership of slaves for example. (As J.I. Packer said of Richard Baxter – “he was a great man and great men have great faults”).
Sweeney is able to include in this brief work (200 pages) several points that have only recently been brought to light by scholars. Example: Edwards’s great interest in missions, indeed his sparking of the modern mission movement by his labors and writings, esp. the biography of David Brainerd.
A few time I cringed at Sweeney’s language. It appears that he may be attributing the power behind the 1734/5, 1740s revivals to Edwards or other men, “these spiritual practices yielded a transformation,” and “he led the great revival.” Edwards would have given all credit and glory to God and would be amazed to think he ”led” anything in those heady and tumultuous days of revival.
Also, is it not anachronistic to refer to Sarah Edwards as “slain in the spirit”? Sweeny (in the footnote) admits it is a modern term, with different connotations and meaning – so my question – why use the term? It may wrongly combine disparate experiences.
Finally, is it proper to say that when Edwards added a portion of one of his previous sermons into another he was “cannibalizing a manuscript”? But I am nit picking. On the whole this is a wonderful read, very accessible, highly engaging and a book you can pass along to almost anyone.
If you want to read a fuller biography of Edwards, pick up George Marsden’s or Iain Murray’s work. If you want a work more narrowly focused (in a positive sense) on his preaching, read John Carrick. But if you are looking for an excellent introduction to Edwards’ life and writings, this is it.
Reviewed by Dr. Robert E. Davis, Senior pastor, Draper’s Valley PCA, Draper, VA. Dr. Davis has been an Edwards groupie for many years, lived 20 miles from Northampton, Massachusetts, is the author of Jonathan Edwards: His Message and Impact, Quinta Press, 2003 and has a nephew named Jonathan Edwards.