Jonathan Edwards is sometimes referred to as “America’s theologian” or is touted as the most important Christian thinker that America has yet produced. Often, he is portrayed as a philosophical theologian whose constructive thought marked a departure from the earlier Reformed tradition and opened the door for ongoing theological developments that continue to this day. While the former appellate may well be appropriate, and while there is some truth to the latter argument, scholars sometimes forget that Edwards was first and foremost a local church pastor whose main responsibility was to interpret the Scriptures to his parishioners.
Fortunately, several scholars in recent years have begun to advance a scholarly course-correction that grounds Edwards’s thought in his exegesis of the Scriptures rather than overemphasizing his philosophical speculations and theological innovations. Stephen Stein, Robert Brown, Stephen R. C. Nichols, and Douglas Sweeney are at the forefront of this line of argument; the latter has a forthcoming book that focuses upon Edwards as a biblical exegete. David Barshinger, whose doctoral studies were supervised by Sweeney, has offered an important contribution to this discussion with his fine monograph Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture. The result is a signal study that provides a model for others interested in studying Edwards’s exegesis of particular books or sections of Scripture.
Barshinger argues that “in a world experiencing major epistemological shifts and liturgical challenges, Jonathan Edwards appropriated the Psalms as a divinely inspired anchor to proclaim the gospel and rehearse the redemptive-historical work of the Triune God” (p. 26). Though he could have chosen other books to study, Barshinger focuses upon the Psalms because Edwards preached from them regularly throughout his ministry, cited them frequently in his published and unpublished writings, and leaned heavily upon them in the religious psychology he developed in the midst of the revivals in New England. Concerning the latter, Barshinger argues Edwards “believed the Psalter was the premier book in Scripture for describing religious affections, and thus he used the Psalms regularly as a guide for authentic Christian piety” (p. 307).
Following an introduction that frames the book, Barshinger looks at the historical context of how the Psalms were interpreted by Reformed exegetes and other leading commentators from John Calvin to Edwards’s day. He then shows how Edwards engaged a variety of theological topics through the Psalms, including the doctrine of God, Scripture, theological anthropology, hamartiology, Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, sanctification, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Barshinger contends, “The Psalms functioned for Edwards as a progenitor and corroborator of doctrine” (p. 87). In each case, Edwards proves himself to be a creative theologian who was well aware of the intellectual currents of his day, but who nevertheless was principally concerned with commending historic Reformed theology for his contemporary context. His engagement of the Enlightenment was for the sake of offering a coherent apology for Reformed orthodoxy.
In emphasizing the redemptive-historical emphasis in Edwards’s hermeneutic, Barshinger is not suggesting anachronistically that Edwards was part of a particular hermeneutical camp in contemporary evangelical debates. Rather, he is acknowledging the occasional nature of Edwards’s theology and arguing that his way of theologizing more resembles biblical theological strategies rather than systematic theological approaches. The history of redemption was a topic close to Edwards’s heart and, had he written a comprehensive theology, would have been the organizing principle of that work. Barshinger demonstrates that this redemptive-historical emphasis “propelled” Edwards’s interpretations of the Psalms (p. 270) and allowed him to read the Psalms Christocentrically as a book for new covenant believers rather than simply interpreting them according to their presumed historical context. He also argues—and more could likely be said on this point—that Edwards was not a neo-medieval allegorizer who departed somewhat from Protestant hermeneutics, but was rather a Reformed theological exegete who offers a fruitful historical dialog partner for evangelicals (and others) interested in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture.
Jonathan Edwards and Psalms is a welcomed contribution to Edwardsean studies. Barshinger understands Edwards on his own terms as a Reformed theologian, but also concedes that Edwards regularly engaged Enlightenment thought for the sake of apologetics (especially related to biblical inspiration and authority). Furthermore, Barshinger shows how Edwards’s redemptive-historical exegesis of the Psalms provides a helpful window into Edwards’s doctrinal convictions, which is crucial for a theologian who never wrote a systematic theology. A helpful appendix lists all of Edwards’s sermons from the Psalms, though Barshinger fortunately does not limit his own study to Edwards’s sermons, an approach that provides a more fulsome interpretation of Edwards’s engagement with the Psalter.
At times, Jonathan Edwards and Psalms still reads a bit too much like a dissertation; the introduction and conclusion especially read as if they came right out of Barshinger’s dissertation, but with the obligatory “thesis jargon” removed. However, this should not prevent Edwardsean scholars, historians interested in the history of biblical interpretation, and even scholars and pastors interested in the Psalms from benefitting from Barshinger’s excellent work. I hope Oxford University Press publishes a more affordable paperback edition of this book in the near future.