Volume 44 - Issue 2

Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology

by Adriaan C. Neele

Jonathan Edwards studies have witnessed major developments along new fronts over the past several years, seeing important works come out on Edwards’s exegesis and an increasing number of works on his use of post-Reformation Reformed dogmatics. It is this latter development that is the focus of this present review. The bulk of the secondary literature thus far has often been more concerned with Edwards as a theological giant of his own making, starting with his own system of thought and then advancing toward an articulation of the New Divinity, than with Edwards’s own theological backdrop. Adriaan Neele’s book, for instance, plays off of the title of another book, Crisp and Sweeney’s After Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology, which serves as an example of the way Edwards tends to be read. But rather than turning to Edwards as a source of the New Divinity, Neele turns instead to key movements in Reformed theology leading up to Edwards’s own work.

Rather than seeing Edwards as a lone genius working on the wilderness front, Neele focuses on the theological context in which Edwards was working. This is a particularly important task, especially in our own context, where we have seen major developments and interest in Reformed High Orthodoxy, particularly by figures like Richard A. Muller and Willem J. van Asselt. Unfortunately, advancements in this research have not often been utilized to understand Edwards. Over the past ten years this has changed, but what Neele offers is a richer historical account of the key figures and texts that were on hand for Edwards as he took on his significant publishing endeavors. Furthermore, a focus in this area raises questions on the adequacy of the current discussion, which often ignores theological developments in New England as a feature of Reformed intellectual history. By avoiding New England, Edwards is often treated as an outsider to the discussion rather than a central figure. Neele’s book offers a different way to analyze the material, placing Edwards within the broad movements of Reformed intellectual history and its fragmentation at the end of the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century.

Beyond questions of intellectual history, Neele’s real focus is to analyze a series of questions and issues in Edwards’s thought, showing how they are continuations of long-debated issues that took place on an international stage. As it turns out, this is a stage that Edwards was quite familiar with. After his initial exploration of Reformed intellectual history, Neele turns to four case studies to consider Edwards’s theological development in relation to key sources in post-Reformation Reformed dogmatics. He looks at homiletics, sources of biblical exegesis, sources for the formulation of doctrine, and sources of history and theology. Each of these points of emphasis highlights a central feature of Edwards’s corpus. Edwards was, of course, primarily a pastor, and therefore homiletics and exegesis were the core of his life’s work. Neele addresses the debates on these tasks, as well as key areas of interest in the secondary literature, to reveal how Edwards’s views and development relate to his forebearers. Furthermore, by focusing on the formulation of doctrine and history as theology, Neele gets to the heart of Edwards’s theological trajectory, namely to write a dogmatic theology in “an entire new method, being thrown into the form of an history” (p. 204), and he raises questions about how new that mode actually was.

While this does not take away from the importance of this book, it is worth noting one minor critique. There are times in the book when the focus on the backdrop to Edwards’s work overtakes the idiosyncratic nature of his emphases. For instance, in the final chapter looking at the use of history in theology, and Edwards’s own admission that his dogmatic work was going to be in a historical mode, Neele provides incredibly helpful background material to show where Edwards stands in relation to his sources. All of this helps to push the conversation forward on what it means that Edwards’s theological enterprise was to be in “an entire new method,” and how his use of history would form that reality. But this seems to assume that the newness of Edwards’s method was solely tied to his use of a historical mode, which is, in my mind, the least original feature of his method. Rather, it seems, it is the tri-fold form of his historical mode that establishes the uniqueness his method, where Edwards traces through the history, not only of earth but of heaven and hell, showing how the histories of heaven, earth and hell are connected by the reign of Christ as he rides the chariot of providence through history. This points to Edwards’s use of Ezekiel 1 as the architecture for his “History of Redemption” sermon series that no doubt would have been utilized in his dogmatic treatment. This is a minor, but relevant, critique of Neele’s work, which will no doubt prove its worth to all who read it. Before Jonathan Edwards is essential reading for students of Edwards and those who are interested in post-Reformed Reformed theology, and it will be a key source for any looking to engage the source material of Edwards’s own pastoral and academic endeavors.

Kyle Strobel

Kyle Strobel
Talbot School of Theology
La Miranda, California, USA

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