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Jonathan Edwards and the Long Eighteenth Century: A Summary of Recent Edwards Scholarship By Dr. David Rathel, Gateway Seminary

The 2020 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society featured a special session devoted to the life and work of Jonathan Edwards. Organized by the Evangelicalism in the Long Eighteenth Century consultation team, the session featured four paper presentations devoted to the New England divine. A group of scholars serving in North America participated in the proceedings, including Brandon Crawford, a staff member at Jonathan Edwards Center-Midwest.

Presenting a paper entitled, “’The most pleasing color:’ Jonathan Edwards on the Typology of Green,” Dr. Michael Haykin addressed Edwards’ fondness for typology. Haykin serves as Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Seminary and as Director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at Southern. Edwards believed in a universe charged with divine grandeur, and he found theological significance in even the most seemingly mundane objects. Haykin mined Edwards corpus to reveal that for Edwards, the color green possessed special typological significance. It represented joyful resurrection and rebirth, akin to the emergence of vegetation every Spring. It also expressed divine grace; the rainbow depicted in Rev 4:3 as surrounding the divine throne displayed the color emerald. With this paper, Haykin provided a creative and exciting survey of Edwards’ biblical and ontological typology.

Dr. Doug Sweeney, Dean and Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, presented a paper that considered miracles in the thought of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. Mather and Edwards possessed a great interest in the miraculous. Mather recorded a list of miraculous occurrences that he claimed took place in the New England of his day. Edwards wrote of a divine hand guiding human history and bestowing extraordinary and dramatic outpourings of grace. Both men gave attention to the miracles associated with Jesus’ earthly ministry. Crucially, Mather and Edwards offered their reflections on miracles during a period marked by growing skepticism toward supernatural claims. Sweeney ably demonstrated that neither Mather nor Edwards uncritically accepted some of the philosophical assumptions of their day. They did not envision a project in which they subjected claims about the miraculous to the standards of reason and science popular during their time. Rather than offering an evidentiary argument for Christianity’s veracity based on miraculous events, they sought to reclaim an older, enchanted view of the world. For Mather and Edwards, miracles are supernatural occurrences that ultimately point to the great work of spiritual regeneration and resurrection in the human soul.

Brandon Crawford, a current Ph.D. student at Puritan Reformed Seminary and a staff member at Jonathan Edwards Center-Midwest, presented a historical survey of the Stockbridge mission. Edwards’ biographers tend to minimize Stockbridge’s significance, at times presenting the location as a rural locality in which Edwards could rest, preach sermons, and compose his treatise on the will. Crawford convincingly argued that Stockbridge served as a strategic location in New England’s political and religious life. Documenting the history of Stockbridge before Edwards’ arrival, Crawford explored the great lengths to which the Massachusetts governor and Puritan leaders went to fashion Stockbridge as a praying town for Indians. Rather than a mere backwater local, Stockbridge operated as a Puritan embassy, representing the governing authorities and the Puritan religious establishment. Stockbridge’s importance means that contemporary studies of Edwards should attend to it more than they have.

Dr. David Rathel, Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Gateway Seminary, presented a paper that considered how the Baptist minister Andrew Fuller appropriated Edwards’ religious epistemology. Entitled “Religion Beyond a Bare Faith: Understanding the Religious Epistemology of Jonathan Edwards Through the Writings of Andrew Fuller,” Rathel contended that Fuller was a nuanced early reader of Edwards. Fuller recognized Edwards’ use of early modern writers such as John Locke. Fuller also apprehended that Edwards’ repurposed and deployed Lockean concepts to suit his religious aims. Fuller imbibed Edwards’ approach in his debate against Sandemanianism, a religious tradition that argued for a mere mental assent to Christian truth claims. In Edwards, Fuller found a warm-hearted piety that critically engaged with the philosophical currents of its day.

After the presentations, all four speakers addressed audience questions. The conversation was profitable, despite the limitations imposed by meeting over Zoon rather than in person. The Evangelicalism in the Long Eighteenth Century consultation will continue to provide sessions focused on significant 18-century figures at future ETS events.