Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jonathan Edwards for the Church edited by William M. Schweitzer

Jonathan Edwards for the Church: The ministry and the means of Grace,
Edited by: William M. Schweitzer, EP Books, 2015, 309pp. 

Jonathan Edwards has long been recognised as a towering intellectual genius. His works have attracted attention in the worlds of philosophy and academic theology. But Edwards was above all else a pastor and preacher of the gospel. Most of his time and energies were devoted to church-based ministry. This multi-author book endeavours to redress the balance by focusing on what Edwards had to say on the ministry and the means of grace,

Lessons are drawn from the preacher’s life and teaching and attempts are made to apply what may be learned to our situation today. The book will be of special interest to pastors, who will find Edwards’ vision of pastoral ministry both an inspiration and a challenge. Edwards was a pastor-theologian, a diligent student of the Word who devoted himself to the exploration and defence of the great doctrines of the Bible. But his sermons were not intended to be lectures that simply informed the minds of his hearers, but messages that reached their hearts and transformed their lives as the truth of the gospel was proclaimed and understood.

Edwards experienced several seasons of revival under his ministry in Northampton. His knowledge of the Word and the human heart helped him to discern what was genuinely of the Spirit and what was merely of the flesh during those revival periods. His balanced approach exemplified in his key work, The Religious Affections, helped him guard his people from unbelieving scepticism and hot-headed fanaticism.

Chapters are devoted to various aspects of Edwards’ ministry and thought including the means of grace, persevering in faithful ministry, the power of the word and Christ as the scope of Scripture. The essay on Edwards’ vision of God’s excellences is outstanding. Some of the chapters could have done with a little more editorial attention. The preacher’s dismissal from his Northampton pastorate is discussed at length in chapter 4, but chapter 5 begins by going over the same ground.

Occasionally one can hear the sound of axes grinding. It is claimed that unlike some contemporary Evangelicals, Edwards had little time for contextualising his message to address his cultural situation. (Are you listening, Tim Keller?) But he was a keen student of Enlightenment thought and adapted his language accordingly. Describing conversion as giving a ‘sense of new things’ is a case in point. That said, his ministry could have done with a little more contextualisation when it came to preaching to Native American Indians in Stockbridge, where he made no attempt to learn their language, preferring to use a translator. 

An appendix includes a sermon on revival by William Macleod. It is stirring enough, but the preacher has a dig at Christians for using the internet and Facebook. I'm not sure that Edwards would have agreed with his strictures. He was no techno-Luddite and it may even be claimed that the preacher was far sighted enough to predict the internet. He prognosticated, "There will be so many contrivances and inventions to facilitate and expedite their necessary secular business that they shall have more time for more noble exercise, and that they will have better contrivances for assisting one another through the whole earth by more expedite, easy, and safe communication between distant regions than now." (See here). Admittedly, the preacher didn't anticipate people informing the world that they had just made a cup of tea via Facebook, but I think we have reasons to believe that he would have blogged and perhaps even tweeted. Edwards' Miscellanies would make for perfectly formed blog posts. 

Criticisms aside, the writers have done a good job in setting forth Edwards’ vision of a Spirit empowered, Christ centred, and God glorifying ministry. A vision that needs to be recovered in our churches today.

* An edited version of this review will appear in Evangelical Times

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