17 May 2011

What I'm Reading--Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word

I recently finished reading (again) a short work on the Northampton minister of Great Awakening fame, Jonathan Edwards.  Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word is a good introductory biography of this famous minister.  In writing it, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor Douglas A. Sweeney attempted to provide an accessible biography that focused upon the importance of the Bible in the life of Edwards.  In general, he succeeded on both accounts.

Sweeney's work definitely emphasizes the importance of the written word, in general, and the Bible, in particular, on Puritan life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The author began this work with a background of New England society and how it differs from our modern twenty-first century world.  Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word generally followed a narrative structure and traced the important events in the life of Edwards from his birth to his death.  The Congregational divine has often been called the greatest theologian in American history, and Sweeney focused a chapter on four works that Edwards wrote after his dismissal from his pastorate in Northampton, Massachusetts.  This chapter was a bit awkward as to its position in the book, serving as a bit of a parenthesis between the Northampton and Stockbridge chapters of Edwards' life.  Some of the theological issues dealt with in this chapter, titled "With All Thy Mind", could be somewhat tough sledding to those uninitiated to theological terminology. 

Sweeney pointed out a glaring weakness in Edwards' life--his racial understanding of the world.  The minister owned several slaves during his life, and Sweeney referred to Edwards as "something of a racist" (180) in his dealings with Indians as a cross-cultural missionary.  The author did not attempt to minimize these character flaws, but used them to point out the sinfulness of humanity. 

This work could have been slightly better with a greater explanation of the Half-way Covenant as background for the ouster of Edwards in Northampton.  It is easy to view the issue over communion as a local issue without more background information.  Rather, this controversy enveloped much of New England around the time of the Great Awakening.  Sweeney utilized published primary sources on the life of Edwards in the compilation of his text.  His work is a very good introduction to the life of Edwards, one of the more influential Christian thinkers in American history.

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