Book Review: ‘Jonathan Edwards and the Church’ by Rhys Bezzant

Jonathan Edwards and the Church
Rhys S. Bezzant; 2014. | OUP USA | 328 pages
978–0-19–989030-9

 

Although Jonathan Edwards wrote and preached on an exceed­ing­ly wide vari­ety of the­o­log­i­cal sub­jects, many schol­ars declare that he did not have any inde­pen­dent eccle­si­ol­o­gy. Rather that his eccle­si­o­log­i­cal impuls­es were dri­ven by social and broad­er the­o­log­i­cal focus­es. In Jonathan Edwards and the Church Rhys Bezzant demon­strates that Edwards actu­al­ly held a robust eccle­si­ol­o­gy that took into account both social and the­o­log­i­cal dri­vers. Bezzant sets out to expound Edwardsean on his oft-repeat­ed mod­el of the church as a ‘focused domain where God’s promis­es, pres­ence and pur­pose are to be dis­cov­ered.’ (ix) In doing so he opines that Edwards’s eccle­si­ol­o­gy was ulti­mate­ly ‘a revival­ist eccle­si­ol­o­gy with­in a tra­di­tion­al eccle­si­ol­o­gy of nur­ture and insti­tu­tion­al order.’ (xi)

In order to inves­ti­gate Edwards’s eccle­si­ol­o­gy Bezzant fol­lows a diachron­ic mod­el, describ­ing the var­i­ous aspects of Edwards’s min­istry, writ­ings and church engage­ment through­out his life. In chap­ter one Bezzant paints a rich pic­ture of the church world of the New England colonies before Edwards’s min­istry, high­light­ing a vast array of eccle­si­o­log­i­cal and social pres­sures upon the Puritan endeav­our. Chapters two, three, and four trace Edwards’s eccle­si­o­log­i­cal devel­op­ment through the three pri­ma­ry stages of his life—delineated by two works A Faithful Narrative in 1735 and A Humble Attempt in 1747. Bezzant traces Edwards’s reflec­tions from his less-con­ven­tion­al con­ver­sion nar­ra­tive through his ear­ly life, devel­op­ing the­ol­o­gy and bur­geon­ing ministry—the peri­od heav­i­ly influ­enced by the Great Awakening—and then into his mature eccle­sial min­istry and glob­al focus. These chap­ters mine the depths of Edwards’s own writings—recently pub­lished as a let­ter­press edi­tion by Yale University Press—as well as the copi­ous sec­ondary lit­er­a­ture on the vari­ety of top­ics. Within the inves­ti­ga­tion of Edwards’s writ­ings these chap­ters are shaped by the con­tours of the New England his­to­ry and are firm­ly set with­in their broad­er con­text.

Throughout Bezzant help­ful­ly shows how wider the­o­log­i­cal and social con­cerns impact­ed upon the fledg­ling colonies and does not seek to divorce Edwards from his his­tor­i­cal milieu. This dual focus assists in under­stand­ing Edwards’s eccle­si­ol­o­gy as well as how it has shaped evan­gel­i­cal pat­terns in the fol­low­ing gen­er­a­tions. Although there is lit­tle room for sus­tained mod­ern the­o­log­i­cal reflec­tion and application—likely a prod­uct of this form­ing a doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion for the Australian College of Theology—the pas­sion for the church of Bezzant and Edwards shines through and any astute read­er will be able to draw con­crete links and appli­ca­tions with ease. Observations such as Edwards’s descrip­tion of the church func­tion­ing as a tree are ripe for reflec­tion and har­vest by the read­er. (101) However, when the space per­mits, brief obser­va­tions gleam from the text such as when Bezzant observes ‘the church is an expres­sion not just of pas­toral or apoc­a­lyp­tic func­tions but of prophet­ic aspi­ra­tions too.’ (198)

In the final chap­ters Bezzant draws the themes of the book—and Edwards’s ecclesiology—together and high­lights the week­ly eccle­si­o­log­i­cal rou­tine of Northampton and the broad­er New England church. This sum­ma­ry in chap­ter five focus­es upon wor­ship, dis­ci­pline and poli­ty and assists the read­er in see­ing how Edwards’s eccle­si­o­log­i­cal vision played out at a broad­er scale—even if imper­fect­ly. Finally Bezzant reflects upon the eccle­si­o­log­i­cal ten­sions and pres­sures present with­in Edwards’s min­istry and con­cludes that his eccle­si­ol­o­gy ‘high­lights the order­ly process­es but not the ordi­nary ori­gins of the church’s life.’ (260) This organ­is­ing theme of ‘order­ly but not ordi­nary’ plays out through­out the book and helps to strike a bal­ance between the extremes of each theme.

While Jonathan Edwards and the Church is aimed at an aca­d­e­m­ic audi­ence, the book will appeal to aca­d­e­mics, cler­gy and intent read­ers of all stripes. It reads eas­i­ly and engag­ing­ly cov­er­ing a wide vari­ety of the­o­log­i­cal and social top­ics with ease. From start to fin­ish Bezzant is com­fort­able with Edwards as his pri­ma­ry inter­locu­tor and with the host of sec­ondary voic­es in the gal­leries. If there is one minor quib­ble it is that the diachron­ic path can make trac­ing cer­tain the­o­log­i­cal themes hard at times, but not insur­mount­able. Although he pro­vides lit­tle mod­ern the­o­log­i­cal appli­ca­tion, this is like­ly of ben­e­fit as the obser­va­tions in Jonathan Edwards and the Church are at their best when prop­er­ly digest­ed and con­tex­tu­alised. Ultimately it is fit­ting to end with the words that Bezzant chose to end his book with:

His [Edwards’] insights, scat­tered amongst his works, can be for us today a mod­est lamp for our path, even when we strug­gle to ful­fill our own call­ing to be a city on a hill.’ (260)

 

 

This review orig­i­nal­ly com­mis­sioned for Sparklit and EFAC Vic-Tas.

Chris

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