Monday, October 26, 2015

The Author's Corner with Douglas Sweeney

Douglas Sweeney is Chair of the Church History & History of Christian Thought Department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. This interview is based on his new book, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Edwards the Exegete?


DS: I’ve been writing about Edwards and his legacies since my grad school days at Vanderbilt in the early 1990s and my stint at Yale in the mid 1990s. The more I grew familiar with the shape of Edwards’ corpus, especially the manuscript material in the Beinecke, the more I became convinced that we need serious scholarship on its thousands of leaves of biblical material. So I applied for a Jonathan Edwards Research Fellowship at Yale (2003-2004) and began exploring these manuscripts in earnest.


JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Edwards the Exegete?

DS: Edwards was a clergyman and Protestant theologian who, like many of his peers, spent the bulk of his life studying the Bible. We will not understand Edwards’ life or Edwards’ world until we come to terms with the role that this study played within them.


JF: Why do we need to read Edwards the Exegete?


DS: Modern scholars have yet to come close to understanding the ways in which Edwards’ life was animated by Scripture. Three hundred years after his birth, half a century into what some have called the Edwards renaissance, few have bothered to study Edwards’ massive exegetical corpus. While preoccupied with his place in America’s public life and letters—and failing to see the public significance of his biblical exegesis—we have ignored the scholarly work he took most seriously. Though we know a great deal now about his ethics, metaphysics, Calvinism, and aesthetics—not to mention his pastoral labors and his role in the Great Awakening—few know much at all about his exegetical work. Although we know quite a lot about his engagement with the leading philosophical men of his day, we know little of his work with Matthew Poole, Philip Doddridge, Matthew Henry, Arthur Bedford, John Owen, or Humphrey Prideaux—biblical scholars all. Yet they were steady, staple sources of his study day to day—more than Locke, Berkeley, and Newton. They rarely played as great a role in shaping his scholarly agenda, but they played a greater role in its execution. He spent decades, quite literally, poring over their biblical writings, doing his most important work with them at hand. We should not pretend to understand the real Edwards of history until we recover and interpret the significance of his long-lost exegetical world.


JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?


DS: I entered Wheaton College in the fall of 1983 as an economics major headed to law school. But I soon grew disgusted with my professional ambitions and, as I did, I took a class with Mark Noll on the history of the Protestant Reformation. The course changed my life in a number of respects. I became a history major not knowing where I was headed (and yet sure that historical study was something I needed to do). Eventually, I completed a PhD in religion (1995), and have spent my life since then helping others to grow in the ways that I have grown through the study of both history and religion.


JF: What is your next project?


DS: I am co-editing two books for Oxford right now, an Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards (with my friend Oliver Crisp), and Jonathan Edwards and Scripture (with former student David Barshinger), which is an effort to invite a wide variety of others to help us understand the subject of Edwards the Exegete.


JF:
Thank you, Doug!  You sound like a very busy man.