Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
This is the third volume of sermons to appear in the Yale edition of JE’s works. It contains eighteen sermons, eight of which were previously published. These include two of JE’s most famous published works, “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence” (1730) and “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (1733). The sermons selected for this volume show the development of JE’s thought and the kinds of topics he addressed during his early years in his Northhampton pastorate.
Valeri’s erudition accedes to giving JE his own voice. In line with the edition’s policies, the arduous work of editing the sermons is largely hidden from the reader's eyes. That is as it should be. Valeri’s lean, forty page “preface to the period” places the sermons in their cultural context. He introduces each sermon, describes the manuscript and, when applicable, notes its publication history. The critical apparatus is useful without being overwhelming. Modest footnotes explain differences between the manuscript and published versions. Valeri shows where JE divided sermons into preaching units and how he altered manuscripts to preach on subsequent occasions. Footnotes help to chart the development of JE’s thought, showing relationships between the sermons, the Miscellanies, and other works. He notes how JE’s later editors “improved” sermons to fit their needs. An appendix lists several hundred of JE’s sermons and discourses from January 1730 to December 1733. In all these respects, Valeri’s volume lives up to the high standards of the Yale edition.
Short of questioning long-standing editorial policies, such as publishing only a selection of sermons and avoiding polemics against JE and his interpreters in the introduction, how should an edited volume be reviewed? Two questions come to mind. First, what do we learn about JE from this volume? Valeri confirms the importance of many themes commonly associated with JE: the fate of the unregenerate, the need for evangelical humiliation, and the necessity of regeneration from above. Valeri also confirms an emerging image of JEan image he helped to uncover in earlier publicationsthat JE had an abiding interest in public affairs at the local, colonial, and international levels. JE did not simply decry public manifestations of personal sin. He actively followed disputes between the elected legislature and the governor, was concerned about the threat of war, and contended with class struggles. This does not mean that JE referred to events and people by name. Readers will not find previously unpublished sermons sprinkled with illustrations and quotations from The Boston Gazette. However, with Valeri as a guide to the events of the day, readers will see how JE’s sermons often addressed political and economic concerns. This volume gives a fresh and welcome picture of JE, a preacher with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other!
Above all, the sermons in this volume show JE, the young pastor, perfecting his skills in the art of applying Scripture. JE’s calls to self-examination leave few unexplored or unprotected places in the human soul. He piles up Scripture verses like cordwood to keep the fires of his arguments burning bright. His penetrating arguments resist any efforts to by-pass unpleasant conclusions. JE lays bare the motives of people who neglect God (“Practical Atheism”). He does not hesitate to chastise those who dishonor the Sabbath day and the Lord’s Supper (“The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath” and “Self-Examination and the Lord’s Supper”). He overpowers his audience with reasons to resist the sins of envy and greed (“Envious Men” and “The Duty of Charity to the Poor”). He heaps hot coals on readers’ heads by showing that God’s commands, which they stubbornly resist, are actually for their benefit and enjoyment (“The State of Public Affairs”).
Second, what do we learn about ourselves from reading Valeri’s volume? H. Richard Niebuhr once wrote, “Edwards so states the great themes of Christian faith and life that his writings are intelligible, without a special historical introduction, to a thoughtful reader who comes to them directly from the study of the Scriptures and the Christian classics.” JE’s writings are themselves Christian classics, and so, modern readers, imbued with a sense of critical appreciation, can read JE with great profit. JE’s arguments against envy and greed, for example, translate readily to modern readers who turn to the Bible for guidance in living the Christian life. But once modern readers get past the “Oh, isn’t JE brilliant,” stage, there is no getting around the fact that he is hard. JE does not protect his hearers or readers from the demands of a holy God. Reading JE’s sermons force an unpleasant question: Does JE seem so hard because modern readers are so soft?
Granting all the possible anachronisms, to read these sermons in order gives a glimpse of what it might have been like to sit under JE’s preaching. Knowing that JE preached many other sermons like these in subsequent years, it is not surprising that his congregation voted to dismiss him. Nor is it surprising that many generations of readers have done the same. It is tempting to end this review asking, “Will we also dismiss him?” However, JE would not likely have left that rhetorical question unanswered. He would have pursued his readers and reminded them that they risk little by dismissing him, in comparison to what they risk by dismissing the God whose Word he proclaimed. Prof. Valeri has given us a volume which lets JE speak for himself and to us. Thoughtful readers everywhere, whether they are JE specialists or not, have reason to be grateful.
Stephen D. Crocco
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING/SUMMER 2001, VOL. 2, #2.
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