It seems that every year another book comes out about Jonathan Edwards. But very few of them, to my knowledge, discuss his hermeneutical strategy.
Stephen J. Stein is one who has dealt with Edwards’s hermeneutical strategy in great detail. David P. Barshinger in a newly released book is also examining Edwards on Scripture. He asserts Edwards’s love and view of the Scripture is neglected. He writes:
But for all the ink devoted to Edwards over the past three centuries, this [Edwards's love and view of Scripture] is not the Edwards that has been preserved. Instead, a distorted portrait of Edwards remains the reigning image in scholarship today. While Edwards as an eclectic was interested in fields ranging from theology and philosophy to science and nature, he was at his core devoted to the glorious God of Scripture and to mining that Scripture for truth–an aspect left out of Edwards by examining his lifelong devotion to the Bible particularly through his engagement with the book of Psalms, exploring his theological engagement with the Psalms in the context of his interpretation, worship, and preaching. (3)
Stein begins his 1977 article in the Harvard Theological Review in a similar way.
It is an irony and something of an enigma that the Bible, one of the shaping forces in the theological development of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), has largely been ignored in the assessments of this colonial divine. Edwards himself acknowledged its influence, especially during his youthful years. “I had then,” he wrote, “and at other times, the greatest delight in the holy Scriptures, of any book whatsoever.”
Despite Edwards’s love of the Scripture, Stein says few have taken seriously the place of the Bible in Edwards’s thought. He argues that in contrast to the Reformation’s accent upon the sufficiency of the singular literal sense of the Bible, Edwards himself underscored the multiplicity of levels of meaning in the text and the primacy of the spiritual. Although Edwards shared certain assumptions with the Reformation tradition, he also departed from them in significant ways.
Brandon Withrow, in his analysis of Edwards, agrees and claims that Edwards explored Scripture on many levels. “The spiritual reading of Scripture found in the writing of ancient Christians…clearly have a kindred spirit in the ideas of Edwards.” In Withrow’s view, Edwards’s interest in the spiritual sense connects him with early church exegetes. Withrow says, “Edwards was interested in reading between the lines and looking for a christological message intended by the Spirit.” Withrow even says he embraced the medieval tradition of seeing multiple senses.
So although Edwards embraced the literal sense, he also had some misgivings. Stein says:
The literal meaning Edwards pursued was not singular in appearance. Rather it embraced a variety of aspects, manifesting itself in numerous ways. The sensus literalis was a mixed interpretive category for him, united only in its basic communicative function. The various dimensions Edwards ascribed to the literal must be derived from examples of his exegesis. He wrote no systematic treatise on hermeneutics, although he commented at length on hermeneutical issues in his commentaries and notebooks, his sermons and published works. (107)
Unlike many, he did not glory in the literal meaning of Scripture. For him investigation of the grammatical and syntactical intricacies of a text, exploration of historical and cultural contexts, and examination of prophetic dimensions produced at best a “speculative knowledge” of divinity. The fullest application of the mind to the biblical text results only in a “rational knowledge of the things of religion.” Speculative knowledge of the text has no redemptive value and is obtainable by all. According to him, such knowledge alone merely results in greater condemnation for those who have access to God’s Word but reject it. Edwards described the Bible as “a sweet, excellent, life-giving word,” but efficacious use of it requires a second step beyond the mastery of the literal sense of the text.
That something extra Edwards called spiritual understanding or knowledge.
But Edwards also spoke about the spiritual sense of Scripture in a different way. He used the concept of the spiritual sense to denoted a fuller understanding of the Bible which is one result of the sense of the heart implanted by God. This second usage, according to Stein, more properly constitutes a hermeneutical category than the first.
This spiritual sense Edwards also distinguished from the literal, contrasting the restricted, confined character of the literal meaning of the text with the sweeping breadth and possibility of the spiritual interpretation. Spiritual understanding in this second sense was the goal and the focus of Edwards’s exegetical efforts.
This seems to be different than the modern portrayal of a “literate hermeneutic”, closer to a “thick” meaning, but more subjective than both of those.
So what are the practical implications of this?
He seldom rested content with an explanation of the literal meaning of a passage. Grammar, history, and prophecy were not enough. At best the literal sense provided the materials for reflection and meditation. Edwards described his own method of study in the following words: “Often-times in reading it [i.e., the Bible], every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt an harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seem’d often to see so much light, exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing ravishing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading. Used oftentimes to dwell long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained in it; and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders.” The wonders on which he reflected were the deeper insights into the text he ascribed to the spiritual sense.
Jonthan Edwards is the homeboy of many people, and for good reason. But it may come as a surprise to some that he followed the Church Fathers in his hermeneutics more than the Reformers. One does not necessarily have to agree with him, but it is interesting that one of the best thinkers in history took this position.