"The Only Rule of Our Faith and Practice": Jonathan Edwards's Interpretation of the Book of Isaiah as a Case Study of His Exegetical Boundaries

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In addition to his many roles, including pastor, theologian, author, and missionary, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was also a devoted student of the Bible. * At age nineteen, he resolved "to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same."2 His massive output of sermons expositing biblical passages and of treatises addressing theological matters using Scripture testifies to his dedication to this task, and his personal manuscripts on the Bible further demonstrate his unswerving discipline in studying the Old and New Testaments.

The nature of Edwards's biblical interpretation, however, has attracted some debate over the liberty he used in making sense of the Scriptures. Stephen J. Stein, a leading scholar on Edwards and the Bible,3 argues that Edwards's spiritual interpretation was boundless. He acknowledges that "Edwards shared certain assumptions with the Reformed tradition," but qualifies that "in other ways he departed from prevailing patterns of Protestant exegesis."4 Specifically,

[i]n contrast to the Reformation accent upon the sufficiency of the singular literal sense of the Bible, he underscored the multiplicity of levels of meaning in the text and the primacy of the spiritual. Edwards spoke of the Bible as the source and the norm of his theology, but often it appears that the Scripture was more the occasion than the origin or measure of his reflections. For him the biblical principle was an open and expansive factor.5

Stein suggests that Edwards's "exegetical creativity was constrained only by the length of his attention." Given this "free reign" that Edwards allowed himself, Stein concludes that "the Bible did not function for him as a theological norm or source in any usual Protestant fashion because the literal sense of the text did not restrict him. On the contrary, the freedom and creative possibilities of the spiritual sense beckoned, and he pursued them with abandon."6

The severity of Stein's concluding charge raises questions. Did Edwards merely use the Bible as a platform for his own agenda? Did he truly break with mainstream Protestant forms of interpretation? What was his theological norm or source if not the Bible?

Stein restates his charge in his introduction to The "Blank Bible" volume in the Yale Works of Jonathan Edwards. In his discussion on the Wisdom Literature of the OT, he states that Edwards's "pursuit of spiritual meaning in the texts knew no bound. In that respect there can be no debate about the creative imagination he brought to the interpretive task."7 More subtly in his discussion on Edwards's interpretation of the Prophets, Stein points to Edwards's very words in his entry on Ezek 5:25ff. as evidence of "his repeated hermeneutical observation that the Holy Ghost in 'the words of prophecy' often has respect to 'two senses or translations entirely different and not dependent or related.' "8

Yet even at this point, Stein quotes Edwards selectively. Edwards more specifically limits this statement in a typological framework, that the two senses might not be "dependent or related one to another as type and antitype." The two senses are controlled by the Holy Spirit's intention. Edwards also gives three boundaries for interpretation in such cases: when both senses (1) fit with "what language properly allows"; (2) are "instructive"; and (3) are "agreeable to the analogy of faith." Only then, says Edwards, may we interpret both senses.9

Given these facets to the discussion, this essay uses the book of Isaiah as a case study to better understand Edwards's interpretive lens, examining how he construes this prophetic book generally by exploring the entries on Isaiah in both his "Notes on Scripture" and "Blank Bible" manuscripts. My thesis is that, in his reading of the book of Isaiah, Edwards did set boundaries on his interpretation, with Scripture functioning as a norm in his theology. …