Ashgate Publishing recently released The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards, written by Steven M. Studebaker and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary assistant professor of church history Robert W. Caldwell. The following is an edited interview with Caldwell about this book and about his own study of Edwards. To watch Caldwell’s full interview, visit swbts.edu/intheirownwords.
Q: Why should Christians study church history?
A: "I get that question sometimes in my Church History I and II classes: ‘If we have the Bible, and if we believe that the Bible is fully authoritative, why do I need to look at other Christians in the past and look at the trajectories of church history?’ Well, one of the best answers to that question is the idea of wisdom. … Church history is a repository of wisdom for how to live the Christian life, how to think christianly, how to explore the Bible and understand the Bible. We're not 'Lone Ranger' Christians here in the early 21st century. We stand on the shoulders of Christians dozens of generations before us. It is always a good thing to explore and to understand and to see exactly how our supposedly 'new' ideas, or our 'biblical' ideas, stand the test of the historical past? Is there precedence? So, wisdom is the summary of why church history is an important discipline to study, in seminary and as Christians."
Q: Who was Jonathan Edwards?
A: "Jonathan Edwards was a congregationalist pastor, revivalist and writer in the 1730s through the 1750s. He basically ministered in Massachusetts. He pastored two churches over that period. In the middle of his ministry, the Great Awakening hit, and he became an itinerant minister for a short period of time. But he mostly ministered through his congregation.
“But we know him mostly through his writings. He was a very intense Christian thinker, and he gave very detailed explanations and insightful observations of the revival that was going on around him in the Great Awakening years. So Jonathan Edwards is best known for those things: His writings on revival, his sermons on revival.
Up until about 40 years ago, most high school students in America read a sermon known as, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which was a characteristic sermon of Edwards, of this 'hellfire and brimstone' Puritan sermon that you want to get beyond. That was how it was taught in the high schools. But in the last 40 years, it has even been cut from the American canon. Incidentally, that sermon was not very representative of his sermons. He did have a sector of his sermons that emphasized those 'hellfire' themes, but he had this whole other set of sermons where he gloried in examining the Being of God, the doctrine of Christ, the wonders of the Gospel and the Christian life. And those sermons also are a very important part of his sermon corpus."
Q: What first attracted you to Edwards?
A: "It was about 20 years ago, in the early 1990s, I started reading Jonathan Edwards more. These were in my early days at seminary. As a seminarian—and I think many seminarians get this—you move from a very pious, activistic and evangelistic environment of the church into this setting in seminary, which is very intellectually oriented. And it is a jarring kind of transition. And many students feel that way too. You are thinking a lot about the faith, which is important and very necessary for the ministry.
“But as I was entering that environment, I knew that there was always the difficulty—and I would even say the temptation—of being overly intellectual. So I was looking for someone who was both theologically challenging—who fed the Christian mind—but also spiritually nourishing, someone who thought deeply about the Christian life, Christian experience and revival, like Edwards did. And I started reading Jonathan Edwards, and he seemed to unite those two sides of Christian intellect and the Christian heart."
Q: What is your new book on Edwards about?
A: "The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards, the book I wrote with Steve Studebaker, is generally a book that seeks to explore Jonathan Edwards' Trinitarinan theology and show how that Trinitarianism anchors and stands in the background to Edwards' doctrine of revival, conversion, religious experience. Evangelicals generally are known for those latter doctrines. We're people of the Gospel. We're evangelicals. But oftentimes, evangelicals don't really tie that to a really rich, robust, Trinitarian theology. Edwards did. And Steve and I wanted to reveal those connections in Edwards' thought, not just to get it right in Edwards' own thought, but also to commend a model for how evangelicals can appropriate and think through Trinitarianism for our own theologies today."