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Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s ‘Biblia Americana’

Jan Stievermann
Published by Mohr Siebrek Ek in 2016

Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment

Douglas A Sweeney
Published by Oxford University Press in 2015

I believe the most important issue in twenty-first-century Christian liberal arts is “How shall we then read the Bible?” With rampant out-sourcing, on-lining, under-training, and down-sizing in General Education, along with myopic careerism in parents, administrators, and professors, fewer and fewer Christian colleges and universities show clear interest in teaching Bible-reading as a distinctive and tenuously balanced type of reading tradition. Many of our colleges and universities brand themselves with the term “liberal arts” and can still point to one or two required Bible classes, but the question is still begged: “What are the reading methods students are being taught?”

Two new books on Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards analyze the beginnings of distinctive American evangelical reading methods. Mather and Edwards saw that Christians were dividing over technical matters of Bible study, especially the question of how to read the allegories, types, and prophecies that unify the Bible as a whole. Mather and Edwards, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, accepted much from the newer, critical, reading methods of the enlightenment, but also insisted on traditional, spiritually expansive, reading methods that maintained the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Mather and Edwards saw that reading the Bible well had become a tightrope-walk with dangers to the left and to the right. Today, three hundred years later, as General Education in Protestant universities is neglected and the term “liberal arts” becomes merely a marketing brand, the distinctive evangelical need to guide and advise students along this tightrope of allegories, types, and prophecies is being threatened by inattention.

The Christian liberal arts tradition that was early on promoted by St. Augustine was primarily a Bible-reading program. Augustinian tradition minimized the harsh aspects of classical liberal arts, especially the insistent individualism taught in dialectic, the cynical truth-spinning taught in rhetoric, and strident application of formal logic taught in the mathematical disciplines. For the purpose of Bible reading, the Augustinians promoted the softer aspects of each of the liberal arts, especially emphasizing in dialectic the rules of testimony and social reasonableness, in rhetoric the teleological power of consensus to reveal truth, and in the mathematical disciplines the language of confidence, proportion, and beauty. In the Augustinian tradition, the sharp edges of classical liberal arts were softened to facilitate better the intellectual crafts of humility and obedience to Holy Scripture.

With the coming of the Renaissance and of the Protestant Reformation, classrooms returned to teaching the sharp edges of the classical liberal arts. The Reformation was a protest movement that needed and promoted the lawyerly polemical methods of Cicero. Methods of reading the Bible became a battleground. This was most evident in the reaction against older Roman Catholic methods of reading the Bible’s allegories, types, and prophecies. Protestants thought Roman Catholic reading methods to be wildly expansive. In matters such as the Bible’s teachings about Mary, the sacraments, and the role of the church in salvation, Catholic students were taught that it is better to believe too much than too little and to entangle people, stories, and events in the Bible in ways that supported the church’s doctrines. Offering an alternative, more parsimonious way of reading the Bible, the production of Protestant-style liberal arts textbooks boomed and textbook writers were often celebrated. Luther’s right-hand man, Philipp Melanchthon, became the most influential textbook writer in Northern Europe. Much from the Augustinian liberal arts tradition remained; however, Protestant students were now taught to be wary, to pull back and to apply a dialectically and rhetorically simpler, more straightforward, less expansive method of reading.

But how far back should they pull? At the beginning of the 1600s, Hugo Grotius, author of an influential defense of Protestant Christianity that was widely popular for more than two hundred years, adamantly advocated pulling way back. Grotius advised readers of the Bible’s prophetic books to seek out, and give highest priority to, the most probable intent of an individual author given the author’s chronological and cultural context. Yes, the Bible was divine revelation, but readers must read with restraint. Yes, Isaiah and Jeremiah were prophets, but readers should not expect either of those prophets to be predicting too far into the future or out to other lands. To read Isaiah or Jeremiah as if they were talking about the later Persian Empire or even later Roman Empire was dangerously suspect. Jan Stievermann, in Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity, describes this method of reading taught by Grotius as his “exegetical default position” (262). Grotius warned readers not to read Christ in Isaiah’s suffering servant passages. Too much entanglement between the Old Testament and the New smacked of Roman Catholic “exegetes of old” (263).

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards believed Grotius had pulled back too far in opposition to Catholic reading methods, that he had fallen off the tightrope of an appropriately Protestant reading of biblical allegories, types, and prophecies. Similar to Grotius, but not as far into disassociating the Old and New Testaments, was Samuel Mather, Cotton Mather’s uncle and Jonathan Edwards’s great-uncle. Both Stievermann and Sweeney write of the way Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards held at arm’s length Samuel Mather’s The Figures or Types of the Old Testament (1683). Douglas Sweeney, in Edwards the Exegete, writes how Samuel Mather “thought it best to play it safe” and stick with only the types clearly labeled as such in the Bible (70). The Puritan Samuel Mather was so anxious to avoid the excesses of Catholicism that he fell into an overly literalist method of reading the Bible. He had fallen off the tightrope under the sway of an overly sharp, more classical form of Christian liberal arts. Even though Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards were antagonistic to what they considered the wild reading practices of Roman Catholic schools, they both resisted the overly austere classical tendencies of Protestants such as Grotius and Samuel Mather. Mather and Edwards modeled for American Evangelicalism a moderate Catholic turn when it came to answering the question “How then should we then read the Bible?”

Two new books on Mather and Edwards are must-reads for those who want to revive, maintain, or just understand the tenuously balanced reading methods modeled by these two founders of evangelical intellectual tradition. Jan Stievermann, author of Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana, and Douglas Sweeney, author of Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment, are important scholars at the top of their game. Stievermann is Professor of the History of Christianity in the United States at Heidelberg University and Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center there in Germany. Sweeney is Professor of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center there in Illinois. Both are internationally respected leaders within the new-style, globally-conscious academic discipline of American Studies. The old-style American Studies first promoted Jonathan Edwards as a type of frontier genius, a religious parallel to Benjamin Franklin, the American genius of politics, science, and commonsense. The new-style American Studies no longer simply looks for American genius; rather, it is interested in understanding America’s complex role in the world. As part of the old-style American Studies, Yale Divinity School founded the first Jonathan Edwards Center and began publishing the works of Jonathan Edwards. As part of the new-style American Studies, Yale has spawned offspring around the world such as the Jonathan Edwards Centers directed by Stievermann and Sweeney. No longer mere promoters of Edwards’s genius, the new Jonathan Edwards Centers are broadly interested both in the intellectual life of the Atlantic culture and what modern intellectuals can still learn from thinkers such as Edwards and his predecessor Cotton Mather.

The great insight of new-style American Studies is that evangelical intellectuals have their own long, dynamic, complex, distinctive, and on-going tradition of conservative engagement with enlightenment, modern, and post-modern forms of critical thinking. This evangelical form of intellectual life manifests itself in networks of evangelical schools, colleges, universities, seminaries, academic organizations, and academic publications. At the core of this tradition of evangelical intellectual life is a Christian liberal arts tradition that emphasizes the distinctive and tenuous ways that evangelicals read the Bible. The great insight of Stievermann and Sweeney is to root historically this American intellectual tradition in the way Mather and Edwards modeled an expansive, but not too expansive, reading of the Bible’s types, allegories, and prophecies.

Stievermann is executive editor of a new ten-volume edition of Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana (being published in Germany by Mohr Siebeck) and is a leader in promoting Mather as a pioneer in an American evangelical version of biblical studies. Stievermann notes that Mather charted a course that pulled back from extreme Protestant tendencies. He writes of Mather recognizing that the Roman Catholics had never “dissolved” the sacred writ in the way Grotius had. Stievermann writes: “In many ways [Mather’s] Biblia can be seen as an attempt to formulate a convincing answer to Grotius” (414). Sweeney writes of an “Edwards renaissance” in which recent scholars are coming to terms with him as a “biblical supernaturalist” (7). Stievermann and Sweeney understand that the reading practices of Mather and Edwards were in tension with reading practices increasingly taught in the Protestant schools and universities of their day. As Sweeney nicely describes Edwards’s reading method:

[He] found the Bible full of types, prophecies, and statements about the person and work of Christ—even the Old Testament. For him, the promised Messiah and His mission of redemption constitute the leading melody in the symphony of the Lord. (98)

Both Mather and Edwards embraced the enlightenment’s notion that better reading practices, especially more historically sophisticated reading practices, can help people better understand the Bible; however, reading the Bible well required a liberal arts education that distinguished the Bible from other literature and walked a tightrope of supernaturalist assumptions about even semi-obscure allegories, types, and prophecies.

Mather flourished in the port city of Boston from the 1690s until his death in 1728. Edwards flourished in rural Massachusetts beginning in the 1730s until his death in 1758. Although not related by blood, Mather’s aunt was Edwards’s step-grandmother. Mather was early America’s most famous and diligent pastor-historian, while Edwards was early America’s most insightful pastor-theologian. Mather was the more gregarious of the two, a collector and integrator of quotes, facts, and ideas. Edwards was intense, adventurous, and grander in his theology. Both had learned as young men from liberal arts textbooks that had been written by Puritans who were intent upon supporting the Bible as divine revelation. Both men wrote an enormous amount of Christian literature devoted to understanding and applying the Bible. Both were well read and avidly pursued the latest European books on theology, science, and biblical studies. Mather wrote several books specifically on education and was heavily involved throughout his life at Harvard, Yale, and various schools for whites, Native Americans, and African-Americans. Edwards served for a while as a missionary in an Indian Praying Town and, at the end of his life, became president of Princeton. Although Stievermann writes this about Mather, it is true also of Edwards: they both contributed “to the establishment of a form of Christian Enlightenment and the emergence of evangelical scholarship in the British colonies” (415).

An important way to understand the evangelical liberal arts of Mather and Edwards is to recognize that they advocated an Augustinian emphasis on love and humility when reading Holy Scriptures. A good reader must come to the Bible with a mind anxious to hear God speaking. Sweeney describes Edwards as having “a long love affair with the scriptures,” and for both Mather and Edwards reading the Bible involved both the mind and the heart. In Augustinian liberal arts, the dialectical strategy for a reader who doubts a testimony is to rely on his or her sense of the credibility of the testifier. For Mather and Edwards, this dialectical rule supported the infallibility of the Bible even when they both wrestled with historical and logical problems within the Bible. God and the Bible were inseparably entangled. Biblical infallibility, for Mather and Edwards, was a soft, heart-felt doctrine rooted in a soft, heart-emphasizing dialectical strategy taught within traditional liberal arts: trust and faith should be given to the testimony of a trustworthy testifier. Whatever Mather and Edwards learned about the Bible from the new critical literature was treated like knowledge learned about a beloved and trusted spouse. For example, when presented with clear evidence that the Pentateuch was not written wholly by Moses and had much in it that showed the influence of Persian-era scribes, Mather simply expanded his notion of inspired authorship to include editorial work over more than a thousand years. Mather and Edwards embraced new facts being discovered about the Bible’s historical and authorial context; however, they interpreted them like a lover learning more about his or her beloved.

Mather’s and Edwards’s heart-felt expansive Catholic turn against the Protestant tendency to parsimonious reading is nowhere more clear than the way both Mather and Edwards handled Song of Solomon (Canticles). Catholic liberal arts had long taught readers to see in Song of Solomon their expansive teachings about the Virgin Mary. Protestant liberal arts was committed to more restrained reading of imagery of the Song. The question was “How restrained should readers be?” Hugo Grotius had influentially led many to downplay the possibility of divine inspiration in Song of Solomon and advised readers to focus on finding, behind the poetic imagery, the most obvious literal references and the most obvious intentions of its author or authors. Grotius was moderate and allowed that there might have been an original intent by King Solomon to allegorize God’s love for Israel, but his moderation leaned toward de-spiritualizing the reading of Song of Solomon.

Mather and Edwards thought Grotius threw the baby out with the bathwater. Stievermann shows that Mather, in his Biblia America, taught readers not to abandon the expectation of divine revelation about the love-based relationship of Christ and the Christian church in the detailed imagery and marriage poetry of the book (110-37, 241-59, 361-81). Sweeney also gives much space to how Edwards read Song of Solomon. Edwards put the Song at the center of understanding the whole Bible and whole story of salvation. Looking for love between family members is the key to reading the unified message of the Bible (113-33). Stievermann writing of Mather’s Biblia Americana, notes that Song of Solomon, along with the book of Revelation, was to be read “as a lens through which to the entire arch of church history—down to particulars such as councils, treatises, and battles—were given sacred meaning and appeared to be moving toward a happy telos” (242). Although Edwards was not so interested in the particulars of councils, treatises, and battles, Sweeney writes of Edwards sensuous reading of Song of Solomon as “a Christocentric plan for the rescue of the world” (125). For Mather and Edwards, Song of Solomon is at the core of God’s message to humanity. To read it too restrictively is to miss the fullness of God’s revelation about love being at the central story of the cosmos. Both Stievermann and Sweeney portray Mather’s and Edwards’s approach to Song of Solomon as a key to understanding their supernaturalist way of reading the Bible, a supernaturalism that resisted the restrained literalism of other Protestant scholars.

Stievermann and Sweeney, along with an earlier author that both appreciate, Robert Brown (Jonathan Edwards and the Bible, 2002), see that evangelical intellectual tradition was founded in a slippery engagement between Protestants over how to read the Bible, especially its allegories, types, and prophecies. The Protestant Reformation had promoted widespread education and a broader, more classical, liberal arts, but this presented Protestant Bible-readers with a tightrope to walk. The liberal arts ideally pursue one goal: truth. But within every discipline of the liberal arts are contrary tendencies. Dialectic, rhetoric, and the mathematical disciplines can be turned in soft or harsh ways. Protestantism had been founded in protest. Its new schools, universities, and textbooks promoted a moderately harsh, skeptical, critical, and reductionist reading of scripture so as to counteract what Protestants considered wildly expansive reading of allegories, types, and prophecies that supported doctrines about Mary, the sacraments, and the church. Mather and Edwards pulled back from the tendencies of Protestantism by realizing at the beginning of the enlightenment that softer reading methods were necessary to properly read the whole story of salvation throughout the whole of the Bible.

Evangelical liberal arts in America was founded in that softer turn. As education became industrialized in the 19th and early 20th centuries, separatist Bible colleges and seminaries were founded specifically to offer pastoral guidance when walking the tightrope of Bible-reading. Today, as evangelical colleges and universities increasingly follow business and professional models created by the American knowledge industry, and “liberal arts” is loosely misunderstood as a brand name, and the distinctively softer style of evangelical reading cultivated over two centuries is endangered by inattention. The challenge of our present time is to revive the liberal arts in their fullness, both the hard side and soft side, both Cicero and Augustine. However, as we promote both sides, evangelical education must intentionally educate its faculty in the subtle and distinctive ways of reading the Bible’s allegories, types, and prophecies so as to help students successfully negotiate their way along what has become a thinner and thinner tightrope. For the cause of evangelical liberal arts, we cannot allow our Christian colleges and universities to slide into an out-sourced, on-line, under-trained, and down-sized system of General Education.

Because looking back always helps people look forward, the many writings about reading by Mather and Edwards will help us in the present time. The on-going discovery and illumination of the evangelical intellectual tradition by scholars in the new-style American Studies is a boon to parents, administrators, and faculty who want to maintain the vitality of evangelical-style education. Stievermann and Sweeney are to be thanked for their clear focus on this core issue of evangelical liberal arts: “How shall we then read the Bible?”

Cite this article
Rick Kennedy, “How Shall We Then Read the Bible?—An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:1 , 77-83

Rick Kennedy

Point Loma Nazarene University
Rick Kennedy is Professor of History at Point Loma Nazarene University.