Reviewed by Wyatt Graham
David Barshinger has written a comprehensive historical study of Jonathan Edwards’ interpretation of the Psalms. His work aims to correct wrong assumptions about Edwards as an exegete and to exhibit Edwards’ love of the Bible. In the past, “scholars focused primarily on Edwards as a philosopher, theologian, and revivalist” (3). Barshinger’s study “aims to redress this unbalanced image of Edwards by examining his lifelong devotion to the Bible particularly though his engagement with the book of Psalms, exploring his theological engagement with the Psalms in the context of his interpretation, worship, and preaching” (3).
Edwards’ reading of the Psalms not only illustrates his devotion to the Bible. It also demonstrates how “the history of redemption gave structure to his theology and provided a framework for interpreting the Psalms” (5). Bershinger’s thesis thus argues that “Jonathan Edwards appropriated the book of Psalms as a divinely inspired anchor to proclaim the gospel and rehearse the redemptive-historical work of the triune God” (26). In other words, the Bible’s record of God’s great redemptive acts structures how Edwards interprets the Bible.
To prove his thesis, Barshinger writes seven chapters on Edwards and the Psalms:
- The Psalter in Edwards’ World
- God and Scripture
- Humanity and Sin
- Spirit and Gospel
- Christian Piety
- Church and Eternity
The chapters illustrate Edwards’s devotion to the Bible and his redemptive-historical vision of Scripture, although the chapter on Christian Piety does not seem to directly relate to a history of redemption framework.
Barshinger compares Edwards’ interpretation with his contemporaries, showing how he differed or agreed with them (cf. 25). But Barshinger avoids linking Edwards’ interpretive method to earlier Christian traditions, which would have perhaps clarified why Edwards interpreted the Psalms in the way that he did. For example, Barshinger quotes Edwards as saying:
In The Book Of Psalms in general, the Psalmist speaks either in the name of Christ, or in the name of the church. And this is to be observed concerning a very great part of this book, that the Psalmist speaks in the name of Christ most comprehensively taken, viz. as including his body or members, or in the name of Christ mystical; and even in some of those psalms that seem to be the most direct and plain prophecies of Christ, some parts of which are most applicable to the head of Christ, other parts to the body or the church. (183)
What Edwards communicates here closely aligns with Augustine’s idea of Totus Christus, the principle that the Psalms may speak of the head (Christ) or body (the Church) of Christ, a principle that Bershinger is familiar with (cf. 30).
Edwards also appears to engage in something like prosopology, a kind of reading that recognizes that writers may speak in the voice of another person. The prosopology connection seems more clear when Barshinger quotes Edwards as saying, “and in many of the Psalms, [David] speaks in the name of Christ, as personating him in these breathings forth of holy affection, and in many other Psalms, he speaks in the name of the church” (2); or when he interprets Edwards on Psalm 24: “In his ‘Blank Bible,’ Edwards places the words, ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates,’ into the mouth of God the Father . . .” (205). Whatever the precise meaning of Edwards’ words, Barshinger could have shown better the historical continuity of Edwards’ theological interpretation of Scripture with earlier Christian traditions. In Short, Barshinger missed an opportunity to show how Edwards agreed with an earlier Christian tradition, which may explain why Edwards differed with certain Reformed contemporaries (e.g., 188).
Finally, while not necessarily a negative, Barshinger’s work has dissertation-like quality to it (as one Amazon reviewer notes). He writes well and clearly but with a definite academic timbre. Readers should expect a thoroughly researched, well-argued, but difficult to read work, especially for those unaccustomed to academic writing.
With that said, Jonathan Edwards and The Psalms excellently treats Edwards’ interpretation of the Psalms, proving its thesis along the way in no uncertain terms. As Barshinger illustrates through Edwards’ engagement with the Psalms, Edwards interpreted the Bible according to an historical order, beginning in eternity, progressing through history, and ending in the perfect state (270). Edwards understands human nature as fallen and weak, setting up God’s work of redemption (163). Central to this work of redemption is Christ (216), and God’s redemptive work unfolds according to the “intra-Trinitarian covenant of redemption” (270). At the end of history, God will bring his church into the eternal state, manifesting his glory and bringing his church into a happy state (355). Barshinger clearly articulates Edwards’ history of redemption framework to interpreting the Bible, illustrating the point through Edwards’ engagement with the Psalms.
Another virtue of Barshinger’s work is its relevance to contemporary discussions. Edwards read as a modern person who is sympathetic to pre-modern concerns. He had a “theocentric perspective” (123), which may be part of why Bershinger calls Edwards “a model of theological interpretation” (375). Edwards’ theological interpretation speaks to contemporary scholarly interest; theocentric or theological readings of Scripture are in vogue today, as an evangelical ressourcement is happening in the West.
Barshinger also makes a scholarly contribution by demonstrating that Edwards’ approach is not merely Christological or typological as certain scholars have maintained. Rather, Edwards’ approach is broad enough to include Christological and typological reading strategies, since Edwards uses an historical-redemptive approach that focuses on how the triune God performs great acts of redemption.
Any serious student of Jonathan Edwards must read this study. Barshinger has rehabilitated Edwards’ reputation as a Biblical exegete. The Bible, not philosophy or theology, constitutes his focus. Barshinger illustrates this well by detailing Edwards’ engagement with the Psalms. Additionally, Edwards’ theology will interest pastors who too would like to interpret the Psalms within an historical-redemptive framework. I heartily recommend this work for those with the drive to read a dense, academic, and yet fruitful work on Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms.
Wyatt Graham blogs at http://wyattgraham.com
Buy the books
Jonathan Edwards and The Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture