When I was at TEDS, I took American Church History from Dr. Sweeney. I thoroughly enjoyed the class, & I could tell that Dr. Sweeney was passionate about the subject. I appreciated his teaching & was pleased when I saw his book, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement was available. That book gives a great overview of evangelicalism within the United States in a concise, readable manner. Recently, Dr. Sweeney has teamed up with Allen Guelzo, who is an excellent lecturer on American History, on The New England Theology. I was able to talk with Dr. Sweeney about this recent release.
1. NSR - What is your background & what led you to write & teach about American Church history?
Dr. Sweeney - I began college as an economics major intending to be a corporate lawyer, but God had other plans. During my sophomore year at Wheaton, I took a Reformation history class that truly changed my life. I soon became a history major. I took every other class I could from Wheaton’s Mark Noll (my Reformation teacher who soon became my advisor as well). After finishing at Wheaton, I came to TEDS to study church history with Professor John Woodbridge and, by the time I graduated, was convinced that God wanted me to pursue a Ph.D. I have always been most interested in the study of church history for the ways in which it deepens our Christian faith and knowledge of God. By studying church history, we sink deep roots in the church, the communion of the saints, the language of orthodoxy, the history of exegesis, the best practices of our forebears. I have always been most interested in the parts of Christian history that have played the most powerful roles in shaping me and those around me. So American church history was a natural place to land, though I am also keenly interested in the rest of the Christian past.
2. NSR - What was the genesis of compiling The New England Theology?
DS - I am part of a small group of historians that has been working in recent years to rehabilitate the legacy of Jonathan Edwards. Under the influence of neo-orthodoxy, previous historians argued that Edwards had no honest-to-goodness, theological heirs--that modern evangelicals have squandered Edwards’ gifts to them, transforming their churches and ministries into market driven, manipulative, pragmatic religious businesses. Most of us would agree that there is a kernel of truth to this. But it is vastly overstated. The reality is that Edwards proved to be far more popular in the nineteenth century—especially before the Civil War—than he ever was in his day. By some accounts, we are witnessing another revival of Edwards’ legacy in Protestant churches today. Whether or not one likes everything that has taken place in the name of Edwards (and I certainly dislike some of it), the survival and expansion of his legacy is undeniable. Allen Guelzo and I believe that it is time for an anthology that explains this legacy and the people who have claimed it. We simply cannot understand who we are as evangelicals without some understanding of how Edwards’ thought has come down to us.
3. NSR - What authors have influenced your writing &/or your spiritual life?
DS - Aside from the biblical writers, the people who have shaped my Christian faith most profoundly are Augustine, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley.
4. NSR - Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Charles Finney & Harriet Beecher Stowe. These are a few of the big names many of us have heard of, which are touched on in The New England Theology. Is there one of the other figures in the book who is lesser known, but you feel is vitally important in this time period?
DS - Yes. I think that Nathaniel William Taylor was the most influential evangelical theologian of the entire nineteenth century. I don’t like everything he said. But his recontextualization of Edwardsian theology proved tremendously influential in the repackaging of Edwards’ thought for later evangelicals. Taylor redefined the Edwardsian doctrines of original sin and regeneration, expanding the Reformed tradition in America pretty dramatically. Taylor was a pastor who became the founding theology professor at Yale Divinity School beginning in 1822. I published a book on him a few years ago with Oxford University Press.
5. NSR - It seems that many Christians separate a head knowledge of God from a heart knowledge of him. How do you reconcile that personally & within your teaching & writing?
DS - Jonathan Edwards has helped me to see that these things can’t be separated. Without head knowledge, we simply cannot know God, at least not the God of the Bible, the one true God. Likewise, heart knowledge is necessary to know God personally. There is a world of difference between knowing about God and knowing God. As Edwards put it in one of his best-known sermons (a sermon included in our anthology), “there is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can’t have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained by hearsay, but the latter only be seeing the countenance. There is a wide difference between mere speculative, rational judging anything to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness, and beauty. The former rests only in the head, speculation only is concerned in it; but the heart is concerned in the latter.” I think we need to encourage each other to know and love with God with all our heart, soul, mind, body, and strength.
6. NSR - How can this book be used within the church, by pastors &/or laymen?
DS - Pastors should read this book in order to understand their heritage. The New England Theology was the first and most influential indigenous theological movement in American history. It has proven to be the most dominant form of evangelical Calvinism in all of Western history. Practically speaking, it was also the impetus of the old evangelical habit of thinking like Calvinists and acting like Arminians. I do not expect evangelical pastors to like everything they find in the Edwardsian tradition. In fact, I hope they will not like everything. But I do think that we need to know our history.
As for laypeople, this would make a nice book for use in advanced Sunday School classes that want to study church history. A few of its selections are a bit too technical for some laypeople. But most of them are quite interesting. The anthology includes snippets from some of Edwards’ best known writings. It summarizes the contributions of Edwards’ immediate followers. It talks about Edwards’ (huge) role in the rise of the modern missions movement. It explains what happened to Edwards’ legacy in the nineteenth century, through people like Taylor (mentioned above) and Charles Grandison Finney. It even includes a couple selections from novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose historical fiction depicted the strength of Edwards’ views among the laity.
7. NSR - What does your book offer that others on the same topic may not?
DS - This is the only book of its kind. It is the first single-volume anthology ever published on Edwards’ legacy, or on the New England Theology.
8. NSR - What do you see as a crucial topic facing the evangelical church at large today?
DS - I think that evangelicals need to find new ways to be both faithfully Reformational and vibrantly evangelical (in the modern sense of that word). Too many of us today are content to identify with either the Reformation (casting stones at later forms of evangelicalism) or with progressive evangelicals (portraying old-fashioned Protestants as stodgy and spiritually weak). In my view, neither of these identities, when taken by itself, is sufficient as a resource for robust Christianity. Evangelicals need the Reformation to root them in orthodoxy, to teach them what it means to believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Reformational Protestants need evangelicalism to keep them in touch with kingdom work going on outside their churches and with sources for the renewal of their churches and traditions. Jonathan Edwards is a great example of someone who tried to promote the best of both worlds. He did not always succeed. But he tried to do what we should be doing today.
9. NSR - Talk a little about your involvement in the Henry Center for Theological Understanding.
DS - The Henry Center, which I direct, is a ministry of TEDS whose mission is to promote biblical wisdom outside the world of seminaries by bridging the gap between the academy and the church. We sponsor lectures, conferences, intimate summer workshops, and a host of other events, all intended to promote mutually enriching partnerships between seminary faculties and front-line Christian ministers. Just last year we received a major new grant from anonymous friends of Trinity. This will enable us to pursue our mission on a much larger scale in the years ahead. I would encourage all of your readers to check out our new web site (www.teds.edu/hctu). It is full of information on our activities (most of which are free and open to the public). It also contains an easily accessible audio archive full of the best presentations sponsored in recent years.
10. NSR - You must have a love of Church history to teach it as you do at TEDS. How do you try to ingrain that passion in your students & do you see a need for more pastors & lay people to include more Church history in their reading & preaching?
DS - I try to share my passion with students by making it personal and by making it clear that the study of Christian history is necessary for the spiritual health of God’s people. Church history is not as important as the study of the Bible. But it is essential for filling out our knowledge of the faith; our understanding of the Bible; for connecting us to the rest of the people of God, past and present; and for resourcing our ministries with the best thought and practices of the whole Christian tradition, those that have stood the test of time and have been used by God to build His church and minister to its members. We have a tendency as evangelicals to reinvent the Christian faith in each new generation. I think that this is a big problem. I admire our creativity, our desire to be relevant. But insofar as we disconnect ourselves from the past (from the communion of the saints) we are only hurting ourselves and impoverishing our ministries. I would love to see more pastors include church history in their own reading--and in their educational programs. In my experience, when Christians begin to understand their heritage, their faith and discipleship really start to blossom.